According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 135,000 barbers on record in the U.S., only 16 percent are women. An interesting fact, under skills needed, they listed: Active Listening, Service Orientation, and Social Perceptiveness. This week’s Portrait has mastered all of those skills and more. One of the few female barbers in this town, BJ Bear has been shaping the looks of Philadelphians for over a decade. We spoke to her about her craft and the secrets.
Are you from this area?
I am actually. I’m from Wyndmoor, which is about a mile from Chestnut Hill. I currently live in Flourtown, which is close enough that I can ride my bike to Chestnut Hill. It’s one of the reasons why we chose to stay in this area, the proximity to Chestnut Hill, Wissahickon and Center City.
Tell me about the family.
It’s a big family, half Italian, half German. Six kids, I have four brothers and a sister, and with the nieces and nephews there are 27 of us. So I like big gatherings.
How are you guys handling the pandemic? No big gatherings these days.
It’s hard, in the beginning we did a lot of zooming, we played games like homemade Jeopardy with questions based on our family.
That’s so cute! What is a family tradition and/or a fun memory?
I’d like to say our huge Thanksgiving dinners; it’s the one holiday when we all get together. At Christmas you might have to go to the in-laws or something, but Thanksgiving was always at my parent’s house. My mother is first generation Italian so until a few years ago, she did all the cooking and then I took it over 6 years ago. It’s alway fun and always a lot, we have a 15 lb turkey and a recipe for a spinach casserole that we’ve made every year for about 45 years.
How long before you were able to sit at the big table?
Probably not until I was 13!
Me too, but now I try to sneak back and sit at the kids table, it’s more fun!
Who was the troublemaker and who was the funniest?
My brother. He’s youngest, and he was probably both. He would always get in trouble and then be able to charm his way out of it with humor. He was very quick.
What’s an example?
He was good at doing imitations of people in the family. My grandmother, or our father; he would mimic them and make us all laugh. He would bring humor to the most somber moments, it was just his personality. I’m sure as the youngest it was a way for him to get attention.
What were you like?
I was the complete opposite. I didn’t like attention, I was more like my father that way. I was a people pleaser and still tend to be pretty laid back.
Were you a sports person?
Yes, very much so. I was an athlete all through grade school and high school. I played basketball for Penn State. I don’t know if you know much about women’s basketball, but the head coach of the University of Connecticut’s women’s team, the Huskies, was our assistant coach at the time. His name is Geno Auriemma and he went on to coach them to I don’t know how many championships. So we were pretty good. A lot of the girls who played around that time went to Division one leagues. Unfortunately, I blew out my ACL and that pretty much ended my basketball career, but I kept playing softball and flag football.
What was a best moment in sports for you?
Winning the Catholic League Championship in High School. It was my senior year and it was awesome. Eventually, my career moved away from sports and I got into cooking, and then I started working as a travel agent. I was in the travel business for 18 years and I loved it. I got to travel around and had a great career, I owned my own business, which is how I met my wife, and we’ve been together 27 years.
Wow that’s great.
Yeah, though we’ve only been married for a little while, it’ll be a year next month. When I was in the travel business, I saw the writing on the wall when people started using the internet and then when 9/11 happened I was lucky enough to see where the industry was going and I got out, I sold the business to someone else in April of 2000. My wife had just bought a salon and spa in Blue Bell so I started helping her out with the business. After 5-6 years I knew that I needed to do something on my own and said to her, “You know what? After being around the salon for so long, I’d like to be a barber.” She told me I would be a great barber and encouraged me to go for it. So with her support, I was fortunate enough to be able to go back to school and become a barber.
What’s an education for a barber look like?
For me, I went to cosmetology school and then I did an apprenticeship. I was 40 at the time and had to search for a mentor, keep in mind, most of the kids I went to school with were 18 and 20. But I found a barber on 11th Street, he was 33, I was 42 and we both thought we could help each other. It was a small two chair shop and I learned a lot there. He taught me almost everything I know. I did my apprenticeship with him. Now I work for Groom Barber on Locust Street near the Doubletree hotel. It’s in what used to be called the Sylvania building and it’s been there since 1926. It’s always been a barber shop and it is one of the oldest barber shops in the city. When Joe McMenamin took it over, I was the 2nd barber he hired and I’ve been there since. It’s been great. It’s my passion.
How are you guys fairing during the pandemic?
We’re doing well. We’ve been open for business. I wear a mask and safety glasses, the client wears a mask and they face forward and you’re behind them and we have disposable capes. We cut the capacity in half to space out so we only have 3 barbers instead of 6.
How nerve wracking was it the first time you shaved someone with a straight razor?
Unbelievably nerve wracking. The guy who I did my apprenticeship with, Jamal, had his grandfather come in weekly for me to shave. He was 83 and had this brown leathery skin and he’d lay there as comfortable as could be while I was shaking, and he’d say, “Go ahead honey, you’re not going to cut me”. I’ll never forget that guy, I loved him. He came in every Tuesday for a year and was responsible for helping me become a great shaver.
I’ve worked as a bartender, where you often have to be bartender/therapist, I would imagine that being a barber is the same.
