Posted by | June 28th, 2019

Holli Smith on Queer Identity’s Connection to Hair

The #MeToo movement revealed a lack of recognition of sexual harassment in our society and has given a stronger voice to women demanding equal rights. However, what is often forgotten in the push for women’s equal rights is the contribution it has made towards LGBTQ+ rights gaining traction. It has challenged the idea of a patriarchal society and the binary gender paradigm that has defined our society for so long and is slowly evolving. It helped to highlight gender inequality, especially in the workplace. Yet, what has been missing from the conversation are the voices of queer experiences in the movement. In terms of sexual abuse, LGBTQ+ people face higher rates of poverty, stigma, or marginalization, and the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47% of transgendered people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.

One person who understands the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights is hairstylist Holli Smith. She isn’t the only woman to do hair on set for photo shoots, but has achieved success in her trade because of her technical skills, point of view on beauty, and full embrace of the trend towards gender equality. Gender issues are more complex and require critical thought and more champions. We all need to bring these problems to light, without forgetting that social issues take more to solve than just simply being exposed. My interview with Holli left me with a strong sense of clarity and an awareness of some views that for years I had suppressed.

A interview by contributing beauty editor Pep Gay
Editors / Stephan Moskovic & Irene Ojo-Felix

Pep Gay: Where were you born?
Holli Smith: I was born in Ada, Oklahoma, but my parents lived in Salinas, [California] they’re the second generation. Everyone migrated there from Oklahoma and Kansas, all farmers, during the Depression Era. But then my parents came back to Oklahoma to live off of my great grandma’s land. So I was born there and left within a year.

Tell me about your hometown, Salinas.
Salinas is really beautiful. It’s great to have as my hometown, it’s all Monterey Bay peninsula, really close to Big Sur. It’s agriculture-filled, all of the artichokes, all of the strawberries that are provided in the whole US come from there. It’s really beautiful.

What type of pop culture did you consume when you were a teenager?
I would get a very small radio station signal coming in for 91X, that was all the way in Los Angeles and it was basically the alternative radio station. I also was somewhat in the shadows of San Francisco, living in Salinas, and would go there any time I could get out, whether we were in a friend’s car or when I got my first car. I just kind of wanted to be in the city as much as possible, and started getting more into alternative and industrial music.

It seems you had a strong influence from music?
Music is definitely my main place where I extracted any kind of “fantagic”, a fantasy place to go to. MTV had 120 minutes of alternative music on at midnight – all of these gothic, dark things I never really was able to see when I grew up in Salinas. It was just a world that you could escape to, something you could actually visualize.

What kind of visuals fed your curiosity when you were a teenager?
I remember that there was a music video called “Fish Heads” by Barnes and Barnes, it was very public access television where everyone was just doing it themselves. Also I remember “Another Brick in the Wall” from Pink Floyd, that wound up being basically censored – it was just the gore and the dark worlds that felt like they were really underground and people feeling like they were able to express some sort of odd behavior that you never got to see in the real world.

So do you think that had an impact on you in the way you see the world?
Yeah, I thought that it was actually really fun, I just thought about the people and that they had whole communities behind it and I was just interested in seeing if I could find more people that were thinking differently. It was very addictive to be obsessed with wondering if there was another world to go into.

What is the earliest hair moment you remember from childhood?
My mother not getting me a male doll, so I would cut up the dolls that I had into short haircuts. I could pretend that there was this relationship that they would have with my dolls that had long hair. Also, my grandfather asked me to, for a dollar or 50 cents cut some plants in the backyard. We had this weeping willow tree and we would cut the most straight line around this huge tree. I was obsessed with those lines and seeing it in that kind of scale is something that I still think about when I’m cutting hair.

Do you think you are a graphic person?
For sure, especially in my work. I like things to be visible and make a statement, but I also really like to slice up things that are perfect lines and disconnect things. I think ‘statement’ more than ‘graphic’ is the thing that I would say that I am more interested in.

What is the “hair moment” that had the biggest impact on you?
It’s hard to say. I guess the biggest hair moment that affected me was seeing people like Robert Smith and Suzy Sue, their hair and back to music, I think it’s really kind of the thing that started making me see why it’s important to think differently than just basic way of giving people identity with haircuts.

Why do you think hair has become the way you express your creativity?
The thing that’s really nice about doing hair is that it’s an interesting material – you can cut it, you can think about how it grows out. You can figure out how to make it expansive 3 dimensionally, you can figure out how to make it really small. It’s super formative in so many different ways and also still I’m eager to figure out a new way to transform it. Somehow I feel there are so many more ways to do it. Even though it’s been since ’92 that I’ve been playing with hair.

