Obituary

Celebrity hairstylist Shunji Matsuo was planning fashion shows for patients and the elderly despite his illness

Celebrity hairstylist Shunji Matsuo, who died on Monday after a battle with cancer, will be remembered by his friends as, above all, a kind man.

Matsuo was 67 when he died in his hometown of Kobe, Japan. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer.

Based in Singapore since 1996, Matsuo had hoped that alternative treatments in Japan would help his condition. Not wanting his friends to be burdened, the bachelor had kept the news of his illness under wraps.

"The news of his passing came as a huge shock to me," says 987FM DJ Joakim Gomez. "I was wondering why I hadn't seen him in the salon for quite a while."

"On Sunday, my hairstylist told me he was sick. Then, on Monday, the news came. I'm a bit sad that I didn't get to say goodbye to him."

Gomez and media personality Jade Seah remember Matsuo for being willing to support them when they were just starting out in the entertainment industry. They are among the local celebrities the salon acts as hair sponsor for, with other names including actors Elvin Ng and Romeo Tan, as well as singer Tay Kewei.

"I met him in 2013 before my radio career began - when I was known (only) as Joakim from Singapore Idol," says Gomez, who was a finalist on the reality singing competition show in 2006 and started out as a DJ in 2014. "He was very kind to say, 'If you need good hair for gigs or stage appearances, I'd be happy to support you.' I felt really touched."


Shunji Matsuo. PHOTO: ST FILE

Seah recounts: "He was the first one to offer to sponsor me when I first started out in the industry. I think he thought i was 'kawaii' - he thought I had a Japanese look."

Matsuo had a high-profile career in the United States before settling in Singapore in 1996. As a teenager, he admired Suga Yusuke, a high-fashion celebrity hairstylist working in New York City, famous for creating the "wedge" haircut sported by skater Dorothy Hamill in the 1976 Olympics.

He knew, as a patient himself, that looking good and feeling positive helps patients to fight diseases with a stronger will.

MR TAY TAT SIN, Shunji Matsuo's right-hand man

When Yusuke went to Tokyo to interview for assistants, Matsuo applied and was chosen, but as he was too young, did not work with Yusuke until three years later, after attending a beauty school in Los Angeles. In New York, Matsuo worked at Yusuke's Suga Salon on East 57th Street before opening his own outlet on Madison Avenue.

After a 22-year career in New York, Matsuo decided that Asia was a more progressive place to be, so he relocated to Jakarta, then to Singapore. There are 10 Shunji Matsuo salons here and another five in the region, in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

Paying tribute to Matsuo, local actress, director and producer Michelle Chong says: "Shunji Matsuo has been my hair sponsor for more than 10 years. He has made waves in the hair industry in Singapore, but he is not showy. He's really a beautiful person, inside and out - a people person, always making sure everyone is happy."

She says: "His was one of the first salons in Singapore to offer hair extensions. That's how I was introduced to him. I was doing a Channel 8 drama and the role required me to have long hair."

The salon also sponsored her films, which include 3 Peas In A Pod (2013) and Lulu The Movie (2016). "He was always so ready and willing to help," she says. "I will always remember him for his kindness, joviality and great sense of humour."

  • Life and achievements

  • 1970s

    After high school, Shunji Matsuo was inspired to take up hairstyling after learning about renowned hairstylist Suga Yusuke's work in high fashion through a magazine article.

    At 23, he left Japan for Los Angeles in the United States, where he attended the Yamano Beauty School.

    After graduating, he found work in New York City as the assistant of the man who inspired him to take up hairstyling.

    1980s

    Matsuo broke away from Yusuke to find his own style, opening a salon with a few other hairstylists on Madison Avenue in New York.

    He developed a base of celebrity clientele, working with the likes of American models Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley, Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, English model Naomi Campbell and American actress Uma Thurman.

    He also worked on campaigns for popular beauty labels such as Elizabeth Arden and Cover Girl, with his work appearing in magazines such as American Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and New York Magazine, as well as in The New York Times.

    1996

    With the help of an Indonesian friend, he started the Shunji Matsuo salon chain in Jakarta. That same year, he moved to Singapore.

    1999

    He opened his first Singapore salon at the now-defunct Wellington Building. The Shunji Matsuo group now has 15 salons in the region - in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. There are currently 10 Shunji Matsuo salons in Singapore.

    2010

    During a trip to Japan, he noticed that elderly people in his native country lacked the self-confidence that comes with feeling stylish. He started Makeover Magic, an annual show which gives older men and women free hair makeovers and seeks to redefine the way the public looks at beauty and age.

    2013

    He brings Makeover Magic to Singapore for the first time.

    The show continues to run annually in Singapore and Japan. His last show in Singapore was held in November last year at the School of the Arts (Singapore) Studio Theatre.

    Melissa Heng

Matsuo's two elder sisters are overseeing his Buddhist funeral rites in Kobe. His right-hand man, Mr Tay Tat Sin, 35, who has succeeded him as Shunji Matsuo's director, says a memorial service will be held here next month.

Matsuo had suggested it be held at the Japanese Association of Singapore, but judging by the number of messages of condolences that poured in yesterday, it may be necessary to look for a larger venue, Mr Tay says.

"He doesn't want it to be sad. He wants to celebrate life. He wants to spread the message for people to be happy for him because he enjoyed life to its fullest, and that his business will continue," he adds.

"He hopes we will carry on working together as a family, helping one another - and he will always be with us."

Matsuo overcame liver cancer more than a decade ago, but earlier this year, tumours were found on his liver. By the middle of the year, an operation to remove the tumours revealed that the cancer had spread to his pancreas.

He travelled to Germany to explore treatment options before returning to Japan for alternative treatment.

Even on his sickbed, Mr Tay says, Matsuo was planning his upcoming Makeover Magic events - fashion shows for cancer survivors and the elderly that he had been holding in Singapore and Japan since 2013. Some of his local beneficiaries are Lions Befrienders and Parkway Cancer Centre.

"He knew, as a patient himself, that looking good and feeling positive helps patients to fight diseases with a stronger will," Mr Tay says, adding that because finding sponsors for such events is difficult, Matsuo would often fund the shows himself, as well as create looks and wigs for the models.

Seah fondly remembers his efforts at making sure artistes looked their best at events and awards ceremonies.

"At every Star Awards show, he would always be around, fussing over every strand of hair and detail like a mother hen," she says.

Gomez recalls: "I hosted a Shunji Matsuo dinner-and-dance event in 2015 and he got all his senior staff to go on stage with him to perform YMCA. It was a cute moment - really hilarious. He was so loving."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Hairstylist kept cancer under wraps'. Print Edition | Subscribe