From being a street kid to running a hair salon in Helsinki

For Stephane, Helsinki has finally become the place where he found inner peace, a place where he wants to stay.
By the age of 50, Stephane-Pierre Martin-Phung has gone through a lot: life in the streets as a teenager, dangers of Paris underground gay life and two cancers. Sometimes the survival has required help from good people, sometimes luck.

Oksana Chelysheva

Sercan Alkan

Published 07.06.2024 10:40

Updated 07.06.2024 12:30

The hair studio is called Jadore (”I admire” from French). It’s located in southern Helsinki, in the stylish, upper-class neighborhood of Ullanlinna, just around the corner from the iconic Sea Horse restaurant. 

The owner, Stephane, 50, is already in the studio when I come five minutes before the agreed time. Fair-haired, sporty, and dressed in light colors, he looks very Scandinavian. Only the French accent reveals Stephane’s background. 

The studio is built in a space that used to be a bank. It still has a reminder of the past – a huge bank safe.  

“Nobody can open it”, Stephane laughs. “There could still be something inside.”  

It’s clear from the beginning, that Jadore means a lot to Stephane.  

He tells, how carefully he has thought of every detail. The ceramics and the cosy chairs are from Italy. Working stations are crafted by a local Finnish furniture company so that they match the design of the place. 

“I was both patient and impatient while working on the design of the studio. I want my clients to enjoy the best of service.” 

Stephane calls Jadore his dream. And in the dream-like atmosphere created by the joking entrepreneur, it’s easy to forget that it is a true miracle that the dream actually turned into reality. 

The life that begun with difficulties 

Stephane was born in Paris 50 years ago and was taken away from his mother immediately after the birth. 

Stephanes young mother didn’t have a place to stay, so the social services took the custody of Stephane for three years. After that, he was returned to the mother, who had gotten married and established a permanent place. 

Another shock came when Stephane was 12 years old.  

While playing with a friend, Stephane almost suffocated on a chewing gum. He was rescued by the friend’s father who, in the following emotional turmoil, confessed to be Stephane’s biological father.  

“It was a strange family reunification. Suddenly my best friend was my brother.” 

Stephane’s kept living with his mother and her husband, but the way he learned the truth left an impact on him. 

Before he turned 15 years old, he had already left her mother’s home. 

Stephane says it was mostly because of space. He couldn’t keep sharing 15 square meters with two other people.  

But at the same time, he had no clue, what was going on in his head. 

“I had a girlfriend, but I could not resist being drawn to a man who I met while working in a restaurant. There was no counselling in these matters back then”, he says. 

The idea of being gay was something that Stephane couldn’t initially accept. The identity crisis led into deeper and more desperate thoughts.  

Eventually, Stephane tried to take his own life. Luckily, he was found still breathing and rushed into a hospital. 

Having visited the verge of death, Stephan chose to live. That meant accepting himself as a gay person.  

Even though also his mother accepted Stephane, he didn’t return to her place.  

Instead, he plunged head on to the gay world of Paris. Even though he had a job in restaurants, it was extremely difficult to find an apartment, especially since he was still underage. So for the following years, streets and gay clubs were Stephanes home. 

He describes his teenage years as ”a speed train accelerating at sharp turns.” 

“It happened all at once. Leaving my home, learning a job of a cook, realizing I am gay, living rough, working.” 

Stephane remembers sleeping on parks benches, hanging out in gay clubs or sharing an apartment with four or five other men.  

“Sleeping on the benches in Paris is far from romantic. I saw a lot there, prostitution, hunger, despair.” 

Life expectancy in those circumstances was not high. Stephane considers himself lucky.  

“I met the right people at the right time. The gay circle I belonged to treated young ones responsibly.” 

Still, after a couple of years, Stephane felt the urge to escape the street life. So, he did what many adventurous young men have done before: went to the seas.  

Friend’s fate motivates to help others 

At the time, it was possible to join the French navy at the age of 17. Stephane was able to pass the knowledge evaluation test despite suffering from dyslexia. He also passed two interviews with psychologists, who ruled him fit to serve. 

“I was extremely persuasive, and I wanted it so desperately.” 

In the end, Stephane served 11 months in the French Navy. It did not motivate him to pursue the military carrier further. But he didn’t want to return to Paris either.  

Before joining the Navy, Stephane have had a French-Vietnamese boyfriend. Stephane eventually found out that he was earning money as a prostitute. Stephane helped him to get off from the streets, but eventually they broke up.  

Time passed, but the thought did not leave Stephane alone.  

”What pushes boys to become prostitutes? And why so many of them in Paris are kids from Asia?” 

Stephane decided to travel to Vietnam to get answers and to help. He experienced the night life of Hanoi, but this time with different motives. He also tried to share his experiences with UNICEF office. 

“It was naive. I was too young and too inexperienced. I just came to the office offering myself as a self-made expert on kids’ street life. I thought that it would help them.” 

Instead, it drew attention of the Vietnamese authorities.  

“Nobody wants strangers to poke their noses into other people’s affairs even if they did not do anything to help those kids.” 

A friend of Stephane’s lived the United States. He invited Stephane to join him in Washington to avoid trouble with the authorities. 

Stephane decided to accept the invitation.  

Washington: a short stop-over turning into a life-changing period  

The time in Washington was supposed to be just a short layover. But he became a couple with the friend who had invited him. 

