Calgary-based stylist traveled the world to find success
The old brown in-fill house with a wooden plank walk doesn't convey the impression that an internationally renowned hairstylist has a salon on the second floor — neither does the black pirate kite hanging from the porch light above the door.
Benjie Alcantara works at Angles Hair Salon downtown twice a week, on Thursdays and Fridays. The remainder of the time he cuts hair in a private salon in his home in northeast Calgary.
Alcantara lives in Calgary despite a successful career as a hairstylist in Manila, New York, Hong Kong, London and Paris. Amongst his past clients is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was married to former U.S. president John F. Kennedy.
His current clients include Global TV news anchor Gord Gillies, former CTV news anchor Brenda Finley and commentator Catherine Ford.
Gillies said that 10 years ago he would never have considered going to the same stylist all the time. He just wanted a haircut, and any hair cutter would do.
"Then you get someone who really knows what they're doing," Gillies said.
The smell of incense lingers in the air on the stairs up to Alcantara's home salon. On the stairwell walls are dozens of masquerade masks. They are a fitting decoration. Alcantara said he has gotten used to switching his emotions every 45 minutes to greet each new client.
The salon is a small, white 12-by-12-foot room with just enough space for a chair, a table covered in hair products, and a sink. Mirrors decorate three of four walls. On the wall next to the window hang two honorary diplomas from 2000 and 2001 fashion shows in Paris.
This year, Alcantara entered his 41st year as a hair stylist.
"Let's make it conservative," he said. "Five heads a day, times 300 days in a year — don't make it 65 because there are Sundays—that's 1,500 heads a year."
Using Alcantara's accounting system, over four decades amounts to 61,500 heads of hair.
Cutting Hair in the Parking Lot
Alcantara's work has carried him across the globe, but his career began in the Philippines, in Manila.
When Alcantara was young, he watched his mother doing hair. When he was in high school, he would place a pair of scissors and a comb between the pages of his textbooks and then cut his friends' hair in the parking lot.
He attended college to please his parents, but what he really wanted to do was cut hair. So after graduating with a fine arts degree in 1971, he studied hair science and beauty culture.
Alcantara said that when he told his mother, Loida Ramadan, that he was gay, she had him kneel on the floor and pray to God that he would change.
After working as a professional stylist in cities such as Manila, London, Paris and New York, Benjie Alcantara has settled down in Calgary.
His mother said she was concerned that because he was gay, he would not be respected or successful. But she soon realized it was OK. There were plenty of gay men practising his profession in the Philippines.
Alcantara said that if you're male, and a hairstylist in the Philippines, people automatically assume you're gay.
He said the concern of his family drove him with a burning desire to prove to his peers and to his family that he could succeed.
Going Big in Manila
After working his way up through Manila salons, he found himself doing the hair of generals' wives.
Alcantara worked on the most exclusive heads in Manila for Christian Espiritu, a fashion designer for Imelda Marcos, whose husband was president of Manila from 1965 to 1986.
Alcantara was then headhunted by the Japanese company Shiseido. He left Shiseido when he was offered his own salon in Makati, the so-called Wall Street of Manila. With the financial backing of wealthy clients, he ran a series of salons until he left the Philippines.
When he walked into a club with top designers, everyone knew who he was.
"We were notoriously famous," he said.
Money, drugs and fame were all parts of the lifestyle. He said people would give him drugs as tips "in kind." He would receive curfew passes from generals' wives to give to young men so they could stay out after midnight.
"It came to a point where I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Alcantara said.
According to Alcantara, a crime syndicate thought that he knew too much. They kidnapped him. Alcantara said that at 3 a.m. when his guards fell asleep, he managed to pick up a nearby phone and called a client — the Minister of Defense's wife — and asked for help. He said a military SWAT team showed up to rescue him.
His mother, who was visiting him in the Philippines at the time, pleaded with him to come to Canada.
"It comes to a point where you question yourself. 'There must be more to life than this,'" Alcantara said.
His move turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When he visited his friends in Manila four years ago, most had hit rock bottom.
Benjie Alcantara says that all he needs is a pair of scissors and a comb, and he can make a living anywhere.
Photo: Sean Sullivan/Calgary Journal
"If I didn't leave at that time, heaven forbid, I might have been dead already," Alcantara said.
Coming to Canada
He immigrated to Calgary in 1990, joining his mother who moved here before him. Alcantara's first job was at First Choice Haircutters. He quit after three days when they asked him to mop the floor. He eventually established himself in Calgary's downtown salons, then sought out a new challenge.
"I was asking myself, is my work at par with the so-called New York standard?"
He travelled to New York on a Saturday with his portfolio and stayed with a friend. By Thursday he had a job interview, and he started the next week.
Alcantara knew his work measured up to New York standards when he styled the hair of Glamour magazine's editor. She was astonished that he knew how to straighten her wild, curly hair.
After less than a year in New York, he decided he'd rather be a big fish in a small city. He returned to Calgary, knowing that "New York will always be there."
Today, making his customers happy is how he measures success.
"It was a joyful, mischievous journey," Alcantara said. "I wouldn't change a thing."