Posted 02 March 2023
Interview by Creative Lives in Progress
Mention Anya Steel

From village perms to Brighton mullets: Anya Steel on hairstyling as a creative practice

Anya Steel is keen to dispel the ill-informed belief that hairdressing isn’t an artful or intelligent practice. Starting off as an assistant at a village salon, Anya has moved from doing perms there to crafting slick mullets at Brighton-based eco-salon, Cuttlefish. Initially grappling with apprenticeship wages and Universal Credit, Anya has managed to build a freelance career by picking up hairdressing and modelling jobs for music videos on the side – including for the likes of up-and-coming musician, Nell Mescal. Having recently worked on the shoot for Lazy Oaf’s upcoming spring campaign, Anya tells us how the experience connected them with other like-minded emerging creatives, and why you should respond to every Instagram call-out that you can.

Anya Steel

Anya Steel

Job Title

Hairdresser, Cuttlefish



Previous Employment

Apprentice, Electric Ltd (2019-2022)
Hairdressing Assistant, VHB Salon (2016-2019)

Social Media

Hairdressing Instagram

What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I create art through a variety of mediums. I’m particularly interested in the confinements that hairdressing forces me to work with – it’s a constant artistic challenge for me.

I am also a self-taught animator. I find a lot of joy in creative processes that I think most people would find very tedious. For some reason it scratches an itch in my brain!

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I am massively inspired by the people around me, especially the queer skateboarding community in my city.

As a queer young person living in Brighton, the most accessible form of art for me is in the way that I dress and present myself: be that through hair, clothes or make-up. It’s a way of sharing my art and what’s on my mind with the people around me.

I like translating the art I see in the queer people I skate with [to hairdressing]. A common example of late is through the mullet. When I cut them, I’m recreating a haircut that looks like you could have just rolled out of bed, and making it look cool and sleek.

“As a queer young person living in Brighton, art for me is way that I dress and present myself: be that through hair, clothes or make-up.”

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Haircuts and styling done by Anya

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Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I’ve worked in hairdressers ever since I was old enough to have a job – it’s been a six-year-long slog!

I’d say that you do need formal training to cut and colour hair. I spent three years as a Saturday hairdressing assistant, picking up extra shifts in the week during school holidays when I was 13 to 16 years old, and then I did a three-year apprenticeship. I get frustrated with the reputation that hairdressing has as a profession for the ‘uneducated’ – or the idea that it’s something you do if you’re not smart enough to go to college. But actually, you can’t just become a hairdresser.

Plus, some of the hairdressers I’ve worked with are the most intelligent people I’ve ever met – they’re geniuses at their craft. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’m still learning! I was lucky enough to be trained in a salon that held us to an extremely high standard of hairdressing. Cutting hair is technically intricate, mathematical and takes so much training to be able to understand properly.

In terms of styling hair, I don’t think you need proper training! You can have no experience in professional hairdressing and still create something really sick and unique to you.

“Cutting hair is technically intricate, mathematical and takes so much training to be able to understand properly.”

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Anya’s hairdressing

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What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
I loved working on Nell Mescal’s debut music video, Graduating (below), in the summer. I did hair for Nell and a few of the extras for it.

It was directed by the amazing Dora Paphides, who is seriously one to watch. It was Rolling Stone’s Music Video of the Week when it came out. Nell is just a wonderful and incredibly humble person, and the whole crew was just so lovely.

As a model, I also opened the London Queer Fashion Show in September, which was really cool.

Can you tell us about your experience participating in the Lazy Oaf campaign shoot?
We had so much fun! It took us about five minutes to establish everyone’s star signs, plus the fact that we are all neurodivergent and queer.

The brief I’d been given was Lazy Oaf’s DIY vision of collaboration, creativity and colour.

I wanted to combine the colourful, playful DIY feel with a heavier, metallic, authentic DIY vibe – mixing together colourful materials with metal chains, gold wire tied into hair, chunky silver clips and safety pins.

In terms of collaboration, the stylist, make-up artist and I continually checked in with each other about how our looks would work together. We didn’t want the make-up look to overpower the clothes or hair and vice versa, or for us all to go with really crazy bright and colourful only for it all to potentially clash. I also worked with the photographer and videographer to decide how the hairstyling could work on set and in images, making sure that the looks were wearable, moveable and adjustable.

It was an amazing experience to work alongside like-minded young creatives. I enjoyed working within the brief and collaborating with the team to create something really great.

“The Lazy Oaf campaign shoot was an amazing experience in working alongside like-minded young creatives, collaborating to create something really great.”

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BTS of the Lazy Oaf spring campaign shoot

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How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
I had very humble beginnings in a tiny village hair and beauty salon, where 80% of the clientele were elderly ladies who wanted perms.

