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These self-proclaimed “architects of swag” work closely with celebrities, post regularly on Instagram and earn six figures, taking what can be a monotonous job to new levels.
Lionel Harris, a barber known as Brownie Blendz, on the set of “The Shop Uninterrupted.”Credit...Kim Raff for The New York Times
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By Kurtis Lee
This article was reported from several cities, including Salt Lake City, Atlanta and San Francisco
I slide into a cushy leather chair in this bustling shop next to a small flooring business. The hum of clippers echoes throughout the room.
Jay Organez swoops a crisp cape across my shoulders and grabs a pick, combing it through my hair as I describe my go-to cut: a little off the top with a shadow fade on the sides.
My eyes scan the Northern California shop — 22 chairs in a half circle around the room, some of the individual stations with the Instagram handle of a barber painted above the mirror. A framed photo of former President Barack Obama hangs on a wall, and the TV is tuned to highlights from a recent Golden State Warriors basketball game.
But the volume is turned down low, and instead I hear snippets of conversations — quick descriptions of desired cuts, followed by comfortable banter about politics (Donald Trump running for president — again!) and sports (LeBron James passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the N.B.A. career scoring record) and life (a 20-something moving in with his girlfriend).
I instantly recognize the ease — a trust built over time that sounds almost identical in the chairs here at KJ’s Barber & Hair Creationz as it did a few days earlier inside polished N.B.A. locker rooms and gilded suites of five-star hotels.
Welcome to the world of influencer barbers, where a small cadre of skilled and savvy businessmen like Lionel Harris, who is known as Brownie Blendz and owns KJ’s, have built trust with an exclusive and often extremely private clientele and used that access to build their own brands and land cushy endorsement deals. Mr. Harris, for example, has a recurring role on “The Shop Uninterrupted,” a YouTube show that features guests at a mock barbershop talking about their personal lives as well as the world around them; Mr. James is an executive producer.
Powered by social media and word-of-mouth recommendations among V.I.P.s, the barbers have transformed what was once a stationary, monotonous job with modest pay — a trade group estimates that barbers in the United States make $36,000 a year on average — into six-figure salaries, whirlwind travel and a peek from the periphery into the world of celebrities and pro athletes.
The barbers are full-fledged influencers but also confidants to their clients — sports stars, hip-hop legends and actors — and although their schedules and prices have changed, they still strive to offer the same thing they got from going to the barbershop on weekends as boys: community and consistency.
Black barbershops have long provided a path to entrepreneurship and economic autonomy. They also served as centers of community engagement and congregation during the Jim Crow era, when racist laws limited the places where Black people could gather, said Quincy T. Mills, a history professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America.”
“One could make a living, get a haircut, read the newspaper, engage in spirited conversations, play the numbers, organize a protest campaign or just take it all in,” Mr. Mills said.
Over the course of a month, to see how this profession evolved with social media stardom, I tagged along with three celebrity barbers — Mr. Harris, Marcus Harvey and Vince Garcia — on appointments in Salt Lake City, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles, watching as they seamlessly dropped in and out of their famous clients’ lives. While their clients, like those of many barbers, might want to see them weekly or twice a month, the difference is they travel to their V.I.P. customers, so they are essentially always on call.
Their own higher profiles have changed the dynamics at their original shops, and introduced a new challenge — how to stay authentic to who they were when they started. The authenticity is part of what’s appealing, said Brittany Bright, founder of the Influencer League, a group that provides marketing and management advice to people who work in the wellness and personal services industry.
“They’ve been able to tap into an audience that is highly engaged and interested in their professional perspective,” she said. “The brand is always the foundation.”
Although social media has changed the scope and location of the work for celebrity barbers, they say their drive is still grounded in a fierce desire to pave their own economic path.
It’s just that now, the path isn’t tethered to one spot.
Marcus Harvey, four hours off a plane from Atlanta, slung a black barber’s cape over a chair facing the mirror inside the marble-tiled bathroom and meticulously situated his clippers and razors on the counter.
It was the start of N.B.A. All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City, and Mr. Harvey was setting up a makeshift barbershop inside his suite at the Grand America Hotel.
As he fidgeted with his go-to pair of gold-colored clippers, he heard a soft knock at the door, and then Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer, bounded into the room.
“My brother, what’s up?” Mr. Hill asked, greeting his longtime barber. “You ready to get this done?”
“Yup,” Mr. Harvey said, guiding him toward the bathroom setup. “Let me clean you up.”
A few hours earlier, Mr. Harvey, 40, had held court in the hotel’s lobby, dapping up Spike Lee and recording videos he would later post for his 96,000 followers on Instagram.
