The Utterly Fabulous (and Totally Boring) Life of Laurentius

For 10 years, Philly A-listers have trekked to the Italian Market — of all places! — to get coiffed by Laurentius Purnama in his eponymous salon. But it wasn’t until this unconventional character started living a rather conventional life that he found true happiness.

Laurentius Purnama and his son, Jude. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

Laurentius Purnama and his son, Jude. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a butter yellow Queen Village kitchen, watching six-year-old Jude Purnama as he slurps up his after-school snack of bubble tea, a weird milky concoction dotted with gummy-like blobs that he hunts with a spoon. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is a riot of homey clutter that teeters on messy but lands just this side of lived-in. A bright green credenza teems with tchotchkes; vintage canisters are clustered on the tops of shelves; cabinets are papered with Jude’s artwork. A speaker atop the fridge plays a schizophrenic loop of music: Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, the Beatles, Katy Perry. In the brief interludes between songs, there’s the faint mewing of cats — a trio of them, Spot, Maude and Charlie Chan — who slink through the house and periodically wind around my ankles. Katy Perry belts out her fiery fight anthem, all about rising and roaring, but the whole scene calls to mind a more down-to-earth soundtrack: Our house is a very very very fine house with two cats in the yard. …

Even amidst all this color and clutter and noise, I’m drawn mostly to Jude’s hair, a silky brown mop that crests over his ears and falls just below the nape of his neck. It’s beautiful, in the way most little-kid hair is: shiny and bright, of a shade that women spend hundreds of dollars to get in a salon. It’s the color of a coffee bean, but under the kitchen light, I notice streaks of reddish gold. They’re subtle but unmistakable. “Like lava!” Jude says. I mention how beautiful they are.

“Oh, that’s not all natural. I highlighted his hair! Babylights! It’s a light bayalage, just to give it some dimension,” his dad, Laurentius, says. Jude nods, plucks a gelatinous bubble from his glass, and pops it in his mouth, as if this is all perfectly normal. But in this family, a six-year-old with bayalage highlights that cost more than some people’s rent is normal, because Laurentius is Laurentius Purnama, a 43-year-old former hairstylist to the stars and the owner of one of the most high-end hair salons in Philadelphia, a sleek white-and-glass sanctuary that caters to the city’s most well-known — and well-off — citizens.

But here in his Queen Village house, it’s a different scene, the picture of banal domesticity: Laurentius bustling around the kitchen, washing out Jude’s glass, swiping browned apple slices off Jude’s personalized superhero plate, reminding Jude that he has ninja class at six, explaining to Jude that this nice lady, Emily, is writing a story about Daddy Wombat, and what does he think about that?

Wombat. It’s a stocky, pudgy animal native to Australia. Laurentius is neither stocky nor pudgy — he’s short and compact, with forearms thick from decades of wielding dryers and brushes — but apparently he eats like a pig, and “wombat” is a far more endearing term than “piggy,” so that’s what his husband, Steve Saunders, nicknamed him. When Jude came along, Steve became Daddy Steve, and Laurentius, fearing his name to be too tongue-twisting for a toddler, became Daddy Wombat.

It’s a rather ugly name — wombat is a rather ugly word — but Laurentius has been called far worse. There’s his Chinese name, Chen Hwa, which isn’t a particularly bad name, especially when you understand it to refer to an ancient Chinese warrior, as Laurentius’s mother did. But in other Chinese dialects, it means “spring flowers” — not the name you want to be saddled with when you’re a flamboyant kid growing up gay in conservative Indonesia. (“I had a scarlet letter on my forehead! I was dead meat walking around with a name like Spring Flowers.”) Then there’s his baptized name, Laurentius, which he adopted at age seven to avoid the discrimination his Chinese name could have attracted at East Java public schools. There’s faggot, which was for years hurled at him in Indonesian by kids, adults, even family members. But there’s also genius and master, both thrown out by renowned model Beverly Johnson, one of Laurentius’s many former celebrity clients. There’s husband, which is why he came to the United States in the first place, to find his soul mate, because he certainly wasn’t finding that in Indonesia, and now, finally, there’s dad. Er, Daddy Wombat.

