As week three of the coronavirus lockdown approached last month, a Hollywood costume designer called a stylist he knew to plan a hair-cutting party.
Industry people and writer friends would come at staggered hours and receive services on his expansive outdoor deck. Socially distanced guests could work out on his SoulCycle bike, gazing at the Hollywood sign against the sweeping hillside vista.
Then, only a week before the event, the stylist’s boyfriend called a halt, fearing that his partner would pass him the virus. The costume designer instead found a friend to trim his locks.
But the abortive party illuminates a very California legacy of COVID-19, the great disrupter: In L.A., where self-presentation is an art form, the lockdown of “nonessential” businesses has upended the beauty industry and wellness culture.
Some might wonder who cares if no one sees them — but then Zoom phone calls arrived. Especially for celebrities and other hyper image-conscious Angelenos, it’s not an option to show up online in frayed jammies and Greyhound bus hair.
Still, some prominent stylists have vowed not to put themselves, or their community, in harm’s way simply to fix a broken gel nail or gnarly roots, at least for now. And some influencers have embraced this new reality. Singer Ariana Grande is doing her own hair and nails, and reality television star Kylie Jenner showed off natural nails on an Instagram Story.
But like other gig economy workers, makeup artists and hair stylists lost their entire incomes virtually overnight in the pandemic shutdown. With “We need a haircut” emerging as the battle cry of some Republican governors, and many of their constituents demanding to reopen the economy, a number of Southern California beauty services have gone underground.
On Craigslist this week, a half-dozen people offered mobile or home beauty services, including barbering, hair cuts, nail art and hair extension care. One stylist promised to wear an N95 mask and use high-octane “barbicide” sanitizers.
Another stylist, Jon-Paul Boyadjian, said that business has doubled for his 12-year-old Orange County-based mobile hairstyling business since the shutdown started. When his wife objected to him continuing to work during the pandemic, he said, “Are you going to ask your dad to pay the rent?”
After a long day, he strips in the garage and runs naked to the shower. “My family feels safe; personally I’m not concerned.” And neither are his clients; he offers to wear a mask, but only 10% of them take him up on it.
“Most of them think it’s a joke; you can’t believe everything you hear on the news,” Boyadjian said. “I think it’s an Orange County thing.”
But Boyadjian’s client list stretches to West Hollywood. And in the heart of Hollywood, one lifestyle influencer has been parading three personal assistants, a team of manicurists and a masseuse in and out of the apartment building, according to her neighbor Sylvie Shain, a freelance entertainment worker. Shain said she was dumbfounded when the influencer offered her manicurist’s services to a resident undergoing chemotherapy.
“She’s putting people at risk,” said Shain. “I could be exposed in the hallway, the elevator or going down to do the laundry.”
Other stylists say working now isn’t worth the risk. Hair stylist Dylan Chavles said that taking a job would “open up a Pandora’s box in the brain. You start in that person’s house, they were in this person’s house, that person was in another person’s house….”
“So you can’t get your hair done now. Chill out for a couple of months,” said Chavles, who moved from Los Angeles to New York a year ago to do more fashion work. “It’s not the end of the world. The end of the world is ending up sick, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills, on a ventilator.”
One of makeup artist Alexa Hernandez’s last film shoots, before the shutdown order, cured her of any desire to work while the pandemic rages. On set with psychedelic musician and producer Tame Impala, she had to oil 100 backup dancers for “a real greasy club scene” then walk down Santee Alley, L.A. Fashion District’s answer to a Moroccan bazaar.
“I was really stressed out,” she said. “There wasn’t even an inch between people.”
Josh Liu, an L.A.-based celebrity hairstylist whose clients include Grande, Miranda Kerr and Olivia Munn, lives with his parents and said he is keeping in strict isolation, in part out of concern for their welfare.
“Luckily my clients haven’t asked me to break quarantine,” Liu said. “They are very respectful of me taking precautions.”
For the young and beautiful, appearing without makeup or DIY is a popular Instagram meme. Older professionals face a different calculation, said Andi Scarbrough, whose Santa Monica salon CrownWorks incorporates spiritual and wellness practices into hair “rituals.”
“It’s still a very age-sensitive piece, to be exposed online at a business meeting having roots showing,“ said Scarbrough. Some clients have seized on the crisis to shave their heads, make a color change or go gray, she said, but for others she performs video consultations and sends out home color kits.
Many beauty rites have migrated online, a shift many believe may stick after the crisis passes. Scarbrough staged a “virtual gab fest from the chair” to re-create the salon’s social atmosphere with her friend and business partner, Colleen McCann, a fashion stylist turned energy worker and shaman.
Hernandez, the makeup artist, collaborated with her friend and client Mishel Prada, from the Starz series “Vida,” on an Instagram takeover demonstrating a natural makeup look. “Almost as a joke,” Chavles said, she also posted a hair-cutting party on the Houseparty app.
Now Chavles has racked up 40 video-guided haircuts, with people wielding whatever they can find in their homes — kitchen scissors, cuticle scissors and other nontraditional methods.
Nonprofessional beauty-minded people have also taken beauty into their own hands online. Rachel Syme, a staff writer for the New Yorker, put out a Twitter call for people to dress up in their Sunday best “distancebutmakeitfashion.” Now in its eighth week, the dress-up party has drawn as many as 1,000 people wearing everything from overalls and scrubs to Coachella-style boho dresses.
I popped on my senior year Homecoming dress for this week’s #distancebutmakeitfashion Purchased at the now defunct Bonnie’s Vintage Clothing Emporium (RIP) which was heaven on earth for a gal who didn’t want to shop at the mall in the late 90s. pic.twitter.com/Jiev6k6Lnx— Giuliana Mayo (@lovely_giuliana) May 3, 2020
“They’re so glamorous for being at home,” said Syme, who noted that social media showcases other public and private invitations to break out the finery. “It isn’t about denying the existence of the crisis, it’s to decide to get dressed, enjoy the fantasy and dive back into feeling good in your own body.”
The shift to online beauty and wellness practices will probably stick after the pandemic fades, said celebrity hairstylist Liu. But people are raring to try out new looks when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, he said.
“L.A. is such a vibrant city,” Liu said. “People’s colors have been muted so long, they are going to be excited to let them out again.”