Interview with barber and mental health ambassador Ken Hermes

To celebrate Father’s Day we thought we’d do something a bit different and interview a dad.

Ken Hermes is a 28 year-old senior barber and social media manager for Gould Barbers. He’s been cutting hair seriously for two years. Ken is also an advocate for mental health.

He tells us why he changed career from an Area Manager for Tesco to becoming a barber, and why his own dad’s suicide has inspired him to want to start a mental health charity to provide structured support to children bereaved by suicide.

Why did you become a barber? 

From a young age I was interested in hair. I rocked a mullet at age three, a flat top by five and a full-blown Mohawk by 13. I was never afraid to try a new look.

That being said, barbershops weren’t really my thing growing up. I went to a hairdressing salon instead. When I was 16, my hairdresser offered me a job, but at the time I couldn’t think of anything worse. I wanted to be a musician. That never happened and I eventually found myself landing a retail job with Tesco.

A few years later I started to grow a beard and realised that my salon had no idea how to style it properly. I needed a barber’s advice. I ventured to a different shop for the first time ever and loved the experience. That’s when I became obsessed with barbershops. I wanted to know everything about them.

When I was an Area Manager for Tesco I moved around a lot and found myself visiting different barbershops on my travels. The barber scene excited me, so I created a blog to document the different styles and experiences I found within them. Somewhere along the way, I started writing for industry magazines and quickly fell in love with all things barbering.

Not long after that, I started training in a friend’s shop in Essex. Then I enrolled at the Sid Sottung academy in Nottingham, and then attended some courses run by you guys! I began cutting as a mobile barber and built a reliable clientele. Finally, I spent some time with the boys from Hudson Hair, before jumping head first into a full time job with Gould.

If you weren’t a barber, what would you be doing?

I’d still be sitting behind a desk, emailing non-food suppliers and working on spreadsheets; all while dreaming about finding a job that actually excited me. I’m very lucky to have transitioned into this industry.

Who inspires you in the barber industry?

Sid Sottung was my first inspiration. The way he teaches is second to none and I feel he could inspire anyone to become a barber.

Luke Dolan is also someone I look up to. I used to travel for hours to get a haircut from him and I learned a lot in the process. He’s one of the good guys – trying to make a positive change to the industry.

What is your best piece of advice for fellow barbers?

Just to believe in yourself! I’m the biggest self-doubter and feel that I’ve blagged my way into the industry, but somewhere along the way you have to put your insecurities aside. Otherwise they’ll hold you back.

I’m guilty of spending too much time wanting recognition from other barbers, when really I should be focusing on marketing myself to my customers and taking their feedback on board. At the end of the day, they’re the ones that pay my wage.

If you could change one thing about the barbering industry, what would it be?

I hate how dog-eat-dog the industry can be. It can take a lot for someone to find the courage to share their work. Then, if one hair is out of place, the whole thing can become a shark tank. Community over competition, that’s the way forward.

What are your favourite types of hairstyle to cut?

I really enjoy working with square, layered crops. I find that you can be really creative in the styling process and experiment with extra texture. These sorts of style, combined with a skin fade or taper, are fun to do and really test my skills.

If you could cut one person’s hair – dead or alive – who would it be?

That’s easy; my Dad.

I mean, I’d love to slick some pomade through Elvis’ hair, but I wish my Dad was still alive and that he could see me in a job that I love. He had a wicked head of hair and could grow a mighty beard too. We could have had a lot of fun with that!

What happened to your Dad?

I am what they call a ‘suicide survivor’. At 15 years old, my Dad took his own life. There was no note and no warning. One day I just woke up and he wasn’t there anymore. It hit me really hard.

The night before he died was like any other. We were laughing and drinking, I was playing our favourite songs on the guitar, and we talked about everything. Or at least I thought we did. That night, it felt like my Dad was wearing his heart on his sleeve, but he still didn’t really tell me how he was feeling.

In the morning, I woke up for another day of secondary school. I was a little pampered by my parents and wanted beans on toast for breakfast, but the garage was always cold first thing in the morning. Mum would always make the trip for me though, bless her.

She was gone for a while and I heard a lot of screaming, then crying. I tried to go out to see her but she wouldn’t let me. I noticed my Dad’s van was still parked up outside, so I shouted for his help. He didn’t answer.