Oh yes, absolutely, you hear stories. People tell you about relationships gone awry, trouble with their bosses, and ask for your advice. There’s a book called, “The Fred Factor” and it’s about a postman who gets to be so close to the people on his route that he ends up babysitting a cat, and bringing in someone’s milk while their on vacation, helping all sorts of people and I’ve felt the same with my clients. I had one client who hated his job and asked me what he should do, he had a passion for good food and wine and I encouraged him to follow his passion. Now he works for a wine company and is so much happier. You get to know people, I have a medical student who comes in. I first cut his hair his freshman year of grad school. It’s been 11 years now and he still comes to me. He’s married now with 2 kids. That kind of thing is cool. I saw him through medical school and getting engaged and married and having kids. One client even incited me to his wedding.
Nice. What’s the wackiest thing that’s happened?
We had two guys who worked for Yards Brewery, they had a bet with some guys from another beer company and apparently lost. As the losers they had to let their hair grow and then get mullet style hair cuts! So they came to our shop to get them. That was a lot of fun, they were good sports. Another thing that’s surprising, especially since it happens more often than you’d expect, is that some guy will come in and I always start by asking them what kind of cut they want and they’ll respond, “Whatever” and when I ask them what brings them in they’ll say, “Oh, I’m getting married today.” What? I’m giving them a cut that will be in their wedding photos forever! I get more anxious or excited than they seem.
How do you stay on top of the latest trends?
Browsing the internet mostly, and also, just watching television and seeing what actors are in fashion and what they’re rocking. Even something like “Boardwalk Empire”, when that was on there were several cuts that came from that show and lasted a long time.
Do you have guys coming in with pictures of Brad Pitt saying, “Make me look like him?”
I do, I do. Daniel Craig and Ryan Gosling are big ones. I try to dissuade them by saying things like, “Well, you don’t have the hairline for that cut.” or “You really need to have a different shaped head for that” which is true, someone with a square shape, won’t look good with a cut meant for someone with an oval shaped head.”
I imagine there aren’t too many female barbers around.
No, I only know of one other, she has a lot of the Eagles players as clients. And I cut her husband’s hair!
That’s funny. Have you ever had any pushback?
Not much but on occasion someone will come in and when they find out that BJ is a woman, they might say they prefer to have a male barber, but the guys in the shop usually tell them, “Well, she taught us, so she’s the best barber here” but if they still say no, that’s fine. I don’t take it personally.
What do you do when you’re not barbering?
I garden, I have a 10 x 12 vegetable garden at home, so I have fresh ingredients for my cooking, which I love to do. I love to do woodworking and I just got my first “She shed” though my wife jokes that there’s not much ‘she’ in me. I have a dog named Holly and I love walking her, we have a great community here and we’re not the only lesbian couple which is nice.
As a former travel agent, what’s your best travel adventure and the most harrowing?
Probably going to Israel, I’m Christian Roman Catholic and my wife is Jewish, so we did an interfaith tour and then stayed on our own and it was the most beautiful, educational, spiritual, eye-opening place I’ve been to. And relaxing, we spent the last few nights on the beach in Tel Aviv which was amazing, and they have the best food ever. I don’t know about harrowing, but when we were in China, we went in January and it was about 15 degrees, so there was no one around in most places. We went on the Great Wall and we have pictures that look like a postcard because we were the only ones on it. Oh, and when we went to England, also in the winter, we landed at 7am and then drove to the country to find a little cottage we’d rented. It started to snow and between the snow and trying to drive on the left side, we got lost. We finally stopped at 9 that night in a little village to get directions and they told us that we’d driven almost all the way to the border. A little farther and we’d be in Wales! We ended up staying there in a boutique hotel. We never made it to the cottage.
What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve eaten in your travels?
If there was a sitcom about you it would be called _____ish.
Childish. I never act my age. It keeps me young.
Do you remember the first record you bought?
Yes, the Eagles, “Lyin’ Eyes”.
How did coming out go for you?
Ooh, well I guess I came out to myself when I was a teen, then my mother found a note that I’d written to someone I had a crush on and she didn’t take it well. She tried to fix it by sending me to a priest. When I was 21, I went to the civil rights march in DC, this was in 1992. A friend of mine was working on the stage so I got to meet Melissa Etheridge and even carried her guitar to the car and helped her get in. My claim to fame. That was the first time I really started to feel comfortable in my own skin and with who I was and wanted to be.
Ha! You told me that Brian Sims was your only celebrity encounter!
Brian! Yes, he’s been coming to me for 15 years. Every time he gets in my chair we have a good talk. I knew him when he was a lawyer and now he’s our state rep. He’s been through a lot of changes including his hair and his beard! I also do some of the Eagles and we do a lot of actors who are performing at the theaters nearby. What I like about that is when they’re doing a period piece and they come in and say, “I need to look like a British cop from the ‘30s” or something like that, it’s a lot of fun.
Oh, I thought of another crazy story. I had a guy come in one time with a full wig on. He wanted me to cut his hair, it was a really bad synthetic wig, but I went ahead and cut it. Apparently I did a good job because the next thing I knew, he reached into his bag and pulled out another wig for me to cut! That’s why I love this job, I love making people feel good and giving them confidence and there’s never a dull moment!