Pip Adam: Hairdressing as Metaphor for Narrative Form
Pip Adam is one of my favourite people in the New Zealand lit community and I think most people would agree with me. She is creative, kind, and endlessly enthusiastic. Not only does she write brilliant fiction (her latest novel The New Animals was just published this month), she’s also an amazing teacher of writing, and makes a podcast called Better Off Read. But before all of that, Pip was a hairdresser. I asked her some questions about one of her favourite subjects: work.
Hi Pip! So you started working as a hairdresser when you were 15 or 16, is that right? How did that come about?
I’d been working at a salon as what used to be called a shampoo assistant, on late nights and Saturdays and I loved it. There was cool music (Deep Forrest and Bomb the Base) and the hairdressers wore cool clothes and yeah, I loved it and then a position came up as an apprentice and they asked if I’d like to work full-time.
That’s the tidy version of it but also there is a part of me that thinks, ‘Yeah. How did that happen?’ I’m still not totally sure. What it felt like from the inside was that one minute I was at school loving it, doing okay, thinking I was going to go to university, and the next I was like ‘ARGH! I have to get out of here!’ There were ‘complicating factors’ – like I think it was one of the first decisions in a long downward spiral that maybe my ‘lifestyle’ made it necessary for me to make. I thought I was on the verge of being kicked out of school but when I took my, like that sign-out form round, teachers were like, ‘Hey, you’re doing okay,’ and I was like, ‘Huh?’ Yeah, it was a confusing time.
I’m not sure I thought very long or hard about the whole leaving school thing. I think what I saw was – money and freedom. Like I remember (my mum may dispute this) but I remember coming home after I got my first fulltime week at work and saying, ‘Yeah, I’m working now so, yeah, no more rules.’ I think that was a big part of my decision, I loved going to nightclubs and getting drunk and taking drugs and to a certain degree working full-time as a hairdresser made that easier. I mean it’s crazy because I have never worked as hard as I did those first two years of the apprenticeship but somehow … yeah, I think it was the autonomy of ‘working’. Like I was such an upstart, I was still living at home and not paying any board or helping with anything, I think my parents were still paying the insurance on my car, but I was like, ‘I will not be tamed!’
What was your favourite part of being a hairdresser?
Hmmmm. This is a hard one. I remember there was about a year, it was in about 1992, where for some reason, I was just on fucking fire. Like everything I touched turned to gold. Like I sound like I’m bragging but I think there are just years like that, where your skills and the fashion and your confidence and some x-factor just align and you can give people exactly what they want. I think it was the year that Marc Jacobs grunge cover was on Vogue and I was like, ‘This I understand!’ I was working at this salon and it was really big on consultation and I had learnt all these awesome skills for like finding a way to give people what they wanted but also what their hair would actually do. I was working with really great products, the music in the salon was great cause some of the things I liked had gone mainstream, my book was full. It was such a great year. Like I was so satisfied and happy. Of course, I fucked it up, I ended up in a massive amount of trouble by year end due to ‘complicating factors’, but that year, was just the best.
But does that answer your question, hm. I think I liked the way hair feels. Baha. I really loved cutting hair. I loved the engineering of it. I’m always at my best when I’m doing that practical hand stuff. Like, that seems stupid now that I do so much thinking stuff, but I’m at my happiest when I’m doing really systematic stuff. I love patterns. That’s what’s fun about cutting hair, you cut a guide, then you take half the guide and a new section and your cut to the guide and you repeat. I mean not all haircutting it like that but yeah, argh, I love it so much. It’s hard to explain, but nothings feels better than having a shapeless head of hair and then cutting it so it moves in a whole new way. Argh. I loved cutting hair. I just realised all this is a metaphor for my obsession with narrative form. Baha. Like I take a shaggy life and try and shape it into something taught. Bahaha.
I’m guessing that hairdressing probably involves more than just cutting people’s hair. Can you describe what your average work day was like?
Okay, I worked as a hairdresser for 15 years but I haven’t worked as one for about a decade so it is all a little fuzzy – also you know the whole nightclubs, drink, drugs thing. So from memory I’d get to work about half an hour before I started to do my hair. I loved doing my hair at work. We would all stand in front of the mirrors and gossip and sometimes someone would be like, ‘You should do your hair like this,’ and change your hair or something. Sometimes we’d do our make-up together as well.
Then you’d have a look at your book for the day. Freak out. Bahaha. There was always a colour that you had no idea how you were going to fit in or a cut that your know took you longer than the person had been booked in for. You’d also get all your client’s cards and look through them, like record cards and then the day would start, and my memory is, it was a bit like a roller coaster. Like I’d just hold my breath and dive in. I’d always have eyes on everything, whose coming in the door, whose free to help out, where are my three other clients.
