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NY blonds are high maintenance
NY blonds are high maintenance
That priceless look is quite pricey at over $500 per month for the colorist! Worth it to some...
By JILL GERSTON
MARY CASTELLANO, a transplanted Miamian whose caramel-colored hair spills past her shoulders, has never done her own highlights. But last year, the idea crossed her mind when Ms. Castellano, who is 26, realized how prohibitively expensive it had become to color her beautiful hair.
"You can't work in fashion in this city and not look good," explained Ms. Castellano, who is an account executive at Ogan Dallal Associates, a Manhattan public relations firm that handles clients in the fashion industry. "People check you out, and if you have black roots and your hair is fried, it doesn't matter that you're carrying a Bottega bag.
"When I moved here after college," she added, "I didn't realize that along with rent, phone and utilities, I'd have this huge expense for hair."
For a time, she went to a string of East Side salons and paid about $500 a month for highlights and touch-ups of her long, thick hair. But, confessed Ms. Castellano, who lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in Lower Manhattan and shops the sales at Scoop, not Chanel, "it was just too much." Finally, through a friend of a friend, she found a neighborhood salon that charges her $275, an amount she called "reasonable for New York."
Although it's a struggle for a young working woman, Ms. Castellano is a New York Blonde.
This polished, pedigreed creature can usually be spotted in her natural habitat, the Upper East Side, dropping off her offspring at the Episcopal School, scrutinizing embroidered 480-thread-count sheets at Pratesi and sipping drinks at La Goulue.
Some days she migrates south of 57th Street to SoHo or the meatpacking district or the sole bastion of chic in Times Square, the Condé Nast building. If she is an especially free-spirited member of the flock, she may actually live in Greenwich Village or on the Upper West Side, but this is rare, though not as rare as those who make their nests across the pond in Brooklyn Heights or – gasp! – Park Slope.
The New York Blonde may work at a fashion magazine, a public relations company or an art gallery, places where spending a morning getting one's roots touched up is not considered grounds for firing. Or she may be a high-powered executive on Wall Street or Madison Avenue, settings where precisely highlighted blond hair is as potent a power accessory as a bespoke suit or an Audemars Piguet watch.
She may have made a career simply out of shopping, getting oxygen facials and taking classes in screenwriting. Without question, however, she has a weakness for cushion-cut diamonds and espresso macchiato at Sant Ambroeus on upper Madison Avenue.
Although the number of New York Blondes is understandably elusive, twice a year scores of them gather in Bryant Park for a week of fashion shows. There, they surreptitiously observe their soignée companions, taking in details like Anna Wintour's impeccable brown bob shimmering with highlights the color of Shalimar perfume. If you missed them in February, you can catch them again in September.
In New York's haute fashion circles, there is perhaps a consensus that the coveted look is the chic white-blond hair of the departed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. "She's the icon, the hair to worship," Plum Sykes, a contributing editor to Vogue, writes on the opening page of her breezy best-seller "Bergdorf Blondes," a literary bonbon studded with pampered PAPs (Park Avenue Princesses), A.T.M.'s (rich boyfriends), a strategy session for a Chanel sample sale and appointments for $450 blond highlights.
But Mrs. Kennedy is not the only iconic New York Blonde. A short list would also include Gwyneth Paltrow, Ivanka Trump, Diane Sawyer, the actress Stephanie March, the model Karolina Kurkova, Candice Bergen, the socialite Tinsley Mortimer, the Vogue senior editor Meredith Melling Burke and the designer Tory Burch, who all have the exquisitely groomed fair hair that personifies New York Blondeness.
The Many Faces of Blonde
Do not confuse New York (upper-case) Blondes with New York (lower-case) blondes, a more ubiquitous breed that is too busy going to work, shopping for groceries, getting the dishwasher repaired and watching "Grey's Anatomy" to worry about whether their caramel streaks have become brassy or their dark roots will show up in photographs on NewYorkSocialDiary.com, a blog that chronicles the society set. New York (lower-case) blondes lighten their hair over the bathroom sink or have it highlighted at a salon that doesn't serve cappuccino or present you with a bill that is only slightly more modest than airfare to Paris.
