And yet, while the stakes might seem high for the novices hacking half-blindly at their hair (or, if they’re lucky, their loved ones’) with kitchen scissors, the stylists are the ones who really stand to lose. For industries that depend on in-person interaction, the economic consequences of the pandemic have, unsurprisingly, been dire. Revenue has tanked. Almost everyone I spoke with for this story had either just been laid off or just laid someone off.
Read: How to cut your own hair
From this mutual desperation—cosmetic on the one hand, financial on the other—the virtual haircut was born. Across the country, out-of-work barbers and stylists—and pretty much all barbers and stylists are out of work—have begun offering online consultations and videochat hair cuts. Hair care isn’t the only service industry going online; all sorts of businesses that until now have depended on in-person interactions are reinventing themselves for life under quarantine. Aestheticians are offering virtual facials. Acupuncturists and massage therapists are teaching modified classes via Zoom. Practitioners, unable to practice, are remaking themselves as teachers. These transformations, from in-person to online services, had begun to a lesser degree even before the pandemic, and they may well outlast it.
“Society is building habits right now,” Patrick Evan, a San Francisco–based salon owner, told me. “It’s hard to know whether [a salon] is going to be something people are going to be running back to, walking back to, or wary of.” In the face of that uncertainty, businesses’ ability to weather the coronavirus shutdowns may hinge on the success of their virtual services.
The pandemic has been as hard for Goetz as it has been for the rest of the industry. She’s had to cancel orders, lay off staff, and apply for loans. So far, she told me, virtual services have been an ad hoc solution to her clients’ small crises, not, as she put it, a way “to save the boat.” She hasn’t even been asking for payment. (A number of the business owners I spoke with are working for free; others are charging as much as $50 for a 30-minute Zoom session.) But if the lockdown drags on, she told me, that may have to change.
If Goetz was worried when she “cut” my brother’s hair, though, she did not show it. “I got an email this morning, and it was a joke,” she said, as my mom trimmed. “It was like, ‘This is what happens when you cut hair at home,’ and it’s the hair on the floor and an ear too!” My mom laughed nervously. My brother grimaced.
None of the stylists I spoke with reported any severed extremities, but they confirmed that giving a haircut over videochat is not easy. Evan compares walking clients through cutting their own hair to explaining modern technology to the elderly. Under quarantine, he has mainly done damage control; one of his clients accidentally dyed her hair orange. Other stylists told me they’ve spent less time teaching clients to cut their hair than persuading them not to. Irina Chuyko, another San Francisco–based stylist, recently had to dissuade a woman from shaving her head.