I turn the corner, climb the stairs and enter to the sounds of running water and whirring electrics. I am greeted with a smile and a cup of coffee, just the way I like it.

I am at the hairdresser, barber, coiffeur, friseur, crimper or even tonsorialist. I am dressed in a gown, shown to a seat and my smiling stylist arrives. An outspoken, sassy lady who does not even ask how I would like my hair today. She just knows.

Very different from my last place. A very traditional barber’s shop resplendent with a red and white pole outside. On entry, the interestingly named ‘Mort’ would say: “Ah...good afternoon. Take a seat. Have a look at a girlie magazine and I’ll be right with you.”

 The latter point may go some way to explaining why his seating area always had a surfeit of waiting gents of ‘a certain age’.

Hairdressers on our islands are ubiquitous. Drive down any main road - and look up the side streets - and you will see them. Scores of them. From the high priced uber classy outfits with half a dozen stylists - where you sometimes have to complete a form prior to your appointment, so they have your ‘profile’ - to the little corner shop with a pun-like name staffed by the owner alone who has local ‘walk in’ customers all day long.

Why do we have so many? Indeed, a visit to another country invariably begs the same question? As a politician once quipped: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And it is.

Think about it. Save for funeral directors, it is one of the most inflation proof businesses there is. Apart from the follicly challenged among us, we all need a haircut. When money is tight, a lady might just skip the odd appointment or have her colour treatment wait another week. That’s it.

The rich and famous often travel with their own personal coiffeur. Others summon them like the Sultan of Brunei who pays an average of $24,000 to have Ken Modestu from the salon of London’s Dorchester Hotel to trim his locks. Modestu - who has looked after the Sultan’s mane for 16 years - is flown first class to wherever the sultan is.

A huge sum of money, but it is just a drop in the stylist’s rinse bowl as the Sultan’s net worth is $17 billion.

Hairdressers and their salons can go on forever. In a barbershop in New York State, which looks like it came from a Hollywood set, works Napoli-born Anthony Mancinelli. He too looks like he is straight out of ‘central casting’ and at 107 years old has been recognised by Guinness World Records as the World’s Oldest Working Barber.

UK hairdressers are now offered training to spot signs of domestic violence

He began his snipping career at age 12 when a haircut was 25c. It will now set you back $19 for Anthony’s attention. Thankfully, he no longer practices the medical procedures he learned from older barbers, such as the burning off of warts and using leeches for swelling or high blood pressure.

Salons can be a little like social clubs, confessionals or even therapy sessions. Gossip is exchanged and like a long train journey opposite a stranger, life stories can be traded with someone you may never see again.

There is also a very serious side to hairdressing. Former International Art Director for Toni & Guy, Zoe Winter Edgar (now based in Malta) explains: ‘”Your hairdresser can often spot the early signs of skin cancer and other scalp related problems.”

What of those occasions when a customer confides in their stylist?

“It’s much like a doctor/patient relationship,” she adds. “I am in a position of trust.”

Every single day, UK hairdresser Annie Reilly wishes she had broken that trust. Her client, Kerri McAuley collapsed into her arms, sobbing on arrival. Kerri went on to explain that her boyfriend had been attacking her. She told Reilly, “He’s going to kill me.”

She went on to explain that she dared not tell her family for fear of repercussions from her boyfriend. In January 2017, her boyfriend, Joe Storey killed Kerri, 32. Storey was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

 UK hairdressers are now offered training to spot signs of domestic violence. I suspect neither the training nor the breach of trust would have prevented this sad outcome.

Malta’s hairdressers and barbers are an absolute mine of information. I nickname my stylist, ‘Google’. Need to know the latest chic restaurant? Or where to buy that rug you have been searching for? Car service? What’s new on Netflix? The latest budget airline fares?

I press Zoe to deliver a funny story from her salon. She refuses to breach client confidentiality but recalls a story related to her by a former colleague. An octogenarian client visited the salon after a six-month absence due to poor health. The well-dressed lady moved towards her waiting chair leaning on a stick and was asked, “Are you still having sets?”

In a heartbeat and without breaking stride, she replied: “No. I don’t have a husband any more.”

And parents...  if your daughter, who you are encouraging to finish her studies and attend university tells you out of the blue, “I want to be a hairdresser”, just remember one thing.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

Tom Welch is a former UK regional newspaper publisher now living in Gozo.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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