Under The Dryer And Into The Fire

Liz Raiss and Gaby Wilson talk to four stylists about the politics of salon small talk

In times of economic upset or political turmoil, hair salons, barbershops, and other kinds of quick-fix aesthetic upgrades thrive. At least, that's the theory known as the Lipstick Index, which is not so much science as it is common sense comfort. When people feel their worst, we think, they must want to look their best. But that’s only the beginning of the story.

Over the last year, small talk has gotten increasingly, exhaustively political, and the endless election coupled with a never-ending news cycle has left many of us feeling more fried than our split ends. We spoke to four different artists at four different salons and asked them to tell us what they’ve been talking about with the people in their chairs. Bedford-Stuyvesant salon LizLovesHair’s founder, the eponymous Liz Owusu, engages the politically charged conversations with grace, willing to hear every side. Maria, the owner of Soho blow dry salon Haute Air, wants to create a controversy-free environment. Months into her position at gallery-cum-nail-salon Vanity Projects, Savannah marvels at the depths her conversations can reach. And Larry, the founder of Harlem’s famous Levels barbershops, might be 21 years into the game, but he’s never heard anything quite like this before.

Here, in their own words, is what they had to say.

Levels, Harlem

Larry Wilson (Founder)

Everything’s fair game.

We call the barbershop the black man's country club. You got people from all different walks of life, and they can come and talk and interact with one another. People talk about pretty much anything: work, relationships, sports. It's like therapy. They can vent about personal stuff, or football playoffs, or politics.

I’ve cut two generations, you know. I have clients I’ve been seeing for 20 years, guys I’ve cut from the time they were babies. It might start off like they're coming in for service or whatever. But over the years, it becomes more than just going to get my hair cut. It becomes a relationship. It’s like extended family. People invite me to weddings, birthdays, baby showers.

There’s an art form to barbering, a creative side. Every barber is different. It’s very personal; they have their own style or way of doing things. People have trust in you and, you know, they might be nervous at first, the first time they come through, but after they get comfortable, they can close their eyes and go to sleep, or have a conversation, depending on their mood. A haircut is basically anywhere between 20 minutes to half an hour. Depending on if you get a shave or shape-up or something. But you got people that'll just hang out in the barbershop all day. We've got a guy here, he coaches for kids, we call him Coach. He's normally here before me. You got barbershop groupies.

I've been around many elections, you know. We were established in 1996, so we’re going on 21 years. I'd never seen the climate in the shop like this. I don't think people thought Trump was gonna get elected, so that was just a surprise in itself, and now we've got to deal with what we'll be working with. All the theatrics that are going on there. The day after the election was a talkative day. Everybody that walked in had a comment. Some people might make a joke about Trump and make fun of him. But it was a lot of gloom in here. A lot of gloom. Gloom and doom.

We have pro-Trump people coming in too. They're a minority, but yeah. I think it's good to communicate and get their feelings and sentiments. It's just a way for people to support each other, I think. I don’t find that to be a negative. I thought it was probably good to be around different people's opinions. We got some people in here who are highly opinionated, there were arguments and stuff, but it was never volatile. Somebody might get jumped on, deservedly, but we’ll smooth it out. Everything’s fair game.



Vanity Projects, Chinatown

Savannah Walker (Nail Artist)

The day after was sad, and the whole week after was somber. Everyone was coming in with their gel manicures ripped off. I mean, I was picking my gels off watching the coverage.

I like to joke that I got hit in the head and decided to go to beauty school. Really, I was in a motorcycle accident and it made me reevaluate my life. I was a body piercer for about five years, and in my downtime I was painting my nails. I got really good at it, just practicing from YouTube videos.

New clients are just clients, but the people who have been coming to me for over a year, I call them friends. I first started seeing some of them in my house, so it’s a lot more intimate. I started at Vanity Projects in August and I have maybe fifteen or twenty regular clients here. We talk about boys a lot. We talk about fashion. We talk about politics. Not usually sad stuff, though. We talk about the things that make us excited. With a newer client it’s usually just small talk; sometimes there’s no chemistry, and it’s awkward, or sometimes they don’t want to talk. I’m pretty personable, and I can usually talk with anyone.

Last week, we talked a lot about the marches. I had two clients who asked for “feminist nails” because they were going to Washington for the marches, like designs that said FEMINIST across the nails, and one inspired by my tattoo of brass knuckles with “Girl Power” written underneath.

The weeks before the election I did a lot of Hillary nails. I did at least three portraits where I painted Hillary Clinton’s face on their nails. Back then, everyone was so pumped and excited, you know, We’re going to have a woman for our president! We were so hopeful. The day after was sad, and the whole week after was somber. Everyone was coming in with their gel manicures ripped off. I mean, I was picking my gels off watching the coverage. People do that when they’re nervous or anxious.

We didn’t talk about the results much. We talked about the Electoral College, how maybe they would overturn the decision, even though we knew it wouldn’t happen. I personally did some protesting around Trump Tower. It made me feel good to yell. I had some clients who did that too. I think most people are just really angry. I’m surprised no one asked for “Pussy Grabs Back” nails, but someone came in and got a set that said “Fuck This.”