Laurentius’s story isn’t quite a majestic rise-from-the-ashes, Katy-Perry-anthem story. It’s not a rise-and-fall story, either. It’s way more simple and complicated than that. The story of Laurentius is a love story that hopscotches the globe and ends up in a kooky kitchen in Queen Village. It’s colorful and hilarious and animated, because that’s what Laurentius is: one of Philly’s preeminent characters, a man who’s had everyone from Britney Spears to Ed Snider in his chair; an immigrant who vaulted from obscurity to pseudo-stardom and floated back down, whipping a wildly unconventional life into a surprisingly conventional package; a fish out of water who somehow found an ocean in Philly. It’s a portrait of a modern family, and Laurentius will get to all that, honey, but first he has to take Jude to ninja class.

“Did you see the hair?” Laurentius chirps this question to the woman in the chair next to me. He’s talking about the mohawk he gave Jude for Halloween last year, which spiked so high that the boy could barely fit in the car.

“Yes, on Facebook! Incredible,” she says. She has a mass of foils on her head, an impeccable manicure, and a Goyard tote the size of a small child. It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon, and Laurentius’s salon is buzzing with young professionals and the ladies-who-lunch crowd. They sit in space-agey chairs and gossip with their stylists while Techno-lite music plays.

The salon is all white, with laminate flooring that looks like gray pebbles, a Sputnik chandelier, and a sprinkling of see-through Philippe Starck chairs. It’s at once futuristic and a touch dated, as the sterile-sleek trend has since given way to exposed brick, Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood. Laurentius bought the building, a 1915 Bella Vista rowhome, in 2005 for $300,000, and gutted it. He installed floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch the entire length of the three-floor facade, so the building looks like an alien spacecraft that jutted off course and smashed here, next to historic Fiorella’s, a 113-year-old sausage shop. “Somebody who’s in business for over a hundred years and stays on top? Yes! Rub it off on me!” Laurentius says.

It’s an odd location for a high-end salon. Center City? Sure. Or maybe Old City, with its boutiques and trendy coffee shops. But here, a block from the Italian Market, next to a sausage shop?

For Laurentius, though, that fish-out-of-water place is where he’s most comfortable: “I wanted to find a traditional neighborhood and open a kickass salon. I thought the juxtaposition would be awesome.” Still, he was concerned about how his glossy salon would be received. Five-hundred-dollar hairstyles in the midst of grizzled fishmongers, taco shops, and old-school meat-and-cheese slingers? Or, as he puts it: “We’re gay, we’re fashion, we’re in a glass building, we’re not Italian food, we’re not even Italian!” One day soon after he opened, he noticed a man, white-haired, 70-something, standing outside. The man wore a bloody apron — clearly, he was a butcher from the market — and he stared into the building, up and down, up and down, the way you inspect a used car before buying it, or maybe a murder scene.

“I’m like, okay, shit is going to hit the ceiling fan,” Laurentius says. At last the butcher opened the door and made his proclamation in a thick Italian accent: “Very, very, very beautiful.” For Laurentius, relief: “I’m like, fuck yes, bitches! We’re IN.”

It was never a question for Michele Gambino, the business manager for the South 9th Street business association. Of course he’d choose this neighborhood, and of course he’d fit in. “It’s the perfect story for who we are,” she says. “We’re a business district of immigrants, people who came over and started a business, who are part of the community. And he is living that.” Laurentius doesn’t do her hair, though. She sees another stylist, Ed, at the salon. “I can’t afford Laurentius,” she says, laughing. “Lucille Sarno, the owner of Isgro’s, he used to do her hair.” (Talk about being in, getting your hands on the locks of the neighborhood grande dame!) “I always joked, ‘Do you have to be Lucille to get Laurentius?’”

Well, not exactly. Laurentius bills his business as a less-pretentious counterpart to the city’s high-end salon scene, which intimidated him when he was first in Philly looking for work. “He’s so warm, inviting and entertaining,” says Christina Peterson, a longtime client and now close friend. Supermodel Beverly Johnson agrees: “His personality, it’s outrageous.”

