Family Portrait: Heather O’Malley

Heather O’Malley is someone who has a good head on her shoulders and, if you’re lucky she’ll work on yours, too.

As a professional stylist at Vanity, 1126 Walnut St., second floor, O’Malley delights in helping everyone reach their potential for beauty on the interior as well as on the exterior. You may have seen her work on “Ambush Makeover,” “The 10! Show” or the CN8 “Morning Show.” Though she loves the world of fashion, O’Malley gets the most pleasure out of reaching out to others, not just during the holidays but year round.

PGN: Is this time of year difficult for people? HO: It can be. I work with a group called Brothers and Sisters of the elderly. I was assigned to a woman who I visited right before Christmas. I called her on the phone and she was really excited for me to come visit her. As we were speaking, she told me that she had four kids and seven grandkids and she was crying because no one was going to drop by to even say hello or wish her Merry Christmas. She had one son who sometimes comes by, but he’d called to say he had a flat tire, so he wasn’t going to come. I mean what bullshit! It’s Christmas, call AAA or take a bus and visit your mother. But for the most part, this time of year brings out the best in people. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays — this and Halloween.

PGN: Where are you from? HO: I grew up in Somerton, which is in the Northeast Philly area. It was a nice middle-class upbringing but then the place started going downhill, so when I was in sixth grade, we moved to North Wales where the schools were better. Back then, it was very rural, lots of cows around. My parents still live there.

PGN: Are you an only child? HO: Yes, I was adopted. My parents are great; they were always very open about things. I remember going to show-and-tell and telling everyone that I was adopted, even before I understood what it meant. As I got older, I was always made to feel special because I was chosen. They’d waited three years to get a child and I was the first child on my mom’s side of the family so it was a celebration when they got me. My grandparents lived next door and it was a very loving environment. I did go through the period when I got older where I wondered about my birth mother — what does she look like, could it be the woman next to me on the bus, what’s our health history, that kind of thing — but I never wanted another mother.

PGN: What did your parents do? HO: My mom was a stay-at-home mom until we moved to the suburbs, then she got a job working at Merck. I was the first to go to college, but when my mother started working again, her company offered to pay for schooling. So now at age 60, she’s going to school and moving up the corporate ladder. My father repairs elevators and escalators. He’s also an amazing guy. He’d have to be on call and, sometimes after a full workday, he’d be called back out and he never said a word. He was doing it to take care of his family, so it was so something he was proud to be doing. He never complained. He didn’t talk a lot period, but when he did it was usually profound.

PGN: What was a favorite toy as a kid? HO: We had a pool and during the summer I loved to be outdoors, either swimming or running through the woods near our house. Inside, I liked to play with Legos.

PGN: Where did you go to school? HO: It was interesting, I went to a Catholic school first as a kid, and hated it. I think I got in trouble for singing the Monkees theme song, “Hey, Hey we’re the Monkees.” I always questioned things, I wanted to know why we should believe in something you couldn’t see. Then I went to public school, which was better, but I was beginning to question my sexual identity and realizing the reality of my feelings. Coming from a Catholic background, you’re taught to think of yourself as a horrible person for such thoughts so it was tough. I still don’t consider myself religious, but ironically, I went back to a Catholic school for college. I ended up going to Saint Joseph’s University, where I received a double degree in elementary and special education. St. Joe’s is a Jesuit University and, in many ways, it was the best thing for me. It helped me connect with my spiritual side and the need for giving. It also helped me accept my sexuality. I was still kind of in the closet in high school, I just told myself I was too picky and preferred my friends and family as companions. But in college I blossomed. The Jesuits are Catholic, but they don’t really answer to the Catholic doctrine. They are more about service and are the most liberal of all the Catholics. In my graduating class, our valedictorian was openly gay. Giovanni’s Room bookstore donated rainbow tassels for anyone who wanted them: It was really cool. It let me see that I could have God in my life and still do what I wanted to do.

PGN: What were some of the things you did? HO: I always had compassion for people, but at St. Joe’s I was taught to take it to a new level. My freshman year, I took a service learning class, which meant that whatever course you were taking, math or science, whatever, you had to do an equal number of community service hours. I volunteered at My Brother’s House, which is an all-male homeless shelter. It didn’t get more dramatic for me than that. Here I was, this little suburban girl with a blond bob going into an inner-city facility for men. And these were some of the hardest cases: They were guys with either mental or addiction problems who were so far gone, they were not able to be mainstreamed back into society. At first, I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t about giving money, so I had to figure out what I had to offer. What I learned was that people just wanted interaction. It was about building relationships and learning that everyone has a story to tell if you’d just listen. Sorry, I get emotional thinking about it. How so many people will literally avoid another person, how if you see someone on the street, you will avert your eyes or even cross the road to avoid contact with them. And I do understand that some people are unstable so you might be afraid to engage, but what I found is that it most folks only wanted a friend. They all had a background and a history that they wanted to share.

