On the afternoon of Friday, April 6, in the burgundy-walled basement of a two-bedroom apartment in Chelsea, a lithe, dark-tressed woman named Heart was snipping the newly bleached hair of Janet Dailey, a reflexologist, into thin layers. Nearby, four lanky members of the rock band The Academy Is … lounged on faux-fur-upholstered couches. A mop-topped businessman for Warner Records was getting his hair washed in the sink by an assistant, while Diego, a three-legged Yorkie-Chihuahua pup sporting an overgrown purple mohawk, yipped at his feet. Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” was pumping on the stereo.
The homey, surreptitious atmosphere was utterly antithetical to the blindingly lit, obscenely priced, techno-soundtracked salons that have taken over Manhattan of late. “People are rebelling,” said Heart, dragging on a cigarette between appointments.
A new wave of hairdresser has arrived in New York: under-the-radar, itinerant and cozy all at once. You go to their small, makeshift salon; perhaps in their home—or, better yet, they come to yours, as if you were Jennifer Lopez. In an era when cuts can run into the high three figures (Sally Hershberger and Orlando Pita both charge $800)—and this from stylists who are splashing their names on mass-marketed shampoo bottles and across the pages of In Style!—perhaps it is chicer to find someone slightly obscure, reasonably priced and, most importantly, there for you. Think Kenneth (still working, too busy to comment for this story) instead of the now thoroughly corporatized Vidal Sassoon.
“I tried Bumble and Bumble,” said Yasmeena Chaudry, a lawyer in her late 20’s, who was sitting next to a statuette of Frankenstein while waiting for her appointment with Heart. “But it was over $100, and the haircut was just O.K. I come here and I love it every time.”
Hair by Heart costs $80. “I can’t imagine asking someone for $800 or $900 with a straight face,” said the stylist.
Jodi Kantor, the former Arts and Leisure editor for The New York Times, declared herself fed up with snooty salons, which she said provide “a thoroughly intimidating experience.”
“They have these huge mirrors; everyone’s staring at each other,” continued Ms. Kantor, now 31 and a reporter for The Times. “You sort of have to think about what you’re wearing that day, and you feel guilty for not buying $40 products.” She became a devotee of a former Times colleague who had turned to hairdressing in her Brooklyn apartment. Alas, the stylist, who asked that her name not be published, has since moved to California, where she currently has a loyal following among Los Angeles Times staffers.
That’s the problem with getting attached to itinerant stylists: Their itineraries can change.
‘My Ben Is Right There’
Big salons have long offered house calls to those who can afford it, of course. Katie Seguin, a 24-year-old stylist for Sally Hershberger’s downtown location, regularly totes a small suitcase full of hairbrushes and dryers to penthouses overlooking Central Park, for triple her usual $130 fee. “It’s for the kind of woman that has a lot of money and prefers more privacy,” Ms. Seguin said. But the typical itinerant hairdresser shuns the cookie-cutter (no pun intended) atmosphere of the big salon.
Stylist Shannon Dettrow, 30, recently quit her job at the swanky Prive Salon in the SoHo Grand, which she described “way too, like, ego and status—lots of makeup and big curls and heels,” for one at Soon Beauty Lab, which she called a “mom-and-pop-like” shop. “It’s like walking into my living room,” Ms. Dettrow said. “I just want to be able to be comfortable and wear my jeans.”
Ms. Dettrow’s actual living room in her Greenpoint apartment is where the real action is: She cuts her friends’ hair there once or twice a week. When it comes to payment, “I always just say, ‘Give me what you want,’” she said. “Some people give me $20, some people give $60.” Some just pay her with drinks, dinner or tickets to a show. Ms. Dettrow also makes house calls, where “we can drink beers and watch reality TV while I cut. It might take a little longer, but it’s way more intimate,” she said. “Hair is such an intimate thing. Like you don’t want just anyone to touch it; you need to feel comfortable.”
Jen Childs, a 28-year-old interior designer, is one of Ms. Dettrow’s satisfied clients. “People at work will ask me where I got my hair cut,” she said. “And when I tell them that my friend comes to my house, they’re like, ‘Really? They come over to your house? That’s, like, awesome.’”
