When I was seven, I refused to let my mother brush my hair for so long that I developed a massive mat at the nape of my neck, which had to be scissored out. For years in high school, I woke before first light to coerce my hair straight with a paddle brush and a low-quality hair dryer. In my twenties, I dyed it blonde for so long it stopped feeling like mine. It took me 30 years to see my naturally fine, curly, light brown hair as beautiful.

Many of us have complicated relationships with our hair, thanks to cultural pressure, whatever our mothers felt about their hair, and the ideas we’ve internalized about how our hair should look. These days, I love my hair, but my haircuts remain emotionally charged. Few service experiences are so liable to change my mood, month, general outlook. And I’m not alone in this; cliches are built around the importance we place on a haircut. Which got me thinking: What’s it like on the other side of our salon chairs? What do our hairstylists really think when we show up after a breakup and declare, “Chop it all off!”? Do they hate when we sit on our phones the whole time? Do they wish we’d stop telling them our secrets?

Below, I asked this and more to three of the best in the New York City hair game. (Full disclosure: Schielah is my hairdresser.) What they told me just might help us all become better clients — and learn about our own hair hangups in the process.


Shelby Samaria, Hairstylist at Suite Caroline

Do you prefer when clients come in with clean or dirty hair?

I prefer dirty hair. Not at their worst, but not at their best.

How do you feel when someone says, “Do whatever you want”?

Never trust someone who says, “Do whatever you want!” I ask to look at [inspiration] pics. If all of their pics are similar, it’s like, “No, you [do] have a type of hairstyle you like.” If they’re all over the place, that’s where their features and lifestyle come in to inform the cut.

Have you ever tried to convince a client to do something different from what they asked for?

I’m very honest about that. A good hairdresser says no and says no often.

Do you believe certain haircuts are better for certain face shapes? Or is that kind of old-fashioned?

I don’t believe people can’t wear certain styles. If you have the confidence, you should do whatever the fuck you want. We’re in a period of beauty where oddness is celebrated.

What’s the craziest style you’ve ever done?

I woke up one morning and I shaved off all my hair. I highly recommend taking a chance at least once in a lifetime. Sometimes you don’t know your fullest potential until you do.

How do you feel when clients sit on their phones for the whole appointment?

Somewhat I don’t mind, but I do sometimes wish there was a no-phone policy. You need people’s heads to be in a certain position. It’s not always achievable if their head is down.

What’s your biggest client pet peeve?

Not being open to expertise. Sometimes people have been so damaged in the past that they’re afraid to let go. It’s important for them to compromise and also hear what we say.

There is this idea that people often smile and say they love it, even if they hate it. Can you tell when people are lying? What should clients do if they get home and realize they hate the cut?

I always want to leave things a little longer and go safe. Give it a week. So many things change [once] you go through hair washes. But if you’re not into it, you can call me within two weeks and we can fix it.

Is the trope of the post-breakup big hair change true?

From a very far distance, you can tell when someone’s ready for a change and when someone’s not. When a breakup is involved in a haircut, there are a lot of questions that should be asked. A lot of it is about reinventing themselves.

What trend would you like to see come back in style?

A lot of my favorites are back! I love a sleek ponytail that’s just parted down the middle at the lower nape. It’s something that we can apply to all walks of life: to natural, to fine, to the biggest, curliest hair ever.

What percentage should people tip, for real?

Eighteen to 20 percent. I’d say half of whatever you tip the stylist should go to the assistant.

What shampoo and conditioner do you use?

It’s a brand called Cantu, that’s really good on natural hair. My hair is really thick and kinky. I always use a conditioner and then a leave-in conditioner. The conditioner is Rahua. I use it as a conditioner and as my base product when I twist out my hair.


Mona Baltazar, Hairstylist at The Mona Cut

Do you prefer when clients come in with clean or dirty hair?

It’s always best to walk in with freshly washed hair, or a couple of days in at the most — as long as the stylist can see how you would wear it on the daily. And it’s best to wear it down.

How do you feel when someone says, “Do whatever you want”?

