Hairdresser Paul Stafford: Checkpoints, soldiers and bomb scares on Falls Road were character-forming
The Big Ask
In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to hairdresser Paul Stafford (51), from Belfast, who is married to Leisa with two daughters, Joni (18) and Ava (16).
Q: Tell us about your childhood
A: It was a very ordinary childhood. I have a brother and two sisters. My father, Stanley, was a stock taker and it was quite an initiative thing at the time as this was obviously before the age of computers.
He had a great head for figures. He was very clever and he loved detail.
I think that's something I inherited because I love details, but unfortunately not the same head for figures. I think my mum, Sue, did a bit of hairdressing when she was younger.
When she met my dad, they had a family very quickly, so she became a mum when she was quite young.
She was very much a stay-at-home mum. I remember that she loved to laugh - she's still alive, but my father has passed - and I think my dad was the most important thing in her life. She loved him incredibly.
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I grew up on the Falls Road in Belfast during the Seventies, and they were obviously strange times, but I wasn't aware that I lived in such a unique place. It was just where we lived.
Looking back now, I can see that the circumstances and events that happened while I was growing up would have been life-changing and life-forming for a lot of people, but for me at the time it was just the environment we lived in.
We got used to going through checkpoints, we got used to the soldiers knocking on the door and we got used to bomb scares.
It was only really years later when I had children of my own that I realised how fortunate they were not to have had that childhood. Although, in some ways I also think I'm very fortunate to have grown up where I did because it certainly formed the character and the person I am today.
I was always interested in music, clothes and hair. From a very young age, I would have noticed people dressing up, I was aware of youth culture and the different style changes.
I remember when people went from being fans of the Bay City Rollers to being fans of the Sex Pistols. I remember people talking about the likes of David Bowie and Debbie Harry.
Those things stuck in my mind just as much as the environment and community we grew up in. There were other things going on in the world outside Northern Ireland.
I lived for watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday night. I think I was a bit of a fantasist and I lived in my own wee world.
I escaped into my own world. I loved reading and looking at magazines and my father collected books.
I think at that stage in my life I had a really great relationship with my dad because we had similar interests.
I was a very curious child and, although I wasn't confident, I would have asked a lot of questions.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I'm so proud of my two girls. When I became a dad, my whole approach to life changed. I became less selfish and I became much more aware of other people. I don't just mean my children, I mean generally. I think, for me, being a dad has been the most defining aspect of who I am.
Q: The one regret you wish you could amend?
A: I wish I'd got to know my dad a little better before he died. I would have liked to have spent more time with him. I think he was an incredibly interesting man who, maybe in the last 20 years of his life, I hadn't got to know as well as I should have.
As I get older and my relationship with my children develops and I know how close we are, I think that's one thing I would look back on and wish I could have changed.
Q: And what about phobias? Do you have any?
A: No. I'm a bit of risk-taker and I do view life as something that you have to make happen yourself. Things aren't going to happen just because you've thought about them.
Q: The temptation you cannot resist?
A: Shoes and records - I don't think I'll ever have enough of either. I am becoming a lot more aware that it is a problem! I think it comes from my childhood. I grew up around records, but I always remember looking at people's shoes. My father wore really highly polished shoes and he would always make the comment "You must wear good shoes".
Q: Your number one prized possession?
A: I believe material things are things that you're lucky to gather up along the way, but there isn't anything materialistic I think I couldn't live without.
Over the years, I've been very fortunate to win Hairdresser of the Year quite a few times and I'm a member of the British Hairdressing Hall of Fame. I also get to travel all over the world, but the main thing about hairdressing for me is that hair is not about hairdressers, it's about people.
The thing that drove me into hairdressing was that I actually like people. The hair was the material I was going to be working with, but it's always the individual who is going to be wearing it that makes the job so interesting.
The recognition, awards and accolades that you get for doing a good job are pretty academic. It's the person sitting in the chair who is the most important.
I think it's a vital message to get across because too many hairdressers want to be famous for being hairdressers.
I've been very fortunate and I've enjoyed my life, but it's more about the individual who entrusts this incredible thing in your hands that makes it worthwhile, so I suppose I probably couldn't live without my hands - and my scissors!
Q: The book that's most impacted your life?
A: One book I read which impacted the way I wanted to live my life was Absolute Beginners, by Colin MacInnes. It made me think about the environment I wanted to live in.
It's set in Notting Hill in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and it's all about that cross-culture, youthquake environment where people were starting to look beyond post-war Britain. I've subsequently read better books about that time period, but this was the one that started it for me.
Q: If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?
A: There are two things that I'm so glad I've come of an age that I see it happening more in this country - and I see kids are so much better at it nowadays - and they are equality and acceptance.
I love the fact that Northern Ireland is now slowly but surely being dragged into the 21st century. I think it's something that most parts of the world have become accustomed to and aware of over the last 50 years and I'm just glad that it's gradually creeping into our culture. So, if I had the power, I would make it happen today.
Q: What makes your blood boil every time without fail?
