Watching stylist Liz Hession doing her thing from afar at Old City’s popular Lakshmi Hair Studio, her artistry in cutting and coloring peoples’ hair is clearly evident—the fruits of 20 years of experience at some of Philly’s finest salons. But if you’re sitting closer to the chair, privy to the highly personal conversations that go on between Hession and some of her clients, you realize that she’s much more than just a stylist. She’s a therapist, psychologist, confidant, consigliere, too.
“Oh my God, I hear it all—divorces, cheating, businesses failing, you name it,” says the gregarious 42-year-old brunette during a break from the Lakshmi action on a recent afternoon. “Some people want their 45 minutes with me and they tell me everything, things they don’t tell anyone else. The cut is just a bonus for them.”
It’s no secret that the bond between stylist and client can rival the kinship between spouses, family members or lifelong friends, and that the salon chair occasionally doubles as a confessional or shrink’s sofa, free from judgment. It’s a matter of trust from the outset, when you’re putting a significant aspect of your appearance and your identity in the hands of someone else. And when you’re confident they’ll do you right on that level, confiding intimate matters is often the next step.
But it starts with the hair. And Hession proved early on that she had the skills to make a career out of it.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she says. As a teenager growing up in Fairmount, Hession was obsessed with fashion mags, hair and makeup, cutting her family’s locks and serving as a hair model for a friend who worked at the trendy midtown salon Toppers. Soon after graduating high school in 1988, she got a job as an assistant at Danielle Salon at Headhouse Square. She was shampooing, mixing hair color, holding foil, cleaning the shop, sometimes suffering allergic reactions to some of the styling chemicals. “You do whatever you have to to get your foot in the door,” she says.
By 1994, she finally got her own chair at Danielle, which by then had become Brescia Salon. She steadily garnered clients through referrals, and after a decade at Brescia, she moved on to a six-year residency at Salon Thalia. She came to Lakshmi nearly four years ago, bringing along her sizable and loyal client base.
These days, she works four days a week, typically 10 to 12 hours a day. And the money’s pretty good: A stylist with Hession’s experience can make as much as $150,000; more if they’re also getting side work styling for photo shoots or fashion shows.
And Hession works hard for the money, managing the needs and quirks of her many clients: “People come in—‘I just broke up, let’s get crazy, cut all my hair off!’ I’m like, ‘Take a deep breath, things will be fine, think about it and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.’”
And listening to people’s crises all day long takes a personal toll: “We all laugh because I’m dating right now and I’m like, ‘I need a full makeover by the end of the night, I cannot date and cut hair,’ Hession laughs. “You’re filthy and you’re exhausted.
“You have to put away whatever you have going on in your own life and be right there with them,” she continues. “Which is fine because I care about what they’re going through. Sometimes it’s draining. Every once in a while, I have a client that just reads a magazine and I’m like, ‘Yes, this is good right now.’ Maybe early in my career I would have taken that personally, like, ‘Why don’t you want to talk to me?’ Now it’s like a little breather.”
Hession says she knows there are some who look down on what she does for a living. “But it’s not just about money or glamour. I feel like I’ve made a real difference in people’s lives.”