Nor should New York Blondes be confused with their more conspicuously bleached West Coast counterparts. For one thing, their fair hair gleams like a beacon in an environment of granite, soot, gray skies and little black dresses.
"Blond hair is such a contrast to the cityscape surrounding them in New York," said Leatrice Eiseman, a color specialist who is director of the Pantone Color Institute, an organization that tracks color trends. "You don't have that juxtaposition in a climate of sun and sand."
If you think of the world as a large-scale version of your high school cafeteria, New York Blondes are the "good girls" and Hollywood Blondes are the "bad girls."
"New York Blondes have sex appeal, but in a classy sort of way," said Robert Verdi, a celebrity stylist who is a host of "Fashion Police" on the Style cable network. "Hollywood blondes are more obvious, more va-va-va-voom. There isn't any attempt to look natural."
Or, as Ms. Sykes put it: "It's the difference between Scarlett Johansson and Carolyn Bessette. In New York, the look is blond and chic with no bust, and in L.A. it's blond and busty and sex bomb. Here, the sexy element is considered a bit tacky."
The Price They Pay
The pedigree of the New York Blonde goes back at least 40 years, to the days when a covey of well-dressed, well-tressed socialites like C. Z. Guest and Nan Kempner were the reigning fashion doyennes. These women would stop by some flossy East Side salon for a "comb-out" (the 60's equivalent of a blow-out) before lunching at now-shuttered water holes like La Caravelle and La Côte Basque. In their trim suits, gloves and alligator pumps, they were the style setters of their day, and their perfectly cut and sprayed coiffures were often colored shades like ash or platinum.
Today, you hardly hear the word platinum associated with hair. But the New York Blonde's obsession with her hair is, if anything, more powerful than ever. Although the cut may be a simple classic style – no messy, razored layers, no tacky imitations of Mischa Barton – the hair itself looks like something Botticelli would have done had he worked in a posh Manhattan salon and charged $300 for highlights. Delicate ribbons of flax are intertwined with streaks of vanilla and threads of gold strategically placed over a honey-toned base to create a silky, shiny, better-than-natural-looking head of hair that silently telegraphs "high-priced," "high class" and, most of all, "high maintenance."
"Trust me, it takes a lot of money and a lot of effort to have hair that appears so effortlessly beautiful," said Kathleen Flynn-Hui, a senior colorist at Salon AKS on Fifth Avenue and author of "Beyond the Blonde," a gossipy roman à clef set in a Madison Avenue salon. In her opinion, a New York Blonde's hair is her best accessory. "It looks expensive and it definitely turns heads," she said.
At Manhattan's haute salons, highlights generally start at $200 and soar into the stratosphere upward of $500 without tips, depending on factors like the length of one's hair, its color (lightening dirty blond hair is less pricey than transforming chestnut), the processes required and the star power of the colorist. By contrast, according to a study published in American Salon, a trade magazine, in 2004 the national average that American women paid for standard highlights was $61 to $71.
Sometimes the New York Blonde has her hairdresser tend her tresses in the privacy of her home, a service that can double or triple the cost of a salon visit. She may also require an emergency application of Clairol when visiting faraway playgrounds like Aspen or Rome.
"It is part of the lifestyle of being a New York Blonde," said Rita Hazan, the colorist who owns the Rita Hazan Salon on East 65th Street and whose appointment book is filled with names of clients on both coasts, including Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson.
"My clients fly me wherever they are to do their color," added Ms. Hazan, who charges $500 and up for highlights. "They'll call and say, 'Rita, I'm in Canada' or 'I'm in Italy' or 'I'm in Utah.' Can you come?' I pack my bags, and I'm off on the next plane" – with a first-class ticket and luxury accommodations.
A Slave to Her Salon
The price of being a New York Blonde is also measured in time.
"I think the really chic ones are in the salon every two weeks, because your roots start growing out the minute you leave the salon," Ms. Sykes said. "The girls who look good are there every four weeks, and the ones who don't look so good are there every two months."
But even if a salon appointment is every six weeks, the effort required to constantly look this beautiful can be exhausting.
