By Virginia K. Smith
If you’ve ever thought about raking in a few extra bucks as a seasonal for-hire Santa by slapping on a cheap rental suit and a fake beard, think again, amateur. The job of Kris Kringle is a bustling and lucrative business in this city, and all the top-level Santas share something in common: a shockingly intensive grooming regime.
As with just about every facet of the economy, there are hidden jobs within jobs, in this case the work of bleaching for-hire Santas' beards to exactly the right shade of white. An authentic-seeming Santa can stack up an eye-popping amount of cash over the course of the holiday season, but not before shelling out to perfect the look, and in the process, pumping cash into the city’s salons, too.
“It usually starts right after Halloween, and these guys have been growing it out for at least a year,” says Brianna O’Hara, a stylist at Whistle Salon in the East Village who has been working with professional Santas for the past decade. “We start early because if someone has a lot of dark hair I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the hair and have them looking like a Chinese Crested Santa.”
As anyone who’s ever had their own hair lightened might guess, taking a beard from its natural state to a festive, snowy white is an ongoing multi-step process.
“There’s usually two to three sessions to get it going, we do both bleaching and toning sessions,” says Matt Angel, an actor with years of local Santa experience under his belt. “I have a root touch-up about every 10 days, and in between have extra whitener to brush into the roots to try to hide them.”
As the Christmas season extends ever-earlier, the beard bleaching calculus only gets more complicated.
“It’s definitely a process,” Angel added, “And if you’re doing mall gigs, those tend to start after Halloween, they keep pushing it closer and closer. So if I’m starting my season early there’s more that goes into it because the damage is ongoing for a longer period of time.”
Total in-person sessions for the season can run $300 to $1,200 per person, O’Hara told The Groove, with the average Santa spending approximately $800 to $1,000, though often their entertainment agencies foot the bill. And that’s not including supplies for at-home maintenance.
“I’ve got to buy different conditioners, masks, the extra purple conditioner, but I can’t use too much of that because you go blue or purple,” Angel said. For full authenticity, some Santas commit to the bit way beyond just the beard.
“I dye everything,” Angel said. “My head, my eyebrows. I think the eyebrows are what really sell the whole picture.”
Onerous, sure, but the benefits add up.
“The real beards make more money,” O’Hara said. “There’s a hierarchy.”
For Angel, at least, the authentic beard has opened up a near-endless stream of highly-paid gigs at his fingertips; casinos, office holiday parties, private family events, bachelorette parties, weddings, energy drink commercials, the classic mall and department store gigs, and even bars hoping to stave off an onslaught of off-the-books Santas.
During SantaCon last weekend, one bar hired him explicitly as a sort of holiday insurance policy.
“The idea was that I’m the only Santa allowed in that bar," he said. " ‘Don’t come in our bar, we’ve got one already.’ ”
With some jobs paying as much as $500 per hour, “I can literally live for four months on what I make in three days or so,” Angel told The Groove. “If you do it right, it’s a hustle. And if I could make this kind of money all year long, it would be like lawyer money.”
So breathing in some extra bleach fumes in Q4 comes with a hefty payoff, as does suffering the occasional beard-upkeep indignity.
“I had one Santa come in, and Gabriel Byrne was getting his hair done next to us,” O’Hara said. “The time came to wash Santa’s beard, and Gabriel Byrne needed to get his hair washed as well. So my Santa is sitting there, knees down, ass up, face in the sink right next to him. Afterwards we all took pictures together, it was adorable.”