Kyric McGowan said he knew the first few haircuts Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman gave him wouldn’t be great. But he knew his friend and fellow wide receiver wouldn’t mess him up.
“That’s my dog, and I trust him,” McGowan said. “He wouldn’t put the clips in my head if he didn’t trust himself that he could do it.”
Chiaokhiao-Bowman said he sometimes cringes when he looks at pictures of those cuts from two years ago, but he, like McGowan, had comfort that knowing that anyone walking out of his makeshift barber shop in the first floor bathroom of Elder Hall would look fine, even as he was just starting to cut hair.
Shortly before Northwestern’s victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl in December 2017, the junior wideout began cutting hair. Former team barber Jaylen Prater was a graduating senior and there was a void to be filled. So began the experiment.
Around five of RCB’s teammates — McGowan, Jace James, Samdup Miller, Eku Leota and Fred Wyatt were among his first customers — would check in at his dorm room and were then escorted to his office. As a self-described neat and orderly person, RCB tried to keep his work setup the same way. He’d lay towels down on the chair so it wouldn’t be littered with hair after every cut.
In a row of five or six sinks, he placed his relocated dorm room chair in front of one of the middle sinks and put his clippers, guards, spray and brushes on the tin shelf in between the sink and accompanying mirror.
The surprisingly spacious workspace turned into a gathering place of sorts for many of RCB’s friends who lived on the floor, including McGowan, James, Miller, cornerback Rod Campbell and basketball player Anthony Gaines. At first, other floor residents were surprised when they’d walk in and see a full-on salon, but they soon got used to it.
“We needed a mirror, we needed good lighting, and we didn’t want to get the hair everywhere in the room,” McGowan said. “So the only place left to really do it was the bathroom.”
One of the early challenges RCB said he encountered was the height of the mirror. Often, the head of whoever was being cut was barely tall enough to make it into the mirror view, making an already tough job a little trickier. Nevertheless, he continued practicing by giving as many haircuts as he could, and after spring break in 2018, he moved his operation to the barber chair in the team’s locker room at the new Walter Athletics Center.
Prater and RCB both describe themselves as artistically driven. Their off-field relationship flourished through their mutual love of music. Naturally, RCB’s desire to learn new skills combined with his passion for art led him to learn how to cut hair from the outgoing team barber.
He sat and soaked up knowledge from Prater like a sponge as he observed him give haircuts. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as RCB described Prater as his big brother on the team, who made the hair-cutting a very informal, teach-as-he-went approach.
“I would look at him and give him a nod like ‘watch this’ or we would say like ‘I’m gonna try this kind of this kind of fade or this kind of taper,’” Prater said.
Prater said they would talk about different types of clippers for specific applications, like those for fading and others for bulk cutting.
Both emphasized the importance of hair as part of one’s confidence and its important role in their identities. Prater said that for many people, a haircut serves as one of the largest and easiest transformations of self confidence and energy.
“It helps me not only feel more comfortable about who I am, but it shows more confidence that I’m showing others who I am and who I want them to see,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said.
Prater said he gave most haircuts before games and interviews, when teammates wanted to feel their cleanest. McGowan falls under that category. He said he likes to look presentable in front of cameras, and a haircut is one of the main features of a sleek game day look.
“Looking well-groomed goes a long way,” he said. “It’s part of the whole swag and way you carry yourself.”
Once RCB began cutting hair in the team locker room, seeing became believing for many of his teammates. He surmised it took some time for people to ask him for cuts since they didn’t have many examples to base their decisions on.
“Once they started seeing these consistent haircuts, they were like ‘hey, you’re doing a decent job, I can ask ‘Maud,’” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life and sent RCB and his teammates home from Evanston, he cut hair four days out of the week for about one to two hours per day, which allowed him to give three to four haircuts each day.
Some teammates, like McGowan, have routine appointments. The junior gets his hair cut by RCB at the end of each week, as he has for the past two years.
Even though he said he doesn’t have much hair, it grows back fast, and he loves the mindset of heading into the weekend feeling clean. He typically opts for a bald fade or a drop fade, leaving more hair on top and little on the sides. When the cut is over, and handshakes and hugs are exchanged as payment, he said he tells RCB he feels like a new man.
“I’ll usually say that or get out of the chair and be like ‘better watch your girl,’” McGowan said.
McGowan is loyal to his barber. He said there’s a trust built up between him and RCB, as well as between RCB and other teammates whose hair he cuts. They take comfort in knowing RCB isn’t going to do something that he’s not all-in on. It hasn’t been easy for McGowan, who is quarantining at his home in Georgia. He hasn’t seen his housemate, buddy and, of course, barber in over five weeks.
