An L.A. beach bum rose to become a famous Hollywood hairstylist. But perhaps his greatest success was beating drug addiction.
I’ve always known I could become a drug addict. I was raised as a good kid by a good family in Manhattan Beach in southern California. But I had an uncle who was an alcoholic and smoked pot. All I remember about my uncle is that he was bad news. At family get-togethers, there was always underlying conversation about him. No one ever came out and said it, but I knew he was really messed up. To me, he was a cautionary tale—in my family, you never wanted to end up like my uncle.
But when I was 17, he offered me a joint, and—maybe because I was a teenager and thinking it would be cool or rebellious to try, or maybe because I just chose to ignore the cautionary tale for a minute—I got stoned for the first time. And I loved it. I think a lot of teenagers try drugs once or twice and move on, but for me, pot was more than that. I loved it for all the cliche d reasons. I had a few friends who liked to get stoned, too, and we would sit around and watch cartoons for hours. We’d go to the beach stoned and it felt wonderful. The marijuana mellowed me out, and I could lose myself. I felt like I could see the world from a new, more creative perspective.
This was around the same time that I was getting interested in hairstyling, so I found ways to justify smoking pot every other day. I told myself that I was pursuing a creative career and smoking pot brought out my talents. Right from the start, I was able to make it seem OK.
A couple years later, I started working in a hair salon in Manhattan Beach. At the time, I was drinking and smoking pot occasionally, and trying to get my career off the ground. Because of the nature of the hairstyling business—the big personalities, the money, the creativity—there were always drugs around. Plus, this was the 1980s. Whenever I wanted drugs, they were there. So I gave coke a shot, since I thought the pot was working out so well for me. And the cocaine was even better—it made me feel alive, energetic, excited. I’d spend the day in the salon, make some good money on tips, and at night, spend all of it on more cocaine.
In the beginning, I was only snorting the cocaine on the weekends, but soon I suspected that I had an obsessive, addictive personality. I started bingeing: I’d stay up all night doing cocaine, cancel days of work, and spend all the money I had on more cocaine. But after a day or two of this, a voice in my head told me I needed to sleep and eat. Maybe because I was in the beauty industry, and I knew I had to maintain a certain level of health, after a few days of bingeing, I’d stop. I also thought of my uncle, and it scared me. I would stop using cocaine for four or five months at a time, but then I’d go back to it.
During that time, I didn’t do it at work, but I could feel it in my system the next day. I’d call it a “drugover.” I have a hyperactive personality, so I could hide it. I ran around the chair while I was cutting hair, and my clients thought I had a big personality and was high-energy. It was my way of distracting everyone. I would just play it up and let people think, Oh, that’s just Chris.
Meanwhile, my career was taking off. The cocaine gave me a fearless, go-for-it attitude, and it worked. I took risks I would never have taken at that time if I’d been sober. I would cut bangs, choppy layers—sometimes I’d cut all their hair off completely. The irony is that this kind of attitude is an asset in hairstyling. I could never say drugs helped me, but the attitude I had at the time helped make me successful.
At this point, the line between being sober and getting high blurred. I was using cocaine when I wasn’t working, and I was smoking pot every day. Doing cocaine made me anxious, so I always had alcohol in the refrigerator to neutralize it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but alcohol played a huge part in my drug addiction. When the party was over, I would start drinking whatever was around to come down. I usually kept a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, because it got me drunk faster. I wasn’t a glamorous drinker. Sometimes I would put out my cigarettes in a bottle of malt liquor to make myself stop drinking it, but then—and this is so awful to think about—later in the night, I’d drink it, with the cigarette ash in it. I don’t know how much cocaine I was using in one night, but if I had $100, I’d spend $90 on cocaine, $8 on liquor, and $2 on ramen noodles. That was my diet.
