Cut and run: the underground hairdressers of lockdown

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The women come with their hair already wet. The men have soft fuzz trailing down their necks, like the asphalt of a tropical runway that has turned to grass. Surreptitiously, they duck into residential houses or barber shops with newspapered windows. They emerge pristine: women with bouffant blow-dries and men with edges so precise you could take a ruler to them. They are clients of the illegal hairdressers of lockdown – and there are more of them than you may think.

Officially, of course, no one is supposed to be getting their hair cut. Not professionally, at least. Since lockdown began in England, on 23 March, hairdressers and barbers have been closed. Many in the sector are gearing up for a 4 July reopening, although this has not yet been confirmed by the government. Wales looks likely to be the same day; 11 August has been mooted in Scotland; Northern Ireland is yet to set a date. Social media is full of videos of people attacking their own hair with kitchen scissors, with varying degrees of success.

And yet. Aren’t the barnets you’re seeing on the street suspiciously well-groomed? They could be DIY, sure – but then how did they get the back so neat? On work calls, colleagues appear with inches of growth that disappear by the next virtual meeting. It’s hard to tell over Zoom, but the roots look professionally done. There have been some high-profile examples of reckless hairdressing. In Missouri, a hairstylist endangered more than 90 customers and colleagues by working while having symptoms of coronavirus. Closer to home, a BBC Radio Kent investigation found 19 barbers willing to give haircuts in contravention of physical distancing rules.

When I start asking around, I hear rumours, mutterings, intimations. A tip about a clandestine barber in Bethnal Green, east London, slides into my inbox. “He goes from flat to flat,” my informant tells me. Another sends me a blurry photo of a mobile hairdressing van spotted in a London street. Business cards appear in shops. A Turkish barber has put newspaper over its windows, but “there’s always a steady stream of sharp-looking haircuts outside”, says my spy. On the hookup app Grindr, barbers advertise services with a scissor emoji in their bio. In Peckham Rye, south London, posters offering at-home barbering appear on trees. They are taken down the next day. The game is afoot.

I find illicit hairdressers easily: you only have to look at Gumtree. They all agree to cut my hair until I tell them I’m a journalist, at which point most hang up. But when I call Matteo, a hairdresser based in south-west London, I find him willing to talk. Matteo is the person who has been flyering trees in Peckham Rye; I got wind of him via an email tipoff. “I’ve been doing it since the lockdown [started],” Matteo says. “Everyone is doing it … you can see people in the street with a proper haircut. Where do you think they’ve got that?” He charges £30 for a haircut, which he does at his clients’ houses. He wears a mask and gloves.

Normally, Matteo works at a salon in Dulwich, south London. But he has bills to pay and is not eligible for government support because he only recently became self-employed. “I want to pay my rent and I want to live,” he says. “There are people out there charging hundreds of pounds and robbing people. I charge a reasonable price so that I can cover my rent.” Matteo’s monthly expenses are £1,400. “That’s the reason I’m doing it,” he says. “If I were on furlough, I wouldn’t do it. Because you get the money, you’re supposed to stay at home!”



‘Probably 80% of hairdressers are at it.’ Illustration: Mark Long

It is hard not to have sympathy for Matteo’s predicament. But not all illicit hairdressers are in such dire financial straits. “It’s become my norm to be breaking the law,” says Daniel, a 34-year-old hairdresser from East Sussex. “It doesn’t even faze me when clients ask.” Daniel is self-employed, and has received £7,500 in government support. Despite this, he has been hairdressing throughout the pandemic. As soon as the lockdown was announced, he placed an order with his wholesale supplier to make sure he had enough colour in, and purchased a hose from Amazon to connect to his at-home basin. He has seen about 25 clients during the lockdown, but could do more if he wanted to – the demand is there. “Everyone I know is doing it,” he shrugs. “Probably 80% of hairdressers are at it.”

Being an illicit hairdresser during the coronavirus pandemic feels like being a member of the French resistance, only more frivolous and self-serving. “I wasn’t scared,” says Ellen of her experience of being stopped by police. Ellen, who is 40 and owns a hair salon in north Wales, was en route to a client’s house for some illegal hairdressing during the first fortnight of lockdown. “I told them I was taking some shopping to a vulnerable lady,” Ellen says. If the police had opened Ellen’s Lidl bag, they would have found her equipment. But they didn’t, and the police officer let her go.

A hairdryer in a Lidl bag may sound extreme, but in this era of cameraphones and social media shaming, you can never be too careful. What could be more British than a neighbour peeping over a privet hedge? “We see him in the garden doing it,” says Antonia, a 38-year-old NHS worker from London. She is talking about her neighbour Bob who, since lockdown began, has had his barber to his house at least twice. “It’s a bit frustrating,” Antonia says. Instead of challenging Bob about his alfresco barbering, Antonia gripes about it online. “I wouldn’t confront him, no,” she admits. “We generally get along.”

When it comes to obtaining a secret haircut, subterfuge – and subtlety – is vital.

Alec, a 27-year-old technician from Birmingham, was standing in a queue for Tesco when he spotted his barber. He sidled up to him. “I said: ‘My hair’s a mess!’ He replied: ‘I could do it,’ but quietly because there were people around. I thought: ‘Why not? We’re already standing next to each other in a queue.’” The barber came around the next day wearing a mask and gloves, and cut Alec’s hair.

Daniel’s clients inveigle his number from people somehow, and text him out of the blue, pretending they want to catch up. “They send a message saying: ‘Hi, how are you, it’s been ages!’” he says. “You know what’s coming. It’s such a rigamarole! Just say you want to get your hair done.”

