Barbershops and beauty salons have always been about more than the shave and a haircut, or the mani-pedi.
They’ve often been a refuge from the stresses and divisions of the outside world, a place to settle into a swivel chair and exhale. After all, you can’t really doom-scroll during a French manicure.
But just as California salons are finally reopening after a punishing pandemic lockdown, the race between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden is coming down to its final week — and the plastic partitions between stations aren’t the only new divide.
In many places, presidential politics have upended the special trust between hairdresser and client — just ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was outed for a private shampoo and blowout in a shuttered San Francisco salon in late August.
Tensions across California have become so fraught in places that hairdressers are spinning their chairs away from the mirror so clients won’t see their eyes roll. And customers have insulted their hairdressers over political preferences. Risky move around scissors.
Others have embraced the battle lines, making it clear with unmasked barbers or Black Lives Matter posters exactly where they stand on next month’s election — and who is welcome inside.
“The people who don’t want to be here filtered themselves out and it’s awesome,” said Trump supporter and Vacaville barber Juan Desmarais.
Across California, from a West Hollywood salon where hairdressers have been known to drop their scissors to join street marches to an Indian-American salon in the East Bay where pursed lips are better for business than celebrating Kamala Harris’ historic run, we check in with six establishments to ask: Is it safe anywhere these days to raise the topic of you-for-Trump-or-Biden?
West Hollywood: Shorty’s Barber Shop
Go ahead and vent
Dan O’Connor, an Australian living in West Hollywood, said in recent months he’s lost friends over politics. As he waited for a haircut on a recent sunny afternoon, O’Connor said he’d have a hard time supporting a business where the staff or customers openly talked about their love for Trump.
But Trump support is a sentiment that’s rarely heard at Shorty’s Barber Shop. The business sits a couple blocks off famed Melrose Avenue, has Black Lives Matter signs in the windows, and has been recognized for being LGBTQ friendly.
Politics isn’t off the table at Shorty’s. In fact, O’Connor’s barber, Courtney Leavitt, said he often brings up particular issues or candidates with his clients. He doesn’t try to tell them how to vote, he said, but he likes to share what he knows and to learn from all of the people who come through his chair.
Leavitt acknowledged his shop is in a liberal bubble. But the 34-year-old, who sports bright blue hair and a black sequin face mask, said the conversations have never become heated.
Stylist Nicole Caudillo said she often gets the sense that clients are afraid to talk politics with some of their family and friends for fear it will turn into an argument. So, as with other aspects of their lives, they tend to lay it all out when they’re in the salon chair. If they offer views Caudillo strongly opposes, she might gently change the subject. But for the most part, she lets them have their say.
Around both the 2016 and 2018 elections Caudillo remembers stylists at her former salon in Hollywood running out the door to join a passing Women’s March demonstration. There was frustration, she said, but also an excited energy.
That’s not the case now, the stylists say.
“I think, at this point,” Leavitt said, “we’re just hearing a lot of fatigue.”
Vacaville: Primo’s Barber Shop
‘I stand my ground’
Juan Desmarais doesn’t have a Donald Trump campaign sign in front of his barbershop. But he might as well. There’s no doubt where he stands on the presidential race.
It’s not just the big U.S. Marines and American flags mounted on either side of the front door or the dozens of law enforcement patches on the walls inside or the mask requirements he ignores. Ever since he made national news defying state orders to shut down his Primo’s Barber Shop early in the coronavirus pandemic, he’s become a local celebrity.
When the state threatened to suspend his license earlier this month, dozens of locals lined Merchant Street for a “Patriots for Primo’s” rally.
“I’m a conservative hero,” he said. “I stand my ground.”
You won’t find Biden supporters in here for a $30 haircut ($20 for veterans, seniors and law enforcement). In this city an hour north of San Francisco that is home to two state prisons and surrounded by ranch lands, maskless customers getting haircuts at Primo’s have found their Trump-loving tribe.
It’s good for business.
