July 09, 2016
I want to share with you my early years as an apprentice hairdresser, and how I came to be working with wigs.
I grew up on the Central Coast of NSW, which is about a 90 minute drive north of Sydney. It is a beautiful place full of beaches and lakes... and ignorant bogans (which is kind of like an Australian redneck). Even though I wasn't technically "out" I was born out so those people hated me. I dropped out of school before I turned 16 because I couldn't stand the bullying anymore. But then I fell into hairdressing; a job that was specifically looking for 16 year olds with zero experience in the real world, and I instantly knew that this is where I belonged.
Suddenly I was celebrated for being fabulous, and after years of being miserable at school with dickheads all around me, I had found my tribe and I was happy. I was naturally gifted at hair. I just "got it" and everyone around me knew I had something special. I only had to be shown something once and I could do it on a level that surprised even the most experienced teachers.
An apprenticeship in Australia consists of 4 years of work with one day a week at TAFE (Technical And Further Education; it's like college). I was very fortunate to have a wonderful teacher at TAFE; an amazing hairdresser who had studied in the 1960's and who saw the talent in me and nurtured it. In a time when everything was blow dried, no one in my class was interested "old fashioned" techniques like setting and pin curling, and teasing and barrel curling, but that was ALL I was interested in. My teacher took me aside and showed me so much more than the other students. This was my earliest beginnings of big fabulous hair!
My first teacher was a barber which taught me solid basic mens cutting, but it was soooo boring! It was so basic that we didn't even have a basin! But doing nothing but men's hair meant that I was cutting like a 4th year before my 1st year was even up.I felt I had learnt everything I wanted to learn for the barbers, and doing ladies hairdressing at TAFE that one day a week made me realise that I needed to get myself into a ladies salon.
So, I applied for a job in a small suburban salon an hour closer to Sydney, and I got it! My new boss was the most fabulous woman - also named Ben. My god she was cool, and fuck, did she work hard. She had been hairdressing through the 60's, 70's, 80's, and at that time - the 90's. She had all the techniques that I loved, and I basically learnt most of what I know from watching her. I'm still great friends with her and her daughter Roxy. This is a photo I found of us from when I was 17 at our work Christmas party.
I trudged along in my apprenticeship, earning pitiful money but loving the education I was getting. I loved doing little old lady sets, perming, and styling hair but I knew even then that I wanted more than just salon work. I wanted to work in the theatre and do all of those wonderful things that you just cant do in the monotony of client based salon work.
So 4 years went by, I finished my apprenticeship, and I finally became a qualified hairdresser! I worked for another 9 months in a salon, but by then I had realised I wasn't happy there. I felt trapped by the appointments, and I felt like I couldn't call in sick because I didn't want to let my clients down. Also, by this time, I had started doing drag - but that's a story for another blog!
Looking for a new life of flexibility that would also allow me to travel the country performing as a woMAN, I quit my job in the salon, and I started working at the House of Priscilla, a fabulous drag shop on Oxford St owned by my good friend Chelsea Bun. Even though I only worked there for about 3 months (and was the worst shop boy you had ever seen!) people started asking me to style their wigs for them. I had only styled my own wigs before, but I dove right in and I didn't look back.
A job opportunity at The Individual Wig, a high end wig shop across the road, opened up and I took it. There I learned everything there was to know about good quality synthetic wigs. It was before the time of mass produced lace fronts so everything was hard fronted, though I knew about lace fronts and I desperately wanted one. My wig collection was growing, and I was obsessed with owning all the best wigs! One day my boss found a contact in China who made "made to measure" human hair lace front wigs... and that was the beginning of what would define the next 15 years of my life.