One Saturday earlier this month, my mom grabbed a pair of dull shears, a comb, and a spray bottle; sat my brother in a wicker chair on our back porch; and FaceTimed her stylist, Isabelle Goetz. My brother’s hair was pure entropy. The only part that all pointed in one direction was the front, which crashed down his forehead like a tidal wave. At some point the determination had been made—by whom, no one is quite sure—that this could not go on, and so here we were. Goetz looked my brother over and started issuing instructions.
“So you take the comb, and then you cut,” she told my mom in her French accent. She held up a mannequin bust and combed its long russet hair to one side. “Now don’t take too much off this part here. Be sure that this corner here is not too high. If you take too much from the top, you're going to have a funky face!”
As the pandemic has forced hair salons and other nonessential businesses across the country to close, Americans have fast realized that, without intervention, we will soon be a nation of haggard castaways. Google searches for “how to cut your own hair” have multiplied tenfold since mid-March, and I can understand why. Over the past couple of weeks, co-workers have told me, “Jacob, your hair is so long” and “Jacob, you’ve got the quarantine look going”—by which they really mean “Jacob, you look like crap.” The situation is not good.
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.
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.
Goetz has mostly been zooming around D.C. on her moped (like actually, physically zooming) delivering hair-coloring products and appearing on FaceTime to instruct clients in how to use them. My brother’s was the only virtual haircut she had given. “Remember,” she told my mom, “it’s all geometric, so just go straight around from the side all the way to the back … Don’t overthink it. It’s pretty simple. Just straight lines everywhere.”
Other businesses have found their own pandemic work-arounds. A Chicago-based acupuncturist has been leading group acupressure and Reiki sessions via Zoom. Rather than having anxious amateurs stick themselves full of needles, she has them press the same points on their bodies with their fingers. A massage therapist in Michigan is hosting a virtual friends-and-family class, in which she’ll teach participants basic techniques—by demonstrating on her teenage son. An almost century-old plumbing business in Portland, Oregon, is advertising a new “teleplumber” service, whereby plumbers troubleshoot and give advice over FaceTime. So far, the owner says, it has been a success.
The difficulty of the transition, practitioners told me, has been not so much the instruction itself as the technology and logistics. Shannon Lee, an aesthetician in New York City who recently opened her own practice, spent days setting up new online booking and payment systems. One massage therapist in Philadelphia had to abruptly end a group tutorial when so-called Zoombombers started blasting pornography. Another spent 20 minutes helping an older client try to enable video on a Zoom call, only for him to realize that his computer had no camera. Businesses that didn’t previously collect phone numbers or email addresses simply have no way to reach many of their clients.
“You’re just seeing an entire industry pivot right now, and there’s just a lot of work on the back end that has to go into that,” Lee, whose living room currently doubles as a packaging and shipping center, told me. “A lot of people are like ‘Oh you should do this!’ or ‘Oh you should do that’ and I’m like, Dear God. I also want to crawl into a ball and cry!”
That pivot has been abrupt, but it did not come out of nowhere: In recent years, the makeup industry saw a surge in online tutorials, according to Gianna Michaelson, a brand manager for the National Association of Barbers and the Elite Beauty Society. And while barbers and hairstylists for the most part had not been talking clients through at-home haircuts, she said, a growing number had begun teaching online classes for their peers.
Many of the business owners I spoke with told me that they’d planned to introduce virtual services even before the pandemic forced them to. Sarah Akram, who owns a skin-care boutique in Virginia, first had the idea about a year ago. She hired a firm to maintain her website and developed an app with push notifications. Since the outbreak forced her to shut down, she has launched an online store and begun publicizing virtual skin consultations and facials (in which aestheticians show clients how to apply products by demonstrating on themselves) to her almost 8,000 Instagram followers. Her website now hosts a library of at-home tutorials, and the app provides easy advertising for online services.
When the lockdown ends, Akram and others said, the new online services will remain. As has often been the case, the pandemic, rather than initiating a new trend, has accelerated an existing one. And Michaelson doesn’t foresee a reversal anytime soon. “I think everyone who has adopted [virtual services] is realizing it’s another source of income,” she told me. “I definitely don’t think it’s going away … Barbers and stylists are just going to adapt more and more.”
When my mom finished trimming my brother’s bangs, Isabelle inspected her handiwork and gave a few instructions: “Left side looks good. Right side has a little bit too much on here ... Top you can do more point-cutting to thin it out, and maybe cut it a little bit shorter in the front … A little bit more around the left ear… Very good! Yaaaa! You see what that creates? Voilà!”
As my mom worked, she grew more comfortable with the scissors. Goetz’s instructions faded to ordinary barbershop chat. How’s school? And where are you again? And what year? And the family?
It almost felt normal.
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