By Elizabeth Holmes
Photography by Sebastian Mader
When you sit down to get your hair cut, facing the mirror cloaked in a cape, what does your barber do behind you? Does he start talking immediately? Does he comb his fingers through your hair or make wild gestures? James Mooney eschews those theatrics for a simpler approach: placing a hand on his client’s shoulder. “It breaks down the barrier,” explains the photographer and celebrity groomer. It’s calming too. “If I’m behind you, and I’m super anxious, and I’m trying to figure out your hair, you are going to pick up on that.”
Mooney, who has groomed an impressive roster of A-list actors and famous musicians, uses the technique regardless of his client’s stature. And he’s found it equally effective when he’s helping troubled youth throughout the U.S. and U.K. during his off-duty hours. He likes to walk his dog, a Pomeranian named Olive with an enviable black coat, late at night on the streets of London and strike up conversations with groups others might be quick to judge as threatening or intimidating. He always makes eye contact and extends his hand before asking a few questions. “That’s what I love about hair: it teaches you to listen,” says the 50-year-old. “It taught me to connect with people.”
Left: James wears the Summer Weight Shirt in Blue Tide Stripe and the Yarn Spun Crew Neck Tee in White
Right: James wears the Cotton Cashmere Popover Sweater in Striated Black, the Summer Weight Shirt in Solid White, and the Linen Trousers in Navy Chambray
Born and raised in Dublin, and the fourth of five children, Mooney didn’t dream of becoming a groomer. He finished school early and worked odd jobs, including helping in a bar and welding. Then his brother began to style. “I took a look at him: nice girlfriends, good clothes, he was making money,” Mooney recalls. So he decided, “I’ll do that too.”
His brother went on to study with Vidal Sassoon in London, but Mooney shied away from that kind of formal training. “I figure out my own way, rather than how the book says it’s meant to be,” he says. He made enough contacts in the industry to move into the worlds of editorial and commercial work. He has a salt-and-pepper beard and a glint in his eye, plus the mouth of a classic Irishman and the anxiousness of an industry newcomer even after three decades in the business. “Every day is like, ‘Oh shit! I hope I get this right — I hope I don’t fuck up!’” he says with a laugh. He is rarely starstruck and has no interest in becoming a social media mogul, as many in the industry have done by piggybacking on their celebrity clients’ status. “I just go and fiddle with people’s hair,” he says. His motto: “If it looks good, leave it.”
When pressed, however, he will offer up a few solid hair tips. If you’re bound for the barbershop, bring pictures, both front and back, to show your stylist what you’re after (Mooney keeps a book titled, Least Wanted, a collection of mug shots from the 1870s to the 1960s. “There are amazing haircuts in there,” he says.) He is a fan of dry shampoo and recommends not washing your hair every day, especially if it’s curly, as the oils will improve the texture. And on wet hair, always use a wide-tooth comb instead of a brush, which can stretch the strands and increase the chances of breakage.
Mooney’s non-pileous passions and more philan-thropic pursuits are perhaps best observed on his Instagram account, @pointshootthink, which has nary a mention of hair. The feed is dedicated to his love of photography and the time he spends with troubled or disenfranchised youth. In striking portraits and videos, often accompanied by lengthy captions, he muses about everything from knife crime to cycling culture. “The kids on the corner, they are just like you and me,” he says. “They bleed the same blood.”
His ad hoc mentoring began a decade ago, when he and his wife lived in New York. He heard about a group of kids, some as young as 14, holding a fight club near Union Square. “They set up a ring and they trained, basically slapping each other around, but there was always a camaraderie to it,” he says. A friend at Dazed magazine published a photo-essay by Mooney on the club back in 2009. “It humanized them,” he says of the story, “instead of judging them because they lived on the street.”
Now Mooney regularly seeks out opportunities to meet and engage with young people. On a styling job in Bermuda, he asked a friend if he knew anybody in the local bike scene, then spent the night riding around with locals. “I’m not going to sit in a hotel room and watch TV and be bored,” he says. At home in London, he often takes his dog Olive for an evening stroll and approaches gathered groups for a chat. Once he was accused of being a cop. “I’m a cop out walking a Pomeranian?” Mooney retorted, which made everyone laugh.
Olive helps too. When teens make fun of him for walking a small fluffy dog — “Why you ain’t got a pit bull?” he has been asked — Mooney encourages them to think about their own ideas of masculinity and confidence. “Would you be comfortable walking down the street with my dog?” he asks.
His pursuits go beyond sidewalk chats. Last year, Mooney was introduced to a trauma counselor at a youth detention center in Southern California. Mooney in turn connected her with a designer friend, and together the two women turned artwork by the inmates into T-shirts. Mooney helped coordinate a fashion show where the teens wore their designs in front of parents, lawyers, and even probation officers. He was struck by the boost it gave to the participants’ self-confidence. “They were being rewarded with a talent they didn’t know they have,” he says.
Mooney has met many teens who have served time or end up going to jail. He makes a point of keeping in touch. “Think about if you were locked in a room and nobody came to visit you,” he says. He has found himself in dicey situations, sometimes photographing people in dark and potentially dangerous moments. But he has never feared for his safety. He professes an overwhelming resolve to live in the moment. Mooney doesn’t have life insurance — he doesn’t even have health insurance. “I don’t really think about tomorrow,” he says.
One of James Mooney's photographs from his Instagram account, @pointshootthink, where he documents his work, life, and interest in bike culture.
Currently, Mooney is very interested in the rising incidents of knife crime in the U.K. Stabbings in London are at their highest rate in six years, and knife crime across the country was up 21 percent last year. As part of a project to raise awareness, Mooney asked a group of teens to share their associations with the word “knife.” It sparked a discussion about crime, fear, and rebellion before Mooney interjected. “What do you butter your toast with in the morning?” he asked, encouraging an association with food instead of violence. “It’s trying to get them to see things differently,” he says. He hopes others will take note too. “When people walk down the street, and they see these kids, they don’t judge them.”
Elizabeth Holmes spent more than a decade on staff at the Wall Street Journal, most recently as a senior style reporter and columnist. Since leaving the paper last year, her work has appeared in The New York Times, InStyle, Real Simple, and Town & Country. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two young sons