A Lancashire hairdresser has revealed how the tragedy of her ex-serviceman partner taking his own life a year ago spurred her on to help veterans battling demons by offering them free haircuts and a friendly face. She tells AASMA DAY her story
“I don’t have a lot in life but I can cut hair and talk the hind legs off a donkey!”
With laughter in her eyes and her happy-go-lucky demeanour, Andrea Tierney-Smith looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world.
But her happy exterior hides a tragedy as one year ago, Andrea’s partner Simon McGovern committed suicide at the age of 39 leaving her shocked and devastated.
Andrea is now using her own heartache to help others by offering free haircuts to army veterans and the chance of a chat with someone who is happy to listen to them.
Andrea, 43, who lives on Newton Drive, Blackpool and works as a barber at The Gents Room barbershop in Preston, explains: “I had been with my partner Simon McGovern for three years and we had a lovely relationship.
“Simon was ex-army and had a lot of issues from his childhood and his army years.
“Simon was such a complex character. He was funny, witty and super intelligent.
“But on the flip side, he was very withdrawn, quite depressive and very angry with the world when he wasn’t having one of his happy moments. He was almost bipolar.
“Simon had a bad childhood with a lot of violence and he joined the army to get away from that. He struggled a lot with this.
“He also saw things in the army but did not really talk about that.
“I think it was a culmination of his life and his past that ended up in him taking his life.
“Every time he tried to find happiness, the demons would still be lurking in the background.
“I think Simon committed suicide as he couldn’t deal with the demons any more.”
Remembering that fateful time, Andrea explains that Simon sent her a message last March telling her he was feeling down and that he wanted to see her.
Andrea, a mum-of-three recalls: “I told him I would see him tomorrow as it was late and I had the children.
“He seemed okay with that and the next day, I went to work, but couldn’t get hold of Simon when I tried to call or message him.
“I knew something was wrong so I phoned a friend and asked if he could go and check on Simon and he found him. Simon had hanged himself.
“The police came to my work to tell me the bad news.”
Andrea remembers the next few weeks as being a blur and describes losing Simon as: “ripping my heart in two.”
She says: “It was awful and I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to go through anything like that.
“My family and friends were really good and supported me through that difficult time.”
Andrea says it has “always been in my nature to nurture” and she and her mum used to run a clothes donation charity in Blackpool.
Andrea explains: “Blackpool has a socially deprived community so we just put messages on Facebook asking people to donate clothing.
“My mum did the laundry and we would sort everything into piles for men, women and children.
“People would then get in touch and tell us things like they had no clothes or shoes so we would sort out a starter pack for them with things like a coat, shoes and underwear.
“We then expanded into prams and baby equipment. It became a storage issue at one point.”
Andrea did a barbering course three years ago and because she needed to practice, she began offering people free haircuts as well.
She then approached Streetlife in Blackpool which offers direct access emergency beds and asked if the young people there wanted free haircuts and began doing that once a month.
Andrea began working in Preston at The Gents Room two years ago and realised Preston had quite a big homeless problem.
She asked family and friends to donate toiletries and packaged them up into male and female parcels and handed them out to homeless people on the streets of Preston at Christmas so they would have something to open on Christmas Day.
Andrea says: “It sounds like a small thing, but it meant a lot to so many people. We had a lot of people who were in tears and they told us it would be so nice to have a present to open.
“We had lots left over so we went to Blackpool and did the same there.”
Andrea has realised the areas in Preston where many homeless people congregate so she has started leaving bags of clothes in doorways and she knows they are making use of them.
She feels this is better than actually offering or giving clothes to those who are homeless.
She explains: “People who are homeless still have their pride so if someone offers them clothes, often they don’t want to accept them.
“They don’t want to take them because they feel it is embarrassing.
“So I leave the clothes in a bag for them as that allows them to keep their dignity.
“The clothes are always gone and I know they are making use of them.”
After Simon’s death, and once Andrea had got through her initial grieving, she realised the issue of problems with former military was a lot bigger and decided to help veterans too.
Andrea’s was previously married for 15 years and her ex-husband was in the army. She says: “When I was with my ex-husband, I used to be a support worker with ex-military homeless and I realised a lot of people on the streets were army veterans.
“From my experience of working there, and from what happened with Simon, I realised a lot of veterans suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suffered from other problems and issues.
“Many of them come back from the army a little bit broken and turn to alcohol and drugs to mask their problems.
“Often, their relationships break down and they end up on the streets. For many veterans, stepping outside their home and going to get their hair cut is a huge thing, especially if they have PTSD.
“Some of them may have lost limbs, so they may have mobility issues too.
“I came up with the idea of offering free haircuts to veterans too. I thought: ‘If they can’t get to us, I’ll go to them’.”
Andrea offers her free service for veterans through Facebook, social media and army welfare pages.
She has a lot of experience of haircutting and barbering and was a reserve on a BBC hair show, as well as winning a pro hair and beauty industry hero of the year award and being a student of the year finalist.
She has cut hair at stage shows at Barber connect, Europe’s biggest barber convention and was the official barber for Mr Universe at Southport.
Last year, she was at the V and Creamfields festivals cutting hair for Pamper Street.
Andrea says she is doing the free haircuts for veterans as a tribute to Simon and to save anyone else going through the pain she went through.
She says: “I am not a counsellor, but if I can go into someone’s home who is too scared to leave it and cut their hair and have a chat and give them some human contact, that could make a difference.
“I cannot do a lot, but I can cut hair and it is a skill I can use to help other people.
“What happened with Simon made me look at life in a different way and I don’t take things for granted any more.
“I don’t have a lot in life but I can cut hair and I can talk the hind legs off a donkey. If that can help even one person, that is a huge thing for me.”