Oh, girl, I’m like, “I’m ready!” You don’t have to ask me twice. That’s one of my favorite things to do. The more open your client is, it makes it easier for the whole process.

Have you ever tried to convince a client to do something different from what they asked for?

For sure, because it’s really about where their hair is at. So I say, “Well, if this is what you want, this is what’s going to happen.” Then they’ll be like, “Ooh, that’s too short.” I create a plan. If that isn’t something you’re prepared for today, you need to come in a few months. It’s a process.

Do you believe certain haircuts are better for certain face shapes? Or is that kind of old-fashioned?

I do a lot of textured hair. It’s not about the face for me. I’m more concerned about the hair itself, because everyone has their own beauty, and working with textured hair versus working with straight hair is different. On straighter hair, because it’s flatter on the face and head, it’s a lot more obvious, so it’s very important to look at hair that way. But with texture, all you see is the texture — no matter what the face shape is. The hair doesn’t live and sit on the face; it lives in a 3D dimension. With straight hair, I have to consider bangs, cheekbones; it’s all very important.

What’s the craziest style you’ve ever done?

It’s always a little bit nice to see when someone decides to go super short, from long hair to “I want a pixie curly cut.” They’re hanging out after you cut them, and you’re looking at them like, “Who were you when you walked in? Because you look like a different person!”

How much do you chat with your clients?
I take a good amount of time talking about consultation and lifestyle — you can’t give somebody a haircut if it’s not something they can do at home. The conversation has to be: “Okay, you and I have to work on this together.” …We’re both learning [as I go]. My clients do like to hear there’s a process, and they leave with homework to do at home. It’s a constant conversation.

How often do clients sit on their phones for the whole appointment?

They have their own time to do it, when they’re under the hood or dryer. [Otherwise] everyone’s pretty much present. The clientele is excited to be there, they’ve taken those two hours or the day off, so whatever happens, they’re like, “I’m in my zone.”

Do clients often ask you for life advice?

When it comes to textured hair, it’s not just about hair; it has a lot to do with how they grew up, their mothers, people around them, the men in their life. Basically, it’s all connected, and it’s all about letting them know their hair is beautiful.

What’s your biggest client pet peeve?

It happens to a lot of people: It’s just fear. I’m the opposite. I’m like, “Whatever, cut my hair, shave my head, I don’t really care.” But I try to be understanding to clients that do have fear of cutting their hair or change. I get [introduction] emails, and you can tell they’re scared. I always try to find a way: “Listen, when you’re ready, schedule then.” The last thing you want to do is have someone be nervous.

There is this idea that people often smile and say they love it, even if they hate it. Can you tell when people are lying? What should clients do if they get home and realize they hate the cut?

I can sense that, and I always say, if they’re feeling a little strange, “Listen. Wash it a couple times. Style it. If it’s not working for you, we can adjust it any time. It’s a new hairstyle. If it’s still too long, feel free to come back, shoot me an email, and we’ll adjust.” Often, people come back and say, “I just had to put lipstick on and rewash my hair and I’m obsessed!”

What’s the hardest part of the job that most people wouldn’t guess? How about the best?

The fun is my clientele, the vibe, being able to create. The hardest part is trying to make my clients see the beauty of their own hair. The ones who have a hard time seeing it, that’s heartbreaking to me. Their hair is beautiful, but you can’t convince them. They have to figure that out themselves.

Is the trope of the post-breakup big hair change true?

Not in my chair. What I do with my clientele is really about embracing their texture. Also, there’s this moment of women power right now, taking back what’s theirs and being like, “Fuck it.” It’s almost rebellious, in a good way: “Let me not get so stuck in what my society, or men, or culture have taught what beautiful is.”

What trend would you like to see come back in style?

Asymmetrical haircuts. I’m always trying to show off the idea that you can take it a step further to make somebody look a little more interesting.

What percentage should people tip, for real?

It doesn’t matter to me if I get tipped or not. I don’t count it, I don’t expect it. I want my clients to be happy. The amount of money I’m charging is good enough.

What shampoo and conditioner do you use?