“A barber to me is kind of like a wife,” he said. “I don’t like going to different barbers. I feel like I’m cheating or something. I’ve been with ‘Maud for the longest, he’s cut my hair the longest, and I feel like he knows me best.
Just as the first floor Elder bathroom played host to informal social hours, so does RCB’s barber shop in the locker room.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman and McGowan, as well as Prater from his former time as a Wildcat, spoke of the natural bonds fostered in the shop. It’s a popular between-classes hangout for players, a place for them to relax and chat with both close friends and those whom they don’t see as often. McGowan credited RCB as the anchor of it all in his role as team barber.
“It provides us an opportunity to grow and connect with one another,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “We’re growing, talking and learning about each other outside of football.”
The sense of reward that comes from both socializing with teammates on deeper levels and helping them look their best cannot be understated. Some people dread going to the barber, but for a tight-knit bunch of college football players it’s just the opposite. Culture is built as hair is cut, and RCB wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Seeing the reaction on people’s faces, the way they walk after a haircut and the happiness, joy and confidence that others get from me just cutting their hair for 30 to 45 minutes, that really drives me to continue to do it, and it makes me happy.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has triggered shutdowns nationwide, 316 million Americans in 45 states are under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, according to the New York Times. The earliest orders came March 19 from California, and states with large cities like Illinois and New York imposed similar restrictions on March 21 and 22, respectively. Many states’ directives included the closings of all nonessential businesses, with barber shops and salons chief among them.
For a sizable portion of the U.S. population, five weeks in quarantine has meant no access to their normal haircutting options, forcing some to look to themselves or family members for grooming alternatives.
RCB and Prater both said it is possible to cut your own hair but advised having someone else help you, if possible, as it helps to see the back of your head. RCB said the first haircut he gave himself took three and a half hours and wasn’t without a couple of nicks. Now he’s got it down to about 45 minutes. He emphasized if you have to do it alone, practice looking in a mirror with clippers in hand to simulate muscle memory by moving your hand and arm in reverse.
They both encouraged watching YouTube videos of specific types of haircuts, which helped them visualize the motions and cuts as they learned. The easiest haircut to start with is a buzz cut, Prater said, since it’s simple and uniform. Otherwise, the golden rule is to cut less if in doubt — you can always cut more later.
RCB recommended setting up a residential barber shop in the bathroom, since it normally has a mirror and isn’t carpeted. He cautioned the lighting needs to make the hair look its most natural.
“Too bright can cause you to not to see the hair on the head right, and too dark obviously you can’t see anything,” he said.
To cut hair, you’ll need the following supplies: clippers, a series of different length guards for the clippers, a detailer (also known as an outliner), hair cutting shears, a brush, clipper blade cleaner, brush disinfectant and, of course, a cape for your customers. Clipper oil is a good accessory to keep the trimmer smooth and prevent any patchy cuts. While prices range based on quality and brands, the above products could total around $200.
One cleanup hack doesn’t require much money. Take a few plastic garbage bags, rip them open at the seams and lay them to cover the floor. Otherwise, get out the broom, vacuum and Swiffer.
“It’s easier to clean up because the hair will just fall on the trash bag, and then you could crumple up the trash bag and put it in actual trash,” RCB said.
Giving a fade haircut takes him about a half-hour, though he said a beginner might require nearly double that time. He first likes to clean up the neck area and behind the ears before creating his first guideline around the head with the detailer clipper. A guideline is a one to one-and-a-half-inch section of hair that determines the length it will be cut.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman uses the taper lever on the clippers to control the length of the cuts. Keeping the lever closed cuts the most hair, while opening it leads to finer cuts. With an open lever, he likes to make more guidelines to create different layers.
“You’re gonna have these lines all the way around the head like bars,” he said. “Half of the haircut is already done. Now you just have to blend those lines so they blur together. That’s how you get a fade.”
RCB stressed communication between the barber and the customer as key since there is plenty of terminology with which people aren’t familiar. Requesting a “two”, he said, can mean many things. It could mean a fade up to a two on the sides, a bald fade up to a two, or mean they want both the sides and the back of their head to be the same length.
At home in Minneapolis during quarantine, he cuts his own and his little brother’s hair. With some practice, he said, people at home can get by during this barber-less time.
“Creative or not, artistic or not, if they know how to do that [fade], they will have a decent shot at giving good, home-quality haircuts.”