At the end of my hairdressing there was a lot of emphasis on erm ‘up-selling’ it sounds awful now, but you were often saying, ‘This cut would look great with a colour. And if you get a colour you’ll need to get this shampoo.’ Argh. It makes me feel so dirty but yeah, so much of our pay was tied to it and I was fucking hopeless at it. I had a problem with ‘closing the sale’ – that’s what a sales coach said to me once. I still probably do. Baaha.
So yeah, it was busy and then every now and then I’d walk through the mall to the bathroom. I don’t remember stopping for lunch. Hairdresser lunch used to be a cigarette and a coffee – but that is totally showing my age, I am sure they stop now. Yeah, my memory of it is that it was like a show. It felt often like performance. Like you were always on show. There was always music too. I liked that.
But yeah, I remember, at the end, I was very unhappy and there was nowhere to take that in the salon. That has got to be the hardest thing about service industry work. I remember once, I used to have these crying jags, like I would start crying and wouldn’t be able to stop and one hit me while I was cutting this woman’s hair, and it was very long and would comb her hair and lean down to cut it and kind of hide behind her and cry and then breath in and resurface smiling and then lean down again and cry. It was shit.
How was the apprenticeship structured? Did they train you on how to do the up-selling you mentioned? Did they teach you how to make good hairdresser conversation with clients?
The apprenticeship was awesome. So we got training in the salon – we had a training night and also learnt on the job. We were partnered with a senior hairdresser and that was such a great relationship, you got to know their clients and how they did things. IT’s such a nice industry that way, lots of sharing. Not just about technical things either. Like also, sort of ‘how to be a hairdresser’, like how to stand on your feet all day, what to talk to clients about, what not to. Yeah, it was very cool.
So as well as the in-salon training, twice a year – maybe once – we would go out to Manukau Polytech and have ‘classes’ – we had to pass some written exams as well as practical exams. Tech was so much fun. I met some awesome people there, people who I was friends with for years. We had so much fun there and it was a really nice change from being in the salon. You know what I just remembered? We used to get our fees paid if we passed all our courses! The salon would pay our fees when our reports came back. It was such a great system. Such a great thing. Now I am pretty sure you have to go to a course first, like pay to go to hairdressing school and then try and get an apprenticeship. That’s hard and expensive.
We did have sales training. It was pretty cool. I quite enjoyed it erm until I had to do it in the salon. Teehee. Close that sale, Pip!
Hairdressing conversation is interesting. What I remember, and the people that worked with me may disagree, is that I didn’t talk much. I was kind of terrified of people. So I would talk to them about nothing but their hair. I did not want to have conversations about ‘life’. I think I ended up with a great group of clients who did not like to talk. So it worked very well. We did however have lessons about what to talk to which usually consisted of lessons on what not to talk about. So yeah, no sex, no politics, no religion, no talking about how much you drank the night before or the cocktail of drugs you were using to work through your hangover – that sort of thing made people nervous.
What was it about the job that was making you so sad in the end? And how did you finally decide to quit?
Hm. I’m not sure if it was the job that was making me sad or the terrible things I’d kind of brought into my life. I loved hairdressing but the trouble I was getting myself into and the people I was hanging out with meant I couldn’t enjoy it, there was always a phone call during the day that would freak me out or I would have been up all night or like ‘drug addled’ during the work day so I would mess things up and I think it was hard for me to enjoy hairdressing when I wasn’t a good hairdresser. So yeah, I feel like work was this place where I couldn’t avoid the shambles that my life was becoming. So I think that’s what made me sad.
I feel like I kind of left hairdressing three times. When I was 21 I went to university and I thought I would be awesome at that and then be able to quit hairdressing – this was not the case. I ended up back hairdressing full-time. Which was great. Then at 24 I went to film school in Christchurch and I was like, ‘Fuck you hairdressing!’ but then I got clean and I was like, ‘Argh, I need a job’ (like a legitimate job) and I was back hairdressing within a year. I sort of played around with hairdressing for quite a few years. Like I would leave the salon and teach at one of the hairdressing academies, then I’d come back to the salon, then I’d leave and work part-time, then I would come back. The last time I told my boss I was leaving she said, ‘I’ve been told not to ever employ you again.’ It sounds harsh but in reality it was what we both realised needed to be done and said. I carried on hairdressing at home for ages. You know, like cutting friend’s hair and that sort of thing.
How many salons did you work in over the years? How were they different from each other?