His chatter is a high-energy mix of gossip (“Erika Jayne is so much fun,” he says of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star; he worked with her on her first season of the show. “And Kyle Richards is so short!”); beauty advice (“If your baby’s eyelashes are stubbly, before they turn a month old, trim the tips. I did it twice and Jude’s eyelashes are really long!”); and insight (“I was dreading the day Jude comes home crying because someone makes fun of him for having two dads, but then I think, why wait until it happens? Why don’t I empower him now so he has something to say back?”). Laurentius carries on the long tradition of stylists as sounding boards, confidants and friends to their clients — at once slightly removed and intimately familiar with our lives — and he’s armed with a backstory that can make a three-hour highlight session go by in a flash.

But a padded wallet certainly helps. Laurentius’s cuts start at $150, and highlights at $250. (Other stylists at the salon cost considerably less.) Which is probably why people like the late Flyers owner Ed Snider, Center City real estate queen Joanne Davidow and Flyers captain Claude Giroux have all sat in his chair.

Ed invited him to a Flyers game once. “You have to come with us,” he said to Laurentius. “It’s a really big game, and you’re going to be our lucky charm. I can take you to the locker room.”

“Ed, look at me. I’m gay!” Laurentius said. “I don’t watch football. Tell me when you go to the front row of Versace. Then I’ll come with you.”

Don’t tell Michele Gambino, but Philadelphia wasn’t Laurentius’s first choice. He ended up here mostly by accident, following an ex-boyfriend from L.A. and then realizing he didn’t have enough money to fly back to the West Coast. “I’m like, shit, I’m stuck!” he recalls. But California wasn’t exactly what he’d expected, anyway. He’d been there for 10 months, working in a crappy salon in San Gabriel. A client back in Indonesia had hooked him up with the salon owner, who’d spun a sparkly story about his two salons, in Pasadena and on Hollywood Boulevard. Not some “blowhole” spot in San Gabriel. “I had the most typical immigrant story: girl promised the world, girl end up in Chinese ghetto,” Laurentius says. But whatever — he was here, and that was enough. Because being Spring Flowers in Indonesia, well, honey, that was a bitch.

Laurentius grew up in a small town in East Java, the youngest of six children. His father worked in a cigarette factory; his mother owned a housewares store, a business venture that became so successful it pulled the family out of poverty. “I remember having a dirt floor, but I also remember having a marble floor eventually,” Laurentius says. His parents were tight-lipped, no-nonsense people who didn’t quite know what to do with Laurentius, a boy who was “off-color, too many colors,” who would dip into his mother’s makeup drawer and tuck dahlias behind his ears. While kids in his elementary school made sturdy bamboo fences for art class, Laurentius crafted a bouquet of camellias from marinated eggshells, which he placed in a basket he’d carved out of soap. “I used to wonder, like, how do people know I’m gay? I thought I was hiding it so well!” he says, breaking into a huge, crackling laugh.

When he was six, his mother took him to her beauty salon, where he waited in the curtained-off front room. A teacher from his school walked in; he watched her dip behind the curtain. When she finally emerged, her head was engulfed in a giant bouffant. Laurentius was in awe. “It was like Delta Burke from Designing Women,” he says. “She comes out looking like Suzanne Sugarbaker, and I’m like, that’s what I want to do.”

His parents balked — hairdressing wasn’t a “man’s job” — so he devised a workaround. He began to work hard in school, really hard, and earned himself a spot at a private Catholic high school in Surabaya, a city two hours away, where he knew there was a top-notch beauty school. He moved to the city, got a boyfriend, and wrote all about it in his diary, which his parents promptly discovered when he came home to visit. They sent him to a conservative Muslim psychiatrist “to try to make me straight.” For four months, Laurentius sat silent and stone-faced in the psychiatrist’s office. Then, at last, the subject of sex came up. And Laurentius had questions.

“There was no sex book in Indonesia! I had to figure it out like Braille,” he says. So Spring Flowers and the psychiatrist spent two months talking about sex, and about being gay, and about being different in a culture that favors sameness, and at the end of it, the doctor asked Laurentius what he wanted to be. “Your life is going to be difficult, and the solution is to be successful. Then people might disagree with you, but they will treat you with respect. So,” he said, “take the gay away. What do you want to do as a person?”

The psychiatrist talked to Laurentius’s parents. Two weeks later, Laurentius enrolled in beauty school.

