Q&A: Boundary-Pushing Toronto Hairstylist John Steinberg

The legendary Toronto stylist talks '80s hair, Lady Gaga and more

John Steinberg

Courtesy of John Steinberg & Associates

John Steinberg has been in the hair business for 52 years, and in that time, he’s developed a reputation for creative, boundary-pushing styles, and for being one of the more affable stylists on the scene.

He’s also a bit cheeky: When asked which celebrities he’d like to have had in his chair, he jokingly (but actually quite seriously) replies “Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.” But then you wouldn’t expect anything else from the man once dubbed the Rosedale Rebel, after the locale of his first Toronto salon, The Rainbow Room. (He opened the eponymous John Steinberg & Associates on King Street West in 1991.)

Steinberg is more likely to find inspiration in the street or from art, than from Hollywood. In the course of our interview he rhymes off artists as diverse as John Constable, Damian Hirst and pin-up illustrator Alberto Vargas as inspirations. Having retired from hair cutting, Steinberg now focuses his creative efforts on mentoring young stylists and doing research for his Are You Curious? lectures, which he describes as “140 slides that take people on a creative adventure on learning about art and architecture and the way to use one’s curious mind.”

John Steinberg & Associates recently mounted a presentation of photographs pulled from 35 years of Steinberg’s archive, alongside new photographs of the same styles, re-imagined by the talented staff of stylists at the salon. We spoke with Steinberg about looking back, Lady Gaga and how hair products have come a long way from the days of K-Y Jelly.

How did it feel to see some of these photographs again. Did it jog your memory about certain things? “I forgot a lot of it when it came to the photographers and I really had to think. In those days, we’re talking about maybe around 1975, when some some of them first started, [there was] no use of Photoshop, so a photograph that might have some imperfections, like little hairs, that would never be passed today.”

Which decade was most inspiring during your career? “It has to be the ’80s. It was just so free form, in the the acceptance of clients, at that time, to a salon that I put together in the heart of Rosedale of all places, which featured punk work but also followed by classical style. We had a good understanding of what was going on, of learning the rules before you break them. But the breaking of the rules in the ’80s was fantastic.

“We had a thing where secretaries would come in and they wanted to have the colour, but then offices, if a girl came in with pink highlights in her hair, they didn’t want it. So we used to crazy colour in highlights underneath so they could show their plumage, as I call it. Because their hair was down during the week in the office and then come the weekend they put their hair up and they have all these great coloured highlights.”

What about celebrities during that time? Whose hair did you like? “David Bowie, now there’s the chameleon of hair styles. And Boy George, good old Boy George. I mean he broke a few rules—he’s still breaking them. Annie Lennox is another good hair celebrity. I mean they made hair dressers—I should know this—they made a lot of money for haird ressers and still do, pop culture [stars].”

Which other celebrities do you think have had interesting hair? “Well you know a lot of what I talk about has a sense of humor. And one of the answers to your question, I have Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. But that’s tongue and cheek obviously. As hairdressers, we have this wonderful thing of having a person in our chair, and not only can we do their hair, but we can talk to them about things. Well what a wonderful person to have in your chair, Winston Churchill. While you’re trimming his sideburns, talk to him about what he thinks about fashion on the streets. And he’d probably have something to say.”

What about a more contemporary celebrity? “I mean, you have to look at Lady Gaga, you’ve got to. And you know, true, they’re wigs, but she’s making a statement, because the hair length of her wigs, the turquoise and the black and white one. I think that she’s very, very, clever. Smart. And she can play the piano.”

Are there any hair trends at the moment that interest you? “I think one of the interesting trends is the moving forward of hair products: styling products. Because they are so well formulated—and this is hair products that one buys from a hair dressing salon—it helps the clients recreate those styles that the hair dressers have done. It would definitely be how good the hair products have become, moving from, in the ’80s, using K-Y Jelly to sleek back. That’s the first thing we used, was K-Y Jelly. Now you’ve got many, many products, and that goes along with superior hair cutting. It’s very important that we get this point across at the moment—how superior hair cutting is coming back these days.”

John Steinberg takes us on a tour of the photo exhibit. Check out the archive shots, as well as their contemporary interpretations.