Legendary Atlanta hairstylist Carey Carter’s legacy is laughter

As a child, the co-founder of Carter-Barnes on Paces salon was jostled from one foster family to another. As an adult, he attended Oscar parties with Elton John.
Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died
Carey Carter (left on bench) and the Carter-Barnes on Paces staff

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

As colleagues and customers reflected on Carey Carter’s life and legacy this week at his salon in Buckhead, one consistent sound served as a fitting tribute—laughter. For more than a half century, Carter lived for two things: to make the world a more beautiful and stylish place and to make others laugh.

The Atlanta hairstylist and co-founder of the iconic 32-year-old Carter-Barnes on Paces salon passed away on January 18 from complications following a stroke. He died at age “none of your damned beeswax!” as he once told me during an early interview 25 years ago.

As one of the city’s most dedicated and successful fundraisers, Carter helped raise millions of dollars for both AIDS and breast cancer research, the arts, and children’s charities. Beneficiaries included Susan G. Komen, Project Open Hand, UNICEF, DIFFA, and the Lyric Theatre. For many years, he also co-chaired Jeffrey Kalinsky’s annual Fashion Cares gala.

Carter was especially committed to raising funds for the Murphy Harpst Children’s Center in Cedartown, Georgia, where a library now bears his name. In 2009, he received the 11 Alive Community Service Award for his work on behalf of the center, which provides residential and foster care for abused and neglected children. As a young child, Carter had been left at a Florida orphanage by a mother who was ill-equipped to care for him; so he knew first-hand how it felt to be jostled from one foster home to another. At the 11 Alive awards ceremony, a tearful Carter pleaded with an equally tearful room to hug their kids a little tighter. “We cannot neglect our children,” he said. “They are the future.”

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died
A photo of Carter as a boy hangs in Carter-Barnes co-owner Perri Higbie’s office.

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

Carter arrived in Atlanta in 1962, intent on reinventing himself. “When he left school, he became a hairdresser because he knew that was a way to make money,” says Carter-Barnes co-owner Perri Higbie, Carter’s business partner and longtime friend. “I knew Carey for decades before I ever heard him discuss his childhood.” Higbie has a boyhood photo of Carter hanging in her office. She spotted it one night years ago at his house and asked to make a copy.

Carter quickly got a job doing hair for Rich’s department store and met Mitchell Barnes, a fellow transplanted southerner seeking an art career in the big city. A 45-year friendship and business bond were born. The two worked for Rich’s for more than 15 years, serving as hair and fashion artists and touring the world as stylists for global beauty brand L’Oreal.

“Like every other young stylist Carey helped along the way, I’m a part of his legacy,” says Barnes. “I had the talent but I didn’t know where the hell to put it. Carey showed me. He also told me if I became the ‘artiste’ I said I wanted to be, I’d starve to death. Creatively he drove me to areas I didn’t think I was capable of.”

“He was also the first to say, ‘You’re better at that than me,’” Barnes continued. “There was never any jealousy between us and, in this business, that’s extremely rare. My strength was his weakness, and his strength was my weakness. And we used those talents and abilities and our friendship to build a business together.”

In 1986, when Rich’s was sold and the pair saw the quality of customer service diminishing, they and Higbie (a top Australian colorist who moved to the U.S. in 1984 for a job with L’Oreal) took the plunge and opened their own salon, Carter-Barnes Hair Artisans, at Phipps Plaza in May 1987.

Reflecting from the salon, Barnes recently recalled: “I’ve got ladies sitting here but I’ll say this anyway—we were scared shitless! On the day we opened, we had exactly enough money for one month of payroll. Carey always told me, ‘I’ll go talk us in and you comb us out! I can’t even remember how many times I’ve yelled, ‘Carey Carter, what have you gotten us into this time?!’ But here we are. It all worked.”

