Matt Brown: A haircut and a friendly ear

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 6 August 2019

Matt Brown is a barber - but he does much more than cut hair. After the Christchurch earthquakes, he set up a barber shop - in a shed in his backyard.

He doled out some sweet styles and soon developed a reputation as an artist. But his business, My Father's Barbers, evolved into something more than just a barbershop.

It's a safe space where men can open up about the issues that are affecting them.

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Photo: My Fathers Barber, Facebook

It's helping to encourage men and boys to talk about things that might be bothering them - encouraging them to open up and share what's going on in their lives in a safe place.

Matt, who started barbering more than 10 years ago, realised while working at his first barbers in Auckland that men came for more than a cut.

“Men were coming in and not you know, wanting more than just the haircut, they wanted a conversation. And not many places, spaces, allow men to really open up quite like the barber chair.”

When he started his own business, he wanted to continue that tradition. And from personal experience, he knew men needed somewhere to share their pain.

“A lot of my friends were joining gangs, were addicted to sex and drugs, you name it, some committed suicide, some are going into prison. And I just wanted to create a space where men could come and talk.”

Matt has overcome considerable difficulties in his own life.

“I grew up in a very abusive home. You could probably relate it to the likes of Once Were Warriors that infamous movie. When that film first came out, my siblings and I we sat through that movie and sadly we laughed through the whole movie, because we compared Beth Heke’s hidings from Jake the Muss to our mother’s. But our mother’s hidings were way worse.”

Matt says he and his siblings thought Once Were Warriors was a comedy.

“When I look back at that, I think it’s so sad no-one in our world stepped in or said anything for Mum, because Mum would go to church like that; pregnant, bruised face, but no-one said or did anything.”

He says he avoided taking a wrong turn in life by “surrounding himself with the right people.”

“I'm a big believer that our pain comes from relationships, but so does our healing. And so, I got to a place in my life where I needed help. I moved out of home when I was 15 and got the proper help. Because again, I was suicidal, I faced all those struggles. And then I just surrounded myself with men and people that were uplifting and said encouraging words and spoke life into me really.

“But the real change came when I met my wife, who was my best friend, and when you have a strong woman that can, you know, challenge the status quo and still love you and see behind the masks that I would wear and love me still, that brought a lot of change.”

So what kinds of things come up when clients are in the chair? Matt says nothing is off-limits.

“We talk about various things, anything from sport, to what's on TV to the weekends, to their many, you know, conquests of the weekend, what they get up to. Their personal struggles, their fears. We talk about everything - pornography, adultery, cheating, the absence of a father or a mother.

“Mainly I listen, it's funny these men, they come to me because they feel the barbershop is a safe place where they feel the most seen. But really I'm just looking at the back of their heads!”

Matt says the main lesson he’s learned cutting, fading and shaving is all men want to be loved.

“Everyone wants to be seen and everyone wants to be accepted. It's just we are all wearing these masks. We all wear masks that we’re too scared to take off which makes it near impossible for anyone to know us, let alone love us.

"But I've learned that you're only loved as much as you are known. But will we have the courage to be seen is the question?”

Matt has heard some “crazy” tales from customers, he says.

“I've had kids cry, I've had kids in the system sit in my chair tell me their horrific stories, of how their mothers would try to drown them in the bathtub.

"I've had grown men cry; I’ve sat with some of the staunchest, most successful, ruthless men in my city in my chair crying together. This is not a very popular business plan, step one get a barbershop, step two cry with your clients!”

The reality is men have very few places to go, he says.

“Not many people go to church, not many people go to counsellors, so it's an environment where it’s you and your barber, there's no pressure to you know - because all the boys are around and let’s see how many beers we can drink let's open up. No [it’s] I trust this guy he's making me look good so we've already established that first step of trust.”

Matt is delivering a talk at TEDxChristchurch on Sunday 25 August at the Christchurch Town Hall. 

Where to get help:
Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason. 
Lifeline: 0800 543 354  or text HELP to 4357
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email
What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)
Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7) 
Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Family Violence
Women's Refuge: (0800 733 843)
It's Not OK: (0800 456 450)
Shine: 0508 744 633
Victim Support: 0800 650 654
HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0