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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

Westwood stylist still loves 55-year career

Special to The Star

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For Bettie Harris, cutting and styling hair at her Westwood salon is second nature. After all, she’s been in the profession for 55 years.

Harris, who is getting ready to celebrate her 70th birthday, began at age 15 and was trained by her mother, a 45-year career hairdresser. She longed to try out her craft in the metropolis of Kansas City, but her mother said she could only leave St. Joseph, Mo., if she was married.

So at 15, she got married, moved to Kansas City and worked at Kline’s Department Store. In the early days, she worked at various places near Wornall Road and considers herself blessed to have worked with many other talented people in the field.

“I have an eighth-grade education. I’ve learned so much standing behind the chair,” Harris said.

After a few years, though, Harris worried that she’d be seeing “the same heads for 50 years” and yearned for some adventure.

So she picked up and moved to Monterey, Calif. When she got out west, she met Clint Eastwood by chance, when he made a reservation at the restaurant where she was working. She didn’t believe him over the phone and told him to ask for Betty Grable when he got there.

When Eastwood showed up, he liked her sense of humor, and they talked about her desire to start a hair salon in the area. He introduced her to a friend in the industry, and for the next 12 years, she practiced her craft in Monterey and San Francisco.

Another adventure saw her she traveling with different American ambassadors — first Walter Annenberg and then Charles Price and his wife, Carol.

“Mrs. Price was one of my best friends. She was so good to me,” Harris said. “I still talk to her.”

The Prices aren’t the only famous heads Harris has coiffed. It’s a long list that includes Jordan’s Queen Noor, Margaret Thatcher and opera soprano Beverly Sills.

At the Starmaker salon in Westwood, the shop she bought from colorist Roger Beard more than two decades ago, her clientele is mainly local socialites. Harris never advertises — word of mouth from her loyal clients is enough.

She loves her job and couldn’t imagine retiring, but not everything is rosy. Her second husband of 25 years, Greg Hockett, was recently diagnosed with brain cancer.

They met at that same restaurant in California when she was a waitress and he was a chef, and they’ve continued to work together, with Hockett as a colorist in the salon, for years.

Other members of the family work with them at the salon. Her sister, Jo Anne Welker, manages the business side and “bosses me around,” said Harris. Jack Harris, her son, is a stylist. As for the other employees at Starmaker, they’re like family to her.

“This is my social life. When I walk out that door, that’s hard for me,” Harris said. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to retire — you just have so much fun.”

Harris sees about 18 to 20 clients a day, and they appreciate her dedication.

“If you’re in the hospital, she’ll go to the hospital to do your hair,” said Jody Tillotson, who has been coming to Harris for about 20 years.

Stylist Maria Mont, who has worked at Starmaker for 10 years, sees Harris as an inspiration when she feels tired.

“I look at her, and I go, ‘I can keep going,’ ” Mont said.

Harris said she was the first hairdresser to challenge a law in Missouri many years ago that mandated a clinical uniform for her profession. Then, as now, she preferred to dress up. On Saturday afternoon, she styled hair wearing a gray sparkly top, black pants and leather boots with four-inch heels.

She prides herself on being a “visual hair dresser” who can do any style for a client, as long as she has a picture of it.

After all her year in the business, she has two simple pieces of advice for those just starting out: “Never give up,” Harris said. “And give the client what they want.”

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