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Hip hairdresser Albie Mulcahy hopes his styles grow on St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Scissors in hand, Albie Mulcahy gazes wistfully out the salon windows at the passing traffic on Fourth Street N.

He's a chain-smoking slip of a hairstylist, a cross between pop artist Andy Warhol and '80s rocker Billy Idol.

He doesn't cut and tell, but he once toured with the Sex Pistols. He knows famed stylist Paul Mitchell. He is the former right-hand man of deceased rock star stylist John Sahag.

His lifestyle is fast and furious. He flies to seven different cities every two months to tend to rich and famous clients. In the past 15 years he has lived in New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Three years ago, Mulcahy moved to St. Petersburg to put the brakes on the frequent-flier life.

But, in his new hometown, where celebrities are a rare sighting and the closest movie premiere is a Blockbuster DVD, Mulcahy has a new kind of problem.

He needs some name recognition.

He needs some clients.

• • •

In recent years, local boosters have been pushing this idea of St. Petersburg as an emerging city of the arts with a vibrant downtown, ideal for young up-and-comers.

To their credit, the concept goes beyond fluff and spin. The city claims numerous art galleries downtown, the Dali Museum and the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts. A one-of-a-kind museum for renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly is in the works.

Dance clubs have replaced green benches in the city once called God's Waiting Room. An offbeat art lounge, Nova 535, recently held its grand opening in the Uptown neighborhood with models and music.

Still, St. Petersburg is no Los Angeles, said Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater and former creative industries manager for Tampa.

"We're still in Florida,'' he said. "There's only so much money to go around.''

As for his own hair, Wilborn said, "I'm happy with my $26 cut.''

In St. Petersburg, a Mulcahy cut will cost you $95. In New York, the same cut, $250. In Los Angeles, $200.

Could Mulcahy's client woes be a matter of simple economics?

Are the people of St. Petersburg ready to plop down a Ben Franklin for stylish locks?

Suzin Moon, who owns LolaJane's Beauty Lounge at BayWalk, used to do hair and makeup for the film and television industry. In Los Angeles, cuts often hit $200. Here, her salon charges between $30 and $60.

"It's a different world here,'' Moon said. "You get paid a lot more money there, but more people have more money there, too.''

• • •

At 56, Mulcahy is teenage hip, with spiky bleached blond hair, black jeans, black hoodie and black ankle boots. Two chunky silver crucifixes hang from his plunging neckline.

He has a close following among the city's artsy crowd, aspiring models, young hipsters.

"My hair was a mess before I met him,'' said Ivanka Ska, a clothing designer whose Fourth Street boutique, House of Ska, opened last year.

Mulcahy wandered into her store one day, and the two hit it off as soul mate artists, new to town.

It didn't hurt that she needed someone to do her models' hair. Or that her own hair was less than spectacular.

Mulcahy made her ever-changing-colored hair blond. He gave her chunky bangs, with layers around her face.

Ska gushes: "My hair has been transformed.''

• • •

When he's not traveling, Mulcahy devotes two or three days a week to Salon Lofts, a collective of individual stylists, manicurists and facialists at 1068 Fourth St. N. It opened last year.

He's got a prime front-window spot with a blue velvet couch in the middle of the room. He calls his salon, the Velvet Lounge.

So far he's relied on word of mouth, his MySpace page and local art events to bring in customers.

That's how Lindsey Nickel-de La O, 25, who works in city's marketing department, met Mulcahy.

She is a big believer that St. Petersburg will someday be a player, a real player, in the arts world.

She believes Mulcahy fits into that. "He has this vision," she said.

• • •

Mulcahy was born in Boston, one of five children of Irish Catholic parents. He grew up poor and dreamed of being a famous rock star.

After spending a year in Vietnam and overcoming a nasty drug habit, he watched the movie Shampoo and knew he wanted to become a hairstylist.

"It sounds like a cliche,'' he said, "but it's true.''

He opened a salon in Boston and met Paul Mitchell, becoming one of his educators. He later joined with Sahag in New York, who taught him the dry-cutting technique.

It's been 12 years since Mulcahy has cut hair wet.

Mulcahy said he now is dedicated to teaching other stylists what he knows through his new educational training venture with business partner Dwight Miller called V L V T academies.

He said the "shapes'' he creates are edgy, modern, but not crazy, he said. He said his cuts last twice as long as most others.

Miller, who lives in Santa Fe, said he's not surprised that Mulcahy is struggling to build a clientele. It usually takes a stylist two or three years.

Moon, of LolaJane's, said it can sometimes even take five years.

"It doesn't matter who you are,'' Miller said.

"You could come down from the heavens and it doesn't matter. Hairstyling is a very personal business.''

Originally, Mulcahy wanted to fly under the radar in St. Petersburg, but now he wants his name out. Not so people will gossip about the city's new "celebrity hairstylist.'' Mulcahy simply wants some business.

"I have to pay the mortgage,'' he said. He wants more attention, not just for himself, but for his new town.

"I want to put St. Petersburg on the map for the hair industry to learn,'' he said. "I think it has that capability.''

The commitment-phobic stylist bought a house in the Old Northeast, cementing his ties to the Sunshine State. His 14-year-old daughter also lives in Daytona with his ex-wife.

Despite his empty chair, Mulcahy is hopeful about the future.

He can envision his salon bustling; his calendar booked with yet-to-be devoted clients.

"They just don't know what we do,'' he thinks aloud, the cars zooming by. "Who we are.''

Times researcher Angie Drobnic-Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8813.

Hip hairdresser Albie Mulcahy hopes his styles grow on St. Petersburg 03/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 12:11pm]
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