I met Andy Hlebakos, a tattooed, rough around the edges, Italian/Greek, loud-laughing, unapologetic dyke by chance when I needed someone new to cut my hair. I just happened to land in the chair where I have returned every other week for the past 4 years to get my regular trim. In those 4 years we would talk smack, kvetch about politics, and share gossip. In that time I’ve changed careers, fallen in love, had the highest highs and the lowest lows. And there was Andy to take it in, throw it back at me, and give sage advice as only a barber knows how. As she puts it, “I’m just an old dyke from the city.” Her, not me.
Finding a brilliant barber is no easy feat. There’s no margin for error on short hair. Every mistake is visible and every gay man will be more than motivated to point it out. Andy is easily one of the best. She can be found at Joe’s Barbershop on Market Street in the Castro. She’ll be the one in the flat rimmed baseball cap, the second chair from the front. Her chair won’t be as easy to accidentally slide into though as she’s taking herself off the “public” list and is starting to be by appointment only.
A San Francisco native, she was raised by her hippy mother who had no problems with letting her teenage daughter finish high school living with a ‘pile’ of drag queens Andy met at the age of 15 in a bar. She is truly a San Francisco story.
How did you become a barber? <Coughing from taking a huge hit off a blunt> I was talked into going to beauty school by a pile of drag queens. They were convinced that I would be able to do their wigs afterwards.
<laughing> How old were you? I’m dead serious. I started beauty school when I was 17.
So, you were 17 growing up in San Francisco and a pile of drag queens, is that the plural for drag queens, ‘pile’? I would think so. This specific queen that talked me into it is now deceased. When I was 15 I went to the Eagle, cuz that’s where you went when you were a 15 year old gay kid in San Francisco in the 1988 because they didn’t card me. So I walk in and I met two of the most vicious and horrifying drag queens you’ve ever seen in your life.
What were their names? Jacqui Jewels and Shelly Summers. Do you remember those Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp? They came up to me like that. They were like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re a child, you should be in bed.” And of course I was fucking terrified. I thought they would get me kicked out. I started talking to them, told them I was gay and all of that shit. I wanted to meet gay people and this was the bar that wasn’t going to card me. The next thing I know those two snatched me up underneath their wing. They just took me. I lived with Jacqui on South Market for years. Shelly died in 1994 and Jacqui died about 2002ish.
Wait, so even though your family was in the city you lived with drag queens while you were underage? Yep. I went with them because my mom allowed it. It’s always been just me and my mom. I have looked the way I do since I was a little kid. I was considered a tom-boy. When I came out to my mom while I was in high school she was not surprised at all. She was perfectly fine.
You were 15 in 1988 and wanting to go live with some queens and she was cool with that? She was cool. She didn’t want me in the bars. She wanted me to go to school and get good grades. I went to the bars anyway. She picked me up puking in front of the original ‘Hole in the Wall’ in the late 80’s. I was still in high school, lost my friends, puking on the side of the road, called her from a payphone and she came and picked me up. She was so pissed.
“I was talked into going to beauty school by a pile of drag queens. They were convinced that I would be able to do their wigs afterwards.”
<laughing> That’s awesome Do you know why she was pissed? It wasn’t because I was out in the bars around a bunch of gay guys. She was pissed because she was worried that the bar owners could lose their liquor license from my being in there. She was more upset with me for putting them in jeopardy. She couldn’t give a shit that I was at the bars, she was afraid for the owners that they would get shut down for something I did.
I love your mother. She’s great! My mom’s been to a beer bust at the Eagle, she’s been to San Francisco’s coronation, she was at Donna Sachet’s step-down, and she’s been to a couple of coronations in Alameda county. She’s incredibly liberal. All of my activism and shit I learned it from her. She was a hippy in San Francisco in 1969, her senior year of high school.
Back to the drag queens! How did they pursue you into doing hair? I was getting to a point where I had to figure out something and I had no idea what I wanted to be. No fucking clue. I wanted to be a drag king. I wanted to perform and hang out with my friends. Well, that wasn’t a possibility to make a living. So Jacqui’s brilliant idea was that I should go do hair. His theory was that he was gonna get me working at Finocchio’s because he knew people there. But that never happened. I signed up for beauty school with the intention that I was gonna learn how to do wigs.
<laughing> And now you do my hair! Exactly! I knew how to do wigs and that was fine but I’ll tell you I struggled in a lot of areas in beauty school until I picked up those clippers. Then it was easy. Cutting was easy. It just clicked. I struggled with curling irons and blow dryers and all that kind of shit. Doing nails was easy because it was like wet sanding a car! It really is. <laughing> I almost quit beauty school over perms.
My first barber gig was in Richmond under a stylist named Brownie Sims, who still is today really big in our industry. The second I got my license I got a job there for another drag queen who had been an assistant for her. I learned a ton about styling black people’s hair. What I learned from her was about always furthering your education. You never ever, ever, ever are an expert in this field. She really drove that into me. After that I went to this crusty little fade shop called ‘Sue’s Cuts and Perms’, it’s still there. I worked there for 12 years.
After that you owned a shop in Tahoe, right? I did, for 5 years. It was called, ‘Get Your Locks Off’. <laughing>. I won the Best of Tahoe in 2004. But, I wasn’t old enough to live in Tahoe. Tahoe is fantastic, it’s poverty with a view. Unless, you have really good money you can’t really enjoy the place. It just got boring. I didn’t have a boat or any of that cool shit. I found myself in San Francisco more than I was in Tahoe. I was getting to the point where I was taking clients 3 or 4 days a week down here. So it was time.
How did you end up coming into the city? I came into the city through an ad I saw on Craigs List. Joe had that ad out and I had no idea who he was until we met. He was just some guy that owned a barber shop. To be honest I was never really secure enough to go work in San Francisco. I never thought I was good enough to work there. I said, ‘Fuck it’. I just held my nose and jumped and checked out this barber shop. I was nervous to work there because I didn’t have a clientele yet and it was a rental situation.
Joe and I realized we knew fifteen-thousand people in common and he insisted I come. That was 5 years ago.
So, now you’re taking the next step with your business and are becoming reservation only. You aren’t taking any walk-ins anymore! Why did it take so long? Again, with the fucking confidence thing. I never ever thought I had enough clients that would come see me.
That completely surprises me. Joe made it happen for October. I was hemming and hawing about doing it in January. When he decided he was moving in August I told him and he immediately asked if I would start it in October because his clients don’t want to get on the wait list. And that’s how it happened so soon.
You can make your appointment with Andy Hlebakos online at www.andyhlebakoshair.com. She’s located at Joe’s Barbershop, 2150 Market St between Church and Sanchez. Her hours are Tuesday – Friday, 11-7 and Saturday, 9-5.