Parly do: How Parliament's hairdressers became an institution
Squirrelled away behind the Terrace cafeteria lies John Simon – Parliament’s unisex hair salon. Sophie Church pays a visit to Kelly Dodge, John Simon’s manager, to hear what has kept her styling hair in Parliament for so long
When Enoch Powell went to the Commons barber to have his hair cut, the barber asked: “How would you like it cut, Mr Powell?” “In silence”, came the voice from the barber’s chair. So the story goes.
Years on from this fabled interaction, the Commons barbers has been replaced by an amiable outfit called the John Simon hair salon. And while Powell preferred silence, the customers John Simon serves are much happier to be there, says manager Kelly Dodge.
“I think for some people, it is just an escape for half an hour,” she explains. “We have a lot of people that are regular. But everyone is welcome, that is what keeps us busy.”
Dodge started cutting hair in her summer holidays when she left school and “ended up staying” in the trade. After a brief stint hairdressing aboard cruise ships, she ended up in a salon in Hampstead. It was this salon that successfully applied to be Parliament’s first unisex hairdressers, and again, having moved into Westminster, Dodge ended up staying. She has now been working in Parliament for 27 years.
I got caught once where someone had to vote with a colour on their hair
“That was when Tony Blair came in, and the women wanted a hairdresser… that’s when we came in ’96,” she says. “We were really welcomed, but it was stuck in the dark ages. [The reaction was sometimes:] ‘Women can’t cut hair’. But it has moved on. And I think we are a huge part of the House in lots of ways….this is my 27th year. I never feel like I am coming to work – I love it.”
However Dodge says that some of the stylists who moved from the Hampstead salon could not acclimatise to Parliament. “I’ve got friends that...came here and they just couldn’t get on with it. It’s just different to an everyday salon where people walk in. Everybody knows everyone and it is a community. One either you like, and you become part of, or you struggle with.”
Clearly, Dodge is part of the community. As we speak, she is drinking a can of Coke that Conservative peer Lord Harrington has dropped in for her. She says her “best friend without fail” in Parliament is chair of the 1922 Committee (and The House advisory board) Graham Brady’s parliamentary secretary, 81-year-old Sybil Crowther, who rings her every day after work to hear how her day has gone. Each morning, the cleaner stops by for a cup of tea with Dodge and her colleague Jackie Bell, who moved from the Hampstead salon with her 27 years ago. “I have the strangest group of friends,” she says, “because I have all different friends from around the House.”
Over 27 years, Dodge has long watched Parliament’s stars on the rise. “Tom Pursglove… was a researcher when I first started and he worked around the corner...they’ve gone from researchers to Members.” She says that now she can see the ones who will become MPs – the ones with that certain something.
Like many in Westminster Dodge has a gruelling schedule. She arrives most mornings at 6.30am and finishes “when she stops”. A particularly busy week lies ahead as she is tasked with coiffing parliamentarians’ hair for the coronation. “It is a real short space of time for the coronation,” she says, “because they have to be in their seats by eight o’clock.”
Parliament’s strict timetable has led to some memorable moments. “I got caught once where someone had to vote with a colour on their hair,” Dodge says. “With a gentleman you can just comb their hair in place, put their jacket back on, and they can go vote, it is literally two minutes up the staircase. A woman we can both blow dry and try and get them out quick enough to vote. You’ve got eight minutes. It’s surprising what you can do in eight minutes!”
Another particularly busy time of the year is conference season, when Dodge sets up in a hotel room and starts blow drying from the early hours of the morning. Has she ever witnessed any hotel shenanigans before the sun rises? “I can neither confirm nor deny,” she replies coyly.
Having trimmed, coloured and snipped for so long, Dodge has been privy to many conversations in her salon. “I hear everything, absolutely everything,” she says. And whoever knocks on her salon door is welcome – from staff members, to peers, to prime ministers. “I have baronesses in here in the mornings,” she says. “I just have a mixture of people. And you know what is really nice is that everyone becomes friends, but cross-party as well. That’s what’s nice.”
However as the Covid-19 pandemic coursed through Parliament, Dodge was forced to shut up shop. “During Covid, I was drowning. I’m trying to get out of that now,” she says softly. She was, however, able to do FaceTime consultations. “Somewhere I’ve got the pictures of Sybil cutting her own hair during lockdown and me and my daughter going ‘No, no!’” she says. “I got a few messages asking ‘Can I put this on my head?’ I was like, ‘You dare. No, no one’s seeing you, just don’t touch it.’”
With life back to normal, Dodge has been working on growing the John Simon brand. “We’ve been doing posters and we’ve been doing stuff on the Internet with… my liaison officer,” she says. “It’s just letting everyone know that we are here because people don’t always know. And I think the thing is, when you walk past it is quite daunting to actually come through the door for the first time, I suppose. People think, ‘oh, it’s off limits’. But actually, once you’ve come in, you tend to then get the whole office.”
While some may be nervous to step inside, others find it difficult to find the salon in the first place (including your writer, who ended up in an underground service tunnel and was retrieved by a kind Terrace waiter). “It is in some random corridor and I don’t think I could find it unassisted again”, commented Graeme Cowie, head of the Parliament Public Administration and Constitution Hub. “I thought it was down in the corridor past Strangers?” asked Noel Dempsey, a senior statistical analyst in the Commons for five years.
“The way I try to explain it to people is you go into the Terrace cafeteria, into the seating area there’s a door with ‘North Curtain’ exit. If you come through them, turn right. And if lost call me,” she says firmly.
Dodge’s main concern is making everyone who visits welcome. She points towards a cupboard which stocks plasters, paracetamol and tights for those in need, and laughs but agrees at the suggestion that she and Bell are the mums of Parliament.
“If you’re a prime minister or if you’re a cleaner, I’ll treat you the same,” she says. “That’s what I think makes it work in here.”
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