When most of us think of barbers, we might imagine old-fashioned chaps working within cozy, organized spaces, the faint smell of aftershave, tobacco smoke, and disinfectant wafting in the air. A sort of old school men’s sanctuary, where the customer can subtly indulge in basic pampering without being mocked for their vanity — a safe place where the hushed chat is of sport, politics, the stock market, and perhaps the difference between Irish and Scotch whiskey.
For generations, the men’s grooming scene had that same distinct scent, but — thankfully — our options are now broadening. Much has changed with the inclusion of female barbers, and one of the industry’s early female pioneers is Mira Chai Hyde, a lady who followed her passion, forged her path, created her own lane, and continues to lead by example.
Mira is a legend in her game and one of Tinseltown’s most in-demand A-list men’s groomers — a hair and make-up artist to the stars. You name him, Mira has most probably worked with him — everyone from Muhammed Ali, to David Bowie, to Harrison Ford, to Elvis himself… well perhaps not himself, but Austin Butler, the young man tipped to take the Best Actor Oscar at this year’s ceremony for his portrayal of The King. The list goes on and on. And she cuts her superstar client’s hair not in a fancy upmarket salon, but rather in her cozy, boho-flavored LA home garage studio — Marvel star Simu Liu sat in her barber’s chair just a few days before I visited Mira to experience her full treatment for myself.
Filipino-born, of Korean, Polish, and Russian descent, Mira arrived in LA as a foster care child aged 14, moved to San Francisco at aged 18, and then following her young heart, headed east to New Haven to be with her Yale-attending boyfriend. “In New Haven, I met a bunch of interesting guys, musicians and artists, and for some reason I just started cutting everyone’s hair for fun,” she recalls. “It was pretty punky back then so you could do very creative things.”
She was growing frustrated with her day gig as a secretary for an interior designer, who would also have Mira perfect her bob. So on a visit to London, she checked out the Vidal Sassoon school and their famous diploma course. Knowing that living and learning in London was not for those without sufficient coffers, she asked a friend of her father’s who had arranged her move to the States, Uncle Frank, if he could help her move to London and enroll on the course. He told her that if in two years she still wanted to go, he would pay for it. Two years later, she was on a plane to London, attended the school and, realizing she’d fallen in love with the city and wanted to stay, asked Sassoon for a job. Their reply was, “Only if you want to do barbering, because we have enough hairdressers doing women’s hair.” At Sassoon’s at that time, you could only do either women’s hair, or men’s hair, or be a color specialist — so Mira became a barber.
Leaving Sassoon in 1991, taking 200 clients with her, Mira began her journey to becoming an on-set men’s groomer, and was soon in demand for all the magazine editorials, advertising campaigns, and big fashion stories of the day. At the time, the guy models would turn up and have to do their own hair and make-up. “There wasn’t anyone who just specialized in guys,” she remembers. “So it was a niche that I filled.” Mira’s timing was perfect, and her career began its sharp ascent.
Having lived in every corner of London — north, south, west and east — she ended up for the latter part of her time in the city settling in East London, which is where she met the late, great designer Alexander McQueen. She says, “Lee moved in below me when he was working on his new show ‘The Hunger’, but his place became so full of tables and materials that there was no room for him anymore — so he moved upstairs into my place and we were roommates for a couple of years.”
Mira was soon doing all the hair for Lee’s male models and counts this time as amongst her most prolific. “I think that was when I was at my best, because he was so creative, and you wanted him to be really happy with what you were doing. He would say, ‘I want a quiff and a ponytail,’ and that would be it. Then I would come up with the shape. Or, ‘I want them to look really wet,’ and I would just go for it. There was a trust, a license to push the boundaries.”
Speaking of GOATs, Mira also recalls working with Muhammed Ali on an advertising campaign, “That was memorable. He was the nicest guy ever. And the studio just started filling up with people as word got out that Ali was in the building. It was pretty crazy.” And on Bowie, whose tunes happened to be playing in her garage studio as we talked, she remembers, “I worked with him on the ‘Hours’ album — he really was an extraordinarily charming man and very kind. I was nervous because he’s really known for his hair. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, am I going to be able to please him?’ I said to him, ‘Is there anything I need to know?’ He goes, ‘Just make sure that the parting down the middle of the head doesn’t go all the way to the crown, and the rest of that gets pushed back.’ That was his only requirement.”
