"I didn't shave yesterday and I haven't shaved today," confesses Richard O'Brien. "But if I was on camera and shooting late, I'd have to shave again." The shaving he refers to is of the hair on his head, and the five o'clock shadow he guards against is above as well as below his ears. His hyperactive pate was the star of the television series The Crystal Maze, and his straggly locks surrounding a bald desert are, together with Tim Curry's suspenders, key images of the cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet he is a fully trained hairdresser.
The statue of O'Brien erected by the proud citizens of Hamilton, New Zealand, stands on the site of the barber's where he worked and also of the "fleapit" of a cinema where he watched the late-night double bill features.
New Zealand was, in the late Fifties, a largely agricultural nation: "You were at school until you were 15, then you were on the tractor. I was sent to a training farm for about a year but I'm not an outdoor person, really," says O'Brien. "I had a job as an apprentice glazier for six months and then I went to Hamilton as a hairdresser. It's not terribly creative giving people a short-back-and-sides, but my mother might have chosen this for me because she thought it was as artistic as you could get, like being a window dresser. Being creative was considered akin to being gay."
He went out with the boss's daughter, his first girlfriend, but that cut no ice with his eagle-eyed employer. Because of the Second World War, that generation of parents had never been teenagers and were dubious of anything that smelt of teen spirit: "They were terrified of rock'n'roll." Long hair, too. Richard was the shop's dissident barber.
"Certain guys who came into the shop would come to me, as I was empathic to their tonsorial needs. Generally, they wanted to look like James Dean or Elvis. There was the 'flat-top': long on the side, with heavy sideburns. A lot of Maoris had the right hair for it. You could have a 'duck's-arse' at the back and lots of Silvikrin dressing."
He has fond memories of the smell of the old barber shops: the pong of the dressing that was slapped on the hair and the bay rum on the shaven skin of the neck. The secret of a successful haircut lies in the scissorwork. It is the art that hides art: "Getting the hair to look as if it hasn't been cut."
O'Brien snipped away from 1959 to 1964, until he had finished his apprenticeship and also his relationship with the boss's daughter: "Four-and-a-half wasted years." Then he came to seek his fortune in the bright lights of London. "I haven't been to a hairdresser for 40 years," he states proudly.Reuse content