Laurentius Purnama: Bringing star treatment to South Philly
by Suzi Nash
Nov 08, 2012 | 1090 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Laurentius Purnama is a hairstylist to the stars, with a client list that includes Beverly Johnson, Amanda Hearst, Ivana Trump, Joan Collins, Maggie Gyllenhal, Diana Krall and Britney Spears. (Yes, that Britney bitch.) His work has been featured on the covers of Elle, Glamour, Maxim-Blender, Entertainment Weekly, GQ, Vegas, Cosmo Girl and many others but, for the past five years, he has concentrated on bringing style and glamour to the folks of Philadelphia. At his South Philadelphia salon, the motto is, “Everyone can be beautiful, they just need the right stylist.”

PGN: What’s the premise behind Laurentius Salon?

LP: I’ve traveled the world and worked with some amazing people, but I wanted a place where regular people could have a chance to be glamorous. I love that we have a huge cross-section of clients. On any given day, I might have (former) Sen. Vince Fumo in a chair, next to a transgender person, next to a woman in her 70s, next to a 20-something hipster. We work on being versatile. We want to be cool and edgy but sophisticated too for those who are more conservative. Diversity is everything.

PGN: You’ve been around the world, but where are you originally from?

LP: I was born and raised in a small town in Indonesia, Nganjuk in East Java. We were pretty poor when I was young but by the time I got to high school, we were middle-class and my parents were able to send us to a private school in the city. They always put education first. Of course, I had a different motivation to want to go to the city: There was an amazing beauty school there. Since I was 5 years old, I’d go to the beauty salon with my mother and it was always the highlight of the month.

PGN: So here, if a boy decides to be a hairdresser at 16, there’s a certain stereotype attached ...

LP: [Laughs.] Actually, I got that when I was 5. They knew my card before I understood the truth. It was hard. My son, he loves trains and trucks, I was never that kind of boy. I wanted to play with my sister’s dolls. And all my little friends were girls, not guys, so it seemed everyone already knew. I knew that I was attracted to boys from back as young as I could imagine, which made things really hard. To know how you felt inside and have people tell you it was wrong. When I was 9 and my neighbor went to hairdressing school, I said, “Mom, can I be a hairdresser too?” And she said no, that it wasn’t a man’s job. When I went to high school, I said again, “OK, now that I’m in the city already, can I go now?” She still said no. Then they found out that I was gay by reading my diary. I wrote about my first love and they read it. It was actually a favor because I didn’t have to find a way to tell them. I just went home to the village one day and they were crying and sobbing. I assumed someone had died, and then they said, “What you’re feeling is not normal.” I thought, Oh gosh, what am I feeling that’s not normal?”Then they explained what they were talking about and suggested I go to a psychiatrist. In my country, you don’t talk back to your parents, so I went. I was very lucky because the psychologist, who was a Muslim also, was the one to say that it was OK to be gay. Until then, I hated being gay — growing up hearing that gay was bad and horrible and not worthy. I thought it was the cause of me not liking my life, but he made me feel that there was nothing wrong with me. He was the one who talked my parents into letting me go to beauty school. He told me that my life would be hard, but if I worked hard at whatever I chose to do, I would be successful and people would respect me.

PGN: And now you are one of the top stylists in the country. Tell me about the family.

LP: I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. I tried not to be one but I think it’s genetic. My mom started the family business, which is a housewares store. We had a dirt floor growing up and through her strength and ingenuity, she brought us out of poverty. I came to America without anything and when it got rough, I always thought, if my mom could build a business in a place where women are not supposed to be working — she was the first person in the village to send her kids to private school — I can make it too.

PGN: Any siblings?

LP: Yes, I’m the sixth child. I always felt a little disconnected from the rest, but I think it was because of the gay thing.

PGN: How did you end up in Philly?

