Not just hairstylists

"Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure." That slogan from a Clairol ad many years ago hints at the close relationship between a woman and her hairdresser. Back then, when many women preferred to keep their dye jobs a secret, the hairdresser might have been the only one who knew about it.

Today, when women feel complimented when friends inquire who colors their hair, the relationship between client and stylist often is one that transcends hair and spills over into the client's most intimate life.

Though hairdressers aren't always necessarily categorized as friends, they may be confidantes, advisers, consultants, even sob sisters to the customers who sit in their chairs.

"There is never a person in my chair who isn't dealing with something," said Pam Cutler, owner of two Salon Knotty salons. "If you really listen, you'll know if they are wanting an opinion, advice or just want to vent."

We talked to a half dozen Wichita hairdressers about this topic, and all of them said they have learned to be good listeners.

"It's amazing what we learn from clients," said Eric Fisher, owner of three Eric Fisher Salons. "Everyone has problems — the economy, kids going astray, marital stuff. You end up with a store of information."

'Touch builds trust'

The close relationship between hairdressers and their clients has been examined by Lewis Losoncy, who was a psychologist in Redding, Pa., when he learned firsthand the influence that stylists have on their clients. When he asked a patient whether she had followed his advice, she said no.

"She had talked to her hairdresser about it and the hairdresser disagreed with me," Losoncy said. "I thought 'What's going on here?' "

"I got so fascinated with the subject that the first book I wrote in the late '70s combined the fields of psychology and cosmetology," he said.

The close relationship between a woman and her stylist makes sense, he said. Clients get to sit and relax and be the focus of their stylist's attention for an hour or so, he noted.

Cutler, who's been a hairdresser for 33 years, agreed.

"It is their time when they are in the salon. You know this and you treat them accordingly," she said. "Eighty-five percent of the reason someone comes back is how you made them feel while they were with you."

Losoncy also thinks a rapport exists between hairdresser and client because the client is physically touched.

"This is one of five professions along with doctors, dentists, nurses, massage therapists, where the client is touched," he said. "We know that touch builds trust. Sometimes a hairdresser is the only person in their life who touches them."

Close relationships

Sometimes stylists and clients are connected over a period of many years; even if a woman changes hairstylists every now and then, she knows that a hairdresser is bound to be a constant in her life, from school years through major life events such as marriage, pregnancy, child-rearing, illnesses and more.

"I've done hair for 14 years and I've had some of my clients for 14 years," said Susan Bradley, co-owner of Lush Salon.

She has several teenagers — and their moms — as clients.

"They trust me to not tell their moms anything, and I won't, but I don't advise them on important things," Bradley said.

She recognizes the importance of keeping anything personal her clients tell her confidential.

"You say nothing, you give up nothing, "she said. "It would never leave my lips, for any reason. You listen, but when they leave, that book is closed."

Though stylists and clients might not socialize as friends or see each other outside the salon, many would still describe their relationships as close.

"I've been in the business 12 years and a lot of my clients have become like my second moms," said Danny Jimenez, owner of Danny Jimenez Salon. "I'm happy to see people when they come in because it's like seeing a family member."

Such closeness, however, can sometimes lead to sticky situations.

"I had a client who told me about her friend, also a client, who was getting married," said Tod Ernst, a co-owner of Planet Hair. "When I congratulated the friend, I found out that the guy hadn't proposed yet!"

After developing a relationship with a client, stylists say they get worried when they don't see the client for a while.

"Over the course of 30 years you've seen them grow up, seen them through sicknesses and big events," said Graham Ross, also of Planet Hair. "If we haven't seen them, we are concerned and let them know we miss them."

Because stylists see clients every four to six weeks, they sometimes notice health problems the client might not see.

"I have found tumors on a client's head, face, hairline — things they haven't noticed," Cutler said.

She once told a client that the yellow tone of her skin indicated a possible problem with the medication she was taking. The client went to a doctor and found out her medicine was harming her liver, a problem that could have been life-threatening had it gone untreated.

Reminded of that story, Cutler said, "They have to know you care before they care what you know."