Sometimes after a day of work, I feel happy and energized, because of my interactions with people and the art I created. And sometimes I have a day full of nails I’m not into and I didn’t make connections. On those days I feel so exhausted, not just from working straight through with barely any breaks, but mentally exhausted from processing people’s lives. I don’t talk about myself a lot. Sometimes people ask me questions and I’m like, OK, I don’t even know you.



Haute Air, Soho

Maria Tritto (Owner)

We try to stay neutral and not get involved with religion or politics.

When you come into a salon, it’s to make yourself feel better. Our job, from start to finish, is to ensure the service they’re getting. You can tell me anything under the sun and I’m not going to make you feel bad about it, I’m not going to make you feel guilty about it. That’s not what I’m here for. Our clients tell us about their kids, or that they’re getting married, or they found a new boyfriend, they’re excited about a new job … sometimes they tell us stuff that’s upsetting them. They’re comfortable enough to tell us a lot, but we try to stay neutral and not get involved with religion or politics. Those are touchier subjects. I let them tell me their opinion without giving my own input.

I see about forty to fifty customers a week, and about a quarter of those are repeat regulars. A lot of customers buy blowout packages and come on their lunch break; customers who need haircuts and color come in every six to eight weeks. That’s when the conversations get more personal — when they start getting to know us better.

It’s obviously hard to avoid the Trump thing. It’s all over the media, all over the televisions, all over New York City. Like when they blocked off part of the streets near Trump Towers, it was basically unavoidable. But at the same time, my customers aren’t really mentioning their political views. Mostly they’re putting Trump on blast, more comical than anything political, and talking about how it would affect their personal life, like when it causes traffic or stops trains. After the election it kind of died down. The only thing they’re mentioning are the tweets the media is putting out there, the memes people make on Instagram. It’s never something negative, like, I can’t believe he’s in office, he’s not going to do the right thing.

Any salon would be politically neutral. Like I said, if you take one side over the other, it becomes a personal thing, and you don’t want to be too personal. You want them to be comfortable enough to tell you things, but you also don’t want them to get offended.



LizLovesHair, Bedford-Stuyvesant

Liz Owusu (Owner)

I have a client who left her job to work on Hillary’s campaign ... she came in right after the election. I was the first person she called.

Before I was a hairstylist I always worked in the hospitality realm, jobs where you’re communicating with people. My major was in communications and African-American studies, and I feel like one of my strengths was being able to hear people out, to identify with them. Even if we don’t share the same views, I was able to see the other side. A lot of people go to salons to have someone to talk to, and that’s the service you provide aside from making their hair look great.

My clients and I get very familiar. I have clients that give me updates on what happened since the last time they were here. Like if I have a client who is getting married, I’m going to get updates on that. Last week I had a girl come in who told me she was on her fourth round of chemo, and we talked about how her hair is really important to her. I’ve been able to figure out if a client is pregnant because of how healthy their hair is. Sometimes people come and I’m like, “Your hair looks fine. Why are you here?” And they’ll sit here anyway for two hours and just vent. And as long as they’re not taking up space — it’s a small salon — they’re welcome to stay. Or a client, after their appointment, will stay for two hours discussing everything. And I’m like, you kinda gotta go. I need the chair.

Yesterday we spent half the day talking about politics. At first, it was a running joke with Donald Trump. It was so far-fetched! Then it became serious. Now our conversations always seem to come back to politics. We could be talking about pop culture, and then you start talking about Kanye, and you instantly talk about politics, because there’s some relation in it.

This is a predominantly female hair salon, so a lot of us feel the same way and share similar views. Everyone has a different perspective on why Hillary didn’t win. That’s where opinions differ, but I have yet to have anyone walk into my salon and say, “You know what? I think Donald Trump might be good.” It would be like radio silence in here if that happened. Now we’re concerned about who he is appointing. We have someone heading the EPA who once said the EPA doesn’t need to exist. It makes us feel like it’s further proof: As long as you’re not a minority, you can be the least qualified person for the job and get hired.

I have clients who are lawyers, and they don’t feel safe expressing themselves at work. When they’re at work, it’s so easy for men to express their opinions. They tell me that men, some women, and very few minorities are expressing pro-Trump opinions, and they feel isolated, not having any representation in that conversation. They come here and they’re like, “Girl, there was an email sent around about how we should all be happy that this was the outcome …”

I have a client who left her job to work on Hillary’s campaign. Her name is also Liz, and she came in right after the election. I was the first person she called. She was like, “I need an appointment. I just want to come in and get my hair washed and forget everything.” I told everybody, “Look, Liz is coming. I need us to be as sensitive as possible because I know she hasn’t slept.” We waited for her to bring it up. And once she did, she realized she was in a space where she could express what we were thinking but not saying.

We just have so many topics of conversation in here, but I would say politics has taken over by seventy percent. And then it’s whatever reality shows are on. Those I don’t watch, so I don’t talk about it. I’m just happy to catch up on Game of Thrones, so I can participate in that conversation. Game of Thrones and politics.

Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Photography by Xavier Guerra