LP: Well, I moved to L.A. first for 10 months and then I came to Philly to stay with an ex-boyfriend. It was one of those situations where you say, “Maybe it wasn’t that bad, let’s try to make it work,” and two weeks later you remember why you broke up. And then I met my partner and we’ve been together for 17 years.

PGN: And the business?

LP: Well, I worked for about five years at a salon and I didn’t like the management. I tried a few high-end salons and found that they were very snooty. I felt, if I work here and I am made to feel uncomfortable, I can’t imagine how clients would feel coming in wanting to look good and being looked down on. So I tried a place that wasn’t as high-end, but the professionalism wasn’t there. I was afraid the clients who followed me might feel uncomfortable in a place not up to standards. [Laughs.] All this time, I was fighting my roots and trying not to become an entrepreneur like the rest, but I finally gave in and decided to open my own place. I wanted to have my own niche by having a place that was cool and edgy but still sophisticated. A place with top professionals and great service, but I had no money, So I went to New York and worked in a top salon there. I wanted to learn how they were so successful with 300 other salons on the same block. How did they do it? I learned a lot and it was amazing, but I didn’t want to be in New York so much and jeopardize my relationship. So I started freelancing and was very fortunate to have some amazing experiences there. It was very rewarding both personally and financially, but I realized that I wanted to start a family and that the time was now. I came back to Philly, opened up the salon and now we are celebrating our fifth anniversary.

PGN: Tell me about some of those amazing experiences.

LP: Working with Britney Spears for three years was super, super amazing. I did a lot of magazine covers with her from Elle to Entertainment Weekly, various appearances, including the awards show when she and Madonna kissed. I did her CD cover and video for “Me Against the Music,” a lot of stuff.

PGN: It seems like one of those professions where you get people to open up to you, like a bartender or priest.

LP: It’s interesting that you point that out. It’s one of the reasons I love my business. People do connect to you. It’s a charming and lovely work environment. You get to help people feel special. It’s what I fell in love with when I was 5 years old sitting in the waiting room. Everyone being chitty chatty, having coffee and forgetting about their problems. Everyone was happy at the beauty salon.

PGN: A memorable moment with Ms. Spears?

LP: I was booked to do a Glamour magazine shoot and the photographer canceled me so he could bring in his own person. I always take things easy; if it’s not mine, I’m not worried about it. A week before the shoot, her manager called and said, “I’ll see you next week at the shoot.” I explained that I’d been taken off the job and we hung up. Britney called me back and asked why I wasn’t doing it, I told her and she called Glamour and had me put back on. The photographer wasn’t happy about it so he tortured me at the shoot. Britney was getting the Woman of the Year award and they wanted her to look old-school Hollywood instead of pop-star messy so I gave her a very classic look. She was like, “Oh Laurentius, I love it!” and the editor thanked me for respecting them and creating the look they wanted. On set, the photographer tore me up, mocking me for making it old-fashioned even though that’s what the client asked for. I was sweating bullets until Britney had them tell the photographer to back off. It was lovely for her to stand up for me like that.

PGN: I have to say I’m very jealous because you’ve worked with the woman that I would have gladly made my wife: the gorgeous Beverly Johnson.

LP: Oh yes! She is so lovely. So lovely! I love her. And she’s funny too. Her assistant was one of the Warhol kids and one time we were in between sets and talking dirty. Oh my gosh, she started dishing the dirt on who was gay in Hollywood. [Laughs.] By the end of it, we were like, “So who’s straight? There’s no one left!”

PGN: Who was the most challenging or surprising?

LP: [Laughs.] I’ll just say with Joan Collins, it is what it is. The most surprising was Barbara Bush. I expected her to be uptight but she was very kind and warm. And Britney because, for being such a superstar, she was so humble and good-natured.

PGN: How did you meet your partner, Steve?

