Need a haircut? Forget it. You're 40 - and frumpy, too

If you want the trendiest hairstyle in Manhattan, you'd better take your birth certificate. Michael Damico has been fined for turning away a woman over 40. But it's not really age: he just can't stand to do dull haircuts. By Laurel Ives Who do London's hairdressers turn away?
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The Independent Culture
Michael Damico is not in a good mood. I am on time for my appointment at his trendy Manhattan hair salon, Adventurous Girls' Cuts, but he is still finishing one woman's hair and there is another client waiting. "All these women are taking 15 minutes to tell me what they want me to do," he says loudly.

Running late is the least of his problems. Two weeks ago, he was exposed as New York's first openly ageist hairdresser. The Consumer Affairs Commission sent a 45-year- old undercover investigator to his salon. Can I make an appointment, she asked? "Er, I don't really take any clients over 25," he replied.

On Monday, the Consumer Affairs Commission fined him $1,000 (pounds 670) for discrimination based on age. A hearing with the Human Rights Commission is pending. They could fine him up to $50,000 (pounds 33,300).

Damico vehemently denies the accusations, despite a huge sign in his window: "Specialising in young women's short, trendy haircuts since 1985". There's also the fact that he was videotaped turning the 45- year-old investigator away. "I am just being exclusive and I discriminate against the hairstyle not the age. I don't like to do conservative haircuts and unfortunately most women who want a traditional haircut tend to be older, corporate types," he explains, escorting me to a white leather sofa at the back of the salon.

Michael Damico is 35 and has run his hairdressing business in midtown Manhattan for six years. He has four chairs and a large waiting and washing area, but no one, not a receptionist, washer or stylist, to help him. "I wouldn't let someone else cut hair here, this is my salon. I like to work by myself, just like an artist in his studio," he says.

Damico regards himself as an artist. He only cuts short hair and prefers it to be on the head of a young, funky woman. Older women wearing suits and sporting conservative hairdos are not the sort of clients he wants at all.

Since news of his ageist policy has spread, Michael has had several sarcastic calls from older women. One woman called to ask if she needed to bring ID. Another rang to make an appointment and then said, "Sorry, I only like to get my hair cut by trendy, young, male hairdressers." Michael did cut the hair of one 51-year-old, but asked her not to tell her friends where she got her hair done; as he didn't want to attract "that age group".

I wait for an hour and flick through two folders of pictures of hairstyles. One is labelled "Short Haircuts", the other "Medium to Short Haircuts".

Friends of mine tell me Damico is much appreciated by New York's chic, alternative set for his cutting- edge styles. He must have talent in his fingers, because presentation is not his strong point. The salon decor is faded and, in a city where you are used to being offered a choice of wine, mineral water, or herb tea at the salon, Damico greets you with an absent-minded "hi".

At last, Damico, (whose nom de coiffure is Michael Giovan) finishes shearing the hair of his second victim to within an inch of her head. "I guess I'll like it in a couple of days," she says.

I sit down nervously. "Michael," I say, in what I hope are firm tones. "Here's the challenge. I don't want much cut off, what can you do?" He looks disappointed, but then intense concentration takes over his face as he contemplates my hair. He suggests long bangs (American for a fringe), and choppy, blunt layers.

Why does he only cut short hair, I ask? "Well, I am good at it and short haircuts are more creative. I like to be creative." Damico's favourite cuts are "trendy styles that move in the wind. I don't like styles that need blow-drying or hairspray.".

Why then did he turn away the undercover investigator?

"She was a serious business woman in a suit and reminded me of a bad experience I had once with a similar woman who asked me for a trendy haircut. I cut her hair and styled it with a heavy wet-look gel. She said: `Aren't you going to blow dry this? It looks wet.' So I said, `No, this is the look that is in fashion right now.' She left very upset. I told the investigator that I only cut the hair of teenagers and college students, because I thought she was the type of mean woman who would give me grief," he says. However, he adds, generously: "If Sharon Stone came in, I would do her hair and she is 40."

A woman who looks about 40 comes in. Damico shiftily approaches her. They fail to find a mutually convenient appointment and she leaves, saying she will call. "I bet she was a spy from the Consumer Affairs Commission," mutters Damico darkly. He is upset at the prospect of paying the $1,000 fine. "It takes me a week to make $1,000," he says. I can believe it. He charges just $30 (pounds 20) a haircut, a real bargain in a city where the norm is $80 (pounds 55) and up.

"I am not a businessman, I just do what I love. It's crazy, there are 1,000 hair salons in the city. Why do they have to give me a hard time?"

Tom Sclafani from the Consumer Affairs Commission explains: "It is against the law to discriminate on the grounds of age. We are encouraged that Michael Damico has agreed to stop this practice. Certainly he can turn them away if he is unable to do the hairstyle they want."

And that is what Damico will now do. "I'll just have to explain to them the sort of hairstyles I can and cannot cut," he says with a heavy sigh. Twenty minutes after I sat down, my hair is done, and done well. "I've given you chunky layers. You can see where they all are, which is good for fine hair because it makes it look thicker. This is what is in now," he says. I am particularly pleased with my new fringe, my first since my teens. Damico is obviously a good hairdresser - but before you beat a path to his door you should know that I am only 28.

YVONNE WAKE is director of the Aveda Salon in Harvey Nichols, where celebrities including Cher, the Spice Girls and Patsy Kensit have their own VIP room. "We had to turn a woman away because she was completely blotto," recalls Yvonne. "She used to come in every day and say: `My hair needs a cut.' We had to sit her down, and tell her that she didn't have an appointment. She had tiny, small, permed hair. If we'd cut her hair every time she came in, she'd have been bald."

Nicky Clarke, snipper to the stars, wouldn't dream of turning anyone away, says his spokesperson Andrew Clark. "He's never ever flatly refused to cut someone's hair, it's always a question of consultation and negotiation."

So would he oblige if the client wanted a tight perm and blue rinse? "In eight years that I've worked here, I've never seen a blue rinse and tight perm walking out the door - those clients don't come to us, it's not based on reality."

Paul Burfoot, proprietor and hairdresser at Soho's Fish salon, tends to the locks of Johnny Vaughan, Ocean Colour Scene and Gay Dad. He says there are only a few occasions when he's had to talk customers out of their "totally ludicrous" requests - usually after a long lunch. "The classic thing is, they bring in a picture they've found and in no way will their hair do that - for example, they've been flicking through a magazine, and want to look like Keanu Reeves, when they've got corkscrew hair."

Susan Baldwin, Technical Director for John Frieda, says: "We would only refuse to serve someone if they asked for an impossible colour and it would look terrible. Purple is not a problem on a short two-inch crop, but would break long hair."

Sammy Hamit, products manager at Regis Hair and Beauty in Selfridges, London, says: "If an old lady wants pink hair, then good for her. So long as it doesn't look too freaky, then we'll do it."

Martha Pountain, creative director of Vidal Sassoon, in London's South Molton Street, says: "A lot of our clients have been with us since the Sixties and first had their hair cut by Vidal Sassoon himself. They change their look as they get older. Sometimes we have to advise people on the best look. A lady rang up once asking for a `five-point' cut. This was the cut that made Vidal famous, that he did on Mary Quant. I explained to her that it was probably a little out of date now."

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