Do you have a very methodical way to create?
I think I have a very methodical way to create because you gotta have a starting point and I always want to have my finishing point be something for people to feel that’s really flexible to them. I try to give something to someone that they haven’t had or try and redefine the way that they think about something that they’ve already had. I like to find out what a person’s had in the last two years just in a consultation – do they come from mostly having long hair and now they have short hair? If I’m meeting them and they have short hair now, where do they come from? was it shorter and now it’s getting longer for the last two years? I want to make sure that I know their history so that I can figure out which path to start taking them. Having a big consultation is really very important to me.

It seems like you’re very involved in research, more than guided by instinct or feeling when you’re creative.
I think that I am guided by research, but I also think that I’m guided by instinct. I think research is really important to find out what hasn’t been presented or represented. Same with the haircut or even just a hairstyle and then I like to feel instinctual, let’s say for a haircut, about what a person needs, how little they want to work with it, how much they want to be burdened by their hair. Then with hairstyling how much makes a statement for the client and for the clothes, I like to also not make a style that seems very stiff. When you’re in front of the light and you have the clothes on and you have the photographer, I like to be able to change it around so that it feels instinctually correct for that picture right at the moment – no matter how much you thought, from the beginning, it was going to be like ‘this’. Be flexible when it’s time for the actual work to be done.

“The word ‘fashion’, I think it means ‘identity’…That’s why I think hair is really important and works so well with fashion because it’s bringing out some of the things that you want to be or think that you are inside, and giving you a tool to be able to represent those things on the outside.”

In contrast to other hairstylists, that use texture, color and so on to describe a hairstyle, you instead seem to have a very analytical, psychological approach to it, why and where did that come from?
I like to have a psychological approach because of doing hair. Just cutting hair is mostly where that came from because it was boring just having it be “Oh! Let’s just pick a cut and put it on you.” I felt it didn’t ever seem suitable; suitability is when you find a thing that the person wants by picking apart their brain a little bit, spending five minutes in a consultation about what they want, what they’ve had, what they think, how they view themselves and adding that to the haircut that you’re going to give them, I mean, it really makes something transformative happen and the person who’s wearing it completely matches it – they believe it themselves.

How long have you been doing hair?
I started cutting hair in probably ’91 when I started doing a few things on my friends, bleaching hair badly, and I went to beauty school a week out of high school in 1992 in Santa Cruz, at Wayne’s College of Beauty, with all of the dropouts and pregnant women that had to continue class so that they would get credits fast. It was really a mixed bag of people, but it was such an eccentric experience having to have some of our main clients come in from downtown Santa Cruz, which is a vibrant type of person, so, ’92.

So that’s where your hair journey started?
Yeah, I started there and then I got my license about a year after and then I started cutting hair, found out about this man who did haircuts, named Yoshitoya, in Palo Alto he had a salon, in San Francisco, and in San Mateo and so he kind of took some of the Sassoon techniques but switched them upside down and his theory was really breakthrough and more modern and made room for people that didn’t have straight hair where I feel that Sassoon were more about geometric lines on people that have one texture hair which was straight. That never worked for me because I have really curly hair and luckily I went on two interviews there and I got to do their internship and commuted every day from Santa Cruz to Palo Alto.

Technically I suppose that there are obvious differences between cutting hair and styling hair. Can you share with me the differences that you feel when you do from the ground up a haircut, that is obviously something new than just styling a head?
I think one of the major differences between styling hair and cutting hair is that you’re dealing with a one-on-one person when you’re cutting hair, so it’s really intimate and there are so many things that you can do to make that person feel like they’ve been treated, their issues have been looked at on a custom level, and to find something that’s suitable for them. While styling is with five different people inside the room figuring out what everyone needs and what everyone thinks should be conveyed and then figuring out a hairstyle for them. One’s intimate, one’s collaborative.

What have you learned about people doing hair?
I’ve learned so much about people, through doing hair. I get to find out quite a bit of secrets, but some of them are the longest relationships that you’ll ever have in your life, some women that luckily have come from San Fransisco to come here to get their haircut still, so I’ve known people for a really long time, that I never have with anybody else. Also, you know, just being able to figure out how each texture, there are new problems from everybody, new combinations, new solutions, so just to me start opening up my mind. It never closes, I never get bored, being psychologically connected to cutting fleshes out the whole experience, it makes it really unique each time. You never feel like you’re just there as a robot cutting hair.

Can you describe that moment that now looking back was a real breakthrough for your career?
Well, I feel like there are a lot of different breakthrough moments that I could look back to. I feel very lucky that I got to work with Yosh and learn how to cut hair from him. Everybody’s lives you have these little moments where windows open up and you’re lucky to be able to get through and have these experiences or maybe you snooze on them. But working for Yosh was really big and then getting to be Guido’s assistant was this other big opportunity. There’s probably about ten years in-between those two things so after that I would say that the biggest thing for me was getting the Balenciaga show and my career started changing after that. So there are quite a few little things that I would say are important to the journey.

