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Maria Matarazzo, the owner of the midtown salon Madora George Michael, enrolled in beauty school forty years ago after a giddy barber gave her what she calls "the Italian poodle." "It was the worst experience of my life," she says. "Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. This is what they call styling?"
It took her years to grow her hair back and when it'd reached a satisfactory length (below the butt), she began working for George Michael, the self-described "Tzar of long hair." He was waging a "war on ugliness," lecturing women (the kind who "like lacy underwear") all over the world on how to embrace their femininity. His system for beauty was strict: no bangs, layers, rubber bands, blow drying, or washing more than once a week.
Matarazzo, who took over Michael's New York salon in 1989, is more lenient with the rules, but still cries sometimes, she says, when people make her cut off their locks. Some of her clients have hair that goes below their knees and even to their ankles. She doesn't like any of the new styles with "all those little stringy strands" and finds that people with short dos tend to be frustrated, nervous, angry, or hyper. "Women think they need to chop off their hair to look sophisticated," she says. "Take Jessica Simpson, a glorious blond. She got famous and now she has nothing-hair. It's sad. She looks shorn."
Robert Gallagher, the owner of Long Hair Care Group, a nearby salon with a similar specialty, is also baffled by "modern women" who equate success with boyish hairdos. After doing more than a thousand Dorothy Hamill wedges in the late '70s, he noticed how much better customers looked before their appointment than after. "Long hair is the sexiest thing a woman can do," he says. "Are men the only ones who realize this?"
If there's something creepy about extraordinarily long locks (the hair-award winners in the Guinness Book of World Records are hardly icons of beauty), Gallagher doesn't see it. He considers himself something of a hair coach or therapist, telling clients when they need to drink more, eat better, or sleep in safer positions to minimize strand breakage. The salon has its own custom blend of moisturizing lotions and vitamins, which Gallagher grinds with a mortar and pestle, then sticks it in the microwave.
Like Matarazzo, he sees cutting hair as an act of violence. Recently a young girl from Vermont, who wanted to donate to Locks of Love, a non-profit that provides hairpieces to children with cancer, came in and asked Gallagher to take off more than two feet of her hair. Her parents and sisters were all there, taking pictures and weeping. "I've never seen a whole family cry at once," Gallagher says. "She went from beautiful to cute. I can't do that again. It was pain. I had the scissors in my hand and I said to myself 'this is murder.'"