During my time on the QE2 I met many members of the Royal Family, from the Queen Mum and Princesses Anne and Margaret, down to some of the ‘lesser’ royals. And in 1990 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh transferred from the royal yacht Britannia to the QE2 by royal barge, and the Queen became the first reigning monarch to sail on a commercial line with passengers.
People often ask me if I’d met Princess Diana, and if so, what I thought of her. I did meet her, and I didn’t think much. To be fair to Di, the circumstances were shambolic: it was in 1987, and she’d come on board to host what was then one of the largest children’s parties afloat, with 500 schoolkids running riot all over the place, like mice let out of paper bags. The ship had sailed with the children to the Isle of Wight, which is where we picked up Princess Di – she’d been helicoptered there, and was transferred to the QE2 by barge in the pouring rain.
Di was damp and bedraggled and, ahead of the formalities and festivities, which were to be attended by the press and any number of other hangers-on, needed a quick fixer-up. One of the QE2’s senior staff came into the salon and instructed me to ‘fit her in’.
I paused in what I was doing and said to him, ‘You must be kidding. Look around.’ The salon was heaving – every chair was full, every dryer was in use, every stylist was working their fingers to the bone, and there were people queuing out the door.
‘She’s the Princess of Wales,’ he hissed. ‘Fit. Her. In.’
I was still muttering under my breath when a small commotion followed by a strange silence changed the atmosphere in the salon: the Princess had arrived. She was surrounded by a security detail and as many people as could get close to her. Giving me a quick, apologetic smile, she slipped into the seat I had, somewhat grumpily, vacated for her. Perhaps she was aware of the inconvenience she’d caused; maybe my thin-lipped irritation was obvious; or it could just have been her natural shyness: whatever the reason, she sat quietly and a little nervously, her hands clutched together in her lap, while I dried and styled her hair. We didn’t exchange a single word.
One of my mom Greta’s proudest moments in my career came when I was almost made hairdresser to the Queen. It came about in a curiously low-key way, with a Steiner bigwig coming on board and showing me a diagram of a hair set. ‘Would you be able to follow this?’ he asked. I looked at it and said yes – it was a very simple style. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘because Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser is about to retire and we’re looking for a new one.’
My name was put forward but this was at a time when ‘buying British’ had become a national obsession and even Princess Di was under fire for having a Mercedes Benz when a Rover would have done just as well. So I, a South African, lost the job of Hair to the Throne to one of Steiner’s senior hairstylists, Ian Carmichael.
Ian, a Scotsman, was known for his outrageous behaviour in the QE2’s public rooms. One of his party tricks was to casually sling a leg up over his partner’s shoulder while dancing. And he didn’t confine his acrobatics to shipboard. Once, at the end of the charter in Osaka in Japan, Ian went ashore with a group of hairdressers for a celebratory night out. They got completely plastered and, returning to the dock, decided to show Osaka what they were all about: they would, they decided, do a ‘Fame’ dance, using the cars parked up and down the harbour as a stage set.
For anyone who doesn’t remember the movie Fame, which came out in 1980, and followed a group of students through their studies at the New York High School of Performing Arts, there’s a dance sequence in it, to the Irene Cara song ‘Fame’, in which the lithe and athletic students dance on cars parked in the street.
Alas for Ian and his cohorts: if they were lithe when in a sober state, drunk, they were like a troupe of baby elephants. Much damage was done to the vehicles they cavorted across, including broken windscreen wipers and rearview mirrors, dented bonnets and fenders, and the like. There was, of course, hell to pay for it the next morning.
When Ian was hired by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who starred in Quantum of Solace in 2008, to do her hair for red-carpet appearances, I was amused to read that he admitted that Olga and the Queen opt for ‘very different hairstyles’. ‘Queen Elizabeth has always gone for the traditional look, one that’s easy for her to maintain; it’s her look and she is happy with it,’ he told reporters. Then he showed a flash of his former flamboyance when he added, ‘It’s been a case of my work going from ‘‘By Appointment To The Queen’’ to ‘‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’’!’
I often think about that hair-set diagram I was shown when I see the Queen making public appearances on television today: from that day to this, not a thing about her hairstyle has changed; Ian is evidently still following that diagram.
As for my mother: she was bitterly disappointed that I’d missed out on my opportunity to become part of the Royal entourage – particularly since she’d already started bragging to her friends about it.
* Here’s some hairstyle advice for older women from Mr Carmichael himself: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2379692/The-Queens-stylist-says-older-women-make-big-mistake-cutting-hair-short-bid-look-young.html
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