Fear Of Shaming. The Need To Make A Living: Inside the Clandestine World of LA's Underground Haircuts
Governor Gavin Newsom had good news today for the shaggy and disheveled: It could be legal to get a haircut again in the next few weeks.
Barbershops and hair salons around the state have been closed since mid-March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But that doesn't mean people haven't been getting haircuts, secretly, this whole time.
In late April, I saw two freshly-shaven men walk out of a Venice barbershop that had butcher paper taped over the windows. We made eye contact, and I quickly looked the other way.
Then, a week later, I got an email from my hair stylist. He was making house calls. I wondered: Should I get my hair cut?
When the stay-at-home order began, haircuts seemed completely non-essential. A luxury that we could collectively forgo to help keep our community safe from a potentially deadly disease.
But as the weeks turned into months, I started to wonder: How long can we really go without them? And what is the world of clandestine haircutting like?
'A LOT OF PEOPLE OUT THERE THAT NEEDS HAIRCUTS!!'
Apparently, it's not so clandestine.
I looked on Craigslist and since May 1, seven barbers and stylists in L.A. have advertised their services. Including Carmelle.
Carmelle, who asked me not to use her last name for fear of being fined, used to work for a salon in Santa Monica before the pandemic hit. She was furloughed on March 17.
Her manager, incorrectly, told her she was not eligible for unemployment while on furlough. So for a month she stayed home, with no income, worrying about how she was going to pay her bills and her rent.
She tried applying for jobs with delivery services and grocery stores, but didn't hear back.
"Ok, what am I gonna do?" she asked herself. "It's not like I can go get another career. I've been a hair stylist for 22 years."
So she pulled her grandmother's barber chair out of storage, hung a mirror on the wall of her living room, and stocked up on bleach and Barbicide and masks.
Then, she wrote her ad.
"I was like, 'I don't think people are gonna drive all the way out here to Compton to see me,'" she told me over the phone. "And when my phone had over 100 texts in one day, I was like, 'oh my goodness, what am I gonna do?' Is a lot of people out there that needs haircuts!'"
Carmelle enlisted her roommate to manage the scheduling. She typically does two cuts an hour: mostly men, mostly damage control.
"Some of them just be like, 'I tried to get my wife to cut my hair with the dog clippers, and this is what I got," she said, laughing. "And I be like, 'We can fix it.'"
She makes her clients wear masks and squirts their hands with hand sanitizer when they arrive and when they leave. In between cuts, she sprays every surface with disinfectant and sanitizes her tools.
She also gets tested for COVID-19 every week, and posts a screenshot of her test results on her Craigslist ad. And she keeps track of all her clients so she can notify them if she or another client gets sick (assuming they tell her).
"I'm not worried about getting sick," she said, "number one reason is, us stylists, we went to school for this. We should know how to sanitize."
What Carmelle is doing is not allowed in L.A. County. The county is currently in "Stage 2" of re-opening its economy, which means "lower risk" workplaces are allowed to open. Salons and barbershops, however, are considered "higher risk" workplaces, and are part of Stage 3.
Last week, the Professional Beauty Federation of California sued Governor Gavin Newsom over his decision to order salons to remain closed under Stage 2. And in some rural counties, hair salons are re-opening anyway, in defiance of the Governor's orders.
But in L.A. County, at least for now, professional haircutting is still underground.
The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology realizes some of their members are still working, and they don't approve. As of May 12, they had received 651 complaints, but had yet to penalize anyone, according to spokesperson Cheri Gyuro.
Carmelle is unapologetic.
"Before you judge, put yourself in my situation first," she said. "It's not like I did not apply for unemployment. It's not like I'm not applying for jobs. It's not like I'm doing this because I don't care about the stay-at-home order. My hands are tied."
'I FEEL A LITTLE ANXIOUS EVERY TIME'
Many professional stylists have had trouble accessing government help. Those who are independent contractors could be eligible for unemployment or the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the federal government's forgivable loan program for small businesses affected by the coronavirus.
But it can be hard to know which to apply for.
