Celebrity stylist Sam McKnight on doing Princess Diana and Kate Moss' hair, and losing his Scottish accent
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When I meet celebrity hairdresser, Sam McKnight, news about the Queen is impending.
He’s checking his phone for updates, while we drink tea in the wood-lined Register Club on Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square.
As Princess Diana’s personal hair stylist, from 1990 - after he met her on a Patrick Demarchelier shoot for Vogue - until her death in 1997, he has had more royal connections than the average person.
McKnight, 67, is in the capital, as he’s launched his new Hair by Sam McKnight care products into Space NK. He’ll also soon be appearing in E4 series, The Big Blow Out, which is from the people behind The Great British Bake Off, from September 19.
London is home, but he’s enjoying this business trip to the Scottish capital.
“It’s such a beautiful city,” he says, as he raves about the steak he had at downstairs restaurant Hawksmoor yesterday, and the last time he was in the vicinity, which was when he was styling the Chanel Metiers D’Arts Show at Linlithgow Palace, ten years ago.
As a session stylist, he’s previously worked with the late Karl Lagerfeld, but also Vivienne Westwood, Madonna, Lady Gaga (he was responsible for the meat-themed wig that she wore to match her beefy dress at the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards), Gigi Hadid, Jodie Comer, and all the original supermodels.
“When I lived in New York in the Eighties, I was there at the beginning of the whole model thing, though we didn't really know that at the time, it was just these little girls that were doing pictures with us - Naomi, Linda, Christy,” says McKnight.
After that glitzy period, he was back to London, where he worked with Diana. Did they have a close friendship?
“Well, it was a hairdresser and client relationship”, he says. That can be quite intimate.
“Yes, it can, but I’m under no illusion. There are boundaries. You never presume to think you’re your client’s best friend. Those relationships are quite precious though. If you work regularly with people, you’re meeting them at 6am in the morning and they’re seeing you at your most vulnerable. You can only be in that situation if you trust someone and get along with them. With her, we used to laugh a lot”.
Then there’s his good pal Kate Moss, who he met around the same time as Diana.
“She’s a long term mate, that’s been 30 years,” he says.
McKnight was at this model’s wellness range, Cosmoss, launch night a couple of nights before we met and he did her hair then. It was styled into the insouciant “cool girl” undone look that’s their signature.
In the manner of any excellent celebrity hairdresser, he’s very discreet when it comes to gossip about the stars. However, he does say that Moss is a fan of his vegan and cruelty-free products, including the rather genius Lazy Girl Biodegradable Hair Cleanse Cloths, which are made from cellulose. “Oh yeah. Oh god. Yeah. She loves them because she’s got quite fine hair, “ he says.
Throughout his five-decade-long career, McKnight has lived in New York, Australia and London, so his Scottish twang has faded, and become an indefinable jumble.
“I’m a bit sad about that,” he says. “I had to soften my accent when I first worked in the salon in London, because nobody understood what I was saying. I regret that now, because it’s this weird Australian, Liverpudlian, Scottish sound. When I see the clips from The Big Blow Out, it’s hard to watch”.
You certainly wouldn’t realise he was from the former Ayrshire mining town of New Cumnock.
He used to return home often, to see his parents. His mum once worked in the local Co-op and his dad was a miner before the colliery closed down in the Seventies. His father died around 16 years ago, but his mother passed on just a couple of months ago, aged 89.
“I love to go back there, but when I was 18 or 19, I couldn’t wait to get out”, he says.
It's been a long time since McKnight decided to be a hairdresser, much to his parents' chagrin.
“They were a bit horrified, to be honest with you, because I was in teacher training college at the time and dropped out,” he says. “I left and got a job in a hairdresser. Their generation didn’t go to college. They were on a council estate. College was a dream for them. I dashed their hopes, it took them a few years to get over”.
Although his parents are sadly gone, his brother and sister still live in the area. When he’s there, McKnight loves to stock up on Scottish treats - rhubarb pies, tattie scones and flies’ cemeteries - all of which he gets from his favourite baker in the town.
They’ve sold his mum’s house, but he’s still keeping an eye on her old garden, where he planted a selection of thriving David Austin roses.
It seems that gardening is as much of a creative interest as hairdressing these days. He proudly reveals that he was a guest on Gardeners World a few weeks ago. McKnight is especially proud of the dahlias, peonies and other flowers - “it’s a floral extravaganza” - as well as vegetables that he grows in his London garden. The colours and scents inspired much of the new hair-care collection, which was developed during lockdown.
He’ll be heading back to his urban oasis soon.
For now, he’s sprinkled a bit of his glamorous chat onto an otherwise dreich Edinburgh day.
Hair by Sam McKnight care products are available at Space NK, www.spacenk.com