Suicide: A word that sends chills down your spine. But that’s what it was.

I had no idea about my Dad’s depression. In fact, the concept of depression was pretty lost on me altogether. Looking back, I often wonder if he’d still be alive today if he felt that he could’ve expressed himself to me. Or to anyone, in fact: I always thought we had spoken openly, but I was only 15 when he committed suicide – far too young to carry the burden. 

What happened next?

I made a decision not to let my Dad’s death be in vain. If I could educate or support just one person and save just one life, his legacy would live on. I started with video logs that shared my story, which quickly progressed to talks in school assemblies to help students identify with their own mental health.

13 years after my Dad’s death, and after battling crippling anxiety myself, I am extremely proud to be working alongside like-minded people, brands and charities, to support the message that it’s okay to not be okay.

A big part of this work involves my ambassadorship with The Lions Barber Collective – a charitable collection of barbers that are tackling the stigma and taboo of mental health and suicide.

As barbers, we naturally provide a safe space for our clients to speak freely. The result is that, with the right support, we can signpost those in need to the places that provide the best help. Together, we’re making it okay to talk about the hard things, because one’s mental health is not a weakness.

What’s your dream?

I just want to continue to help people. It would be nice to finally feel confident enough to stand up among my peers and call myself a barber too. I’d also love to start a charity that helps children left behind by parental suicide, like I was.

Tell us more about the idea for the charity?

I’d like to be able to provide structured support to children bereaved by suicide. It’s a really difficult time, and to have an elder that has experienced the same thing can be very encouraging. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and we should be helping kids to see that.

I didn’t have any of these kinds of opportunity and it was a really dark and difficult time for me. It’d be amazing to visit schools, holding group sessions and providing education. It’s definitely a pipe dream, but maybe one day…

Would you ever like to have your own barbershop?

I’m not sure to be honest. I live in a saturated area, but if I did, I know exactly what it would look like already!

What would it look like?

If I were to open up a shop, I’d pick the pool table before I picked the décor! I spent a lot of time playing pool when I was a kid and think it’s a brilliant social sport. I’d also want an old school bar to serve free drinks.

Then I’d focus on retailing, making the shop as comfortable and easy for shoppers as it is for those getting a trim. Each barber station would be sectioned off with short partition walls for a little added privacy too.

The walls would be a combination of wood, metal, neon and organised chaos – think “scrapyard” style – and would be a sort of homage to all the things I like: NFL, Pro Wrestling and American beer. There would be a photography area and a work space at the back as well.

The work space would be used by me and anyone that works on the go. I used to spend a lot of time working from coffee shops and think a barbershop that offers somewhere cool to chill and set up a laptop would do well, especially if the Wi-Fi’s free and it sells hot drinks.

What’s the best piece of advice you give to customers that want to look after their style?

You have to learn to invest in quality products. A cheap £3.00 hair wax from a supermarket just isn’t going to provide you with the look you want. If you invest in good products and ask your barber for advice, you’re on the right track.

What product do you use most on your customers?

The Bluebeards Revenge Sea Salt Spray is hands down the best product I’ve ever used. The smell alone is incredible. It gives an instant hold, a great matt look and acts as an ideal foundation before applying other styling products.

If you could go back and talk to yourself as a kid, what would you say?

I guess I’d tell myself to persevere with school and college, and to get into hair sooner! My retail career taught me a lot, but I wish I took the offer I was given at 16 to study hairdressing. I’d also tell myself that everything will be okay; things will get easier and wounds will heal.

What keeps you awake at night?

My kids… 

What does it mean to you to become an ambassador for The Bluebeards Revenge? 

It means everything to me. For me, it shows recognition and acceptance that my weird journey through life and into this industry is now legitimate. When I blogged, The Bluebeards Revenge was one of the first product companies I reviewed. To be an ambassador for a company that I’ve used since day one is an overwhelming feeling.

Finally, tell us something we don’t know about you.

I’m not actually English! I was born in Texas, USA, and I’m half American and half Croatian. I’ve lived in the UK since I was three, though.

50p from every tub of Bluebeards Revenge hair gel goes to the Lions Barber Collective to prevent male suicide.