Ken Clements, Hair Whisperer

With every new year there comes the opportunity to reflect on the past year… or years. I know that while I steadfastly refuse to make resolutions (what’s the point, really?) I do find myself relecting on how things have changed. I think the change I regret the most isn’t really a change so much as a loss: Ken Clements.

My hairstylist.

Those of you who know me well know how I feel about my hair: I don’t. It covers my head, and after many years of fighting with it, arguing over straight versus curly, discussing the benefits of behaving for important events, and flat-out pleading with it to just stay put, I have given up. The hair has won.

Ken, though, had a special relationship with my hair. I would sit down in his chair and he would speak softly to my hair and it would do whatever he wanted. He was the Hair Whisperer.

My hair and Ken first met in 1993. I was a senior in college and worked as a site director for the YMCA’s before and after school care program. Dennis’ daughter attened the program, and when I found out he owned a salon, I asked him to suggest a stylist. He suggested Ken, I made an appointment, and thus began my hair’s long, wonderful, and ultimately heartbreaking relationship with Ken.

Ken had trained at Vidal Sassoon, which I am told is a big deal in the hairdressing world, and while I initially came to him with ideas on how to cut my hair, I quickly realized his ideas far surpassed my own. One day I sat down in his chair and when he asked me what I wanted, I simply said, “Whatever you want.” He raised an eyebrow, balked at first, and then gave me one of the best styles I have ever had in my life. My hair loved Ken, and Ken loved my hair. From that point forward, Ken could do whatever he wanted to my hair. He knew my limitations and worked (beautifully) within them. We three (me, Ken, and my hair) got to the point where he would just start working on my hair when I sat down. If I asked Ken to do something special, he would consider it, but usually I just let him have his way.

It became his hair, not mine. He babied it, coddled it, washed it, cut it… in short, he cared a lot more about it than I ever did before or have since. Under his skilled eye, my hair behaved. He showed me all the good points of my unruly mop, and while the three of us were together, I loved my hair. I can only compare it to how a parent feels about their hyperactive child once the meds kick in- they’ve always loved the child, but once the kid settles down it’s so much easier to remember why.

Ken cut my hair all through my engagement and marriage. Throughout the span of our relationship, he never forced me to buy products I didn’t want or need, never tried to give me a style that demanded more than I was willing to give, and- this was the best part- when I wanted something that would require more effort than he knew I wanted to put forth, he would warn me.

I am unreliable in many areas of my personal life, something my truest friends understand. I was also unreliable with my hair; there were some years where I only went into the salon two or three times. I thought Ken was OK with this, I really did, until I asked him to dye my hair.

He said no.

I didn’t even know stylists COULD refuse you. I looked at him, openmouthed, and he explained himself.

“I know you, and you’re not going to come back in for a touchup, and it’s going to look horrible. Meanwhile, you’re going to be out there, telling people I do your hair, and it’s going to make me look bad. No.”

After a few more trips, where I improved my reliability and showed him I was committed to good hair, Ken relented and agreed to dye my hair. I came into the salon with a picture from my then-husband’s Playboy -no, not the centerfold- and showed Ken the photo.

“I want you to make me look like that,” I said, indicating the hair.

“Well, I can make your hair that color,” he said dryly.

Another time I wanted short hair. Ken again refused. I protested.

“I’ll cut your hair that short when you buy a blowdryer,” he promised, then added “With a diffuser.” He then had to explain to me what a diffuser was, proving his point.

The man gave good head.

I last saw Ken two weeks before I left my husband. I remember the night; I was the last customer there before they closed up and Ken and I hadn’t had our usual amount of time to catch up. I rushed out of the salon with promises to see him soon. I even made an appointment before I blew out the door. It was right before Christmas 2002.

The day before my appoinment, the salon called. Ken had quit.

In shock, I agreed to let Michael, another longtime stylist, cut my hair. But it was a rebound cut, and I only went in to find out from Michael where Ken was cutting hair. He and Ken had been close, and I felt certain he would tell me if only I could get him in a quiet corner. But Michael insisted that Ken wasn’t cutting hair anymore. I thought maybe he was just saying that because the owner was around, but when the owner left Michael told me more of the story. Ken had apparently had- well, not a breakdown, but maybe a meltdown- and just left. Quit. Moved out of his place, everything. I left the salon in shock and in the first stage of grief: denial. Ken would be back. He had to. And man, he was not going to be happy when he realized I had let someone else touch his hair.

I didn’t want to betray Ken any more, so I didn’t get another hair cut for a while. When I finally did get another cut- at another place, I couldn’t get a hair cut in sight of Ken’s chair, nor could I bear to see someone else using it- I felt as though I had cheated. As another stylist- one who didn’t get my hair and my hair clearly didn’t like as much- ran their fingers through my hair, I felt dirty and cheap. I pictured Ken walking in at any minute, catching my hair and this stylist together at any moment.

“It was just the one time, Ken,” I would tell him. “It didn’t mean anything, really. I swear, I was thinking of you the whole time.”

Ken, of course, wouldn’t buy it. He would be hurt and angry. He had spent almost nine years building this relationship with my hair, and I had thrown it all away for the sake of a temporary fix. Because it WAS temporary; Ken WOULD be back.
But he never returned. I am reduced to Wal-Mart hairstylists (are you reading this, Ken? Do you see what I’ve come to?).

Two weeks ago I walked into the Aveda school downtown for a $12 haircut. I don’t think I will do it again. It was a real salon, and it reminded me too much of Ken. After five years- yes, it’s been five years, I have a hard time letting go- it’s still too painful.

Of course, I tell myself, Ken would want my hair to find someone else and be happy. He wouldn’t want my hair to suffer any longer. My hair has been through denial, anger (angry hair looks pretty much like you would expect), bargaining (it will look good for me if I promise not to subject it to wind, water, or cheap hair dye. It will also behave no matter what if only Ken will come back.), depression (it just lies flat on my head), and finally, acceptance: it will never have with another stylist what it had with Ken, so it’s going to stop looking for rebound stylists that just leave it flat, dull, and lifeless.

Of all the things and people that have fallen by the wayside in my life, I have taken Ken’s absence the hardest. Seriously. In the space of five months I left my husband, moved out of my house, quit a job, dropped out of grad school inches from the finish line, and lost a hairstylist. The only one of these things that still bother me?

Ken Clements, where ARE you?

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.