What do you feel if I say the word “fashion”?
The word ‘fashion’, I think it means ‘identity.’ I think the most important part for fashion to me is that it’s a tool to bring out what you feel like inside. That’s why I think hair is really important and works so well with fashion because it’s bringing out some of the things that you want to be or think that you are inside, and giving you a tool to be able to represent those things on the outside.

Do you have a role model among other hair stylists?
Definitely, I think of Guido and I think of Suga, he’s a Japanese man who did a lot of styling in the 60’ and 70’ in New York. I also think of, Odile, and also think about Sally Hershberger as a lesbian, female hairstylist, that did super amazing haircuts and styling in the 90’, and more and more.

What is the role of a hairstylist on set? Is it “just hair”?
I think the role of the hairstylist on set should be more than just hair. It’s a collaborative experience, so you want to kind of put yourself in a situation where you’re understanding what the photographer is thinking with light and imagery, what the stylist is going to do with clothing, how they’re going to put things together with the makeup artist. I like to talk to the makeup artist about the things I’m thinking so that we both can play around with putting them together sometimes. Just thinking about the layout, especially if it’s a print experience. How can we put it together, something that’s new and fresh and that’s really important to be able to have a voice and say things that you think about.

What inspires you these days?
What inspires me today is spending time at home and spending time with my friends and my family, getting to know people more on one-on-one experiences, whereas in the past it used to be about street culture and going to parties and clubs. Actually, I do a lot of dancing and socializing with friends, but I’m able to also make sure that I have this one-on-one time to figure out what other people are thinking and really remember how they’re going about something that I was thinking yesterday, going about in a different way. Just trying to rethink how I’ve already come to decisions and be open to new things.

How impactful has social media been in your life?
Social media has been really impactful in my life because I’ve been able to put out the images that I would like to see whereas before we’d been at the mercy of what our agent would pick and put into our portfolios, or what the photographer or the magazine would pick as the image they would run in a magazine. Sometimes it’s great because we’re able to do some ‘behind the scenes’ on a shoot and post them on Instagram that you know is not going to be out in print. I’ve been really lucky to be able to have my own, intimate way of showing who I am and the way that I think things should look or want things to look, because of Instagram.

How important is your social media stream for you? Your own personal social media stream? Does it play a big role in the way that people perceive you, you think?
I think now that social media’s been out there for a while it does somewhat seem like a machine, where you have to keep up at social media, I think it’s really important because it does take on a life of its own. You do want to keep adding to it?, but now I’m finding myself kind of slowing down on how much I’m posting and trying to think about the rest of the world, what’s going on, separate from social media, which I think is also very important today.

Can hair be political?
I think hair absolutely can be political, because you can make statements about identity and right now one of the major parts of my political interests and what I think is happening out there is really about identity and gender and hair has always been this material that you can use to turn some of the normal rules about identity and gender – upside down.

And if I say Donald Trump’s hair?
It’s too bad that he’s “Donald Trump’s hair”. I think it’s too bad that he’s such a creep because it used to be so fascinating to me and now I can’t even stand looking at it. I can’t even play around with dying blondish orangy color in people’s hair, which is usually a color that I think is weird and underrepresented, because it reminds so many people of Donald Trump’s hair color right now, it’s a real big bummer.

Fashion has a rich history but when it comes to photo shoots, hair and makeup professionals are relatively new – their presence on set doesn’t go any further than 1960, in the way that we know our craft today. If one does research and looks at vintage magazines and books, you realize that hairstyling through this short history has been led by men. Why do you think that hair styling has been generally dominated by them?
I’m not exactly sure why hairstyling has been dominated by men this whole time, especially because men are doing women’s hair, it always seemed strange that there weren’t many women doing women’s hair. I think that I also find it weird that there hasn’t been a lot of women in the cooking industry that have been really dominant forces. I feel that way also when you start to pick apart a lot of different industries. I think possibly it could be because there is a lot of male businessmen that are owning the companies behind it, and then they feel comfortable this way.

I think men have had their way in a lot of different industries before women because they usually have a confident voice. They’re not apologizing for having something to say. I think one of the most important things for women is that they’re not afraid to say what they think needs to happen and have a perspective. That perspective needs to be listened to and society hasn’t allowed us to have that voice, without feeling like we have to apologize for it.

“…a queer haircut is a haircut a person wants to rebel against what they have….there are just so many rules that I think the ultimate rule is to not have gender right now be a present thing and to just change as many ways.”

What do you think has helped with that change?
I think what’s helped make women have a voice is the #MeToo movement. I also think that there are more female photographers being able to take pictures that are showing strong women and finding a new kind of feminine sexiness that’s completely different than the male perspective on sexuality, which usually is a lot more vulnerable. I think that there are women CEOs, there are women taking down these giants, it’s really shown that there’s a huge movement going on. Of course we haven’t taken down Trump yet, with his “grab them by pussy” remarks, but I think that outside the White House there’s a lot happening for women, that they’re being forces to be reckoned with and it’s important that they’re taking in some of these larger positions that they weren’t able to have before.

