Portrait

The man who never stops thinking about hair. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

Director’s cut

When I push open the heavy glass doors of his Gertrude Street salon, Frank is cutting a middle-aged woman’s hair. His forehead is creased in concentration and his blue eyes are fixed on the mirror in front of him. She is ragging him about not doing any housework.

“You are spoilt,” she repeats maternally.

With tight lips, he continues pushing his fingers through her short hair. She complains that he hasn’t responded to her accusation.

“Well, what am I supposed to say to you when you say something like that to me?” he asks, trying to keep his voice level.

“You’re supposed to say, ‘I don’t realise that I’m spoilt, Margaret, because I’ve never known anything else in my life.’ ” 

She segues into a story about her mother having an operation and her father struggling with managing a house for the first time in his life.

“Do you think you’ll get a colour?” he responds.

“Oh…”

“Go on, spoil yourself and get a colour,” he says coyly.

Disarmed by laughter, she agrees, calling over the receptionist with orders to top up the money in the parking meter where her car is parked. When she vacates her seat, Frank calls me over and I sit facing a full-length mirror. As soon as I sit down on the red throne with its aged brass studs, heavy wood and embossed steel plates, I understand the psyche of the client before me perfectly. Unlike the plain black leather of all the other chairs in the salon, the chair reserved for Frank’s clients is supposed to give you the sense that you are of consummate importance.

Frank Apostolopoulos is famous within the Australian hair industry. He is the creative director of mega hairdressing chain and school Biba, and was crowned Australian Hairdresser of the Year in 2013 and 2014 at the Hair Expo Australia Awards. His other accolades include AHFA Australian Hairdresser of the Year in 2013 and Hair Expo Photographic Collection of the Year in 2013 and 2014.

As I chat to Frank, I get the impression that for him hair is intricately intertwined with the unsaid. When I ask him why people get their hair cut, an easy enough question for a hairdresser – I wrongly assume – he stumbles as if he is reluctant to reveal something so personal about his clients:

“It’s probably hard to explain but the reason people get their hair cut is probably because they aren’t feeling as attractive … it’s very personal, it’s something we notice the moment we wake up in the morning and look at ourselves.”

It’s a simple answer that speaks to a lot of what we don’t often say about how we desire to be perceived and to perceive ourselves. I wonder aloud if it’s difficult for him to ascertain how someone wants to look when he doesn’t know them very well. He confidently refutes this.

“From the moment someone walks into that door, you can just tell by their clothes, the way they walk, how they want to be seen. You also have to take into account their lifestyle, what kind of job they have, that kind of thing. Cutting someone’s hair is really less about style and structure and more about understanding the whole person,” he concludes.

I ask Frank why he thinks clients open up to their hairdresser. He pauses awkwardly.

“Well, it’s a very intimate setting. You’re with someone for a very long time, you’re… Well, I guess you could say you’re touching their face a lot more than is normal for people who don’t know each other. They have to trust you to let you cut their hair and sometimes… I hear a lot more than what you’d expect, I suppose…” he trails off diplomatically.

Initially, I was surprised by the fact Frank is not more verbose about hairdressing. Then I see the way he works with his hands on my hair. It seems almost performative, the way he pulls out hair high above the head like an exotic toffee and the way he pushes it back so it flips and falls like in a Pantene advertisement. His obvious relish in hair-cutting is unspoken but perfectly articulated by his hands and the steadiness of his gaze.

He tells me that “he never stops thinking about hair”, not even after he’s “put the clippers down and gone home”. It sounds funny and a little overblown to me, this idea that someone could take hair so seriously. Sensing my disbelief, he asserts: “That’s the truth, it really is.” He dusts specks of trimmed hair off my face and shows me the back of my head. I leave the salon and walk up Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street, glancing back at my shiny new reflection in the shop windows, and I am surprised to find that I can hardly stop thinking about hair myself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Director’s cut". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.

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