One video showed an expansive view of snowcapped peaks and then cut to a close-up shot of black clippers from Bevel, a men’s grooming company that has had a contract with Mr. Harvey for a decade.
“A barber doesn’t just cut hair we shift thought processes,” he captioned another Instagram post from All-Star Weekend. “Engineers of elegance, architects of swag, doctors of worth.”
When he’s on the road — usually at least one day a week — Mr. Harvey follows a fine-tuned routine.
He flies Delta Air Lines and picks a window seat, typically in first class. He uses FaceTime to connect with his young children, Nova and Kingsley, every night from his hotel and always packs his supplies into the same black hard-shell carry-on.
“My barbershop is in my bag,” said Mr. Harvey, who grew up in Atlanta and got his first job as a teenager sweeping up hair clippings at a shop just outside the city.
He eventually started cutting hair and began to build a name for himself among local barbers. Then, in 2010, he caught a break.
A mentor whose barbershop he worked at, Ramsey Shepherd, connected him with Nasir Jones, the Grammy-winning rapper better known as Nas. It was 1:30 a.m., and Mr. Shepherd, who usually cut Nas’s hair when the rapper was in Atlanta, was unavailable, so Mr. Harvey did the haircut.
“That moment really opened up a lot of doors,” said Mr. Harvey, who traveled with Nas this month during a tour in Australia.
Chris Webber, the former N.B.A. All-Star, had recently moved to Atlanta to start a career as an analyst on TNT and needed a haircut. Nas, a close friend, pointed him to Mr. Harvey, who quickly won Mr. Webber over with his precise skills, endless supply of jokes and innate understanding that high-profile people want a cut far away from the spotlight.
“That was my first introduction into the world of N.B.A. athletes,” Mr. Harvey recalled. “It’s really been about cultivating and building on those connections.”
Last year, Mr. Harvey spent several weeks in Europe with Nas during his world tour, and these days he sometimes makes house calls to the rapper in New York and Los Angeles. It’s a reality beyond what he had ever imagined.
“A dream,” Mr. Harvey said.
But a demanding one.
One afternoon, I met up with Mr. Harvey at his modest two-story home in Atlanta. He had just returned from New York, where he cut Nas’s hair before a concert at Madison Square Garden, and was resting on a couch with his wife and daughter, who was home sick with allergies.
“While I travel a lot, I still have parenting duties,” he said, cradling the 5-year-old in his arms.
When he is in town, he drops off and picks up his children from school or day care most days. He and his wife, Khrystina, like to walk laps around Piedmont Park near the city’s Midtown neighborhood and go on date nights to Atlanta Hawks basketball games.
Between his celebrity clients, classes that he teaches to help other barbers build their brands, and his contracts with Bevel and a booking management company, Squire — both of which he frequently tags on his Instagram profile — Mr. Harvey typically brings in around $500,000 a year, he said. (The classes are part of his annual BarberStar Summit, where he coaches fellow barbers on, among other things, monetizing their brands online and networking to gain endorsement deals.)
“We live comfortably,” Mr. Harvey said, “but it’s a grind.”
That afternoon, as he picked up his son, Kingsley, from day care, he rubbed his eyes — the travel days were catching up to him. After dropping his son off at home, he turned his Volkswagen Tiguan south on Interstate 85 and drove 25 miles to Tyrone, Ga., where he wound his way along two-lane roads lined by thick forests before coming to a cast-iron gate.
He was buzzed in, and the gate slowly opened, revealing a 150-acre ranch with two man-made lakes and a mansion. Mr. Harvey pulled up to a barn on the property, which Mr. Webber owns, and began unloading his barbering tools.
The two men greeted each other with a hug, and Mr. Harvey set up a chair on the basketball court inside the barn. On the walls were posters and plaques documenting Mr. Webber’s career, from his time at the University of Michigan, which he helped lead to national championship games in 1992 and 1993, to his stints with several N.B.A. teams.
The next day, Mr. Webber would be flying to New York to launch a cannabis initiative, and he needed to be cleaned up for the press event.
“A great thing about Marcus, among many things,” Mr. Webber said, “is that he’s always ready.”
‘When you look good, you feel good’
Ludacris was praising the power of a good barber. And even over Zoom, that priority was clear — his hair meticulously braided in cornrows with a clean line up.
“When you look good, you feel good, you do good,” the Grammy-winning musician, whose full name is Chris Bridges, told me, explaining that, as he sees it, Vince Garcia is among the best barbers on the planet.
“I can recognize talent,” he said. “When we talk about M.V.P.s, he’s one of the most valuable players in the barbering category.”
