There is no sign outside Sally Hershberger’s meatpacking-district hair salon. It’s too cool for that. Cool in the way “uptown” people imagine things should be south of 14th Street, or in this case, on 14th Street, and west, west, west. The steps outside are standard-issue corrugated metal. The floors are cement, the TVs are plasma, the music is heavy on the bass. After a pretty girl with kohled eyes checks me in, I change in a bathroom with a Warhol over the toilet. And then I am escorted by two handsome, silent guys to the back of the salon, where a wall of windows faces south, and there Hershberger is, leaning against a counter in a pair of perfectly worn Levi’s, her signature Klute–meets–Patti Smith bob tousled just so. She’s wearing a pair of big, seventies sunglasses. She looks up—I think. “Hey,” she says.
I am ushered into a swivel chair, and she studies me carefully. She switches to a pair of horn-rims and furrows her brow. “You’ve got a mullet,” she says, grabbing at chunks of my hair. “I like a mullet.” But not, clearly, this mullet. “Let’s just fix this,” she says.
Thus begins my $600 haircut.
The handsome assistants—Milo (tall, Asian, tapered bob, like a Southern California skateboarder) and Mihe (smaller, buff, with the tendency to purse his lips tightly)—nod emphatically: Four sets of eyes study my head in the mirror. Hershberger likes “cute guys” to assist her, she tells me. “There’s way too much drama with girls.” Milo rushes me to a sink, props my legs on a leather ottoman, and then, before I know it, we’re all back together again and Mihe has begun sectioning my wet hair into little rolls. Hershberger starts snipping away: Four furious hands (one, Hershberger’s, wearing a gold Hermès watch covered in a blinding layer of diamonds) moving in sync around my head, while Milo hovers anxiously in the background. “I’m not the funnest hairdresser,” Hershberger tells me as she cuts.
“Sally’s not really a proponent of making people feel better,” says Sandra Bernhard, a client and friend for the past twenty years. In fact, Hershberger never tells me I have nice hair, or even healthy hair, which hairdressers always do. She just studies and snips and, occasionally, looks at herself in the mirror and ruffles her own hair. She describes her look as androgynous. “You know how Bowie and Mick Jagger weren’t totally masculine?” she says. “I’m like that.”
As she works, she talks unfavorably about the wave in my hair, and then tells me I need a flattening iron, that I should really think about adding some color. “So many women want to go somewhere that, even if it’s a totally gay guy, he’s making you feel sexy and desired and wanted,” says Bernhard. “Which I think is totally condescending. You don’t go in to Sally for strokes.”
Fifteen minutes later, the blow-dryers come out, one on each side of my head. It’s deafening. Suddenly, Hershberger grabs Mihe’s brush.
“Flat!” she cries. “Round is just . . . not . . . groovy!” Mihe bites his lip, switches brushes. “Not groovy,” she mutters to herself.
Once my hair is dry, Hershberger spends a few minutes slicing at the ends with a razor, and then I’m done, back on the street. Transformed?
I walk to Pastis to meet friends for lunch—and show off my $600 hair.
“Puff out your lips,” they say, laughing. “You’re Meg Ryan!” But do I look great? Cooler? “We miss your curls,” they conclude.
But when I run into my friend Jose Bravo later that afternoon, he tells me, “Girl, the last time I saw you it was, like, only okay.” He waggles his hand back and forth. “But now you look good.”
High-end hairdressing on the Manhattan-to-L.A. circuit has been a growth business since the days of Vidal Sassoon, but now that Hershberger has opened her eponymous salon—nestled smartly between the Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen boutiques on 14th Street—and tripled the going rate for a designer haircut, it’s gone into overdrive. As Bernhard puts it, “Sally’s not a celebrity hairdresser. Sally’s a celebrity.”
Hershberger, with her expensive tastes and Da Silvano lifestyle, is the new model for the hairstylist: She’s not a member of a service industry. She’s an artist. It’s rumored that the character of Shane McCutcheon, the heartbreaker hairstylist on The L Word, is modeled on her. “I used to hate to say I was a hairdresser,” she says, “but now it’s like, we make more money than doctors and lawyers.”
The new hairdresser is a wizard with a signature style (“I mean, if you see a Frank Lloyd Wright, you know it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright,” Hershberger says of her signature, the shag) and fiercely loyal followers willing to shell out thousands of dollars a year for buttery chunks, shaggy bobs, and silky blow-dries, who pledge their allegiance with a passion more appropriate to a love affair.
Hershberger’s not shy about her pedigree. “I’m from an upper-class family,” she says. “Not middle class—upper class. My father was an oil producer from Kansas. Have you heard of the Koches? They were our next-door neighbors. It was not the kind of family where people became hairdressers.” Sally was the rebel daughter who ran off to L.A. to surf and listen to rock bands instead of going East to a leafy college.
But nobody would mistake her for a lightweight. “At this level,” she says, “you’ve got to read the paper. You’ve got to be informed. Michelle Pfeiffer does not need her hair cut by someone who doesn’t read.”
The salon is an extension of her hard-glamour world. “I just wanted this place to be, like, the anti-salon,” she says. Hershberger lives in a West Village loft and has houses in L.A. and East Hampton—where she throws legendary triple-A-list parties—but she’s run out of space to showcase her art collection. What’s in the salon are the leftovers.
“Sally,” says Bernhard, “is rock and roll.”
Not surprisingly, her rock-star pricing is decried by many competitors as absurd. “Spending $600 to get your hair cut in the meatpacking district?” says Kenneth Battelle—the legendary coiffeur—with a snort. “That just makes you sound like a meathead to me.” “It’s just a way to announce her arrival,” another stylist sniffs. “I mean, what does she do that anyone else can’t do? It’s just a big fuck you to the rest of us.”
Hershberger, for her part, thinks that’s just rich: “Has anyone told these guys that not everyone can afford $250 either?”