“We’ve never been tipped out as high as we have,” Desmarais said.
On Monday morning, nearly every chair was full.
The only backlash was the threatening voice messages he received after appearing on CNN, with some callers telling Desmarais, “I hope you die.” After he appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show, he was flooded with “tons of love.”
Desmarais, 41, is a Marine veteran who fought in Iraq, a California Highway Patrol officer who broke his back in a crash before he retired on disability, and the son of a Mexican immigrant farmworker who gained citizenship after 28 years. He’s one of the 30 percent of Latino voters that support Trump, polls show, with many drawn to his tough persona and business instincts.
And nothing sets him off more than a discussion about the coronavirus lockdown.
“If I had gone out and rioted, I would have been bailed out or never even been arrested,” he said of the summer racial justice rallies. “All I want to do is make enough to provide for my family and I’m the criminal.”
Desmarais supports Trump’s border wall but also favors an immigration overhaul and amnesty plan. Mostly, though, he supports small businesses.
“Politics are about everyday life,” he said. “It’s not always about the social justice thing. At the end of the day, it’s about a haircut.”
Silence speaks volumes
At Sinh’s Hair Salon & Nails, tucked away on the first floor of a shopping center in the heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon in Westminster, political talk of any kind is discouraged. Owner Kathy Tran said it’s “too controversial” these days.
Tran, who wore a blue surgical mask as she spoke through a translator, said she’s just grateful to have her eight-year-old business open again after it was shuttered for several months due to the pandemic. So Tran said she doesn’t want to risk offending those customers who have returned.
Five years ago, talking politics in Little Saigon — which boasts the largest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States — wasn’t particularly divisive. While Asian Americans overall have long leaned left at the state and federal levels, Vietnamese Americans, in Orange County in particular, voted solidly GOP for decades.
A gradual shift accelerated in 2016, as Trump ran for office. His strict immigration policies and, more recently, his preference for referencing the “kung flu” virus, have been blamed for a spike in hate incidents directed at Asian Americans. Trump also is seen as a catalyst for a community-wide rise in progressive activism that’s dividing older and younger generations.
The only political signs on the lawn in front of Tran’s shopping center promote Republican candidates. While Tran said her employees will occasionally talk politics when customers aren’t around, she declined to share her views on any candidates or issues.
Customer Sonia Valenzuela likes it that way.
The 65-year-old from Lake Forest, who drives once a week to Little Saigon for good food and to get her nails done in peace, said: “I’d rather not know.”
Fremont: Pamper Yourself with Karuna
Swaying back and forth
Karuna Khanna may have been the last undecided hairdresser in the country.
“I’m confused,” she said, just three weeks before Election Day. “I’m not much into politics, but I definitely listen.”
Even with vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, whose mother was from India, thrilling many in the Indian-American community, “I sway back and forth,” Khanna said.
At her “Pamper Yourself with Karuna” hair salon in a Fremont strip mall, she gets an earful. First from her business partner, Meenakshi Kumar, who agrees with 72 percent of Indian-Americans who told pollsters they plan to vote for Biden, then from customers who are talking more and more about the presidential race.
“People have strong opinions in politics. I don’t want to get into that fight,” Khanna said. “It’s better to shut my mouth and listen.”
It’s one of the most important things she learned in beauty school, she said. “Never give your opinion.”
She followed that advice when Meenu Vermani, 45, a customer and personal friend, came in for a styling. Vermani, who owns a tutoring business for high schoolers, just became an American citizen and plans to cast her first ballot for … Trump.
“Trump is fighting for these extra payroll protection programs for small businesses like ours,” she said. “If I need someone to support my business, I’m going to vote Trump.”
Khanna is a Democrat and had supported President Barack Obama, but this time, she said as she took a curling iron to Vermani’s hair, “I might change my mind.”
In the last few days, however, it was Khanna’s husband, not a customer, who persuaded her, finally, to fill out her ballot for Biden. She didn’t like Trump’s bullying in the first debate anyway and she was won over by Harris’ performance a week later.