One L.A.-area salon owner, who also asked that I not use her name for fear of losing her license, hasn't received aid from either program, and so, after two months, she started making home visits to cut hair and do weaves and blow-outs.
But the visits are anxiety-provoking. Once, she stealthily wheeled a large blow-drier out to her car, paranoid someone would see her.
"There's no mistaking it's a drier," she said. "I feel a little anxious every time. I do one person and I'm exhausted, when my average day was 12 people."
DON'T 'GRAM THAT
People who receive clandestine haircuts are nervous, too, but not necessarily about breaking the law.
"The shaming," said Whitney, an L.A. resident who, you guessed it, asked me not to use her last name. She recently got a cut and balayage on her back deck from her long-time stylist. "Usually when I'd go get my haircut there would be a whole Instagram story about before and after. But we're not going to post about it because it's a no-no."
Public officials also risk shaming if they look too groomed during press conferences or public meetings.
Melissa Sprout, a salon owner who lives in Newport Beach, recently accused the Orange County Board of Supervisors of getting illicit haircuts.
"As a hairstylist, I can see that many of you have had services done in the last six weeks. Seeing that you must find our services essential, how can we be re-classified (as essential businesses and allowed to re-open)?" she asked during a public meeting.
Supervisor Don Wagner shot back: "I have not had my hair cut since well before this started, and if you want to get a close-up look, talk to me afterwards."
ARE HAIRCUTS ESSENTIAL?
Personal grooming does not meet the standards set by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 19, when he said the only sectors allowed to stay open were those "whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof."
But some stylists argue they are more essential than they seem.
"Fire, police, paramedics and military personnel all have strict grooming standards which they must adhere to," Stroud, the salon owner, said at the O.C. Board of Supervisors' meeting. "That should make us an essential service."
And some hair treatments require routine maintenance to avoid potentially dire consequences.
The L.A.-area salon owner, who primarily does black women's hair, told me, "relaxers, or hair extensions, if they're not kept up, your hair could fall out. You should replace it every two months."
Haircuts -- at least good ones -- also just make us feel good about ourselves. And L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said he gets that. But public health takes precedent.
"We all have very close relationships with people who cut our hair," he said when I asked him about haircuts last week. "We know them well, they know us well. It's a moment of relaxation. And for many people, it's about how they feel about themselves. But, the state has been clear: it's one of the more dangerous and risky activities, even done with appointments only."
Garcetti's said his wife is cutting his hair right now, with shears purchased on Amazon.
IS IT WORTH THE RISK?
Some researchers studying reopening have ranked businesses based on their economic importance and risk of transmitting the coronavirus. Barber shops and nail salons fall somewhere in the middle.
"They obviously involve contact between customers and employees. People often tend to stay for a while," said Katherine Baicker, the dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, who wrote an op-ed about the relative risk of different businesses in The New York Times. "That said, they're often not that big, or not that busy."
Another researcher, Seth Gordon Benzell, said home visits may actually be safer than going to a salon.
"What's really dangerous is people sitting around in crowded, small barber shops," said Benzell, a postdoctoral associate at MIT who recently wrote a paper examining the risk of re-opening various kinds of businesses.
At home, there are fewer people around, and at home you may feel more comfortable insisting your stylist and whomever else is around wear a mask and do appropriate social distancing.
But given that people are getting pretty tired of staying at home -- and are growing some pretty shaggy manes -- it seems like something is going to have to give.
As we decide how to go back out in public, Benzell said it's helpful to think about what he calls a "social contact budget." Each person has to decide how much risk they're willing to take on and then divvy up their physical interactions accordingly.
"You should ask yourself, 'Do I really want to be spending my limited social contact budget on this?'" Benzell said of haircuts, "'or is there something more important I want to spend my very few human interactions that I'm allowing myself on?'"
Maybe for you, a haircut is worth it.
If not, you could always pay a barber to guide you, via FaceTime, while you cut your own hair. Because thanks to the coronavirus, that is a real thing.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Melissa Sprout's last name. It also stated that Sprout questioned the O.C. Board of Supervisors on a video call, which was incorrect. LAist regrets the error.