I'm in a Woodland Hills strip mall where Pope the Barber is cutting my hair as part of a sponsored seminar she's giving to about twenty women who were bussed in from as far away as Sacramento. They're watching her give me a taper fade with a Peter Coppola keratin treatment that everyone agreed was pretty dope.
Pope's entrepreneurship story could not be more typically all-American. At a young age she learned a trade and became a practitioner who required nothing more than the razors, shears, and pomades she could carry in a tool bag. She spent years working until she finally saved enough money to settle down near her hometown to start her own shop. And her skill is old school, too: I can attest that she is amazing at cutting men's hair and teaching others how it's done.
Pope's Instagram is 57,000 followers strong, and for all the face tattoos and photo shoots, what has made her a true success in this overcrowded influencer economy is her ability to create a truly original lifestyle brand. We discussed how she built her social-media following, how she got into the boys' club of barbering, and the hardest thing about running her own shop. It used to be that a celebrity hairstylist was someone who cut famous people's hair. But Pope is the celebrity now.
Ben Cooley: Let's start from the beginning. Where were you born? Who raised you?
Pope the Barber: I was born in Long Beach, California, and raised in Compton and Long Beach by my mom. I grew up in the hood, pretty much. I know my dad. He was kind of in and out. My mom and him are really good friends, it's just that they're both very strong personalities. Now they really respect each other. My dad is Cambodian, and he is a bodybuilder. Then my mom is a really strong Greek woman.
I've grown up against every social norm. I was introduced to and raised with both cultures. They are fresh-off-the-boat kind of people. Since I grew up in predominantly black and Asian communities, I guess people didn't really know how to take me, so it was a lot of proving myself constantly. In high school, I was known as the person who cut hair. That kind of made me accepted.
BC: How did you get into cutting hair?
PtB: I played basketball in high school. We would travel with the boys' teams. They would be cutting their own hair with clippers in the bathroom. I just thought it looked fun. They'd be in the mirror and I'd be like, "I can help you." They'd be like, "Nah, nah, nah." Before I knew what, I was the white girl who knew how to cut hair.
I was definitely self-taught in that way, but I ended up going to school for barbering after and made a career. There's a social-media culture behind it now, but I've always breathed barbering. I've always cut men's hair. When I first started cutting men's hair, I didn't know any women that had ever cut men's hair.
BC: Break down your business a little more for me. Do you have a shop?
PtB: Yes, I just opened a store in Santa Ana that's called the Vatican.
BC: Because you're the Pope?
PtB: Because I'm the Pope. Yes! I had a first shop and it got robbed from head to toe. We were getting our electricity done and our cameras put in. During that week that we were shut down, somebody went in and took everything.