I use the New Wash, their original bottle. I use it for me and my daughter, because my hair is straight, and it’s a simple formula. I wash my hair maybe once or twice a week.


Schielah Magnolia, Hairstylist at Headdress

Do you prefer when clients come in with clean or dirty hair?

I don’t think it matters. I do like when curly or textured hair comes in a day lived in, so I can evaluate your curly natural state.

How do you feel when someone says, “Do whatever you want”?

I still go through all the questions to see how much they really mean it. Eventually, people have an opinion. I just have to get it out of them.

Have you ever tried to convince a client to do something different from what they ask for?

That’s part of the job. Like, “No! Don’t make me do that!” And then [if they still want it], I’ll be like, “OK, fine, but I just want you to know that I didn’t want to do that.” If it’s about the texture and the bone structure, for the most part, people trust you. You can find a compromise.

Do you believe certain haircuts are better for certain face shapes? Or is that kind of old-fashioned?

Yes, because of the combination of the face shape with the texture and the density of someone’s hair. It’s not necessarily, “Oh, you have a long face, so we need to keep it shorter, because long will elongate.” It depends on the texture too, and how much someone is willing to style it. But there are definitely certain looks that look better on certain people.

What’s the craziest style you’ve ever done?

I don’t know if anything is crazy! We live in New York. Hair is the way people express themselves, and — it’s just hair.

Do you like to chat with your clients? What if you’re not in the mood? What if they aren’t?

Most of my stories outside of the salon start with, “I have a client that …” Clients give me the best education in life. If someone’s not talkative, that’s cool too. If they don’t want to talk, they can zone out and I’ll nerd out on their hair.

How do you feel when clients sit on their phones for the whole appointment?

I don’t mind that, but it is so frustrating when somebody’s head is totally bent forward to look their phone. Also, if you’re texting, we’re not trying to be nosy but — if you’re getting some funny photos, we can see it. I have seen clients receive naked photos before.

Do clients often ask you for life advice? If so, are there any words of wisdom you find yourself spouting often?

It’s human nature to talk about your life if you’re comfortable with the person. I feel like what I’ve been saying a lot lately is, “Trust the process.” That works in hair and in life.

If you make a mistake, what do you do? Hide it? Admit it? Try to quickly fix it?

If you make a mistake, there’s always a way to fix it. A good hairdresser’s going to be able to do that. We might not acknowledge it to you if it’s tiny, but there’s always a way to fix it.

There is this idea that people often smile and say they love it, even if they hate it. Can you tell when people are lying? What should clients do if they get home and realize they hate the cut?

You can tell when somebody is still feeling really green about it, where they’re like, “This is so fresh and new to me, I’m going to need a minute.” A good hairdresser will say, “Live in it, and if you feel like you need anything tweaked, call me.” Nine times out of 10, they just need somebody outside of the salon to say they look good.

Is the trope of the post-breakup big hair change true?

Definitely. I saw on Overheard in New York, this guy was talking to his friend about his ex and he was like, “I really think I messed up, what do you think I should do?” And the friend was like, “Did she get a haircut?” And he was like, “How did you know?” And the friend said, “She’s over you.” It’s just a thing!

What trend would you like to see come back in style?

I’ve been obsessed with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Scarface round-brushed-under bob.

What percentage should people tip, for real? Should you tip your hair washer separately?

Most people tip 20 percent. I always think of something I saw on a tip jar: “Never expected, but gratefully accepted.” A lot of people do tip the hair washers. If they don’t, we tip them out at the end of the day. I would say five or 10 bucks is fine.

What shampoo and conditioner do you use?

My hair is really healthy and I don’t color it a ton, so I kind of want it to feel fucked up. I get, from Whole Foods, Everyday Coconut [from Alaffia]. They sell it in liters for $9.99. It’s my body wash, shampoo, conditioner, I use it to shave my legs. It’s not the most conditioning — if I really need moisture, I love Christophe Robin. That’s my treatment — every once in a while I’ll use a really luxurious mask on my hair.

Photos by Bridget Badore.

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