Asked what qualities it takes to become a great hairdresser, Mira shares, “A good eye. Not even so much being technical, but having a really good eye, because you can’t teach that. You can teach being technical, but you can’t teach taste.” She adds, “What I love about my job is seeing people really happy and confident. It’s really a lovely feeling to be able to do that for them.”
Considering men’s changing attitudes and approach to looking good and taking care of themselves more openly, Mira thinks that Manchester United and England football hero David Beckham was the pivotal catalyst, especially in the UK. “A footballer, a masculine footballer, to be seen using face masks and experimenting with different haircuts, wearing sarongs, it changed everything,” she says. “And of course we have Victoria to thank for that. I think he really changed things. And it’s just been a slow growth since then, but a steady growth. There’s so much more interest in men’s fashion now, it’s no longer on the side.”
Having always cut from home in London, it seemed natural to continue that set up when she moved to LA. Mira’s garage is a quiet sanctuary (with choice excellent tunes) where her clients, famous and not, get to relax and feel good surrounded by the photographic evidence of a fascinating and illustrious career. It’s a treasure trove of memories, a space that invites one to feel immediately comfortable, at ease, and a stark contrast to the minimalist salons popular today.“People like it here because there’s no one looking at them. There’s no one listening to their conversation, they can just relax.”
I’ve always seen hair and make-up artists a little like confidantes or therapists. Given the nature of the work, the intensity of their creative collaborations, there pervades a sort of fast track to intimacy, to comfort, to support. “They sit in your chair, so they feel a bit more confident to speak to you,” Mira suggests. “And people have always said that they find it very easy to speak to me as well. They feel safe because you don’t normally know people’s friends.”
With regards the creative process of cutting a client’s hair, Mira speaks from solid experience. “Sometimes I don’t really know what I’m going to do until I start cutting. I have to see how the hair’s falling. What does it look like on his face? Do I need to cut more off? Do I need to leave more? These are things I never know until I actually start. It’s grounded in technique, but it’s also intuitive and it’s creative.”
Still in demand for studio work and photoshoots, Mira is really enjoying cutting from home. Her garage barber shop is making a name for itself on Instagram and she’s released a line of products under the brand name House of Skuff. An all-natural product line, developed over the last four years (drawing on the priceless experience of decades), the packaging proudly reads, ‘Tested on Celebrities Not Animals’ — and $1 of every product sold goes to charity, including causes supporting children, animals, the elderly, and veterans. Mira’s vision is to grow the brand to a point where it can fund a foundation for all these causes very close to her heart. (And for those of you curious, ‘Skuff’ is Dutch vernacular for the pollen given off weed.)
Asked if she prefers studio and location shoots to working from home, Mira leans towards the latter. “I like what I do. Now, instead of fashion, I do more celebrity-based work, and it’s a lot less grueling on my body. And you have more control over the hair. I remember working with photographer John Balsom (a close friend who stays with Mira when in LA) and for some reason we were always on a f****ing boat, and the weather was always choppy. I remember John was always like, ‘Fix the hair. Fix the hair.’ He get’s very animated, and I’m trying to figure it out, do I let go of the mast and fall in, or fix the hair?!”
But all that experience has proved invaluable, and Mira is grateful for all the adventures, and that her career began and ran through a golden era. It was the time of Polaroids and film, so you had to be on your A-game as film cost money. “I’m glad I went through that. Also, it was a whole different ball game in the hair and grooming department. It had to be pretty perfect because you couldn’t really retouch back then. And I loved Polaroids, I’ve kept so many of them — that’s how we would test to see if we were on the right track.”
As Mira chats to me whilst cutting my hair, the conversation comes round to what advice she would give to the wannabe hairdressers of today, including her assistant Sheldon who has been attentive throughout.
“I never assisted anyone. I was one of the first men’s groomers in London to start doing editorial shoots for fashion. There weren’t that many. As for advice, I would say to find a really good artist to assist and to work really f***ing hard. Opportunities don’t just come, you have to go out and be around those opportunities to get them. And you have to have a really strong work ethic, which a lot of people don’t have. Work for free. I never got paid a cent when I was doing editorial work but that’s how you build up your portfolio which leads to the advertising work you get paid for, or the videos for the pop stars, by doing those jobs for free. I think the most important thing is to work your ass off and to not complain. Be pleasant to be around. Show up on time. Do your very best to be whatever value you can be for the team… and smell nice.”