A: In some ways, aspects of social media make my blood boil. I'm a fan of it as well and I play into it, so I can't totally object to it. From a business and marketing point of view, it gives people like me, who are in small cities on the northern edges of Europe, a voice globally. That's just incredible because we used to have to rely on international media to do that, and they weren't always that open to hearing what people from the likes of Belfast, Glasgow or Newcastle upon Tyne were saying.
I love social media from that perspective. People will reach out to you from all over the world because you're now a recognised name or persona to them.
What I don't enjoy about social media is the oversharing of information whether it be personal, political or otherwise. I think it makes me more judgemental than I want to be.
If I met those people in real life, I wouldn't judge them like that, so I'm very quick to defend those who post things online that they'll likely regret in the future, but on the other hand, I can't help thinking, "Why are they doing that and what do they expect to gain from it?"
Another thing that angers me is the Brexit situation. I think it's really made me very disillusioned with a lot of things. I'm now at a point where I'm no longer listening to what they're saying and that's sad because I love politics and I like to be aware of what's going on in the world.
I find myself wanting to not listen to the recognised media outlets because I feel as though I'm becoming more and more sceptical about the whole thing.
Q: Who has most influenced you in life?
A: My wife. I know that might sound a bit corny, but I think Leisa is the fairest and the most honest critic I've had in terms of the decisions I've made.
I watched a documentary recently called Very Ralph. It's a great documentary about fashion designer Ralph Lauren, and his wife reminded me of Leisa quite a lot because she's this incredibly-driven, ambitious and strong woman in her own right. The two of them allowed each other to live the life they wanted to live together.
I think Leisa is an incredible hairdresser and an amazing mum. She's also a brilliantly bright, cultured and insightful individual, but she's very quiet and likes to keep her own life as private as possible. She has been the one person that I can always rely on to tell me the truth at all times.
Q: Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive and why?
A: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and David Bowie.
For me, those three are the holy trinity of rock music. I believe that everything we listen to comes from one of those individuals.
One thing that's very important about them is that we recognise them by one single name - Bowie, Dylan or Elvis - and that speaks volumes about their importance on all our lives since Elvis first came on the scene in 1956.
I would just like to hear how they felt about their lives because I don't think any of those three would have ever been aware, when they first started out, of the cultural impact they would have. Not just on music, but on the way we think, dress and look.
More importantly, I'd love to talk about how their legacies have changed generations to come, many years afterwards.
Q: The best piece of advice you ever received?
A: A very long time ago, I worked for a hairdresser and he told me that I talked too much. He said to me, "What you really need to do is just shut up and listen". I do think that probably was the best piece of advice I ever received.
I remember not taking it personally, which speaks volumes about my self-awareness! As I get older, I do find myself listening more than talking.
Q: The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?
A: Many years ago, I used to play chess quite a bit. I loved it because it's such a tactically brilliant game, and what's great about that is you could sit down for 20 minutes or it could take three hours.
In recent years, I've started writing. Some of the things that I've written I've turned into stories and films. That's something I think I'm probably going to do more of in the next few years - to make it more of a part of my life than it is at the moment.
Very few people know I do it and the people who do know have been quite encouraging.
Q: The poem that touches your heart?
A: It's not a poem, but A Thousand Kisses Deep by Leonard Cohen is incredibly written. Leonard Cohen, for me, is one of great poets of our time and he probably doesn't get the recognition he deserves for his poetry.
One thing he was brilliant at was simplifying the very complicated issue of what love and being in love actually feels like. I always think about my relationship with my wife when I hear that song.
Q: The happiest moments of your life?
A: I've been very fortunate to have had loads of happy moments. Becoming a father is definitely the happiest experience any person can feel.
One of the happiest days of my life was the day I got married to Leisa because I knew I was getting married for life.
It wasn't a huge white wedding - we just got married very quickly in the City Hall in New York.
It's the one day that I constantly remember very well no matter what.
I remember every moment, from the minute Leisa arrived back from the hairdressers to the minute we walked down Madison Avenue at one o'clock in the morning.
I knew it was for keeps. In fact, it's our 20th anniversary this year.
Q: And the saddest moment of your life?
A: I was heartbroken the day my eldest daughter went to university.
It was the first time in my life I realised that a huge part of my life for 18 years was no longer just going to be there.
Even though she was only a phone call away, it hit me harder than I could have ever envisioned.
Of course, it was sad to lose my father, but he had been ill for a long time. It was kind of a relief because he was suffering.
Q: The one event that made a difference in your life?
A: Winning Hairdresser of the Year for the first time was life-changing.
I was very young - I was maybe 21 or 22 - and it lifted me off my feet, probably for the next decade.
I couldn't quite come to terms with the success that came after that.
Q: What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?
A: I think it's important to always strive to be your best and to stay relevant.
Q: What's the philosophy you live by?
A: Don't look back.
Q: How do you want to be remembered?
A: Did I make a difference? I hope so. It's very hard to say how you would like to be remembered because that's for other people to decide - plus I don't really want to think about it either.