From there, his career took off. He graduated from high school and beauty school in the same month, nabbed a job at a city salon, won hair competitions, and became “uncontrollably comfortable with who I was.” But he went back to the beauty school one afternoon and overheard students talking about their teacher, Laurentius’s best friend. The kids said insulting, derogatory things, ugly words that hung in the air like grenades about to explode.

“That was the moment I realized I could not live in Indonesia anymore. I will never, ever be accepted as a human being there,” Laurentius says. “I was like, I’m fucking good, so sayonara, bitches! I sold my moped and my gold chain for a ticket to America.” He laughs again, a laugh that’s only slightly bitter, like a piece of paper singed at the edges.

“Adios, sayonara, fuck you.”

“Hey, Joseph!” A man with shaggy brown hair has walked up to the second floor of the salon where I’m still sitting with Laurentius, on round three of my “color melt,” a mash-up of bayalage and traditional foil highlights. Today Laurentius’s hair is the color of pewter; the next time I see him, it’s greenish-blue, like a mermaid’s tail. Joseph is here for a haircut with another stylist, and he and Laurentius begin speaking to each other in Indonesian.

“He used to live in Indonesia, and he speaks Indonesian fluently. Isn’t that awesome?” Laurentius says.

“Eh, about a fifth-grade level,” Joseph waves him off.

“That’s pretty close for me!” Laurentius says. He knows what it’s like to pluck your way through a new language. He learned English from watching I Love Lucy and The Golden Girls on a small black-and-white television in an Indonesian salon. The O.J. Simpson trial was on then, too, though the legal jargon was lost on him: “I don’t understand it, I’m just thinking, he’s very hot, O.J. Simpson, but Marcia Clark needs some highlights and a blowout.” In high school, he pored over magazines, flicking through now-iconic photos by Patrick Demarchelier. “I know of Patrick Demarchelier before I could even pronounce ‘Demarchelier!’” Fifteen years later, he was working alongside the fashion photographer, styling Britney Spears’s hair for a Vanity Fair Italia cover and her Curious perfume campaign. “Freaking unreal,” he says, as if he still can’t totally believe it.

He’d doggedly risen through the ranks of Philly’s salon scene — all while enrolled as a full-time student at Mercer County Community College so he could stay in the country legally — and eventually landed at Pierre & Carlo’s now-defunct Center City location. (After years of working at Asian hair salons, finally he could work on blondes!) He began commuting to New York a few days a week to work at über-posh Garren salon, and he slowly racked up editorial and commercial gigs — Cosmo and Maxim shoots here, Altoids and Kool cigarettes campaigns there. He started getting celebrities in his chair: Beverly Johnson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Latin pop star Thalía, Ivana Trump, Zooey Deschanel, Joan Collins. Then, his big break: He worked on a shoot with Britney’s makeup artist, who recommended him for Britney’s lead hairstylist role. Laurentius had seen her on Oprah; she seemed nice.

So began a whirlwind three years working with the pop princess, trailing her across the globe and affixing piles of extensions to her head before she gyrated at concerts. He was on-set for her Me Against the Music video with Madonna (“I was shitting in my pants the whole time”); he styled her hair for the AMAs, the VMAs, her In The Zone album cover, red carpets and cover shoots. “This,” he says, arms outstretched to indicate his salon, “is courtesy of Britney Spears. If I don’t have that job, I would never have this.”

Now is when most success stories like this devolve into a mess: Starry-eyed boy gets a taste of the big life, goes wild, has sex with unsavory characters, snorts funny things off glass tables in the backs of smoky clubs, and screeches to the brink of losing it all. Or, parallel universe: The boy keeps climbing, his life expanding like a balloon, growing bigger and bigger until he becomes the next Vidal Sassoon or Sally Hershberger. But forget all that. Laurentius was 31. He’d been with Steve for a decade; they’d moved in together two weeks after meeting. (“We’re going to call you Blanche now!” says foil lady with the Goyard tote when she overhears this, referring to the promiscuous Golden Girls character. “Efficiency is everything, honey,” Laurentius retorts.) He was homesick, which is funny, because he never felt homesick for Indonesia. He wanted normalcy, to get married and settle down properly. You know, in a very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard.

Oh, and he wanted a baby.

