In Marian Keyes' novel Angels (Perennial, 2003), the heroine goes into her local salon for a simple blowout and leaves with the Edward Scissorhands special. Did she voice a complaint, you might wonder? Alas, no. "What could I say?" the character asks. "Don't we all know it's harder to be honest with hairdressers than it is to get a camel through the eye of a storm, or whatever?"
Here are four ways to avoid similar salon disasters with the help of expert insight straight from stylists and colorists themselves.
1. Style your hair before getting a cut or color. If you're going to a stylist or colorist for the first time, it's better to avoid the ponytail-and-unwashed-hair look in lieu of arriving with your hair styled the way you would do it on a typical day. The experts say this gives the stylist a better idea of what they're working with -- and what you want to change (including the length). "That way you can say, 'I always get this flip and I hate it,' or 'I like this flip. How can I get it all over?'" explains Jo Ann Welch, a Pensacola, Fla.-based regional educator for the Fantastic Sams salons.
2. Be perfectly clear. Sure it sounds obvious, but simply saying you want your hair shorter or blonder leaves a gaping space for error. "Stylists can't read minds," says Welch. Consult color charts, browse through magazines and point out shades and styles you don't like as well as those you do. If you wear your hair up seven days a week, share this information.
Once you've explained what you want, make sure that it's practical for you. That messy shag you have your heart set on might look like a wash-and-go 'do, but in reality it could take a lot of time to achieve. "Ask your stylist how long it will take to re-create a look at home," urges Welch. "Most women don't have hours to spend on their hair." Be specific -- ask how many products you'll need, what type of brush you should buy and what kind of time commitment a certain look requires.
"Women who think they're going to get beautiful, glossy locks like Catherine Zeta-Jones' or Kate Hudson's with no effort at all need to hear the truth," says Gretchen Monahan, founder of G-Spa and Grettacole spas in Boston. "These stars are loading on lots of products, and someone else is styling it for them."
Pictures are the best way to communicate your desires, and usually, the more you bring, the clearer your wishes will be. You may like the length in one, the color in another and the shape or layers in a third. A good stylist will be able to glean the overall look.
Be extremely careful, though, when selecting photos. Do you really have a grasp of how short/layered/curly/dark the style is and how that would look with your face shape and coloring? (To get a sense of how a hairstyle will look on you, log on to clairol.com; there you can upload photos of yourself, along with different hairstyles and hair colors.)
"I've had clients show me a picture and say, 'I want this exact style,' so I give it to her," Welch explains. "Afterward she'll say, 'I didn't realize how short it was going to be.'" Before your stylist whips out her scissors, have her show you where the ends will be. Ask her to cut gradually, especially if you're going for a radically different length.
And, above all, beware of the smoke-and-mirrors phenomenon. "Hair color you see in photos is seldom replicable," says Stuart Gavert, co-owner of the Gavert Atelier salon in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Photographers use strobe lights to create a brilliant reflection that the camera captures, but even the model's hair doesn't look like that in real life."
3. Know your products and styling tools. You're at the salon's counter, getting ready to pay for your fabulous new cut, and you just know it's coming: The hard-core product push. "I've just spent $100 on this cut and color, and now they want me to drop another $50 on styling products," is what you're thinking. While some salons do push products just to increase sales, chances are that your stylist is recommending products that will help keep you happy with your new style.
"The right products are often the key to achieving the look you want," says Monahan. Try the products your stylist recommends -- or get similar, less expensive ones from a drugstore. If your stylist suggests multiple products, ask which one or two will make the most dramatic difference.
The right tools can also help you keep your locks in shape at home. Using a certain type of brush can help you achieve the desired style and a high-quality dryer can cut drying time. If you're timid about buying, inquire about the salon's return policy; most will refund your money on products and tools if you're not happy.
4. Speak up if you're not satisfied. This is the hardest part of a bad salon experience. Often, we're rendered mute with anger and embarrassment. But as tough as it is, this is when you have to speak up if there is any possibility of saving the situation.
"When stylists don't get it right, they're not happy either," Welch says. Not paying isn't really an option, but the pros agree that a hairdo you hate should be redone free of charge. Explain kindly -- but specifically -- what you don't like. It could be something very simple that one little tweak could fix (such as not enough layers around the face), Welch says. If your stylist ignores your complaints or insists that you're wrong and that it looks fine, speak to the owner or manager. "Unfortunately, not all bad hairdos can be fixed on the spot," Gavert says. "It may take several visits to correct the problem."