When Stephane started thinking about staying longer in the USA, he got the idea of applying for the Hair Academy and becoming a hair stylist.  

For that, he had to be able to study in English. It was a challenge due to Stephane’s dyslexia. The people around Stephane in Washington helped him,  

“It was a 24/7 immersion”, he says.  

“I want my clients to get the best.”

Eventually he was accepted to the hair academy. Almost immediately, he was able to earn his living. First, he was doing only one thing: washing clients’ hair. After a while, he was permitted to start doing men’s hair.  

When he finally was allowed to cut the hair of a female customer for the first time, Stephane was eager to show, what he was capable of.  

It was a disaster. The customer was horrified of what Stephane did to her hair. 

I learned a valuable lesson, Stephane says now.  

“Never ever cut woman’s hair more than she tells you.” 

Running away by traveling 

From very early age, Stephane constantly traveled around the world. For him, it was not only a way to see different places, but he was also running away from painful feelings. 

“I felt out of place, where I should have felt at home.” 

After three years in Washington, Stephane again felt the urge to leave. This time it was to China.  

“I was so obsessed with Asia, its culture and its people that I once again made up my mind to find myself there.” 

For the next five years Stephane lived in Beijing and Shanghai. He worked in French hair salons and did charity by cutting hair for free in orphanages. 

But in 2008 something changed. Stephane realized that his home was in Europe. First, he tried to establish himself in his old home city, Paris. It didn’t succeed. 

“The city was so full of reminders of the life I already once tried to escape.” 

Then, a friend wanted to invite Stephane to see his hometown, a place called Helsinki. 

“I bought the ticket and only then opened a map to see where it is,” Stephane laughs. 

It was wintertime and he was instantly charmed.  

“It was the first time in my life that I saw so much snow. It was perfect.”  

One day he woke up early and went to explore the hair salons in Helsinki. He started to feel an inkling to stay.  

Global pandemic – what a time to open your dream business 

Fifteen years later, in May 2024, Stephane arrives to his own hair studio in Ullanlinna. He likes to start his days early, make sure that everything is ready.  

It’s Tuesday, which means there’s an additional routine. Stephane fetches coffee, milk and fresh orange juice for a special client, a refined grey-haired Finnish lady, who’s visited Stephane’s weekly for more than ten years. 

Apart from Stephane, three other people work in the studio. One of them is Elena, a hair stylist with Russian background, who has worked with Stephane for a year and a half.  

She has only good things to say about Stephane. According to her, the studio is very different from all the other places she rented working space from.  

“If I were a chief manager, I would wait until I run out of supplies. But it never happens to Stephane who orders everything on time. We always have a full palette of hair dye here.” 

“He has created the ideal place not only for himself but for us too.”  

“I trust people I work with and they respond the same.”

But it wouldn’t be Stephane’s life, had it come without pain and struggle. 

It is always risky to open a new business. And especially so if you do it in the middle of global pandemic. 

The idea had emerged already before, but during Covid, Stephane started to feel determined that he could and should offer the customers more than they currently got.  

“I put all on the line. My spouse, his family and my mother in France helped by investing their savings.” 

The right place was found by a help of a client.  

“She said she had seen a small place for rent with amazing arcade windows and a similar entry.” 

The managing company was very cautious to whom they would rent the place. Days of waiting turned into a month.  

Stephane was getting desperate. The client who had recommended the studio did not hide her bitter feelings. Stephane addressed the managing company with yet another letter in which he described her conversation with the person who was so eager to help him.   

The day after the managing company agreed to rent the place to him. 

But life still had some ugly surprises waiting.  

Jadore was founded in 2021. The year after, in November 2022, after a routine medical checkup, Stephane got some bad news. 

He had cancer, lymphoma. Couple of years earlier, he had already suffered one, but this time it was different form of cancer, and the illness had spread far. 

Luckily, the prognosis was not hopeless. The doctors put Stephane through intensive treatment.  

At the same time, he kept working as much as he could. The investment to Jadore were simply too big for him to give up.  

There were moments when Stephane came to the studio in the morning, and just started crying alone. Then he pulled himself together, took a brush, swept the floors, dusted, and sanitized everything. Then a client came in and he was greeting them smiling. 

Still, Stephane says that it was the work that kept him going. And the people around him. 

“None of the people working in the studio complained. I trusted them and they responded the same.” 

Six months after the diagnosis, Stephane was declared cancer free.  

Ode to Helsinki 

For Stephane, Helsinki was finally the place where he found inner peace, a place where he wants to stay. 

Apart from his own studio, it includes Tuan, the man he’s been happily together for over a decade, and who Stephane says was his greatest supporter during the cancer and other tough times. 

In 2023 he wrote an ode to Helsinki to express his gratitude.  

“There is no way in only one lifetime that I will be able to repay you. My deepest hope is that everything I have been doing, achieving, creating is showing you, Helsinki, how grateful I am.”  

Also Stephane’s customers seem more than convinced that he belongs to Ullanlinna.  

When he was still recovering from the cancer and was not able to work full-time, the bills were piling up. He had to raise all prices by 10 percent.  

Stephane sent a message to his permanent clients explaining the situation.  

“The next day I woke up, checked the bookings, and could not say a word. Every slot was booked for the next 28 days.”