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Right after I walked into the AromaSpa salon in Telluride, Colorado, at the end of December, the owner, Michelle, draped a heated, lavender-scented furry neck pillow that looked like it was made out of purple Muppet around my shoulders. She then handed me some hot tea and sat me down on a couch. The salon was a riot of non-matching colors and featured a few chairs for hair treatments, a wall of homemade spa products, inexplicable racks of lingerie everywhere, and women of all ages milling around.
It was not a cool place at all. But it was something even better — it was warm.
I live in New York City and work in the beauty and fashion industry, where I have access to some of the most famous hairstylists on earth, who usually work in the coolest salons. And I’ve never felt comfortable in them. Part of the reason is that I’m pretty sure I’m not that cool. (Unless being called a “cool mom” counts. Which it doesn’t, because no one thinks moms are actually cool, and it’s just a euphemism to say you’re not completely embarrassing.)
My current hairstylist, Joey Silvestera, is, by any measure, cool. His salon, Blackstones, is cool. He’s cut Chloë Sevigny’s hair. He cuts Alexander Wang’s hair. And now he cuts my hair. Every time I go down to Tribeca to his outpost in the Roxy Hotel, I’m afraid that Wang and his posse of It girl models are going to walk in the front door and judge me. But the man can flat-out cut hair, and he’s warm despite his innate coolness.
Part of the reason I’m not comfortable in cool salons has to do with my uncool mom, for whom not being “fancy” was a point of pride. Growing up, she took my two younger siblings and I to the local beauty school to get haircuts. It was significantly cheaper than a regular salon because, well, students who didn’t know what they were doing cut your hair. There are many fresh, lopsided haircuts preserved for all eternity in my grade-school photos.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a fairly blue-collar neighborhood. While we didn’t have a ton of extra money, I had a happy and stable childhood. But spending money on things like haircuts and clothes wasn’t a priority for my parents. Piano lessons? Yes, that was a serious thing. A cut by someone who has been doing it for more than three weeks? A waste of money, because hair grows back. (My mom still occasionally says things to me now like “I don’t understand how you got so fancy.”)
We moved to the suburbs in high school and I upgraded to the local uncool salon in a strip mall, where I was thrilled to have stylists who actually had a few years under their belts. I have fond memories of my stylist Deb yanking my hair through the rubber cap torture device that colorists used to use for highlights and asking me for dirt on the mean girls at my high school. The best word to describe her personal style would probably be “tacky” — all big hair and lip gloss — and I loved her.
When I got a job at McDonald’s (extremely uncool) and had some disposable income of my own, the first thing I did was decamp from Deb and go to Mario Tricoci, a chain of upscale salons that were black and white and chrome and shiny and generally lauded as the epitome of chicness at the time. It also cost a lot more for a cut there, and I never had the same stylist when I went. It was impersonal, and while I felt super cool walking into the salon, with its two-story glass-front atrium, I always felt a little empty walking out.
What makes a salon cool versus uncool is a bit intangible, but you know it when you see it. Is it monochromatic? Cool. Does it have pictures of the owner’s kids hanging by the cash register? Uncool. Socioeconomics factor in a bit, too. Cool salons tend to be more expensive, though there are obviously exceptions to this rule. I’ve been to divey places that were cool yet undiscovered.
The trope of the friendly yet deeply uncool local beauty salon is used a lot in popular culture, usually as place for women to commiserate and bond. It might be pandering and cliché, but I fall for it every time. Think about Dolly Parton’s character Truvy and her home beauty shop in Steel Magnolias, and Queen Latifah leaving the sleek salon to open her own neighborhood version in Beauty Shop. Deep shit happened in these places. For god’s sake, it’s where Elle Woods found the courage to go back to law school in Legally Blonde! At a cool salon, you feel like you should hide your insecurities and self-doubt, the same way the cool salon hides all the hair clippings.
Over the next few years I dabbled in many salons, until I ended up in arguably the coolest place on earth: New York City. I tried some cool — and what I thought of as very New York-y — salons, like Bumble and Bumble, but I eventually ended up at a perfectly nice local salon that wanted to be cool but really wasn’t in my uncool neighborhood of the Upper West Side. I stayed with my stylist Misty for 13 years, during which time I had some kids and changed careers from nursing (fulfilling yet uncool) to writing on the internet about fashion and beauty (not as cool as it sounds, but adjacent to the coolest beings on the planet).
I stuck with Misty through platinum, pixie cuts, an ill-advised undercut, and even pink hair, never taking up any of the famous stylists I came into contact with for my job on their offers to give me a trim. I happily wandered over to see Misty in my yoga pants and without makeup, like all the other women in my neighborhood. Then a few months ago, with a new job under my belt and some unhappiness about my appearance that led me to a hankering for a change, I met Joey and became his client (and a total hypocrite in the process). I’ve never worn my Athleta leggings to his salon. I always wear makeup. At Misty’s salon, I could count on her making me look better from a baseline of zero, whereas now I show up looking good so that I can be made to hopefully look better. I’m staying for the moment, but my imposter syndrome is at its peak.
That’s why walking into that little place in Telluride, full of people wearing fleece and sporting hat head, felt like a relief to me. When it was my turn to go for my massage, I handed the furry pillow over to the next woman at Michelle’s behest. “We have to share it!” she explained.