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Interview: Denise McAdam, the Scottish hairdresser to the Queen

THERE can't be many jobs that take you from small town obscurity in Midlothian to jet-setting with royalty and the world's most glamorous stars, such as Frank Sinatra and Bo Derek. Rock star, actress, Prime Minister maybe.

But for Denise McAdam, it was taking up the art of hairdressing that transformed her life and took her from Penicuik on an amazing journey across the globe.

Denise has been hairdresser to the British royal family for 30 years, worked in Hollywood, regularly gets called on to style models on international covershoots and ran her own salon in Mayfair for many years.

Throughout all of this, she managed, as a single parent, to raise her daughter Charlotte, and launch her own range of beauty products.

The highlight of her career, however, came with the recent announcement that she would receive the Royal Victorian Medal from the Queen - an honour reserved for those who have made an outstanding contribution to the lives of the royal family.

Despite being on friendly terms with the royals for decades, and holding a Royal Warrant for 12 years, she is still surprised at receiving the honour - which she will be awarded at Buckingham Palace, with friends and family in attendance.

"It is such a thrill, I'm really delighted to get this honour.

"For me, it's a recognition of all the hard work I have put in over the years, and it is just nice to be appreciated for what you have done.

"My family are totally ecstatic about it. My mum and dad still live in Penicuik, so it will be a great day out for them. I've got a few aunties that are pretty excited about it as well.

"It shows that if you have a dream and you set your mind to something you can achieve it, even if you are just an ordinary girl from Scotland."

Despite mixing with the super-rich and famous for decades, talking to Denise it soon becomes apparent that she still has her feet very firmly planted on terra firma. Her accent, for a start, still has a pleasing Scottish twang - something she says she will never lose.

Her attitude is also a mixture of good humoured banter - which is hardly surprising coming from a hairdresser - and old-fashioned Scottish grit, a result, she says, of her unpretentious background.

It means that while some might be overawed by having such intimate contact with the world's most famous people, she has never been troubled by it. Not even when she was styling Sarah Ferguson's hair for her wedding day to Prince Andrew in 1986, an event that would be viewed by a global audience of millions.

"It was a great day - but like all of these things, you have to treat it as a professional job and just make sure you do your job right. That was my only real concern that day."

And what was Fergie's famous red curly hair like to style. Always the diplomat, Denise says: "Her hair is a fulltime job. She needs to be blow-dried all the time."

But her relationship with the Royals has had its low points, such as the time she was targeted by a tabloid newspaper in an undercover sting.

Asking her along to do a makeover in a studio, the tabloid recorded her conversations with the model, during which she slipped out a few harmless remarks about Prince Andrew and his new wife the Duchess of York. The story was later splashed on the front page of a Sunday tabloid with the headline "What Turns on Royal Andy".

"I was absolutely mortified. I couldn't sleep."

says Denise, "I had always been so careful not to betray the confidence of the royal family, and then I was all over the tabloids apparently spilling all their secrets.

"I was amazed to find that the Duke and Duchess were remarkably relaxed about it. They knew I had been deceived, and when I next saw them Prince Andrew laughed and put his arm around me and we had a joke. He said: 'So what does turn me on then Denise?' and that was the end of it."

It could be this experience which explains Denise's reluctance to expose herself to newspaper interviews. In fact she explains that she has agreed to speak to The Scotsman because she has always bought the paper - and her parents will enjoy seeing her in it.

And despite being a natural gossip, she vows never to reveal all the Royal secrets she has had unfettered access to over the years.

Which may go some way to explaining her lengthy and well appreciated service to the Royal family over the years - including Princess Diana and Prince Charles.

Denise is even on good terms with the Queen, and has been called up to Balmoral and Buckingham Palace on hairdressing duty.

"She is a very thoughtful woman, which is a side people don't really see. There was one occasion when I was brought in as a stylist on a royal photoshoot by the famous New York-based photographer Albert Watson. This to me was really scary, as he was a really big figure in the beauty world.

"Anyway, we had a chat and it turned out that Albert's dad had been a teacher at my old school in Penicuik. That was the ice broken, and we got on really well.

"Then the Queen came over, as she wanted to check that everyone was getting on. She asked if Albert and I had met before, and I said we both had links with Penicuik.

