Celebrity barber Curtis Smith joined me at the CT Barber Expo 2018 to share the story of his barbering career. There’s a lot to talk about – aside from Curtis’ work with celebrities like P Diddy and Usher, he also has the Xotics brand to his name – so I decided to dive straight in with some background on how he got into barbering:
“My entry into barbering started when I was 13 years old. I picked up a pair of clippers because I saw a friend of mine do a haircut and thought it was something I wanted to try. I did a haircut on a friend and he actually liked it. Looking back on that hair cut now it’s hilarious, but we were kids. For him it was a haircut, it looked better than when he sat in the chair. For me it was an accomplishment.”
Curtis describes a ‘wow’ moment which many barbers are probably familiar with: realising that you can give something of real value using just your hands and a pair of clippers.
“It gave me the energy to want to become a professional barber. I started experimenting on my friends for a dollar, then I went and got my licence. I realised that I started to like cutting hair more than what I was going to school for. So, I started cutting hair professionally, got my licence and opened my own salon. Once I opened my salon there was no looking back.”
Opening up his unisex salon Ebonese in the Bronx gave Curtis a chance to start putting his work out there – and as his reputation built, he started attracting in minor celebrities who would eventually connect him with their top-tier contacts. The real breakthrough came when P Diddy saw his work on an associate and decided he wanted a piece of it.
“He sent his people to find me – they had me experiment on one of his artists first to make sure. I did this guy’s hair and he did a double take! That was my emergence into the celebrity world. After he saw my portfolio he said okay, you’re my barber for the rest of my life. That was 20 years ago. I just stopped working with him because he moved full time to LA, but I still work with Usher, Ludacris, different people like that.
“I am looking at tapering down that side of my career. It’s a very demanding lifestyle. I’ve just overcome cancer for the second time, I finished chemo three weeks ago – so I have to change some of the things I do and move a little differently.”
While he was still a part of the celebrity scene, though, Curtis made a real impact with cuts that became influential around the world. This included P Diddy’s famous mohawk – a cut which, if Curtis had his way, might never have happened:
“He wanted to do something different for the New York Marathon. He said I want people to take me seriously, because nobody knows me as an athlete. Normally people take six months to train for a marathon, he did it in six weeks. He said everyone says I’m crazy, I want a look that shows them I’m dead serious.
“I took a survey of all the people that worked for him: should he get a mohawk. Overwhelmingly the women said yes, and the guys said no. He said ‘what do you think we’re doing this for? We do this for the women!’ So, we went with the mohawk. I decided to put a fade in there and put a hairline on it because I’d never seen that done. He loved it and we created a new wave which was something people were doing all over the world.”
Aside from celebrity cuts, Curtis is also known as the godfather of the barber battle. It’s almost difficult to measure just how big an impact this man has had on the industry as a whole, given that much of his work has helped barbers to transform the way in which they see their craft. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear big-name barbers such as Pacinos cite Curtis as one of their influencers.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a barber that doesn’t like what I represent. Because all we do is help the community of barbers to grow. We’ve energised a community of barbers to become bigger than they knew they could be: they didn’t think they could own their own products or do their own shows. Guys are doing amazing things these days and it’s really because of the energy that we started. For me it’s hard enough just to stay involved now.
“Right now, the barbering industry is in a really good place. There are a lot of barbers driving themselves crazy trying to figure out how to become something bigger than what they are. But it’s good to see people trying, they’re thinking what else can we do.”
One of these innovations is the Hair Battle Tour, Xotics’ barber battling tour which has been taking American barbers by storm. I ask Curtis to explain what sets it apart from other barber battles: “People have a good time. You can stand in the barbershop and do serious haircuts all day. When I put a show on, I want people to leave with a smile on their face. We try not to be so serious, we have a DJ playing music and I’m very particular about what my DJ plays.
“We come with a certain energy and everyone who works for us carries that energy. We’re very accommodating, but very stern at the same time. It’s really just about having fun: we push that. We bring people up on stage, have sneaker battles. Sometimes we have kids come up and compete. One time we had kids come up and dance and collected prize money for the kids to win. Suddenly everyone’s involved.”
It’s not hard to see why so many barbers are inspired to take part in these battles, and it’s great to see new talent emerge at the different events. We have been lucky enough to have Xotics bring their tour to the UK earlier this year, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for their global brand. If you missed the show, you can still benefit from Curtis’ unique style by listening to his parting words of advice:
“Remember that everything that leads up to being successful happens one step at a time. You can’t overstep yourself. The most important thing you have in your career is the barber chair and the business that you represent. You represent that business first, your clients second and yourself third.
“If you keep that format in place then you’ll always be straight: you’ll always have a great place to work. If you decide to go and open your own shop, don’t take barbers from your current shop. Every barber tries it but bad karma will follow you. Find your own staff from scratch, train them to where you want them to be.
“Always be on time. Always treat your customers with the upmost respect. Once you start to make them happy, you can raise your prices: go from the guy who charges 20 to the guy who charges 40. When your income changes your options change; your opportunity changes. So always focus on making sure that whatever you’re doing right now is what you’re focused on the most. Your clients will stay with you until you die, if you treat them right.”
Get more inspiration by following Curtis on Instagram @xotics to see some of his dazzling work; you can also follow this page @LarrytheBarberMan to make sure you’re keeping up with the latest interviews from barbering greats.