“Heroin will keep you out of the sun, but I don’t recommend it as a beauty product”: Hair Guru (and Ex-Junkie) Carrie White and Her Riveting New Memoir

Hair! Drugs! Rock 'n' roll! Redemption! You MUST buy this book, and also give a copy to your stylist.
Publish date:
October 26, 2011
shoppables, hair, addiction, memoir, book review, carrie white

What is it about hair and addiction? It’s a glamour industry full of creative types who want to become stars, and when they do, time and time again, it decidedly isn’t pretty -- we've all heard the stories, non?

Carrie White is the ultimate celebrity-hairdresser-turned-junkie-turned-A-list-stylist-again, and her book, Upper Cut, is many things, but most powerfully an ugly and harrowing addiction fable. I read the whole thing in less than two days and, right away, wanted to read it again. It is wildly compelling, almost overwhelmingly glamorous and celebrity-heavy, and ruthlessly honest about the ugly places that addictions to cocaine and heroin took a foxy and way troubled young woman over the course of an incredible Los Angeles-based career doing hair for the rich and very, very chic and famous.

Carrie White did Sharon Tate’s hair before the tragic star’s wedding to Roman Polanski (“I loved Sharon so much,” Carrie told me on the phone. “We did little flowers and pin curls.”) She was in a car with Richard Avedon on a shoot for Vogue (Diana Vreeland loved her work; 'nuff said) when she heard about the Manson murders weeks later on the radio.

White styled David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor; she hung out with Brian Jones in London and partied with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. She cut Robert De Niro and Nancy Reagan and Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack (“I wasn’t afraid of black hair,” she told me. “I was the first white girl written up in Jet magazine!”) and the Charlie’s Angels and Goldie Hawn and literally hundreds more names -- there are too many stars to list.

The book is crazy in that way; if you’re a pop culture fiend like I am, you’ll be beyond obsessed when you read it all.

But the real star figure of the book is Carrie herself, her three marriages and five kids (she gave up her first for adoption) -- and her addictions. Is that wrong to say? I get off on nothing more than insane addiction anecdotes – “war stories,” as they’re called in recovery -- and this book is full of them. I dog-eared every other page.

Whether describing her champagne and cocaine-fueled climb to the top of the hairdressing hierarchy (and White indeed reached the very, very top) or her descent into heroin-addicted ‘Malibu poverty’ (holed up with a controlling lesbian heiress and driving a Mercedes with no brakes to score every day from her dealer), Carrie’s story is crazy-fascinating and horrifying and awesome:

"I looked down at the blackened fingers on my left hand, the hand that used to cut Elvis Presley’s hair. I saw dried blood between my middle and index fingers. I had nodded off last night with a cigarette and had burned myself to the bone. I didn’t feel anything."

Yes, I loved this book. I can’t even begin to tell you.

Carrie “was conceived in a vat of alcohol,” as she tells it, and started her career as a hairdresser at 19. She describes her life story as “Forrest Gump" meets "Boogie Nights," and the description is dead-on.

“Can you imagine going to your hairdresser today and she’s in Spandex, on roller skates?” she cackled to me during our conversation, referring to an amazing part of the book -- of her life -- in which she was strung-out and nightlife-obsessed, wearing roller skates 24/7.

("I wish," I told her. My hair appointments are so boring compared to the nightmarishly coked-up glamorama scenes Carrie White played out every day.)

“Everybody was doing cocaine in the 70s,” Carrie told me during our phone conversation. “Nobody knew it was dangerous. We didn’t see our favorite movie star coming our of their 19th rehab in the tabloids. There were places on Sunset where you could leave $100 for the valet and you’d come back and there would be coke in your car.”

GLAM -- and awful. Which is sort of a reoccurring theme.

Another is that drug-addict Carrie was fucking crazy, and it’s pretty awesome to read about even though it’s sad.

“It was artistically-seeking for me,” Carrie told me, on the phone, of her drug use. “When I took mescaline I was looking for a molecular structure. When I took cocaine I wanted 75 seconds to your 60-second minute. I always wanted to see more.” Me too!

As junkie narrators go, Carrie is particularly appealing and very loveable: Her manic creative spirit and artist’s flamboyance are colorful threads all throughout her kooky, painful stories. I loved, wickedly, the part of the book in which heroin addict Carrie starts filling her Malibu living room up with sand that she stops and scoops up in a shoe box, every day on the way home from her dealer’s house:

“I walked back, put the shoe box in the trunk, and drove to our house; it looked so wholesome on the outside. I walked in and dumped another box of sand onto the living room floor. I was a junkie and I knew that I would never spend time on the beach, so I brought the beach home.”

Then she makes her young daughters pose on "the beach" under an umbrella so she can Polaroid it. Riveting stuff! At least, to me.

As wrenching as it is to read about how Carrie physically kicked dope -- she spares no gory detail in the book, believe me -- the most powerful and difficult chapter of her story was when she finally gets clean and starts her hair career again from the very bottom up, re-enlisting at the Vidal Sassoon Academy under a fake name to re-earn her license. Then she went to a salon, working for one of her former assistants. It took years and years to earn back what she'd thrown away and lost.

That is some true recovery shit. “I felt like Swiss cheese, I had so many holes in me,” White said to me of her getting-sober former self, the addict in slow recovery. “It was so hard. I kept thinking one day at a time, one day at a time.”

I got a chance to talk to Carrie on the phone, last week, and she’s amazing -- just the kindest person, with the best hippie energy. She is still living in Los Angeles and has almost 28 years of sobriety now, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear this laughing, lovely, lively person talk about the horrible -- horrible, and humiliating, and ridiculously painful -- things that she lived through, and hear her so electric and OK now, having committed to recovery and pulled through it all.

She wrote the memoir because she had stories to tell. “I wanted you, the reader, to meet all these people. I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to take the shame out of an illness that was just like a downhill racer,” Carrie told me. “I’ve read a lot of memoirs about drug addiction. I needed to honor how bad it got.”

“Did you like the book?”, Carrie asked, and she was happy when I told her honestly that -- as just a captivated reader, but also as a beauty editor and an addict – I loved it, and thought it was huge, important story. I'd found so much in to identify with in it, I said, and it gave me hope (though in the least sentimental way possible -- the book doesn’t dwell needlessly on the mushy stuff, but it’s all there for you to take away from it).

“I believe that the soul is never loaded,” Carrie told me when I ask her about her experience writing about her addiction, and re-living her past. “It’s always in us, like that white light wanting the best from us throughout whatever bad decisions we’ve made, with whatever motives that were wrong. The soul is there recording like a computer -- so when we sit still, anything that’s really impressed us or molded us -- we can draw upon that, and you can sit there and be quiet and you can see it.”

If you like glamorous celebrity stories and heartbreaking memoirs (who doesn't?) check this book out; duh. If you or someone you love is an addict and you can’t imagine that you’ll ever be able to get better, Carrie’s story is important – read it. Believe.

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