"It might sound like fun to the ordinary woman, but it requires enormous discipline and commitment to chase the perfect the way New York Blondes do," said Natalia Ilyin, a cultural critic, echoing the title of her newest book, "Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time." Ms. Ilyin, who is also the author of "Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture," added: "Going to the salon is not a fun thing you do once in a while. It's part of an identity that you have to keep up."
Even a society swan like Tinsley Mortimer, whose gorgeous, long blond locks capture photographers' lenses at fashion shows and black-tie benefits, conceded that it was too difficult to maintain the coveted pale "baby blond" look.
"I loved being really light blond, but it was just super-high-maintenance," she said. "Now I have a little darker blond color that is easier to take care of."
A color-savvy New York Blonde, who can distinguish between a chardonnay highlight and a Champagne highlight, is very finicky about getting the exact shade she wants. It isn't unheard of for her to stride into a salon with swatch of maize-colored silk or a tiny daughter with butter-colored curls and request that the same hue be woven into her hair.
An alchemist who can custom-blend a fabulous shade will be rewarded with a grateful client who doesn't switch colorists every six months, a client, perhaps, like Mona de Sayve, a partner in her mother's interior design firm, Ann Downey Interiors, who has been a client of Ms. Flynn-Hui's for 18 years. Ms. de Sayve remained loyal even during the years she lived in Paris.
"I tried Alexandre and Carita," Ms. de Sayve said, mentioning two of the city's most chic salons, "and no one could do it right. In Paris, they just don't understand blond highlights. They're too old-fashioned. I'd let them do touch-ups – with Kathleen's formula – but I would fly to New York every six or eight weeks to see Kathleen."
Although Ms. de Sayve now lives in Palm Beach, she comes to Manhattan every month to have her blond hair colored by Ms. Flynn-Hui, who charges $275 and up for highlights.
In the eyes of many New York Blondes, this sort of diligence is worth it.
"It's not only worth it, it's necessary," said Toni Haber, a real estate broker for Prudential Douglas Elliman whose workaday uniform runs to Armani suits and Prada heels and whose golden hair is highlighted by Jennifer Costa of the John Barrett Salon in Bergdorf Goodman. "In my career and the people I take out for business and socialize with, it's important to be chic-looking because they notice your nails, your hair, your shoes, your ring. It makes you feel better, too."
In a city that thrives on symbols, there is another reason so many women are willing to be a captive to their colorist: dazzling blond hair, associated with gold, rarity and status, is a symbol of power. "The New York Blonde embodies a lot of the values of our materialistic society," said Ms. Ilyin, the (naturally blond) social critic, a former New Yorker, who lives near Seattle. "She is thinner, blonder, richer than the rest of us, and she has better shoes. Hair that gorgeous is hard to attain. She creates in the viewer a sense of lack, a message that says, 'I have more than you.' This is power."
Perhaps that sense of power explains why, for New York Blondes, the pursuit of perfection begins early, as evidenced by teenage Rapunzels who are booking appointments to have their hair chemically enhanced.
"Believe it or not, I've had some really young kids come in – maybe 10, 11 or 12 years old," said Ms. Costa of the John Barrett salon. "But that's uncommon. More often, it's girls in high school."
Is There Life Beyond Blonde?
Rare is the New York Blonde who changes her stripes.
"Once you have invested the time, money and effort into being a beautiful blonde," said Steven Amendola, a colorist at the Kevin Mancuso Salon on Park Avenue, who estimated that 75 percent of his customers were blond, "you are not going back to being a brunette. It is the rarest of clients."
Count Ms. Sykes, the author of "Bergdorf Blondes," among the happy Snow Whites who have no desire to be transformed into Cinderellas.
"If you have really dark hair and dark eyebrows like I do, the maintenance would be just terrible," said Ms. Sykes, a 5-foot-10-inch sylph with long chestnut-colored hair. "I tried going slightly blonder, and it didn't work for me. With my English complexion, I looked green."
Ms. Sykes has even forsaken her Bergdorf Blondes and crossed over to the dark side in her new novel, "The Debutante Divorcée," to be published April 18. Brunettes fill the pages. Or, as the author put it deliciously, "My protagonist has hair the color of espresso beans."
Perhaps brunette is the new blond.