Some clients turn up at Daniel’s illegal salon in gym kit. “They pretend they’re going for a run,” he says. “I just bought a new Dyson Airwrap hairstyler, so they leave with massive, bouncy hair.” But vanity can be their undoing. “My yoga teacher came over to get her hair done, and later that day we had a Zoom yoga class,” says Daniel. “She had her hair down, and everyone in the class was going: ‘You’ve obviously had your hair done!’ Because it was way blonder, and really big. She didn’t know how to answer.” Daniel muted his laptop and turned his camera off to avoid suspicion.

Who are the customers of these hairdressers? “Mainly, it’s people doing Zoom calls,” says Daniel. “They need their hair to look fabulous! It’s a whole new industry.” In some cases, his clients are the people tasked with enforcing the lockdown. “I’ve done doctors, people who work for the government, everybody,” says Matteo. “I did a policeman yesterday.” Ellen has cut nurses’ hair. “To me, if nurses are willing to get their hair done, that says it all,” she says. “I wear a mask and make sure everything’s really clean.”

Almost every age and demographic you can imagine is seemingly at it. “I’ve got a couple of older women who I do regularly,” says Ellen. “These are women who don’t really do their hair, they don’t even usually wash it themselves.” Ellen says no to really elderly women because they are high risk – but she knows they’d jump at the chance for a secret hairdo if she relented. “The older women … they were the ones coming into the salon right until the lockdown,” Ellen says.

“My hair was awful,” says Tony, a 52-year-old sales manager from Essex. “It made me look like Robert Peston.” Tony secured an alfresco appointment with his barber during lockdown after sending him a begging text. “He told me that he was going to set up in a friend’s back yard; favoured customers only,” Tony says. Arriving at the house, he was stunned to see a leather barbershop chair under a gazebo. He has no regrets. “It was such a good haircut,” he enthuses. “As I was driving home, I kept looking in the mirror and running my hands through it.”

Alec reckons that men are visiting illegal barbers in greater numbers than women because their haircuts typically require greater maintenance – he usually gets his hair cut every 10 days. “A lot of men are getting their hair cut right now,” Alec says. “I reckon 20% are doing it, at least.” At first, Alec pretended his girlfriend did his hair, but he came clean with his friends – who all immediately asked for his barber’s number. “I know 40 lads who have had their hair cut,” Alec says. “I see them on the street and in the supermarket, and I know it’s professionally graded. Or they put pictures on Instagram and their hair is fresh. There’s no way they’re doing it themselves.”

It is easy to be judgmental of these rinsed-and-set grandmothers and sharp-faded lads. You may reasonably conclude that they are endangering public health for the sake of vanity, and should forgo such fripperies for the national good. But it is not always so simple. “I have clients with hair extensions,” says Daniel. “Extensions will pull your hair out at the root if you leave them in for too long.” For Sasha, a 40-year-old local government worker from Slough, visiting a hairdresser during lockdown felt essential. She normally visits a hairdresser every six weeks to have her braids redone and for a hot oil treatment. During lockdown, clumps started falling out. “It was really distressing me,” Sasha says.

When she admitted, in a private Facebook group, to visiting a hairdresser, she received a backlash from the predominantly white members of the group. “Everyone jumped in and said: ‘I can’t believe you’re being so petty,’” Sasha says, sounding hurt. “But they don’t understand how black hair is. This wasn’t a vanity thing.” People have also called Matteo, threatening to report him to the police. “I’m not scared,” he says. “I just hang up. I don’t care.” He is unrepentant. “I’m not dealing drugs,” he says. “I’m not killing people.”

‘A lot of men are getting their hair cut right now.’



‘A lot of men are getting their hair cut right now.’ Illustration: Mark Long

But that’s not exactly true. If Matteo were an asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus, he could be passing the disease from house to house. No matter how valid your reasons may feel for breaking the lockdown, the fact is that every interaction, every hand brushing hair off a shoulder, every clipper to the neck, increases your risk – our risk – of spreading Covid-19, leading to a possible second wave of the pandemic and further deaths. But none of the people I speak to seem particularly discomfited by that reality. “I don’t think I feel guilty,” says Sasha. “I know other people haven’t been keeping 100% to the lockdown … you see groups of friends gathering together.”

This sentiment recurs among almost everyone I speak to: they could stomach a total lockdown if they felt everyone else was following the rules. But they aren’t, so why should they? “It feels really unfair now,” says Ellen. “You see people queueing for supermarkets, and they aren’t distancing … I’ve got to get some money into my business. I’m not going to let it go under.” Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip appears to have opened the floodgates for illicit hairdressing. If people were hesitant about getting their hair done before the government adviser’s transgression, they weren’t afterwards. “People started to see through it a little bit,” says Ellen. “There was a lot of contradiction and hypocrisy.”

Who should we be blaming really? Hairdressers making enough to live or the government, for sending out confusing and sometimes contradictory messages? “It’s a hard message to say you can’t do this, but do that,” says Daniel. “A blanket ban on everything is the only way you can really manage it.”

If a second wave of coronavirus does happen, perhaps we’ll see it coming on our shoulders first. A pair of perfectly razed sideburns. Tinfoil-brightened blond hair. A jaunty chin-length bob, swishing gently in the breeze. All courtesy of the hairdressers of lockdown, who are busy refilling their basins and reaching for expectant, willing, grateful heads.

All names have been changed.





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