Toronto Star


Gary Chowen has spent most of his 50-year career delivering first-class ‘hairapy’ in Yorkville,


For Gary Chowen, it’s been 50 years of grey . . . and blond, brunette and red. That’s how long the Toronto hairstylis­t has been mane man for his countless clients, in some cases from cradle to coffin.

“When you do it this long, you lose a lot of clients — to death!” he says, recalling at least one instance when he actually did a do for a regular who had passed away. “If you’ve been doing somebody’s hair for 30 years, they become family. You watch their kids grow up. Their children have children. Now I am on some thirdgener­ation clients.”

For most of his career, Chowen has been based in Yorkville, where he was born at the original Mount Sinai Hospital at 100 Yorkville Ave. Over the years, he’s seen the area morph from a folk-rock hippie haven to a forest of glass-clad condos.

“Ever since the Coffee Mill closed,” he jokes, referring to the landmark café that shuttered this summer, “I’ve been saying I’m the oldest living relic in Yorkville.”

Chowen began in the business as a 13-year-old shampoo boy at Caruso’s, once one of the best hair salons in the world. Part beauty parlour, part party palace, it was three floors of glamour on Bloor St. W., all go-go and go-to for clients such as Lady Mountbatte­n, Miss Canada contenders, bridal parties and prom queens.

“The actual streetcar stops were at Avenue Rd. and Bedford but we were right between them,” Chowen explains. “The conductor would stop and yell out ‘Caruso’s!’ and the streetcar would empty out.”

Not getting your hair done at Caruso’s just simply wasn’t done in the swinging ’60s, when its hairdresse­rs were, as Chowen puts it, “rock stars” who dated models, drove convertibl­es and got into all the best clubs.

“It was a very high-society salon,” Chowen remembers, telling tales of clients passing out from too much champagne. “People from all over the world would fly in because Caruso’s was the salon which could do the grand updos for the great parties. It would be perfectly normal to look at the appointmen­t sheets and see that Maria Callas is coming in today. One woman flew in from Paris and gave Gus Caruso a $500 tip.”

Among the regulars? The “highclass call girls” that worked nearby and would drop into Caruso’s every morning, giving young Chowen plenty of practice on beautiful women. He used that experience on U.S. network TV programs that were being shot at CFTO, where he made contacts with CBS producers.

So naturally, in 1971, Hollywood beckoned.

“I lived with my father in a little apartment at Keele and Eglinton,” Says Chowen. “They sent me the ticket. I really didn’t even know what I was going for.”

The show was a summer replacemen­t series called The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Chowen was called in to work on Cher’s naturally wavy long hair, which he transforme­d into the sleek curtain she would flip back as she delivered a zinger at her husband, Sonny Bono.

The elaboratel­y staged skits would require multiple costume changes and Chowen would have to transform Cher from gypsy queen to Egyptian queen in minutes, using wigs, hairpieces and “falls.”

“Back then we didn’t have the equipment we now have,” he smiles ruefully. “We didn’t have flat irons. We didn’t have blow-dryers. What I used to do was wrap her hair around one roller, sit her under a dryer, then wrap it the other way. The only products I had were lanolin and flat beer.”

Chowen was a part of the creative process that included costumes and makeup, including those fabulous Bob Mackie gowns. Fittings would take place at well-known Los Angeles design house Courtney’s, where Raquel Welch and Diana Ross might be trying on outfits while Cher’s team was working.

“I was the only straight guy in the room; every other guy was gay,” Chowen laughs. “The women would be half-naked. The other guys would be watching my reaction. I just loved fittings. They were my favourite day.”

But the fun didn’t last. The set grew more and more tense as the arguments between Sonny and Cher escalated. Now, Cher describes the late Bono as “a terrible husband” who “hurt her in so many ways.”

“He was an awful, awful Svengali,” says Chowen. “He controlled her life. He wouldn’t let her go out. She was his meal ticket. She was great. She lived in fear of him. I saw tremendous fights. He was just awful.”

Chowen would return to Yorkville, where, except for a brief period on a Greek island where he would cut hair on the beach, he’s been ever since.

Now at Studio 91, a bustling but modest Scollard St. salon, he provides style and sympathy to a succession of men and (mostly) mostly women who sit in his chair every day. His clients include Academy Award winners such as Morgan Freeman and Vanessa Redgrave, many familiar Toronto TV talking heads and radio personalit­ies, as well as students and even Star reporters.

“It’s not just the hair cutting; it’s the ‘hairapy,’ ” he explains. “A lot of times, clients are going through a divorce, for example. They’re asking for advice. What should I do? Should I leave? Should I stay? You gotta give good advice!”

Then there’s the keeping of the secrets. “There have been times I had to call gentlemen clients and say, ‘You better call your wife or your mistress and tell one not to come because they both have appointmen­ts this afternoon!’ ” he says. “You know who you can say what to, who you can trust, because you get a lot of confidenti­al informatio­n. It’s a small town. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil — but I see so very, very much.”

Chowen says the work, which he hopes to continue for 20 more years, can be gruelling. The hours are long, the breaks are few. It’s hard on the back, the feet, the wrists. You are expected to be entertaini­ng as well as a miracle worker.

“I tell them it’s a comb, not a magic wand,” he says, shaking his head. “You try and make 10 women a day happy. For that alone, I should get the Order of Canada.”

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 ?? VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR ?? Hairstylis­t Gary Chowen, who gave Cher her sleek, straight hair on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, has spent most of his 50-year career in Yorkville.
VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR Hairstylis­t Gary Chowen, who gave Cher her sleek, straight hair on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, has spent most of his 50-year career in Yorkville.

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