In general, men seem to have a more simplistic approach when it comes to taking care of their looks, and their daily beauty routines and fashion. Where women seem to have the extra pressure of always have to be somehow groomed. Is that changing?
Women tend to have more pressure throughout history to be more put together than men, and it takes a lot more time and effort. There are more expectations on how women should be, especially in a business environment or to show confidence in a suit as some sort of persona of power. I think now that’s already pretty understood, especially now that women get to have these positions and roles [of power]. I find it’s my responsibility to try and show people how to scrape away some of that; be more genuine, be less time-consuming about your looks because it’s about becoming more effortless. Finding ways to empower the person intuitively – to me, that’s my mission, is to try and make people feel more confident in a less commercialized way.

Is there a difference between the lesbian movement and feminism?
I don’t think so, I think that there are different messages. There’s a lot more responsibility that relates to gender and the different normative behaviors that represent gender, where I think that feminism is also part of that but it’s exclusive to women and we have a queer/trans responsibility to the LGBTQ world, and so, yes, they go hand in hand, but they both have responsibilities that don’t go completely together. They’re their own thing.

Two separate entities you think?
I think that they work together, but they are representing different things. I think that one takes from feminism and spans out. Being a lesbian also even now I feel there’s a division somewhat in gay politics and trans politics. There seems to be more flashing out within each category. I don’t feel there’s any longer just two of those worlds or only one of those worlds to be fought. There are so many things within the [community], that need to be looked at separately. It’s important to look at these things separately instead of just clumping it into one thing and being like “this needs to be protected!” There are some rights that are already happening for gay people that aren’t happening for trans people. So to me, I feel like feminism is a part movement within the trans community but it’s also completely its own thing, and it needs to be its own thing.

I believe there’s a lot of misconception in general among straight people regarding how they view people that are LGBTQI. One of the more common misconceptions is that all gay people are creative and somehow “gifted” in that sense. Do you think sexual orientation determines how one does hair?
I think sexual orientation and how it creates your identity could become important. To me I think that if you’re queer and you find yourself in some sort of creative position in some sort of industry I think it’s amazing, I think that maybe because you’ve been forced to think in a different way, it has allowed you to start seeing the world in a different way. So maybe in that way, sexual orientation has something to do with being creative but I don’t think all gay people are creative (laughter)

Does hair have a gender?
No and yes – it can be whatever you want it to be, it really is a material. You can use it to express yourself in a masculine manner, in a feminine manner, in a non-binary manner. I think all those things are really important topics to discuss when you’re thinking about doing a haircut, thinking about doing a change when you’re thinking about coming up with a hairstyle. It does have a sexual orientation I suppose in that way.

As a hairstylist do you believe that gender matters when it comes to doing hair?
I absolutely do think that gender matters when it comes to doing hair, I think it’s both totally irresponsible if you don’t consider it, but it’s also such a great conversation piece if you’re feeling close to the person that you’re cutting their hair or if you’re trying to talk about what kind of person they want to convey, the identity behind the brand. There are so many times when we’re trying to make feminine looking girls look more boyish for ‘this’ particular shoot. There are so many times when I’m trying to do a cut on a girl that is queer and has never cut their hair off.

Do you think men and women approach creativity in different ways, or it’s not about gender but more about individuality?
I think men and women are completely different from each other when they think about something creative but I also think that they can be completely the same. I don’t think of gender really when I’m thinking of working. I’ve been working now in what has been a “man’s world” – I’ve always been the kind of person that’s been wanting to just show up as strong as I can and get the statement across that I need. I’m a woman but I’ve always been dealing with trying to get the point across no matter what the environment is. I’m sure that goes on for men too, I can’t speak for them.

What’s a queer haircut?
I think a queer haircut is a haircut a person wants to rebel against what they have. It used to be on a gay woman that’s more butch she’s going to want to have generally shaved side, short haircut so that she has the visibility that she needs out in the world to be looked at like a butch identity. But now there are so many butches that are non-gender conforming and maybe want to throw that expectation upside down, with like a feminine haircut. There are just so many rules that I think the ultimate rule is to not have gender right now be a present thing and to just change as many ways. I feel like it’s about people just flipping even that upside down and doing whatever goes.

Do you think your sexual orientation determines how people view you in the fashion industry?
No, I don’t think my sexual orientation determines how I look in the industry. I think I’ve been this way before I had an orientation and I think it’s about being determined and being able to feel like you need to have a voice and making sure that voice is happening, that makes me have any kind of role I think, today, in the industry.

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