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Chasing the Perfect Hairstylist in New York

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One of my most vivid childhood memories is of me standing in front of a mirror in my dining room, alternately laughing hysterically and then bursting into tears. I was confused and unable to reel in my emotions, and the image of myself sobbing in the mirror only made me cry harder, until the impulse to giggle came around again.

I was eight years old and my father, a hairstylist, had given me my first permanent. It curled my straight brown mousy hair into ringlets so tight that my hair now appeared several inches shorter. My bangs had sprung back near my hairline like a row of leeches recoiling from a salt attack, and curly pieces of hair hung down next to my face, lending me the look of a tender young Jewish boy whose side locks had finally grown long.

Eventually, I grew into my perm, fell in love with it, and many more followed. My father became my trusted beautician; the dining room was our beauty parlor. Every couple of months, I held the plastic bag full of purple permanent rods on my lap and handed them to him one by one, as he slowly wrapped my hair and applied the foul-smelling neutralizer. He was there the next day to check that the curls had taken, and to remind me to use a pick instead of comb.

When I entered my phase of jet black or red streaked hair, he consistently touched up my roots. Haircuts happened spontaneously—no appointment necessary, no tips accepted, and the option to return if I wasn’t 100 percent satisfied.

When I moved away from home and my lifetime of coiffure safety, I drifted in haircut confusion for quite some time. I truly thought that a person just walked into a hair salon and got the cut they wanted, simple as that. But after more than a decade, I am still looking for the hairdresser that can take the place of my dining room stylist, a search that has proven so far to be fruitless.

When I eventually moved to New York, I was sure that merely by living in the most glamorous city in the world, I’d end up with a series of fabulous haircuts, and maybe become part of a real relationship again with a hairstylist who lived to make me pretty.

In reality, over the past three years, I’ve mostly shelled out $45 plus tip for barely perceptible haircuts; it seems like everyone is afraid of making mistakes or sending out unhappy clients, so they do as little cutting as possible. I’ve tried to stick with a person even if I was unhappy, sure that we needed only to develop a relationship of mutual understanding, but seriously, how many times should you walk out of a salon with one side of your hair shorter than the other?

I constantly blame myself. Maybe I can’t adequately explain what I want, or perhaps I need more descriptive words than “trim.” Should I pay more?  I’ve been abandoned more times than I can count. At Astor Place Hair, Irina was my girl for a good six months, until one day I walked in looking for her and was told she had gone back to Russia. No note, no nothing.

I’ve been taken advantage of abroad. In Turkey, a hip young guy named Mehmet was so confident he could make me happy that I turned over my complete trust to him. When he was finished, he said, “I didn’t do what you asked, I did what I thought was best.”

Am I too demanding? In Vietnam, a stylist spilled black hair dye down the front of my skirt and then followed me out the door demanding her tip.

Last week, I tapped into a list of New York salons that offer services by stylists-in-training, at a fraction of salon cost. I decided that since I couldn’t find the satisfaction I needed, I would just get down and dirty and go for the cheapest haircut I could find.

I opted for Carsten Institute of Hair and Beauty in Union Square, mainly because I got a quick appointment. A graduating student named Yolanda led me to her chair and we talked about the simple trim I was looking to have done. She repeated and confirmed everything I asked her to do, then drew a diagram of her plan of attack. It was a simple, pure experience. Yolanda was skilled, but also a good listener. She cut my hair with care and precision, and called her supervisor over periodically to check her work.

In short, for $20, I got a great haircut and helped someone practice their skill. I felt like that was really it; I found what I was looking for. I might even ask Yolanda if I could request her the next time I came, and I imagined following her to whatever salon hired her after graduation, although now that I see those words in print, I seem desperate and clingy.

As I paid my bill, I noticed a sign telling customers that cheap student haircuts were available for first time customers only. I felt tricked and let down, although I didn’t take it out on Yolanda. I merely steeled myself to continue searching for the perfect hairstylist.

Carsten Institute of Hair and Beauty
22 East 17th Street, 2nd Floor, 212-675–4884
[Union Square]

Other salons that offer student stylists at discount prices: (call ahead for prices and to book an appointment)

Aveda Institute
233 Spring St., 212-807-1492

Jeffrey Stein at 78th St.
1498 2nd Ave. @E. 78th St., 212-772-7717
[Upper East Side]

Paul LaBrecque
171 E. 65th St., 212-988-7816
[Upper East Side]

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Michele DeBella - Cheap Chick

Michele DeBella - Cheap Chick

Michele enjoys discovering interesting stories in people and places around the world. After many years of living a nomadic lifestyle, funded mostly by teaching English in foreign countries and U.S. cities, she has made New York City her home base. While she loves to travel, she also has to pay rent, so realizes that unique experiences sometimes have to be found close to home.