LP: We met through a friend. He’s incredible, and not just because he’s my partner. He’s just kind and generous and probably the nicest person I ever met. And now I’m married to him. When we first met he didn’t want kids, just cats, so I knew I had to work on him. [Turns to his son.] Thank goodness it worked and we had you, or Daddy would have ended up being a crazy old cat woman. Like Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens.” We’re both so happy now.

PGN: What do you like to do away from work?

LP: I like to do picnics with the family. Children really do change your life. Before Jude, I would have said shopping. But he’s the best adventure and gift we could have asked for. I do a lot of photography now. I do all the photo shoots for the company.

PGN: You transform people’s lives. What’s a story that stands out for you?

LP: I have a longtime client named Maryellen. She had a sister, Pat, who had lupus. She lived alone in Pittsburgh and was struggling with the disease. Whenever Maryellen would visit her she’d come back and tell me how much Pat would talk about how nice she looked and that she wished she had a hairdresser who could do the same. One day I had a photo shoot that canceled and Maryellen had mentioned to me that she was going to visit her sister so I called her and said, “You know, I don’t have anything on my calendar tomorrow. How about I go with you and do your sister’s hair?” We drove six hours to the hospital and I did her hair and she was so happy. I saw such a sparkle in her eyes it was beautiful, so worthwhile. And I found out things about Maryellen that I didn’t know before. You can learn a lot in a six-hour drive.

PGN: Random question: What period of time would you choose to do hair in?

LP: I would love to be in the 1940s, doing pin-cushions and finger rolls and side curls. That period where everyone was glamorous and wore long gloves and dressed up. Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall set the styles. And I love the June Cleaver era. It was so ladylike.

PGN: Yes, doing the vacuuming with your pearls on! Backtracking a bit, I read that your sister busted you for playing with your dolls.

LP: Actually, she never ratted me out. She let me play with her dolls and cut their hair, but I didn’t know that if you cut it too short on dolls you see all those little polka dots on their heads. When she saw what happened, she started crying and my father overheard.

PGN: What’s a smell that makes you stop and reflect?

LP: Lavender. Ha! That’s so gay, isn’t it? But it gives me such a positive feeling. It makes me feel grateful for all the beautiful things I have in my life and brings a smile to my face.

PGN: An early sign you were gay?

LP: Funny you ask that. I remember when I was young thinking, How the hell does everyone know I am gay? I know I know who I am but how the hell do they know? Then when I was 17, I went back to the village and my mother and I were walking down memory lane, looking at pictures, and in every one of them I’m wearing flowers in my hair or a fancy hat. [Cracks up.] I was like, “Hello, miss, how could they not know?”

PGN: And wrapping up, tell me about five years with the salon.

LP: It’s gone so fast. One thing I’m proud of is the diversity. I have a myriad of people here and they all have different styles. I like that. I can appreciate any kind of beauty but [claps his hands for emphasis] it has to be excellent.

PGN: Speaking of diversity, did you have problems with racism in Indonesia?

LP: Oh yes, all over Asia. My grandparents were Chinese and when I went into grade school, the family had to change our last name or I wouldn’t have been admitted into the school. And you can’t be dark-skinned. The first year I was here, I went to Rehoboth and got really dark; it doesn’t take much. I sent pictures home and my sister was like, “Oh my God, you look horrible! You’re so dark!”

PGN: What’s the gay situation at home?

LP: It’s not like you’re going to get killed, but you’re never going to be good enough or have the respect you deserve. One of my mentors was the nicest person. He did anything for anybody and helped so many people. One day I heard them making fun of him and I thought, Are you kidding, this is someone who helps you and is supposed to be your friend. That’s when I knew I had to leave. That no matter what I did, I’d never be good enough. When I was in the closet and hated myself it was fine, but once I began to love myself, I knew I wanted and deserved better. Now, I have friends and family who love me, and life is amazing. Beyond my wildest dreams. It’s cliché, but this is truly the land of opportunity.

Check out Laurentius Salon at 815 Christian St.; 215-238-0764. Bring in this column for 20-percent off a haircut during the month of November.

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