MY NEW HAIR
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
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 www.mynewhair.org r
call Grace at Trevor Sorbie‘s Covent Garden Salon on 020 7395
C.A.S.T., 45 Johnstone Drive, Mossblown, South Ayrshire KA6 DP (01292
Charity supporting women with hair loss as well as sponsoring relevant
Headline Hats, PO Box 33415, London SW18 2FQ (020 8874 1099, headlinehats.co.uk)
Headwear designed as a stylish alternative to wigs.
Alopecia UK, 5 Titchwell Road, London SW18 3LW (0208 333 1661, alopeciaonline.org.uk)
Advice and support for women with alopecia.