PGN: Were you sensitive as a kid? HO: I think so. I was always concerned with other people’s feelings. If I saw someone sitting by themselves in a restaurant, I’d ask my mother if they could sit with us because I didn’t want them to be lonely. I also remember I was obsessed for a while with making sure people knew they were loved. But I would ask my mom to do it. We’d be in an elevator and I’d tell my mother to tell the person standing next to us that I loved them or if the waitress was really sweet, I’d say to my mother, “Can you tell her that I love her?” I guess I was too shy to do it myself, but I wanted them to know.

PGN: What are some of the other opportunities that inspired you? HO: Oh, so many. I worked at a community garden for kids who’d had difficulties in school. We planted a garden and when the kids would feel stressed and started getting enraged, instead of disciplining them, we’d send them to the garden to work. Digging and planting gave them a chance to do something productive with their emotions. At the end, we’d make things like salsa with the produce they’d grown. I also went to a program in an old church for people with HIV/AIDS. It was a faith-sharing program and the cool thing was we weren’t there to discuss who had AIDS and who didn’t or what to do, we just helped lead meditation and sharing topics for everyone. Then I did two immersion programs overseas. The first was a violence and reconciliation program in Northern Ireland. It was very interesting; the animosity between the Protestants and the Catholics was very similar to the race problems that we face here. Though there, because there’s no difference in color, you don’t even know who the enemy is until they speak or you find out what area they’re from. I volunteered to work at an elementary school there. It was a special school where the kids weren’t taught who was who. You weren’t allowed to discuss religion. The idea was that without knowing who was Catholic or Protestant, the kids could get to know and love each other as people first and hopefully break the cycle. Then I went to live and work on a Navaho reservation in Tohachi, N.M.

PGN: My grandmother lived in New Mexico. There’s a lot of alcoholism in that community. HO: Yeah, it’s really tragic. We’ve just annihilated the community. We took their land and have given them property on the most unfertile and inhospitable land imaginable. It’s depressing. They’ve become so fractured that when they have cattle or other property, they have to spray paint it so that no one will steal from them. Instead of pulling together, the different groups take from each other because they’re so poor and at rock bottom. The drinking is out of control. The people we stayed with were trying to improve things and were really open to us. In return, they taught us about the original culture and the spirituality they had as a people. It’s an uphill battle.

PGN: So what’s an early sign that you were gay? HO: I remember watching Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds.” I knew then that I wanted to be a teacher and that I wanted to be with her! Before that, I remember watching “Annie” as a kid and thinking that Ann Reinking, who played Grace Farrell, was so beautiful. I wanted to be Daddy Warbucks so I could take care of her.

PGN: How did your family handle it? HO: It was difficult for me because on top of the Catholic guilt, I was an only child and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I think my mother was making wedding plans before I was born. Not that they meant to stifle me, they just didn’t know. In my heart I just kept saying, “No, I cannot be feeling this way” and I tried to squelch it. Being very feminine, I figured I could hide it from myself and everyone else. When I did finally tell them they were great about it.

PGN: What got you into the hair industry? HO: I always loved fashion. It’s wild, I think as soon as I came out, not just to everyone else, but when I accepted myself for who I was, everything fell into place. I felt comfortable in my own skin and that allowed me to be more adventurous. Before, I wore clothes that everyone else was wearing so that I would fit in. Once I came out, late in my freshman year, I cut my hair and starting experimenting with fashion. It was like a revolution that happened without even trying. I’d always wanted to cut hair, so I got a part-time job in a salon and it was a natural. I got into my first salon by just hanging around. The owner really took me under her wing and taught me the business. I got my second job the same way as I did the first. They weren’t hiring, but I decided that I wanted to work there, so I went in, got a pedicure and basically stalked the owner until he agreed to interview me. I eventually rose to floor manager and creative director so I guess it paid off for us both. I worked in Jersey for five years until it was time to come back to the city. I really love working where I am now, I’m the only gay person in the front, but I’m never made to feel I have to hide it. We’re in the Gayborhood, which is great and the place is very welcoming. One of the other hairdressers has a lot of transvestite clients. There were two of the girls here yesterday, having champagne, being fabulous and having a good time while they were getting their hair done. It’s great and the owner Eddie is awesome. He’s the owner, but we’re all treated equally here. He’s very supportive and encourages us all to be the best we can be. When I told him about this interview, he was really excited for me and offered to let me do it here. He wants the community to know that this is a welcoming place.

