I first met John Steinberg in the autumn of1999, when I was a posh punk ex-raver with a mowhawk and a Chanel scarf tied to obstruct my barely-there velcro corset. I was a high school dropout who had had the good fortune to find myself in the Toronto fashion-show circut, working with some of Canada’s most well-known backstage arists.
Although his reputation had preceded him, and I certainly knew him from his enormous media backlog, I was stunned to encounter this hilarious, down-to-earth, fabulous personality. In my experience, prior to that, most successful and talented creatives had tended to be reclusive or arrogant, and always reluctant to pass on the tricks that served them well. Ever the eager beaver, I sat in the front row while John presented a class full of misfits and droputs with slides of Cleopatra, photos of African headdresses and Victorian silhouettes, and finished by creating, in practically no time, an elaborate Marie Antionette-type hairstyle on a live model. It was nothing out of the ordinary for John, as his love of theatrics and costume were as deeply ingrained in him as his love of teaching and learning.
As I followed a twisting, turning, emotionally trying career path, his salon on King Street was like a piping hot apple pie in a cartoon window, luring me towards it. I finally got up the courage to apply with him, and though I didn’t know it then, he was in fine (typically hilarious) form as he pretended not to know anything about my interview, but watched carefully as I coloured and cut models’ hair in front of him. As he flicked through my portfolio I was aghast thinking that someone as talented and well-known as John Steinberg was flipping casually through the (admittedly) lesser-quality shots I had worked so hard to produce. Improbably, I got the job, and was working with him by the end of the week.
John claimed to ’employ the unemployable’, which he always said cheekily, resigned to it happily, and the Associates I worked with, for the most part, played the part of employable unemployables to the best of our abilities. Although it was constantly busy and at times, frustrating, John was always ready with a terrible, terrible joke, often at his own expense (and sometimes at yours), and always up for dress-up, arriving to work sometimes in a velvet smoking jacket and opera scarf, and sometimes in pyjama pants. Halloween was a major occassion, and if you really wanted to disappoint him, you didn’t dress up at all. Day to day, I sported a black vinyl dominatrix butcher’s apron he’d gotten me as a present – strictly because he knew me so well. We would laugh daily at the stupidest things, talk sex, politics, heartbreak and religion – all of the things they teach you never to talk about in a hair salon, and attend the legendary John Steinberg and Associates art openings in salon once a month. It was a fantastic time of my life that I miss regularly and would not have left had I not been at the crossroads of ‘do I go and try to make something happen with my music career or not?’
John was the most caring employer, the most genuine person, the most humble – truly humble – individual, though being a typical Leo he often played that part down, and I don’t imagine too many people have seen him truly blush – barring those of us present at Stephen’s summer Christmas party the year we all found out quite a lot about each other during a particularly truthful and daring truth or dare game! He was also incredibly generous, sharing everything he could with his staff and friends. Whether it was Mexican Christmas or simply providing time and money towards educational pursuits, musical careers or being a shoulder to cry on and a hand to slap your ass, John lived to give strength, support, and a creative and mildly insane outlook on life, which brought him many friends and admirers in his professional and personal life – which let’s face it, were seriously intertwined, as he could not resist lending his hair-expertise to those in critical need, nor could he help being a truly amazing friend to those he encountered professionally – if they didn’t already have the jealous-goggles on. It was not only because of his extrordinary talent, but also because of his hilarious and humble personality that John was so well known and well respected, and regardless of his workload, always worked with care and diligence to create beauty, used humour to deter criticism and negativity, encouraged emotional and spiritual growth in himself and in others, and would share of his vast experiences freely, always ready to help others in any way he could.
My heart breaks for Hayley and his family, as well as for his extended family and friends, as no one could ever meet John without falling just a little bit in love with him; with the evil little gleam in his eye as he said something particularly hideous/hilarious/hideous, with his sense of humor, sense of occasion, sense of fashion, his unabashed love of beauty, his profound sense of respect even for the most socially awkward and frustrating individuals (including myself), his charity work for Princess Margaret’s, his ability to bring the most random, yet totally fascinating people into a room and have them get along. His jerked tofu, his Mexican toys and treats, his pervy handshake and camp attitude balanced by his sensitivity, his sincerity, his massive amount of knowledge and ability to take the mick out of himself will make him someone I will miss forever and someone who will never be replaced.
You are one of a kind, my friend. And so I say to you…
”So there I was…. Completely surrounded….”