My big break was doing Christian Slater’s hair for the cover of Detour magazine in 1993, with the photographer Greg Gorman. I wasn’t stoned during the shoot, but this was during a time when drugs were a big part of my life. Christian Slater’s publicist thought I was good with hair and introduced me to Courteney Cox. Courteney had just done Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and had a bad haircut—so they called me in. She was working on the pilot for Friends, and we hit it off. At the same time, I was working with Patricia Arquette, whose manager was also representing a new actress named Jennifer Aniston. The manager recommended that Jennifer come to the salon where I was working. I cut Jennifer’s hair for the Friends pilot, and the next thing I knew, the show was taking off, magazines were referring to my haircut as “The Rachel,” and People was calling me for an interview. And I really don’t think anyone knew I was using the whole time.
During this explosion in my career, I was loaded constantly—although I still didn’t do cocaine at work. I was getting all this attention, but I didn’t think I was doing anything special. I was just doing hair—that’s my job—and it wasn’t hard to do. I started feeling pretty bad about myself, because I felt like I had all this undeserved attention. The drugs were making me feel terrible about myself, so I did more drugs to feel better, which obviously didn’t work. I never considered myself a drug addict, though, and I didn’t hang out with other addicts. To me, drug addicts were gross. I was still hanging out with my regular friends, and on some nights, these friends would use with me. The difference was that I was using all the time, and they weren’t.
I never blacked out, but the drugs started becoming more important than the work. Soon I wasn’t showing up for jobs. I was booked to do a Maxwell video with the director Matthew Rolston, which I missed, and a Lee Jeans ad campaign with Sarah Michelle Gellar, which I didn’t show up for. I was too busy staying up all night doing drugs. I never forgot about shoots, but using was more important than working. I can’t explain it, really, because it’s hard to understand if you’re not an addict, but it was all that really mattered to me. My reputation became: “He’s good, but will he show up?”
The cocaine gave me a runny nose, stuffed-up sinuses. I would tell people that I had allergies. Then someone I knew (who also used cocaine a lot) said to me, “You should smoke it; you won’t have a runny nose all the time.” Well, that was about the most brilliant idea I’d ever heard. The next thing I knew, I was smoking crack.
In the spring of 1998, I had a really bad night of bingeing. One day, I had done the poster for There’s Something About Mary, and that night, I did Helen Hunt’s hair for the Academy Awards. Afterward, I went home and watched the Oscars on television, and as I was watching Helen win her award and look so beautiful, I was sitting on my couch, smoking crack. I saw what I was doing to myself, and I thought of my uncle, and it really scared me. It was a particularly low point for me.
The next day, I called Betty Ford, and I said, “I want to be cured.” And I checked myself in to the clinic. That was what fabulous, celebrity Hollywood people did, and I wanted to think of myself as a fabulous, celebrity Hollywood hairstylist. I actually thought going to Betty Ford was the epitome of cool. It was a 28-day program, and coming off the cocaine was easy. Eating and sleeping played a big part, because I hadn’t eaten proper food or slept well in so long—it felt good. When I left, they recommended I go to a sober-living facility called Liberty House in Century City. I moved in, and within a week, a friend of mine who knew I was sober asked me to come over and pick up some beer on the way to dinner. So that night, I was drinking, and within a week, I was doing cocaine again. I know how absurd it sounds, but I think I had wanted Betty Ford to teach me how to use on the weekends, how to be a part-time drug addict.
I had spent all the money I had to go to Betty Ford, and when I was there, I obviously wasn’t making an income. When you’re a drug addict, you don’t save any money, because you spend it all on getting high. And once I fell off the wagon at Liberty House, I had to leave. So there I was: broke, homeless, loaded, and sleeping in my car. I blamed Betty Ford, my family, anyone besides myself. I moved into my father’s house at the beach and started working again—slowly at first, but then the jobs really started to roll in. The times I wasn’t high, I was congratulating myself for not being an addict. I would tell myself that I didn’t have a problem because…see? I was sober!