PGN: How do you combine your career with your desire for service? HO: Well, it’s always satisfying to help someone discover their potential. I try to help people find their own beauty. I’ll have someone come in with a picture and I’ll tell them, you don’t want that, it’s not you. Let me give you something that will showcase your beauty. We’re so conditioned that we should be someone else but everyone’s different and unique. It feels great when they walk away feeling happy with who they are. I’m also a bit of a feminist, so it’s maddening when I get a woman who says, “Well, I really want to do this with my hair, but my husband wouldn’t like it.” I’ve never had a gay couple say anything like that. I think we allow ourselves to express ourselves more. I had a woman last week who wanted to call her husband before I cut her hair. She really wanted a change, but was nervous about what he would think. I said, “Look, men can get fat and bald and dress in sloppy clothes and they don’t stop to ask how you feel about it, why do you need to clear your hair cut with him? You’re a beautiful woman with tons of hair and you want a change, let’s go!” [Laughs.] Of course, I told her not to tell him where I worked! Just kidding. But I think it is very liberating for women. We live in a world where’s there’s not much we can control, to be able to control yourself and what you do to your own head or body is crucial. There are special moments like that in the salon, but what I really enjoy is cutting hair at St. Columba’s men’s shelter. I volunteer there once a month. The first time I went, I was greeted with huge smiles by all the people there, they were so excited. When we went up in the elevator, there was a sign-up sheet on the wall for people who wanted to get a haircut and it was completely full. I sat the first guy down and asked the guy how he wanted me to do his hair and he just stared at me. He said, “No one’s ever asked me that before.” The woman who ran the shelter said that they weren’t used to being asked how they wanted something. She said that the people who came in barely wanted to touch them, never mind taking the time to ask what they wanted. They had so little that it was just “take what you are given.” They were given the food that they got and the clothes that they wore, there was never a choice. It’s something I never would have even thought about, but it really makes you realize how lucky we are just to be able to have simple choices everyday. I try to take my time with each person and trim their beards or sideburns and make them feel good about themselves. It’s very humbling that something so simple can make such a difference.

PGN: Celebrity brush with fame? HO: I got locked in a bathroom with Paris Hilton. Let me tell, you she’s not that tall and not that blond. She seems to surround herself with short brunettes so that she stands out. But she is very pretty. It was 6 in the morning at a club and I think she was trying to avoid the paparazzi. She ducked into a bathroom without knowing that I was in one of the stalls. I also met Deborah Harry who I love, love, love. She’s also adopted. I’m always interested in knowing about other people who are adopted. I enjoyed your column on Henri David by the way, he’s a fellow adoptee, as well as Greg Louganis and Eleanor Roosevelt.

PGN: Favorite section of the art museum? HO: The gift shop. They have the coolest stuff there. I like a lot of modern art. But I like going whenever they have a featured artist.

PGN: First thing you notice in a person? HO: Their energy. I’m very intuitive with people. I can pretty much tell right off the bat what kind of person you are. I was in Wales for the Rugby World Cup with two friends and there were no vacancies. We were at a pub and we met this guy who overheard us and invited us to stay with him. My friends thought I was crazy, but I could tell he was OK. It was an amazing experience, he had a wonderful castle and raised deer and he was like a dad to us.

PGN: Most unusual possession? HO: I used to have an iguana, but I accidentally cooked him. He was about four feet long and one summer it got really hot and there were too many heated things in his area and he baked. His name was Hardwick. I’d just been to a reggae fest in Hardwick, Vt., and named him after the city where it was held.

PGN: Did you have a blankie? HO: Yes, I still have it. It had a rabbit stitched onto it and I used to love to rub the ears while I was sucking my thumb. It had a really neat texture to it. I’d rub an ear until it got too hot to touch and then I’d switch to the other one. There are probably a hundred layers of stitching on it because I’d rub them until they were loose and then my mother would sew them back on.

PGN: Are you involved now? HO: Yes, I have a partner. Her name is Andrea and we’ve been together for over a year. It was a blind date that actually worked. It’s a forever thing. We’re opposites but it works.

PGN: Something about your volunteer work that moved you? HO: It was 10 years ago that I started working at My Brother’s House. Last year, I broke my toe in three places and couldn’t drive to work. There was a guy that I was working with named Murry who offered to drive me to work. He was in his 70s, one of our colorists and a real sweetheart. He drove me to work every day for three months and we would talk and share stories. One time, we drove past a group of homeless people. He looked out and said, “You know, my brother is homeless” and he began to describe his brother. I looked at him and said, “Murry, I think I know your brother. Is his name Jeffery?” He said yes and I told him that when I was working at the shelter, I’d met a guy named Jeffery and become good friends with him. If a person at the shelter was stable enough, we were allowed to take them off premises. I would take Jeffery for walks and to get pizza and we would talk. Here it was 10 years later and his brother was doing a good deed for me. He actually passed away a few months ago and I went to the memorial. Murry called me when he died and told me that I was one of the only people who’d gotten through and made a connection with his brother. It was an amazing circle the way we all intersected.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].