Jude needs to get ready for ninja class. We walk up a set of stairs lined with handmade booby traps — little paper chutes and missiles — to his bedroom. An e.e. cummings quote, hand-painted by Laurentius, sweeps across two blazing chartreuse walls, and a string of mummy lights drapes over a window. Steve pokes at these. “Proof of Jude’s love of Halloween. We put them up on Halloween and he won’t let us take them down,” he says. “But Halloween with kids is so much fun!”

Steve, the director of HIV prevention for the State of New Jersey, is 14 years older than Laurentius. He’s soft-spoken, an outwardly conservative balance to Laurentius’s splashy tattoo sleeves and Technicolor hair, a steadying force that keeps Laurentius grounded. He didn’t really want kids, but when you watch him watch Jude — who’s now jumping on his bed in a tornado of ninja kicks — it’s hard to imagine he ever needed much convincing. “Laurentius is the more adventurous one,” says Laurentius’s pal, Christina Peterson. “He’s the one who initiated these big life moments for them, and Steve has always supported him.” Steve calls Laurentius courageous. Laurentius calls Steve “home.”

The wall mural features other things, too: birds, a monkey, Ganesh the elephant-headed Hindu god, eggs hatching. These are all parts of the “story of Jude,” which Laurentius and Steve have painstakingly laid out for their son through frank conversations and in a hardback book that chronicles his first year. They talk at length with Jude about his two Special Ladies, the Indian egg donor and Indian surrogate the couple used after an ill-fated adoption attempt. (They used Laurentius’s sperm.) The book includes countless pictures — Jude in an “I ♥ Dad” hat; the namakaran, a traditional Hindu naming ceremony; an entire page documenting all the pink they saw during their month-long stay in India. The family volleys words back and forth: penis, sperm, eggs, uterus. At six, Jude knows more about the human reproductive system than most teenagers.

“Because our family’s different, we have to think outside of the box,” Laurentius says. For them, this means sending Jude to the Philadelphia School, one of the city’s most progressive — and expensive — institutions, where he roams the halls with the kids of some of Philly’s most prestigious families. (His best friend is Julian Starr.) It also means a full schedule: parkour, violin, ballet, jujitsu, chess, swimming. “I’m a bit of a tiger dad,” Laurentius laughs.

Over the next few weeks, Laurentius sends me long, meandering emails. He writes about the surprising struggle to find acceptance in the gay community after having Jude: “Suddenly we aren’t fabulous enough.” He explains how Jude helped him bridge the gap between him and his father, a man who always kept him at arm’s length: “Having Jude made my dad understand that even though I am a different kind of man, I am not that much different after all.” He writes of how much he’s learned from his clients (“It’s like real-life Google but better”) and how frustrating it is to deal with people’s preconceptions of what a family is (“The things people assume and don’t know is bigger than Kardashian behind!”). He shares the last conversation he had with his dying father — at last, one of forgiveness and acceptance. And he writes of how intensely he loves Steve, how as a kid he believed that God created humans as a pair and then, as a “colossal joke, he/she puts us all in a huge bag, shakes it, then sprinkles us randomly on Earth.” Good luck, God says. Go find your pair. “I always know in my gut, my pair is not from Indonesia,” Laurentius writes. “I found mine in Philadelphia.”

Beneath the peaks of frustration and humor in his emails lies a solid, quiet contentment. Laurentius has found a home, finally, and it might not be the exact sort of fabulous he set out to find, these afternoons of bubble tea and apple slices, but honey, it’s everything. And of course it would end in Philly, a city that abuts all the glitter and grandeur of New York but that comes back down to earth. A place where immigrants created something from nothing — “Did you know,” Laurentius says, “that the Italian Market is the oldest outdoor market in the whole United States?” — and where Spring Flowers can finally blossom in a million colors.

Back at the salon, Joseph, the semi-fluent Indonesian speaker, is finished with his haircut. He’s overheard Laurentius tell me his story, and he comes to where we’re sitting. Laurentius is in the final stages of smoothing my now perfectly golden hair.

“Laurentius,” Joseph says, “if I was a screenwriter, I’d have 80 percent of the movie. I just need the ending.”

Laurentius laughs, his brush poised in midair.

“Honey, it’s a big, gay, happy ending. I can promise you that.”

Published in the April 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.