Then the Queen says 'Ah Penicuik, that is in Midlothian isn't it?'. She had spent time in Lady Clerk's home near Penicuik, so there we all were talking about my wee home town. And I used to do Lady Clark's hair back at Green's in George Street, so we even had a mutual acquaintance.

Of course, when she started out as a teenager Denise

never expected to mix in such heady company.

She began her career at Edinburgh hairdressing institution Greens, on George Street.

It was there that she got her big break in the mid 1970s, being asked to style Princess Grace of Monaco during a visit to the Edinburgh Festival.

"I must admit, I was only a teenager and I didn't really know who Princess Grace was.

"It was only when I got home and told my mum that she said she was Grace Kelly - one of my mum's favourite filmstars. She didn't believe that I'd done her hair.

"I was at a reunion with the old Greens girls recently and they were all reminding me of this one. You couldn't make it up really."

She moved to London a short time later, where she took up a berth at Mayfair's Michaeljohn's salon. Scottish hairdressers were considered the best in the business, and Denise soon found herself one of the most in-demand stylists in the city.

She started styling the Duchess of Kent, and was then invited to go on a Royal Tour to Germany and was asked to be the Royal Family's hairdresser on the day of Lord Mountbatten's funeral.

There followed Royal tours in the States, where she met stars such as Frank Sinatra and became sought after by Hollywood.

"Hollywood was great fun. I was part of the team brought in to do the hair on the film 10 with Bo Derek. That always seems to be of interest to my male friends for some reason."

Denise is fairly modest when it comes to identifying the secret of her success, but is keen to admit she has benefited from the great reputation enjoyed by Scottish hairdressing.

"We were, and still are, the best in the world," she says.

Her typically Scottish upbringing in Penicuik also put her in good standing for dealing with the rich and famous.

She spent her first 12 years in Giffnock, near Glasgow, before her family moved to Midlothian at a time when the coalmines were still the backbone of the local economy.

This left her with an unshakeable belief in the virtues of hard work and plain speaking - two traits that have served her well in her career.

She also puts her success down to her ability to help her clients with more than just hair, saying: "I'm a bit of a psychotherapist. I can solve anyone's problems.

"I could give you numbers for plastic surgeons, restaurants, counsellors.

"I've plucked people's eyebrows, advised on dress sense, sent them off with my earrings, co-ordinated breast feeds - I could organise anyone's life from this salon."

The list of celebrities she has worked with includes Sade, Britt Ekland, Boyzone star Ronan Keating and even recent pop celebrities such as the Saturdays and JLS. She has also been a regular on TV, commenting on celebrity style on most of the sofas from TVam to GMTV.

However, conversation with Denise - who despite being a youthful 52-year-old talks with the 100mph enthusiasm of a teenager - seldom remains fixated on the rich and famous. In fact, she's far keener to talk about her daughter Charlotte, who went to school at Fettes in Edinburgh and has a wide social network in the Scottish capital.

After divorcing her ex-husband, Denise managed to juggle her hectic career with single parenthood in London.

"I gave up my own salon in Mayfair because I felt I would miss out on my daughter growing up if I was working all day every day. In the end I think I managed to carve out a pretty good career and spend a lot of time with Charlotte.

"She's now on a gap year in Cambodia before going to University to study law. I've told her I wouldn't mind her going into hairdressing, but that is her choice."

Now happily married to a Frenchman, Denise still lives near London in Surrey but can regularly be found sipping coffee in Edinburgh's New Town or at her parents' home in Penicuik. Which means, despite thirty years living elsewhere, her finger is still on the Edinburgh pulse - even down to that fall-back city talking point, the trams.

"What have they done with these trams. They've ripped the city to bits, for what appears to be one bus route. It doesn't make any sense.

"And don't get me started on the Scottish Parliament building. What a waste of money." She is also keen to pass on the benefit of her experience to young people in Scotland.

Denise said: "I've done talks to schools in Midlothian, and it's always something I enjoy doing. I just tell young people to work hard and chase whatever it is they want to do. For me it was hairdressing. When I started out I didn't think I'd be on friendly terms with the Royal Family, or hanging out in Hollywood. Not bad for a girl from Penicuik is it?"

 
 
 

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