Famed hairdresser Carrie White talks about her life, writing a memoir and recovering from addiction
By David Rosenfeld
By the time she was 29 Carrie White was the mother of five children with three ex-husbands. She’d also become one of Hollywood’s most notorious hairdressers in an industry dominated by men. Her clients in the 1960s and 70s read like a “who’s who” at the time from Iggy Popp to Nancy Reagan. There were days at her salon in Beverly Hills, she says, where she herself couldn’t believe it.
“I would have so many celebrities in my salon at one time,” she says during a recent interview outside her current salon on Santa Monica Blvd across from the Peninsula Hotel.
“One time I stepped back kind of outside my body and noticed Jane Fonda had just gotten out of my chair. Betsy Bloomingdale was about to sit down. Bette Midler was off to the side knitting. Vanessa Redgrave was behind me drying. And around the corner was Elizabeth Taylor getting a manicure and I was wearing the big rock ring that Richard Burton had given her,” she says. “I thought, man, I have such a great life this is so much fun.”
The fun she was having at the time extended beyond the hair salon too as White quickly found herself at the center of the Hollywood in-crowd that characterized the era. She smoked hash with Jimmy Hendrix at John Lennon’s house, for instance. Elvis Presley gave her a Derringer. She dated Jack Nicholson briefly and knew Ritchie Valens and Stefanie Powers before they were famous.
“I was just like this person who was always there when things were happening,” White says. “I don’t feel like I was the center of it, but I was in the center part of it. People came together at my home and at my salon. I was always just invited to places. I was never on a mission for that. I just wanted to be recognized as a great hairdresser.”
She would earn that recognition in her early 20s, far earlier than she would ever imagine. What came with that success had its price. Over the years, White’s drug use increased to a stage she would never want to return, culminating in her lying face down in her own vomit at a local hospital.
“The dealers would tell me to go home,” she says.
It took six hospital stays before she finally got clean in 1984. She credits recovery programs like Friendly House, for which she serves on the board of directors, for helping others like her seek treatment.
Last year she published a memoir by Simon and Schuster’s Atria Books titled Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. The book chronicles her journey from a childhood of abuse and neglect, to her journey through hairdressing and her ultimate recovery from drugs and alcohol. In an age with an abundance of Hollywood memoirs, White’s book has stood out as an LA Times bestseller no doubt for its quick-paced writing style and engaging story.
“I wanted it to be as authentic and honest as I possibly could,” she says. “The subtext is alcoholism. I really wanted the message of recovery to be able to be a conversation. When my mother died she was 54 but she looked like she was 154. She was just a devastated alcoholic. But the hospital on her death certificate wrote pneumonia. The word alcoholism was never mentioned. I wanted to give the hope that you can come around.”
These days White runs a small studio in Beverly Hills with just a few celebrity clients. She isn’t interested in being a personal sylist on house calls any more, more unwilling than unable to keep up with the pace. Back when she was personally styling Liz Taylor, she might receive a phone call late on a Sunday night that she needed her hair done for a last minute trip in the morning.
“I just don’t want all the drama and emergency,” she says. “It’s time for me to pass the baton.”
White talked about her story outside her studio on a recent afternoon as local women walked by to say hello. Dressed in black, she joked she still sort of wore her hair in a version of the “flip” that was first popular when she was in high school. In her book, White reveals in detail how her mother was an artist who drew comic strips from home and largely neglected her for alcohol and a series of men, one of which molested her at a young age. Noteworthy for the times, he was convicted and received just six months in jail. She would end up spending much of her youth with a foster family.
She left Pacoima, where she was largely raised, with her mother to start school at Hollywood High where she writes she felt out of place among kids with so many connections to famous stars. White says she used hairdressing early on to fit in. When she came to school with one of the first beehives it was her first step toward being popular. After high school she went to a local hairdressing school, and the rest is history.
She famously styled Elvis Presley’s hair when he came to Hollywood, saying she didn’t design Presley’s trademark wave but she made it better. She was Sharon Tate’s California hairdresser and stayed with her and Roman Polansky during their wedding week in London. She’s also well known for designing the hair for the Nurse Ratchet character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a hairdo that would become classic for how it fit the character’s demeanor. She was a technical adviser on the movie Shampoo and was actually married to the character played by Warren Beatty in the film.
“In the book I’m the subtext story and narrator, but it was about me wanting to introduce people to the history of this town,” she says. “I wanted to talk to the new hairdressers and share with them about breaking into an all-male field.”
One of the men who dominated hairdressing at the time, Vidal Sassoon, praised White for her memoir.
“Carrie White became one of America’s most artistic hairdressers, and her writing has the same magical touch,” he wrote. “I was completely captivated by her story.”
David Steinberg, a comedian and director, commended White’s storytelling.
“With her sharp wit and keen eye, Carrie White has written one of the best books on Hollywood that I’ve read,” he wrote. “But it’s her personal story that’s a killer. I literally couldn’t put it down. And I can’t recommend it enough.”
White spent more than 20 years writing the book, which was originally more than 1,000 pages, not even including the past 29 years. That’s for the next installment because you can bet there’s plenty to write about.
“I’ve been all around the world and I love this town so much,” she says. “I have a great time and a great life, and I still love doing hair.”