Mr. Garcia, 36, who is based in Los Angeles, got his start in the early 2000s cutting hair in Toronto, where he was raised. He’s Filipino Canadian but honed his skills at Black-owned Jamaican barbershops around the city.
His profile as a barber was steadily rising, and in 2008 he landed his first super-high-profile cut: Chris Bosh, a star on the Toronto Raptors. They slowly built a friendship, and before long he was Mr. Bosh’s barber.
Two years later, when Mr. Bosh was traded to the Miami Heat, Mr. Garcia decided it was time for a move. But instead of Miami, he headed to Los Angeles, where he and a friend opened a shop in a popular fashion district. Soon, he had connected with some Lakers players and several musicians, including Ludacris.
“When you’re in the L.A. area, there is always a celebrity clientele,” Mr. Garcia said on a recent morning from his in-home barbershop, which is just north of Los Angeles and was decorated with signed jerseys from Travis Kelce, one of the top players in the N.F.L., and the N.B.A. star Devin Booker.
“There is always something happening, people are always here — it’s Hollywood, bright lights,” he said.
But perhaps his biggest breaks came from Instagram.
Mr. Garcia started posting pictures of celebrity haircuts and, in 2019, signed a contract with Gillette, which requires that he post about the razor brand on social media at least a few times a month, he said. Like Mr. Harris, he also has a working agreement with “The Shop.”
“The exposure from the show just elevates everything,” said Mr. Garcia, who has 91,000 followers on Instagram.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Garcia was spending eight hours a day at his barbershop in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, then hustling off to the airport for tapings of the show or house calls for celebrities.
“As was the case for a lot of people, the pandemic slowed things down and allowed me to recalibrate,” he said. He stopped working at the shop and focused on a solo career as a barber and on starting a company, By.Appt.Only., which produces specialized backpacks that barbers can use to carry their tools.
He charges $100 for haircuts at his house and $350 for house calls around Los Angeles, he said, but much of his roughly $250,000 income comes from endorsement deals, including a partnership with Dior.
“It’s about being more than a barber,” Mr. Garcia said. “Haircuts are the foundation, but for me I’ve always wanted to branch out.”
Taking barbering to a new level
By the time I had arrived on the set of “The Shop,” which was taping an episode in Salt Lake City during All-Star Weekend, Mr. Garcia and Mr. Harris were already working.
Mr. Garcia had just lined up the rapper Cordae, whose entourage was standing nearby scrolling through iPhones. In another room, Mr. Harris, who is 44 and from the Bay Area, was taking out his tools and preparing for the episode as hits from the Notorious B.I.G. played softly on speakers.
“What guys like Marcus, Vince and myself have done, in a lot of ways, is take barbering to a new level,” Mr. Harris said. “But it’s also about bringing up the next generation.”
For Mr. Harris, who has been an influential figure in Black barber culture in the Bay Area for years, it was his primary client — the Warriors star Draymond Green — who helped open many doors. Mr. Green encouraged producers to put Mr. Harris on “The Shop,” where he has since appeared in the background cutting the hair of celebrities who have been featured on the show, including Jimmy Kimmel and Jack Harlow.
On a recent morning, back in the Bay Area, Mr. Harris made his way through the narrow hallways of the Chase Center, the Warriors’ arena in San Francisco. It was six hours before the Warriors tipped off against the New Orleans Pelicans, and Mr. Green sat in a mini-barbershop just outside the locker room.
“As a Black man, having a barber who you’re close with means the world,” Mr. Green said. “We talk about everything — marriage, being fathers, just being better all-around men.”
Mr. Harris, wearing a headlamp in the dimly lit room, nodded along as he used clippers to cut Mr. Green’s closely cropped hair.
“One thing I think gets lost with a lot of us quote-unquote celebrity barbers is that we are first and foremost service people,” he said. “Our profession is in the service industry.”
And despite the opportunities that have opened up in recent years — flying on a private jet, sitting courtside, rubbing elbows with celebrities at parties — he still spends much of his time checking in on the seven barbershops he owns in the Bay Area and Central Valley.
KJ’s, which stands for Keeping Jesus, is about an hour drive from the lavish confines of the Chase Center, in Tracy, Calif. Mr. Harris opened the shop in 2009, a year before Instagram was created.
“These are my roots,” he said as he showed me around the shop one afternoon.
Mr. Harris was in a rush, but he surveyed the room, the half-circle of chairs that marked his pre-Instagram-famous professional life, the walls that now feature photos of him promoting his hair care products.
He pointed to Jay Organez’s chair, and I took a seat.
Kurtis Lee is an economics correspondent based in Los Angeles. Before joining The Times in 2022, he was a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, writing about gun violence, income inequality and race in America. @kurtisalee
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