I think I worked at like about six salons over the years. They ranged from very commercial to very erm like I want to say independent – like they were only one not a chain and they were very … actually boutique that might be the way to describe them. Hm. I guess, yeah, I’m not sure how they were different. I feel like the work didn’t change that much. There was more selling at the commercial salons but they were very focused on selling product so the client would be able to do their hair and would be happy with the haircut. The bigger salons I quite liked because there were more people and it was easier to be like ‘one in a group’ – I could hide easier. I could just but my head down and work. I liked that a lot. But also, one of the places I worked which was a more boutique place, we were like a family. It was kind of cool. I liked that a lot too.
Do you think working as a hairdresser had any effect on your writing? I feel like you may have channelled some of the experiences into your new book.
Oh yeah. The new book is a lot about hairdressing. It is sort of a love song to hairdressing. I found myself thinking about hairdressing so much over the last four or five years. It really was a great time in my life. It saved my life in a lot of ways. I owe it a lot.
The greatest thing hairdressing gave my writing was this um like it is super hard to touch someone’s head, to run your hands through their hair and then think, ‘This person and I are so different.’ Like, it’s really hard to hate people once you’ve been that close to so many people. Like, there’s that first impressions thing, eh? Like I see someone and I think, ‘Oh, I know you,’ but hairdressing taught me over and over again that everyone is so complicated and interesting and like, fighting their own battles. I really liked that about it. That has been the greatest influence on my writing.
What are some other jobs you’ve had aside from hairdressing?
My first job was at a mailing factory (it might be my favourite job ever), I worked in a bakery (I am pretty sure I got fired), then came hairdressing, then after film school I worked as an art department assistant on a TV show called Mal’s Amazing Movies, and I did some work as a continuity person, then I worked as a hairdressing teacher, then I worked with at risk youth in a work-training programme, then I worked as a librarian at the Medical and Dental libraries at Otago (another favourite job – I did this while I finished my BA which took 15 years and has papers from every university in New Zealand except Waikato), then I went to library school, then I worked at ACC, then I worked at the TVNZ Television Archive, then I did my MA, since then I’ve mainly facilitated creative writing workshops at Massey, at the IIML, at prison. Yeah, okay, it looks really untamed looking at that list. That is quite scary.
Whoa, you’ve had so many interesting jobs! I could probably do a full interview with you about each of them. Is there anything that the ones you most enjoyed have in common?
Hm. I think my favourite thing to do is a job where there is a system or a process. Like I love stuffing envelopes or like the other day I did this awesome job where I entered data into a spreadsheet. I love that stuff. I really like being alone and the feeling of satisfaction which comes form completing something. But I am weird because I also like talking to people and I like surprise. Like I love a job where there’s a chance my opinions will be challenged every day. Like I will leave thinking something different from what I thought when I arrived. I think this is why I’ve had so many jobs because the things I love in a job are completely incompatible so I’m never happy. My friend Anna called me a contrarian once – I think she’s right. Another friend says I’m a malcontent – I think that’s right too.
Do you have any advice for people (like me) who are looking for work right now?
The thing that has always helped me when I’ve been looking for work is like that weird bullet-proof wall I have to put up between the application process and my self-esteem. I have often done this thing where I pretend I’m writing the application for someone else. That I’m trying to find a job for ‘work Pip’ not me. Like I am ‘work Pip’s’ secretary or personal assistant. The other thing I read – which blew my mind – is that some people apply for jobs even when they don’t have all the qualifications! I think that is a good idea. Also, the other mind-blowing thing – some people routinely negotiate the wage they’re offered. Like I had a friend and he would always ask for 5% more than they were offering. I was terrified to do this because I thought the employer would think, ‘How rude,’ and take the job off me, but I tried it a couple of times and sometimes they say, ‘No,’ and there’s no hard feelings and sometimes they say, ‘let’s see’ and I get more money. I am not sure this would work for hairdressers … but maybe.
When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I wanted to be a doctor or an actor. Yeah, actually, I really wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be famous more than anything. Now I want to be invisible.
If you could have any job in the whole wide world, what would you choose?
Um. I am the worst person in the world to ask this because I make dreadful choices for myself but, I think right now and for a while now,I’ve thought I’d really like it if I could do my podcast full-time and with some other people. Like, the best thing I’ve ever done was the Porirua People’s Library – I loved working with everyone and I loved the way Kerry-Ann Lee envisioned the collaboration – I am obsessed with collaboration. I’d like a version of that but for the podcast. So we all hang out together and have a cool office and we make awesome audio material and I still get to edit it – cause then I can be alone and doing my systematic work but also I can also work with people to record their work. Teehee.