As a man who has only paid for a haircut three times in his life, I'm hardly a salon regular. So when MT sent me out to grapple with The Sharp End of the scissors as a Saturday boy at Vidal Sassoon, I wondered how I'd cope. Could I handle a whole day of highlights and holiday plans?
It turns out Vidal Sassoon doesn't call them Saturday boys. Its housekeeping is handled by 'assistants', a small apprentice army who spend three years sweeping, shampooing and brewing tea in the studio and strengthening their scissor hand at the company's academies. The reward is the chance of a career at one of its top salons. But even for those who don't make the grade, the Sassoon name is like a gold tint on a hairdressing CV.
One of my MT colleagues (a Sassoon regular) had told me the assistants were 'hot, tight T-shirt-wearing, muscle-bound types'. I was relieved to find most were pretty teenagers, with names like Maisie and Lauren. And the only male assistant I met that morning, 17-year-old Phil, was more likely to have me showing off my trainers than subscribing to Men's Health.
Suave salon boss Andrew gave me a 45-minute induction. With clients paying up to £120 for a haircut, his main concern was customer service - how to meet, greet and seat, gowning customers and offering drinks. He demonstrated the proper way to sweep: both hands on the broom. If there's hair on the floor, sweep it up. If a cup's empty, offer a refill. Don't wait to be told.
By mid-morning, the salon was a baffling hive of activity. Some women roamed around in gowns, others sat under alien heating units with bits of foil sticking out of their heads. Assistants buzzed about the floor like worker bees. After an hour, my head ached from the hum of the hairdryers and the bright lights. I was waiting for my chance to shine, to put my training to good use, but the other 10 assistants were too quick for me. Then I spotted it: a mini haystack of hair lay on the floor unnoticed. I grabbed the broom with both hands and started sweeping. But where to put it? Phil showed me the 'hair trap', a cupboard in the corner filling up with offcuts and discarded tissues. By the end of the day it resembled an unexplored corner of a student's carpet.
I asked a middle-aged customer if she'd like another coffee. 'That's very kind of you,' she said. I trotted off, stopping only to ask someone how to use the coffee machine again.
My fellow assistants were working their socks off, shampooing heads and shepherding clients from sink to stylist. Between shifts they ducked down to the basement, passing their 20-minute break at a cramped breakfast bar. Soon, I was well schooled in the trials of obtaining a Nintendo Wii, and how to deal with a teenage boyfriend who blows hot and cold.
I asked Phil whether hairdressing had been his dream. No, he'd started out as a 400 metres runner, until injury hit his career. But he seemed happy at Sassoon, his cheeky humour perfectly suited to the salon's social whirl. Most assistants seem to enjoy the work: they like seeing their mates and chatting with customers - and look forward to the time when they can cut hair for real.
But some dark roots of salon life showed through. The apprenticeship was losing its appeal, said one assistant. Three years can seem like an eternity to a 17-year-old on just £2 an hour. I'd seen clients slipping a £20 tip into the stylists' hands. Assistants' tips are, of course, lower. Phil's best-ever haul was £60 in a day, 'But one man gave me £50 of that.'
Back in the salon, the lights continued to dazzle and I was clearly losing out to a bunch of 17-year-olds. I spotted a piece of foil, but one of them scooped it up before I could move. A receptionist made a collar-fastening gesture at me. A chance. I took a customer's gown and held up her coat. But, still holding the gown, I couldn't guide her arms into the sleeves. I had to watch her struggle into it herself.
My day looked set for an impotent end. My initiative had been found wanting, and I hadn't had a chance to shampoo anyone. But Andrew called over assistant Callum to be my guinea pig. Instructed to wrap a towel round his neck and support his head, I lowered it gently into the sink. I fought to keep the suds out of his eyes and the water from dripping down his neck. Good job they hadn't let me loose on a real customer. It would be a lot more than three years before they'd let me wield the blades ...