Still, Khanna’s political tolerance in the salon, along with her haircuts and highlights, seems to be paying off. According to her website, “my customers love me.”
Norco: Cuttin Country Salon
‘Fed up’ in Horsetown USA
Veteran stylist Kassy Cannon at Cuttin Country Salon in Norco shook her head as she read the breaking news on her cellphone.
Under mandates from Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health authorities, salons such as hers in Riverside County would once again be forced to work outdoors — or not at all — due to the county’s rising coronavirus cases.
Branded “Horsetown USA,” Norco is less diverse and more Republican than much of Southern California. Red, white and blue lines are painted on the town’s main drag. Travel a block north or south of Cuttin Country Salon, and you’ll find several homes flying Trump flags. And at the neighboring shopping center, a booth sells pro-Trump T-shirts and purses decorated with Republican elephants.
Though Cannon knows most of her clients well and said a majority are Trump supporters, she said she’s generally tried to avoid political talk during her 27 years at the salon. She remembers a rare exception, when two customers argued about Trump during the run-up to the 2016 election only to drop it when the rest of the packed salon fell silent.
But this year is different. Cannon and a client, who declined to give her name, both said politics have become almost unavoidable while wrapped up with the virus. In their view, it’s driving locals to leave California.
“They’re done with the governor,” Cannon said, with no mask in sight. “I hear that all the time.”
Stylist Arianna Vizcarraondo, who lives in nearby Corona but has worked at Cuttin Country Salon for four years, said she was trained not to discuss politics or religion with clients. But through a Halloween-themed mask, the 25-year-old said in recent months more and more customers have been bringing politics up on their own.
The most common theme, she said, is quite simple. And for voters across California, it doesn’t necessarily apply to one side or the other: “They’re fed up.”
Oakland: HIM Barber Shop
‘If everyone agrees, you’re not thinking’
From the sidewalk out front of HIM Barber Shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Brandon Tobler can hear the shouting.
It’s the soothing sound of a safe haven, he said, the one place Black people can really debate politics, religion and life and “not get offended.”
Leading the discussion from behind the battleground barber chair is Jerron Robertson, the shop owner who has an opinion on just about everything and is a contrarian by nature. (He’s a Rastafarian with dreadlocks who doesn’t believe in cutting his own hair, but cuts others’ for a living.)
“Someone told me that if everyone agrees,” he said, “you’re not thinking.”
Robertson is only 42, but growing up on the streets of Oakland, he has acquired a sense of history and a deep cynicism.
Trump’s “law and order” campaign to quell the riots that accompanied Black Lives Matter protests barely fazes him.
“Nothing’s really changed. It’s just the same thing over and over. Rodney King riots, Watts riots back in the day, it’s all the same,” he said. “It’s not the president. It’s the system.”
To Tobler, though, Trump’s tough talk on protesters is oppressive. “He’s trying to keep us quiet,” said Tobler, a 31-year-old former teacher, who grew up in Atlanta and comes from a long line of Black Democrats. His support of Biden comes easily.
Besides, Tobler said, after four years of Trump and a pandemic that makes it hard for him to find a job, “I’m for change. I don’t believe in a lot of the things (Trump has) done so far and definitely don’t agree with a lot of the things he’s said.”
Robertson jumped in.
“I don’t like what Trump says, but I don’t like what a lot of people say. When I go by what he does, I don’t actually have a problem with the man. I opened my business during Trump and I was getting beat up by the police during Obama.”
Maybe it’s inevitable that voices get raised here, just to be heard over the blaring reggae music and loud buzz of the electric razors. But you can still make out Robertson’s cynicism.
“Trump isn’t going to do anything for the racist White people and Biden ain’t gonna do nothing for the poor Blacks,” said the barber, who said neither Trump or Biden deserves his vote. “They just want your vote and as soon as they get your vote, the people who donated to their campaign, that’s who they’re going to do something for.”
Source: Orange County Register