Up on Madison and 67th Street, Paul Podlucky, 43, has been running a slightly more upscale two-chair salon out of his small studio apartment for eight years. A former assistant to the late, great rock-star stylist John Sahag, Mr. Podlucky has tended to the locks of socialites including Helen Lee Schifter, Gigi Mortimer, Aerin Lauder, Tory Burch and Miss Bergdorf Blondes herself, Plum Sykes. “The rich like the privacy and the special attention,” said Mr. Podlucky, who charges $350 for a cut (more for house calls). “If you’re in a [professional] salon and you’re somewhat famous, everything you say, people stare at you.”
Although his apartment provides privacy for his clients, Mr. Podlucky doesn’t have a lot of his own. “I’ve grown not to like it. I mean, my bed is right there,” he said, pointing toward his sleek, dark-wood frame with light blue sheets and large white pillows, just a few feet from where he cuts hair in front of large, wall-sized mirrors and two brown Eero Saarinen chairs.
Calm down! The new itinerant hairdresser is decidedly not Warren Beatty’s libidinous George Roundy of the 1975 Hal Ashby movie Shampoo. He’s someone you can trust. “He has safe hands,” said Tami Goven, 32, a headhunter who used to live across the street from Mr. Podlucky and praised his “Zen, calming presence. I feel comfortable that he knows the right thing to do.”
Mr. Podlucky’s clients get their hair washed in the kitchen sink. Boxes of food coloring cover the stove; shampoos crowd out food from the cabinets. Three Boston terriers, Monkey, Lucky and Buster, scuttle about his feet. “It feels like you’re going for a visit—you just happen to walk out looking fabulous,” Ms. Goven said.
Mr. Podlucky said that he hopes to open a commercial salon within a few years. His business is legal, but many itinerant hairdressers run off-the-books operations, perhaps enhancing the “clubby,” insiderish feeling enjoyed by their clients.
The Four Degrees of Heart
Heart is a licensed hair stylist, but her business is unlicensed and technically illegal, which is why she refuses to disclose her full name for this story. “I pay the I.R.S. so they won’t bother me. But they just want money,” she said. “It’s health-department stuff.”
Heart added that she doesn’t want to open a more legitimate salon because it will price out some of her customers, and “I save $8,000 a month in rent and expenses easily.”
In the basement of Heart’s salon, Ms. Dailey, the reflexologist, said she’s been seeing her friend for more than a decade. Heart has dyed her hair every color of the rainbow except green. “It’s a miracle I still have hair,” Ms. Dailey said. “But that’s all thanks to Heart.”
Men gotta have Heart too, perhaps attracted by her unprissy rock ’n’ roll clientele, which includes Iggy Pop, Bono, P.J. Harvey and Rod Stewart, as well as a consistent freelancing gig with Island Def Jam and Atlantic Records. On a recent Thursday, Heart trimmed the cropped, dirty-blond hair of Paul Budnitz, Kidrobot founder and creative director; of salt-and-pepper-haired Craig Anderson, a 54-year-old writer for the comic Marmaduke; and of the bearded Jason Baer, a 31-year-old marketing consultant, who came in with pictures of his month-old son Hudson to show Heart on his P.D.A. “Oh my gosh, how freaking precious,” Heart cooed. Baby will get his first haircut with Heart, of course. “He’s on the list,” Mr. Baer said.
Mr. Anderson has been seeing Heart for more than 15 years, formerly climbing the five floors to her old, tiny studio on 26th Street a few blocks from her current location. He said that since Heart’s business is run by word of mouth, talking to her clients is like a game of “the four degrees of Heart,” because everyone is connected somehow and almost everyone gets along so well. He stayed for an hour and a half to gab about the most recent Lost episode with Heart and some of her clients. “People will be in here for six hours and never realize it,” Heart said. “That’s the good thing about having no windows in here—you can’t see the sun go down.”
The stylist was sitting on one of her black couches, Diego blinking lazily on her lap.
“I left salons 14 years ago, and I’ll never go back,” Heart said. “There’s huge egos and always drama when you put a bunch of hairdressers in a room. There’s meetings and team effort and blah-blah-blah …. And they love the game of selling products. I’m not a sales person.” She said the salons docked 55 to 60 percent of her pay for “fees.”
Not to mention bitchy New York customers with unreasonable demands. As an itinerant stylist, Heart can pick and choose. “The people that come here, they’re all my friends,” she said. “They come over to my home, we have coffee together, and I happen to cut their hair, too.”