As the pair built their business (Carter-Barnes on Paces opened in 1996; the two salons consolidated in that location in 2013), Barnes worked behind the scenes and Carter became the public voice and official wisecracker, providing witticisms to the AJC each Oscar night as Cher debuted fashion faux pas after fashion faux pas on the red carpet.

For me, as a young journalist taking over the AJC’s Peach Buzz column in the early 90s, Carey Carter was reportorial spun gold—he was a raconteur and the king of withering one-liners. He was also a perfectionist, who would leave you laughing after delivering the perfect quote, then call back a minute later, saying, “Don’t use that. Here’s a better one!”

In 2006, I was assigned to cover Carter and his friends as he attended Sir Elton John’s annual Oscar party in Beverly Hills. Stepping out of a black stretch limousine on Rodeo Drive, Carter and his pals were briefly swarmed by the paparazzi, who mistook them for cast members shooting a reality TV show nearby. Sniffed Carter: “Imagine Paris Hilton being more interesting to them than me buying a candle!”

An avid reader, Carter was thrilled when author James Patterson used Carter-Barnes as a plot point in his 2003 potboiler The Big Bad Wolf. The novel focused on a Buckhead socialite who was abducted in the Phipps Plaza parking garage by a Russian sex slave operation while on her way to a Carter-Barnes hair appointment. Carter once recalled: “A while back we had a real client who was mugged outside of Lord & Taylor [at Phipps]. But she told the cops she’d have to file a report later because she didn’t want to miss her hair appointment. When I saw the lady in the Patterson book didn’t show up, I knew I was reading fiction. Russian mob or not, if this woman were real she would have no doubt fought off her attackers and been in our chair on time!”

Carter-Barnes got its biggest national spotlight in 2007, when a pair of platinum-haired young women robbed a Bank of America branch and immediately drove to Carter-Barnes for expensive makeovers. The “Barbie Bandits,” as they were dubbed, were arrested soon after a post-heist celebration dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. The Carter-Barnes surveillance cameras helped nab the duo. “We’ve been on every news show except Nancy Grace!” Carter exclaimed at the time. “Which is odd since Nancy is from Atlanta. But I think you can see she is not a Carter-Barnes customer.”

“I called him the quiet achiever,” Higbie says. “So often, he was the guy behind the scenes making sure the hair and make up were just right or giving that first job to an up-and-coming stylist. He believed in the underdog because he was one. It’s where he came from. We used to joke that he was a therapist who did hair on the side.”

Since Carter abhorred funerals, friends are planning a March celebration of his life, featuring a fashion show with many of the models who once strutted down the catwalk at the philanthropist’s fashion benefits. This time, they’ll walk the runway in his honor. A date and final details are being determined, but festive spring attire will be the requested dress, sans yellow (Carter hated the color since it was routinely used to paint the walls of orphanages and foster care facilities).

This week, as floral arrangements were delivered to his now-vacant station at Carter-Barnes, Carter’s wooden hair clip box sat unused for the first time in nearly half a century. Carter and Barnes had gotten matching clip boxes before their first European tour for L’Oreal.

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died
Carter’s clip box

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

“It was his most prized possession,” says Higbie. “The box traveled the world with him, went to every hair show, and sat on his station every day of his working life. Seeing it sit unused now really brings this home for those of us who worked next to him. We still expect to see him pop in at any moment.”

On the Friday before his death, Carter-Barnes staffer Jacklyn Ghali happened to snap a photo of Carter leaving the salon. In the black-and-white image, with his feet pointed toward the door, Carter’s head is briefly turned toward the photographer, ready to deliver one of his acerbic exit lines.

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

When legendary Buckhead stylist Stan Milton died in 2008, Carter, who was professionally obligated to view Milton as a competitor, paid tribute to his industry colleague: “Just the name says ‘quality’ to our entire city,” Carter reflected. “Back in an era when hairdressers were typically perceived as just that, he elevated us as artists. His death is a huge loss to Atlanta.”

Those same words apply to Carey Carter, a man who sought each day to leave the world a more beautiful, stylish, loving, and caring place than the one he inherited.