Some retail tenants of the embattled Chelsea Hotel refuse to publicly discuss their uncertain futures following this summer’s contentious management shake-up, for fear of hastening their own rumored exits.
Hairstylist April Barton isn’t one of them.
“There’s a lot of panic in the hotel,” the reputable scissor-slinger told The Observer. “I almost jumped on that boat. Then I took a step back and said, ‘Whatever the changes are, I’m going through them gracefully.’”
Her tranquil pose belies a bleak reality.
The prosperous Ms. Barton, whose roster of renowned clients over the past 12 years reads like a who’s who of Rolling Stone cover-story subjects, owes no small debt to the longtime artistic incubator and rock ’n’ roller mecca on West 23rd Street.
Her eclectic salon, Suite 303, is located just two floors above the infamous spot where Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious allegedly murdered girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978.
Underneath her calm exterior is a threatened businesswoman facing a cutting decision: Should she sacrifice her Chelsea Hotel cachet and move out? Or stick around and see her monthly costs skyrocket?
An otherwise “gracious” representative of the hotel’s new management group personally informed her of the looming markup during a recent face-to-face chat.
“It was told to me that it would be a $30,000-a-month venture for me to continue my business in this space,” Ms. Barton said—a daunting sum even for someone who earns as much as $300 per haircut.
“Thus far, it seems like a lot,” she said. “But, you know, I’m movin’ and shakin’ too.”
The tall, tan, vivacious brunette is anticipating a surge of publicity from her upcoming work as a member of the so-called Glam Squad on the TLC network’s 10 Years Younger makeover program, among other projects, including possible product lines, screenplays and, of course, “hair and more hair and hair and more hair,” she said.
Will it be enough hair?
“Worst-case scenario, by September 2009 [when her lease expires], I’ve had an amazing experience here. I’ve cultivated a lifestyle, an artistic integrity that I’m so grateful for. And I could take it anywhere, though I’d prefer to stay.”
Ms. Barton wasn’t looking to cash in on the hotel’s cool vibe when she first moved into Room 303 back in 1995, she said. She was simply looking to escape the strictures of the grueling Manhattan hair-cuttery grind.
“Working in the hair-salon industry was running me into the ground,” explained the sprightly cowboy-hat-clad beautician, during a recent cigarette-break interview on her balcony overlooking West 23rd. “I was losing the integrity I initially had with hair. It’s like I was producing what the latest look was. It was like one bed-head cut after another. I wasn’t able to express myself. And I started to lose my enthusiasm.”
The pivotal moment came during a cocktail party at a friend’s apartment inside the Chelsea Hotel: “He goes, ‘So, what are ya doin?’ I said, ‘I’m in transition now. I’m an artist of sorts. I do hair. I do writing. I act.’ I said, ‘I don’t want a commercial space.’ He goes, ‘You sound like you need to be here at the Chelsea Hotel.’”
The thought had never occurred to her. At the time, the Chelsea seemed somewhat intimidating environs. “This place always represented a very artsy-fartsy, druggie, too-cool-for-school vibe,” Ms. Barton said. “I consider myself cool, but I wasn’t that cool.”
Yet she agreed to return the next day to discuss her vision with longtime father-and-son hotel managers Stanley Bard and David Bard.
“They actually gave a shit about what I wanted to do,” she said, describing her concept as more in line with the salons of Paris, where artists of all stripes come to synergize their talents.
“I’ll have a painter that will come here and set up by the radiator and I’ll have somebody selling jewelry in the corner,” she said. “If it was like, I want to open up just a regular hair salon, that would’ve never gone over with them. Nor would it have me. I wanted to be in my own world and I wanted to create my own thing. And this hotel and this room has given me the chance to do that. Like a little greenhouse type of thing. I felt like I was getting sunburned out there in the industry. I just wanted to hone who I was as an artist. This place feeds you that way.”
Collaborating with former Rolling Stone-turned-GQ photographer Mark Seliger doesn’t hurt, either.
Over the years, Ms. Barton and Mr. Seliger have combined talents to produce a number of iconic magazine covers and striking fashion spreads, featuring such noted celebs as Adrien Brody, Jakob Dylan, Johnny Knoxville and Dave Matthews.
Her notoriety among musicians has even occasioned a few road trips: She once went on tour with soul singer Mary J. Blige and later declined an invitation to cross the globe with international arena rockers U2.
It can be an exciting career, as evidenced by her misadventures with Willie Nelson, whose long hair reminds Ms. Barton of her mother’s, but whose lifestyle more closely mirrors every mother’s nightmare.
“I held a big blunt for him while he was getting photographed in an alleyway,” Ms. Barton recalled. “And these two uniformed cops came walking down the alley. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re so busted!’ I’ve got this huge joint in my hand, the size of a cigar, and it’s burning. And I’m like, ‘Aaaaaaaah!’ And they come walking up, ‘Hey, we just saw you. We wanted to get your autograph.’ We’re like, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’”
Nowadays, even aspiring rock ’n’ rollers are seeking out Ms. Barton’s services.
“I went on the Internet and looked up rock ’n’ roll hairstylist and her name came up,” said Lowell Allen, father of 13-year-old Upper East Side vocal phenom Zachary Allen.
“He had photo shoots for an album cover and we wanted a different look and she gave it to us,” Mr. Allen said. “He’s got this long, blond curly hair. She flat-ironed his hair and made it look really punky, edgy.
“She has a whole different style of cutting hair—she goes through these gyrations,” he noted, referring to the quirky dancelike technique that has Ms. Barton bouncing around each seated client. (“I need to see different angles,” she explained. “I used to want to have, like, little discs in the floor where I could swivel around.”)
“It’s unfortunate if she gets moved out,” said Mr. Allen.
Indeed, Ms. Barton herself has feared the worst, after learning of the longtime hotel-ruling Bard family’s summer overthrow by the Chelsea Hotel’s board of directors.
“When I first found out, I was out in Montauk at my summer house, and I didn’t call anybody, I didn’t want to talk about it, I just wanted to meditate on the possibilities,” she said. “I had an unhealthy attachment prior to the news. I was like, ‘I’m never leaving. This is it for me.’ And the fact that that was threatened was very disturbing to me and challenged me. I think it was very Buddhist to experience that, to just let it go. I feel O.K. now. I feel like wherever I am, I’ll be fine.”
Then again, finding another headquarters as eccentric as the Chelsea wouldn’t be easy.
“We were talking that we’d go on a boat,” Ms. Barton said. “And then half my clients are like, ‘It’s going to be freezing during the winter, and people get seasick, and this and that. No, you can’t do it on a boat.’ And God—boats are expensive! We’d need about a million bucks.”