Making it a man's world: Woman barber had to prove she could make the cut

While there are many milestones in the history of the women’s rights movement, one local woman continues to make a small niche for herself in a decidedly man’s world — being a successful female barber who cuts men’s hair.

The comparison to the greats of the women’s rights movement is certainly a stretch. But Stratford resident Cheri Bourdeau, who opened her own barbershop at 401 Boston Post Road in Milford last week, can nevertheless lay claim to being a pioneer in her own right as one of the more successful women who has been cutting men’s hair exclusively for a living.

Who says so? No less than the icon of men’s barbers in the region, Rocky Fraioli, the former owner of “Rocky’s” on the Post Road in Milford, a shop that still carries his name despite his “semi-retirement” a few years ago.

“She’s a very, very good barber,” Rocky said this past weekend, “one of the best I know, male or female.”

It was about two decades ago when Bourdeau approached Rocky for a job in his shop, which for decades, and still today, remains among the most popular barber shops in the region.

As she tells it, “Back when I started my career as a barber, I worked at Mandell’s Haircutting in Stratford.

“I don’t think you really learn until you are on the job, and over there they specialized in cutting hair with the straight razor, which I was taught by the owner, Joe Mandell.

“After being there for a year, I wanted to try somewhere new. Someone I went to barber school with told me about Rocky’s. He said if I knew how to give a ‘flat top’ cut then go see him.

“So I did, but I had to bring two ‘dummy’ subjects whose hair I had to cut as my interview for the job.”

Rocky remembers the encounter well. “You can’t just take someone’s word walking into your shop off the street saying they know how to cut hair,” Rocky said.

So Bourdeau brought her two subjects for her interview, “my girlfriend’s father and my uncle.” Her efforts passed the grade and she was hired by Rocky, where she eventually became a popular fixture for 17 years — key word “eventually.”

Bourdeau said the difference between working at the two shops was “like night and day, right down to the clientele and the haircut styles — not that one was better than the other, just different.”

Winning the approval of Rocky, the king of haircutters, was one thing. But what about the average Joe walking into the shop off the street? How hard would that be?

“Twenty years ago, being a woman barber and being so young, it was hard getting started,” she admitted. “The older men wouldn’t sit for a woman because they automatically thought women were hairdressers and didn’t know how to cut a man’s hair.

“So when I first started at Rocky’s, I did a lot of sitting and watching. But watching is how I learned the most, especially how to give a good flat-top cut.”

Another former colleague of Bourdeau’s, Ronnie Rascati, himself a fixture at Rocky’s for the past 43 years, has watched Bourdeau mature and grow through the years.

“I think she’ll do well on her own,” Rascati said this week. “She’s a good person, she’s talented and has a lot going for her.”

Bourdeau is quick to return the compliments.

“Both Rocky and Ronnie have been great influences on me when it comes to cutting hair. I pretty much grew up with them. They are like family, really.

“I remember being pregnant working right up until I had my daughter, Olivia, standing behind the chair with my big belly in the way. Everyone was so supportive.

“And Rocky is definitely someone to admire for his work ethic and dedication to his customers. I can only hope to be as successful in my business venture as he has been with his.”

But Rocky, now in his mid-70s, sold the shop a while back, although he continues to work mornings.

“Seventeen years is a long time to work somewhere, and I never thought I would have to leave Rocky’s,” Bourdeau said. “But after the business changed hands, it just wasn’t the same.

“My father always told me I should open my own place. I never really had any interest in it, as I always did well just working for someone.”

After Rocky sold his ownership, in the following years Bourdeau connected with several existing establishments in Milford. Many of her customers followed her, including Milford resident Adam Garbati, who said this past weekend he has followed Bourdeau to five different locations since she left Rocky’s.

“I’m definitely glad to hear Cheri is opening up on the Post Road,” Garbati said. Referring to her last stint at a shop on Naugatuck Avenue in Devon, Garbati said, “That location didn’t do it for me.”

So when that business relationship recently ended, Bourdeau faced the choice of finding another shop to affiliate with or taking the plunge and having a go on her own.

“Being a single mom and having so many responsibilities, I guess I kind of got tired of having to rely on other people to determine my financial well-being,” she said. “This opportunity came along at just the right time and with the help of my uncle — yes, the same uncle who was my ‘dummy’ 20 years ago — I thought I would be crazy to pass it up because I don’t want to look back five years from now and say I should have, could have, or would have.

“I have so many people who are depending on me and have so much confidence that I will do well. I just hope I can live up to their expectations.”

So her dream of opening her own business came true on Friday, Dec. 21, although she remains nervous at the prospect of taking such a big step.

“But I also have some of the best customers. They have been such loyal followers and supporters of me, it is very much appreciated.

“Hopefully, being back on the Post Road I will be able to gain back some of the ones I lost with my previous moves.”

While the shop opened on Dec. 21, there will be grand opening celebration for the general public on Saturday, Jan. 5, at 1 p.m., she said. “It will be a chance for me to say thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way.”