A Former Hair Model Dishes On The Best Thing She Ever Did For Her Locks

Why putting power over her hair in someone else’s hands was exactly the change writer Alex Nursall needed.

It’s a Saturday in mid-June, I’m 29 years old, and I’m sitting in the stylist’s chair, considering asking them to shave my head.

To help you understand why, I should explain that I don’t really have “nice” hair. I mean, it’s okay. But it’s fine and copious, so it has no body. It’s straight, but there’s a single kink in the middle—which means I eternally look like I slept with a ponytail in. The natural colour is pretty, but it’s nothing I’d write home about. (“Dear mom, how are you? My hair is still brown.”) For most of my life, my hair sat at my shoulders, limply existing, minus that brief period in 2005 when I thought crimping was a good style choice. Spoiler: It was not.

Hair is something that a lot of us try to control, tame, make curlier or straighter or shinier. I mostly tried to ignore mine, like how you ignore the sound of fluorescent lights in a mediocre office setting. That changed 10 years ago, when I decided to cede most of the control of my hair to various strangers. It was probably the best thing I ever did, hair-wise—aside from throwing out my crimper.

I heard about hair modelling in 2007 on Facebook when a friend of mine posted about the opportunity. Up until this point, I thought that just meant you were an actual model who appeared in one of those haircutting magazines, but I was bored and it paid a little money, so I emailed the recruiter a crummy webcam headshot and promptly forgot about it, until I got a response a few days later. There was a short audition process — which consisted of showing up, having them look at me for about two minutes, and then signing a waiver saying I wouldn’t sue if I hated the haircut — before I officially became a model for Aveda at a major trade show in Toronto.

At the time, my hair was slightly longer than my shoulders and full of cheap auburn box dye, the kind you get when you wander into a Shoppers with an extra $20 and not a lot of common sense. Being a hair model meant I spent a full day at the salon getting all that dye stripped from my hair so they could re-dye it basically the same colour, then two more days sitting around in a back room at the convention centre picking at sandwiches and napping, occasionally getting my hair cut in front of a large audience. My hair was long enough to handle multiple cuts, so I went on stage four times, my locks getting shorter with each trip. On the last day, the stylist said, “I’m going to cut it all off!” The idea of just letting someone hack the rest of my hair off while people watched was daunting, especially since I couldn’t ask questions, like “How short is this going to really be?” and “Should I have read that waiver?” I didn’t even see what it looked like until I got off-stage.

But I liked what I ended up with, a cut I’d describe as “early Tegan and Sara-inspired.” It was shaggy and asymmetrical, with a long side bang and golden highlights. And it was much, much shorter than what I was used to. When I got back to the green room, the stylist joked that after you do a big chop, you want to keep going until you shave your head. “Hah!” I exclaimed, “I don’t think I’ll ever do THAT.”

Famous last words.

I enjoyed my stint as a hair model enough to seek out other chances and, thanks to a Facebook group created by a salon student looking for cut and colour models, I soon became a model for various stylists at Vidal Sassoon. Students there have to learn certain types of haircuts—the A, B, and C—and I was game to do a lot of the shorter cuts, something a fair number of people aren’t willing to do. Then, with only a little cajoling, I started being okay with going even shorter, until the clippers became a regular appearance. The haircuts got shorter and edgier as the trends changed and I began to really enjoy the soft fuzz of freshly buzzed hair. By 2010, I got my first fade and took many webcam photos of my newly exposed scalp.

In some ways, it makes perfect sense that I spent so much time as a hair model, and in others, it’s completely surprising. I was a gross punk kid in my teens with hair that looked kind of like what happens when you dunk a Barbie doll in the tub and then put it away wet—clearly, I was no stranger to hair risks. But in my early 20s, I thought that I had to leave that all behind and become a Respectable Adult™ with a biz-caz wardrobe and matching ‘do. Sure, it felt like I was playing dress-up in my mom’s clothes, but I was AN ADULT (sort of).


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It was only when a colourist at the salon that I was occasionally loaning my head to decided that she was going to put a big chunk of blue through my then-blonde bangs that I realized I desperately needed to find some sort of middle ground between Functional Adult and the person who once left a concert with head wounds after being kicked in the face by a crowd surfer.

As adventurous as I became, though, there were still some styles that felt like they were “too much.” That being said, I’ve only cried after a haircut once. I was a model for a class at Vidal Sassoon and the theme involved a lot of harsh lines and short bangs. I wasn’t feeling very confident about how I would look with a tiny blunt fringe, plus I was already at peak early 20s-fragility: my long-term partner and I had recently broken up, I was jobless and floundering… overall I felt like a piece of wet garbage. Maybe this haircut would make me feel better!

Technically, the cut was beautiful, a masterpiece of hard lines, soft gradients, and shocks of red. But outside of the salon world, I looked like a 1970s German hardcore interpretation of Spock. I hated how I looked almost as much as I hated my life at that point. Afterwards, I flopped into the chair and burst into tears, while the stylist comforted me while quietly softened the harsh edges.

But there wasn’t much she could do. By the time I went home, what little confidence I had left was abandoned in a pile of hair on the floor. I had spent years rolling my eyes at people who wept over haircuts and it had finally come back to bite me in the ass as I cried not only about my hair, but the sorry state of my entire life up to that moment.

Many thanks to @janice.daly for turning me into a beautiful daffodil.

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For the most part, though, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. Since sitting in that chair at Aveda, I’ve had parts of my head shaved down to the skin, my bangs painted like flames, bright yellow hair, a head of teal hair that perfectly matched my bridesmaid’s dress at my friend’s wedding, purple hair for my own wedding, tiny pixies, androgynous undercuts, yellow with grey roots, and white blonde hair that clashed beautifully with my very dark eyebrows.

I’ve always been anxious, the kind of person who will spend 30 minutes in a store checking reviews online and doing price comparisons before even buying a plain t-shirt, but letting others take the reins for once helped me to relax — and to understand who I was as I crept into adulthood. Turns out, outlandish colours and buzzed hair make me feel more confident and comfortable than any brown bob would. (NOTE: If you have a brown bob and love it, all power to you. No hair shaming here.)

By last year, my hair was down to a barely-there pixie cut. (I went as Eleven from Stranger Things for Halloween.) But I haven’t modeled as much in recent years—with 9 to 5 hours, it’s harder and harder to make the time. So recently, I booked a paid appointment at a different salon with a totally new stylist, partly because I wanted to try something new, and partly because they’re very close to my apartment. I told her that I was thinking about shaving my head entirely. “It’ll be a nice change, you know? I just think it would feel so good,” I said. “It could be really nice, maybe.”

In the end, I didn’t do it. I’ve gotten back into the habit of dying my hair random colours (most recently it was bright yellow, and now I’ve got a stylist who wants to dye it forest green with neon green streaks), so I can’t bring myself to buzz it off just yet. There are mornings, though, where I feel the soft, natural hair all grown in on the sides and back and I can feel that itch in my brain start again, that little whisper that says, “Imagine how nice it would feel if your whole head was like this.”

In contrast to the trepidation I felt back in 2007, I’ve balked at the idea of growing my hair out, ignoring the comments about how women look “better” with long hair or that I’ll regret it when I’m older. I look back on that first stylist’s words not as a warning, but as a weird, slightly itchy path: You will keep going shorter, but each time it will feel better and better, no matter what anyone else may say.

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