My agent would book me for jobs in New York City, because I didn’t know how to buy drugs there. My dealer was in Los Angeles, so I was safe in New York City. I would take the morning flight, get a good night’s sleep in my hotel, work for two days, then, before I got on a plane back to California, I’d call my dealer and let him know to have the crack ready for my arrival.
At this point, I became an out-of-control drug addict. I wasn’t working in a salon, because I had lucrative freelance jobs—commercials, red-carpet events, magazine photo shoots. My addiction was obvious—I was thin, jittery, unreliable. But I was doing good work, so people were still hiring me. They knew I was using. It gave me a license to continue. I was getting away with it.
Until October 14, 1999. It was a Thursday, about noon, and I was getting my car washed. I’d chosen the car wash because it was a block from my dealer. I went into a 7-Eleven, pulled money out of the ATM, and went to buy drugs. I couldn’t wait until I got home, as I normally did. I got in my car, took a hit of crack, and as I exhaled, I looked in my rearview mirror, and there was an undercover police car behind me with his lights flashing. Two cops got out of the car, and as they were walking over, I floored it. I evaded the police and a helicopter for almost ten minutes on a high-speed chase through downtown Los Angeles. I drove through a fence and landed on someone’s front porch. Then I actually got out of my car and took off on foot. They caught me, and for the first time, I was arrested.
Sitting in the back of a police car—stoned, weighing 140 pounds—I realized, honestly, for the first time, that I was a drug addict, not some fabulous Hollywood hairstylist. I went to jail that day, and it was awful. Being a gay man in the L.A. County Jail is scary enough, but being a gay man in a dorm with 145 criminals was the worst thing I’ve ever been through. I was only there for six days, but it was the scariest six days of my life. When I left jail—released on my own recognizance—I was willing to do whatever it took to get sober. The court sent me back to Liberty House, and if I got arrested again, I would go to prison. Not the L.A. County Jail, where drunks and prostitutes are held for days or weeks, but a prison, where hardened criminals are locked up.
I was in Liberty House for 16 months. I didn’t work at all for the first ten—I was focusing on getting sober. And I had some very good friends calling me. Courteney, Jennifer, my agent, and Cameron Diaz were all there for me. Cameron said, “I would rather you be my friend than my hairstylist. I want to see my friend healthy and sober.” It was such a blessing to find out that I had such real friends, especially in a town and an industry that can seem so full of shit. It reassured me that the world is good, and I was worth more than the hairstyles I could create. I had used the drugs to make me feel better about myself, but no drug addict has high self-esteem. You only feel better about yourself when you stop using.
The people at the Liberty House put restrictions on me. If I saw a billboard or an ad or a movie with hair that I had done, I wasn’t allowed to say anything about it. I couldn’t seek praise from other people. When I was using, I was finding credibility through my work, but now that I was sober, I had to learn to value myself as a person.
One day, Jennifer came to see me at a salon where I had started working and told me she was getting married. We had always talked about me doing her hair for her wedding. So when the time came for her to ask, I said yes. I wasn’t nervous. I felt ready. The first comeback job I got was a high-profile celebrity one—the biggest I’d ever had. I was right back in the game, and I didn’t have to start at the bottom. It felt like a gift.
I brought a sober friend along, and when I got back to Liberty House after the wedding, I had to scrub down the bathrooms. The idea was to teach me humility. It was very effective.
I’ve been sober since October 14, 1999, and I’ve never spoken publicly about this before. This is dangerous for me. I asked myself, What if this article comes out, and I’ve relapsed? What if I’m full of crap? Nothing is more important to me than my sobriety. It’s why I have a job and, probably, a life. I decided to speak publicly because there’s someone else out there with a problem, and maybe this will help him or her.
There was a time when I was using crack that I didn’t think I was going to make it. There was a time I couldn’t have a meal with someone, because I had to get loaded. Now, I can sit down and talk to someone. Now, I can go to my friend’s wedding and enjoy it. Now, I can taste the food, and it is absolutely delicious.
As told to Danielle Pergament
Illustrated by Zachary Crane
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