norman miller writer and photographer
norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer

The Times

Even a celebrity hairdresser wouldn't normally expect clients to weep with joy when they see their new look in the mirror. It's been a regular response, however, from Trevor Sorbie's clients on a pioneering scheme called, simply, My New Hair (originally called Wighead when the idea first came to Trevor in September 2005).

The thing about My New Hair clients is that none of them actually has any hair. All are women who have gone bald because of either chemotherapy or alopecia. And what Sorbie is working his magic on are wigs.

Coiffure is in the Sorbie family blood. Trevor's father was a barber in the Scottish town of Paisley, while his grandfather was a hairdressing teacher who styled himself a "professor of hair". The young Sorbie honed his skills training with legendary cutter Vidal Sassoon before forging his own identity from the mid-1970s onwards, creating styles such as the Wedge and the Scrunch that are now part of everyday salon parlance. Celebrity clients include actresses Helen Mirren and Denise Van Outen, as well as opera star Leslie Garrett.

Now one of Britain's leading stylists, Sorbie's life took a new turn last year when his sister-in-law lost her hair during chemotherapy for bone cancer. Deeply unhappy with her wig, she asked if he could do anything to make it look better. "At the end of the cut, she just burst out crying," says Sorbie simply. "It was then I realised how many women might benefit from this."

115,000 women are currently diagnosed with some form of malignant cancer each year in the UK, and many suffer dramatic hair loss from chemotherapy. Another 1.5 million British women suffer some significant hair loss due to alopecia. And while men, too, suffer hair loss from both chemotherapy and alopecia, society seems to let them off more lightly. “In 42 years of hairdressing I’ve never been asked to cut a man’s wig,” says Sorbie simply. “ It just hasn’t got the same stigma for a man - it can even be trendy to be bald!”

For the thousands of women who turn to wigs to cover their baldness, the options can be deeply unsatisfying. Tam Johnston, a 31-year-old nurse, lost her hair completely five years ago to alopecia. She speaks with passion about her early struggles over wigs. "The NHS ones were diabolical - you just wouldn't wear one having gone through what you'd gone through," she says. "They were thick, wiry, glaryingly obvious. And body image is so important."

Tam's views are shared by others according to Sorbie. "This lady came in earlier this year with a wig and said she just didn't want to wear it - 'it's been made for anyone and everyone'. So I said let me do my bit and then we'll talk about it. After we'd finished, she said it was finally hers, because it was tailored for her face."

For many women, baldness can be as traumatic as their underlying condition. "I've had women say they'd rather lose their breast than their hair," says Sorbie. "What I'm trying to do is provide psychological medicine, to make them feel feminine, to give them confidence. Many women won't leave the house because they can't face the outside world."

Even so, some doctors continue to see hair loss as a minor side-effect of cancer treatment. But Jill Cooper, Head Occupational Therapist at the Royal Marsden Hospital, a leading cancer care centre, acknowledges the deep impact it can have.   

" It's a devastating visible reminder to patients and others of disease, particularly for women," Cooper argues. "Hair loss can lead to decreased self esteem, grief and depression. Even when the person's hair grows back, it can be completely different to how it was prior to chemotherapy, requiring another period of body image change."

Despite high profile cases of celebrities such as singer Kylie Minogue, widespread ignorance remains an issue for many women when it comes to dealing with baldness.

" You still get women who don't know how to cover it up," says Tam Johnston, drawing on her experience nursing on cancer wards. "It took me a long time just to research options - the best place to buy wigs, experimenting with different kinds. Even after you buy one there's still a lot of uncertainty. Someone like Trevor can give a lot of advice."

Sorbie points out, however, that many hairdressers are equally in the dark about wigs. He describes a recent seminar where out of 80 hairdressers only three had cut a wig during their entire working life. "That tells me two things," he says. "One, clients don't know they can have their wig cut. Two, hairdressers don't know how to do it."

One problem is that wig-cutting is a specialist skill. "It's a whole different approach," says Sorbie. "The problem with every wig is there's too much hair in it. That's one reason women have a barrier against them. And you never cut with scissors, always with razors. Just because you can cut hair doesn't mean you can cut wigs." 

And while apprentice hairdressers can learn haircutting skills working on willing guinea pigs in search of a cut-price look, cost issues rule out wig-cutting as part of general hairdressing training.  "A wig can cost £1500," Sorbie points out. "And it doesn't grow if you make a mistake. If you mess up a £1500 wig who pays? Is it the salon owner, is it the stylist? So whoever does this has to be very serious - that's why it can't be for everyone."

As well as cutting wigs free of charge, a key part of Sorbie’s scheme is training others. Willing pupils include some of the UK’s other top hairdressers, with Charles Worthington and Andrew Collinge just two high profile names who have come on board. 

Having cut wigs for 400 women in the last eight months, Sorbie is all too aware of the need to expand My New Hair. "I'm willing to train people free of charge because at the moment I'm getting women flying down from Scotland just to get a wig cut, and I just can't do it all," he says simply. "I need people throughout the country who'll be closer for these women to get to."
It is clear how much the scheme means to Sorbie as he talks. "This is my payment," he says passionately, proffering a bundle of thank you letters. "Women telling me 'I can now go out and no-one is staring.’"

Tam Johnston emphasises other positives. "It's not just a fantastic haircut, it's a fantastic day out - a distraction from your illness, a little pampering and walking out that door feeling good - less anxious, less paranoid. And that has a knock-on effect on your overall health and wellbeing."

" All I'm trying to do is help someone get through their darkest hour," says Sorbie. "A doctor will say to a woman: 'Be positive, be strong'. Good words - but when a woman goes into the bathroom and she hasn't got a hair on her head how can she feel positive and strong? I'm trying to bridge that gap."

" This is my crusade - my last ambition in hairdressing," he says quietly. "I want to take this around the world. I don't want praise for it, I just want the service to be there and for people to know about it. That's enough for me." The satisfaction of doing good - the kindest cut of all. 

For further details of My New Hair and participating salons see r call Grace at Trevor Sorbie‘s Covent Garden Salon on 020 7395 2901.

C.A.S.T., 45 Johnstone Drive, Mossblown, South Ayrshire KA6 DP   (01292 521398)
Charity supporting women with hair loss as well as sponsoring relevant hairdresser training.

Headline Hats, PO Box 33415, London SW18 2FQ (020 8874 1099,
Headwear designed as a stylish alternative to wigs.

Alopecia UK, 5 Titchwell Road, London SW18 3LW (0208 333 1661,
Advice and support for women with alopecia.

 Contact Details: E-mail:- • Mob: 0794 150 1321