For the love of the cut
By Darren Lum
When Margo McCrae was a girl, she always wanted to be a hairstylist.
She cut her dolls’ hair when she was little and did her friends’ hair when she was in school, so it naturally followed that she would embark on a long career in the field.
This month, McCrae is ending her 37-year run as a hairstylist. At the peak of business, she said she had upwards of 300 clients and estimates she cut tens of thousands of hairdos over her career, which took her from Haliburton to Toronto and back again.
After close to four decades of work, she hopes she will be remembered as a good stylist, who was compassionate and kind-hearted.
She said she’s reassured her clients that a new stylist can mean opportunity for change.
“Some of them are pretty upset with me [that] I’m going, but I said maybe they’re going to do something better. Maybe they’re going to do something I hadn’t thought of and they’re going to give you something new you’re really going to like,” she said.
Although she announced her retirement just after the new year, she stayed on until April to ensure her clients were setup properly for the transition, which included passing on various recipes for colouring and perms.
McCrae said her career was all about the people and the relationships formed. The primary requisite of a hairstylist is to have an affinity for people.
“You have to really like people. You have to have a lot of patience ... I think, [my husband] Bob would tell you I used up all my patience at work and none for him when he got home,” she laughed.
She said the career choice was about a dedication to her clients.
“You have to do things that are not only about money either. Driving all the way out here [to Haliburton from Wilberforce] for two haircuts is not about money, it’s because you care, right? It’s because you’ve been doing [haircuts for] people for a long time,” she said. “That’s why I stayed as long as I did. It’s important to me that people settle in with somebody that’s hopefully a match. I told my clients, ‘You found me after whomever you’ve left before.’”
Over a cup of coffee with her husband, Bob, Margo decided it was time to step away from hairstyling and check one item off her bucket list: travelling. She’s looking forward to a trip to Newfoundland with her husband and friends.
The adage that life is short factored in the decision.
“We’ve had enough warnings. My husband has had a heart attack at 48 and I’ve had two cancers so, you know, we’ve had health warnings, but if I had a crystal ball and somebody could have told me I’d have 20 more good years then I wouldn’t retire right now and if Bob was OK too,” she said.
At 30, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and required two surgeries, forcing her to recover for a year. Last year, she was diagnosed with invasive melanoma skin cancer.
With the added time, the 58-year-old is looking forward to embracing nature by birding and walking the trails on her property with her dogs.
Marion Teatro of Haliburton Hairdressing encouraged McCrae to go to school and learn the skilled trade. Teatro promised her a job after graduation.
“I said to Marion, I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, but I really would like to try it.”
So, she went to the Career School Hair Design in Oshawa and graduated in 1981. Her work experience from longest tenure to shortest is Haliburton Hairdressing for 20 years, the Hair Emporium owned by Lynn Roberge for 13 years, Wynford Heights for three years and The Hudson Bay Salon (Glenby International) in Toronto for one year.
After she worked for Teatro in Haliburton, she realized she didn’t know as much as she should.
McCrae said Marion was “pivotal” for her life.
“She took me on fresh out of school. Marion taught me lots too about hair. You don’t learn everything you need to know right at school. You’re just touching on all the basics at school,” she said.
She described her past boss as kind and generous.
Although she learned a lot from Teatro, she moved back to Toronto to gain work experience and to be in place to receive more professional training. While there she first worked for Wynford Heights at Don Mills and Eglinton for three years. Then Glenby International at the Hudson Bay Salon for a year before heading home to Haliburton. While in the city, she took courses on specific skills such as colouring and cutting. Then she returned home to work with Marion again.
“I’d like to think I established friendships. You get lots of acquaintances, but lots of people you really do care about, but I’ve made some great friends also,” she said.
“Most people think our job is scissors and combs, right? But ... in school we learn all the layers of the skin and what to watch for with skin cancers and stuff,” she said.
She had one client she kept prompting to get his skin checked.
“Every time he’d come in I’d say, ‘I know I’m harping at you, but I’m really not happy with this [condition of your skin]. I want you to get to your doctor.’ He wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t go. And finally he went and he lost half his ear lobe,” she said.
There has been a genuine give and take between her and her clients.
“I’ve been so spoiled by my clients too though. They’re good to me. It works both ways. I saved my tips all year round and I take my daughter and we go on a girls’ weekend every year. It’s been a tradition. Memory building. I get to spoil my daughter and myself,” she said. “It’s a treat for me to go.”
Long-time client Jean Freeman of Haliburton has been getting her hair done by McCrae for close to 25 years.
Freeman has always been happy with the styles McCrae has given her and appreciated the welcoming atmosphere at the Hair Emporium.
“I just leave it up to her to be very honest. I leave it up to Margo. I always feel better when I walk out of that place than when I walk in,” she said.
Close to two years ago, Freeman was in the hospital for a month with a fractured pelvis. One afternoon, McCrae showed up. “She just came in and set to it and I was really surprised,” she said.
She remembers McCrae wouldn’t take any money and imagines this wasn’t the only time she’s done that. “She’s just that kind of lady,” she said.
Freeman said it will be strange to get her last hair-styling from McCrae, but knows it is the best for her.
“She deserves to retire and enjoy some travelling with her husband because she’s worked 30-odd years. It’s better to do it now and be able to just enjoy what’s out there,” she said.
McCrae said she also enjoyed the role she played in helping people feel better.
“It’s rewarding,” she said, “You usually make people feel a lot better than when they came in through the door. When you’re shampooing if they’re having a stressful day you can almost feel their whole body relax and so that’s really ... rewarding.”
The most challenging thing about the job was seeing those you care for die or grow weak with illness.
“You go and do their hair while they are suffering from these diseases and you get involved and get attached. When you lose them that’s the hard part,” she said.
McCrae’s career covered a few decades that demanded diverse hair-styling skills such as perms for men and women, lots of hairspray and plenty of back-combing and bouffant styles.
This was a time when everyone went out for New Year’s Eve, so lots of people came to her for extravagant hairstyles, unlike now. She recalls they used to “glitter people to death and sprayed them to death ... those were the days when you really had to work to do hair. And those were the days when it wasn’t so good for lungs either, because hairspray is not the greatest.”
Another way to get the most out of the career is to be compassionate with people.
It was something she wanted her daughter, Megan Gadway to carry forward.
“I tried to pass that on to my daughter ... I used to drag her in [to Extendicare] when she was little to see her aunt. ... She’d say, ‘Why do I have to go?’ I’d say, ‘Megan, it’s the right thing to do. She’s your aunt you should go visit her.’ And sometimes it used to scare Megan a little bit because some of the people with dementia would come up to her and [scare her]. They thought she was their grandchild,” she said.
Megan, who has been an X-ray technician for five years, uses the methods employed by her mother to work with people with dementia in her line of work. She travels a lot, working between Haliburton, Minden and Bancroft.
Part of McCrae’s care for her clients extends to helping them transition to their next hairstylist.
“I know it’s not part of my job to make sure people are situated, but when you’ve done someone’s hair for 30 years it’s your baby, your project, right? You don’t want someone to phone you and say, ‘I’m not happy with who I am with,’” she said.
“It’s a very care-giving role, right? That’s part of it. It’s not just all hair.”
When asked about how long she thought at the beginning of her career she would be a hairstylist, she answered, “I had envisioned myself going longer actually because I really like it still and will miss the people, terribly.”
Anyone interested in saying goodbye to McCrae can see her at the meet and greet from 1 p.m to 3 p.m. on April 13 at the Haliburton Highlands Outdoors Association fish hatchery.