In retrospect, I’m sure 13-year-old me was an absolutely terrible assistant. I had about 10 cups of tea a day, washed hair and occasionally told the ladies that I liked their outfits – but other than that, I didn’t do all that much.

At 16, I shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum: a high-end luxury salon in Brighton. I ran around constantly and was always busy for my entire shift, every day.

Customer service and colouring hair came super-naturally to me. Cutting hair, meanwhile, has been more challenging.

How did you go about landing your first clients?
Most of my first clients booked in with me through the salon I worked in, and when I started doing shoot work, I was found through Instagram by directors or project managers.

“When I started doing shoot work, I was found through Instagram by directors or project managers.”

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I would say my biggest challenge was finding a salon that really supports me and that I am proud to work for. I absolutely love my workplace now, but my experience prior to this was definitely not as positive. At many points, I considered leaving the industry all together.

Now, I work for a place that really reflects my values in life. We’re an eco-salon: we use a carbon neutral hair products supplier, and even the hair we collect from cuts gets turned into hair booms used to soak up oil spills in the ocean. They also treat us really well and value us having time to rest. Most of us work a four-day week, and we work to live rather than the opposite.

If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Instagram is a great tool for connecting with fellow creatives, finding potential employers and promoting your own work.

I’m also forever indebted to my incredible trainer, James Akers, who is not only an extremely talented hairdresser, but also the most articulate, kind and adaptive educator. Being neurodivergent means I learn in a different way, and prior to James, I’d never had a teacher that went to every length to accommodate me and the way my brain works.

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share?
Social media has definitely helped me find opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise found. I’ve managed to get a bunch of jobs just from people sharing casting calls on their stories.

I’ve honestly been very lucky since I don’t have a huge following. I’d say follow any casting directors you can find on Instagram or agencies that repost casting calls. A good one is Des Hamilton casting. Other than that, following and interacting with lots of other creatives can help build connections throughout your creative field and could lead to potential jobs or collaborations.

I’d say just go for it – always reply to people’s creative call-outs.

“Social media has helped me find opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise found. Go for it – always reply to people’s creative call-outs.”

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I’m lucky that I’m employed to do hair in a salon, so that whenever a shoot opportunity comes up I can do it on the side.

I work four days a week at the salon. I moved out at quite a young age – the year after I started my apprenticeship – and there was a time when I first moved out that I was being paid apprenticeship wages (around £4 an hour). I was on Universal Credit to pay my rent, and I couldn’t afford anything more than my weekly Aldi food shop.

That was when I really relied on getting shoot work. I started taking on jobs that felt way out of my depth, and I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to do otherwise – I just really needed the money. I was in Deaf Havana’s music video for Kids (above) when I realised I could do work in front of – and behind – the camera. I learnt to take on everything and anything that came my way whilst I was still just starting out.

At the beginning, anything would feel scary and out of my depth, so I thought that I may as well just bite the bullet and fake it ‘til I make it! In a weird way, I guess I’m grateful for being as skint as I was at the time, because it forced me out of my comfort zone and got me to take on shoot work.

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Stills from Deaf Havana’s music video for Kids

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Stills from Deaf Havana’s music video for Kids

Have there been any courses, programmes, initiatives or access schemes you have found helpful or would recommend to get into your sector?
I did my hairdressing apprenticeship to become qualified, and then it was a social media hustle to get shoot work from there.

For my other creative endeavours such as animation, websites like Domestika have a whole host of resources for teaching yourself new skills.

Is there a place in your city that you’ve found helpful or inspiring to your practice?
BYC or the Level [skateparks in Brighton]!

As I mentioned earlier, I’m massively inspired by the queer skate scene in my city, and seeing what all my mates are wearing or doing with their hair constantly inspires me.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
The first time I got hired to work on a music video shoot, I was terrified. In retrospect, they weren’t even paying me that much, but at the time I felt massive imposter syndrome. I felt so guilty to be getting paid what felt like a huge amount to me when I’d never worked on a shoot before.

In reality, I had the training to do the hair that I was doing, but I felt like I had absolutely no clue just because I’d never been on the set of a music video before. Someone said to me: “No one in there has any idea that you have no idea what you’re doing. As far as they know, you’re the most qualified person for the job. Even if you feel like you know nothing, you still know a great deal more about hair than anyone else on the shoot. So go in there and act like you are absolutely meant to be there and you know exactly what you’re doing.”

When you’re starting out – especially if you’re not a cis white male with confidence embedded in your veins – everything is going to feel out of your depth and terrifying. So feel the fear and do it anyway.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career?
I started modelling just through applying to every single casting call I saw on social media.

If you want to get into hairdressing, I’d say an apprenticeship is definitely the way to go.

You can enrol through a college or a salon, but my recommendation would be to go through a salon. That way, you can learn on the job and get used to the actual working environment.

Interview by Creative Lives in Progress
Mention Anya Steel