Jason Millar didn’t have the easiest start growing up.
He and his little brother were in and out of children’s homes and foster families, after their mother, who was an alcoholic, could no longer care for them.
After an attempt to run away from the children’s home, Jason’s younger brother Wayne, was struck by a car and killed in front of him. Although Jason’s child-infused optimism kept him pushing forward and staying positive, he never really came to terms with the awful things he went through.
He went on to pursue his dream of becoming a barber and soon found success after opening up his own barbershop. However, that all came crashing down when Jason’s partying habits of taking cocaine, quickly became an all-consuming addiction.
This is Jason’s story of how he overcame his addiction by finding faith and how he now uses his business to teach others both work and life skills, as well as giving back to his community in any way he can.
Here’s his unfiltered advice below:
Your inner child optimism can help you cope with trauma
So Jay, you had a really difficult start in life.
You said, “If people had gone through what I’ve been through, they would be in jail, or they would be dead.”
Can you share your childhood story with us?
So, from a young age, I was with my mother. She was an alcoholic, and we went through some tough times growing up, me and my younger brother.
Some of the stuff that we’ve been through as young children, adults were living through that at such young age. At four or five, I was going to P1, Primary One school, being sent to school with no food and like stuff for your break that normal kids would be sent to school with for like a lunch and a break.
Because of the place that my mother was in, she never sent us to school with a break. God love her too, because she was an alcoholic and she was going through different things with different demons and stuff.
From a young age, I was growing up walking to school from our house, was nearly like a mile and a half, and I was only in P1.
So there were some hard times, really hard times when you look back, and think to yourself, “I would never want my kids to go through what I went through.”
Then I was put into different children’s homes and foster parents where my mother obviously couldn’t look after us anymore, so we were taken over.
One thing that sticks in my mind was when the police came to take us away. We were probably five and six, and my brother run away from the police. There was a policeman and a policewoman. My younger brother bit the policewoman because he didn’t want to go.
We were put in the children’s home twice. We’d then come out, and we were then put into another, like foster care. It was another home with other children and stuff there. And then that must have passed, and we were back in the children’s home again.
And then we had actually run away from the home one night.
My brother wasn’t even meant to come with us, and there was like five or six of us. And we had actually taken some of the pennies, there was only like 50p’s and 20p’s, from the office. I was eight at the time, and my brother was a year younger, well, 13 months younger.
And we actually ran away, got on the train, and went to Carrick, which is about eight miles away. And the school had gravel ground, like gravel patches at the back. And we walked across the back of the gravel patches, and we jumped the fence.
And as we jumped the fence, my brother run out in front of a car and was knocked down and killed in front of me, just there and then. It was just crazy how everything in your life that you grew up, with your younger brother being so close.
A year before my mother died, she said to me, “Make sure to look after Wayne,” which is my younger brother.
And all there in that split second, it was all just taken away.
Going from the children’s home then, after that, I was actually fostered by my uncle, after all that had happened. It was actually a few family members that actually tried to foster me after it happened, and I went to live with my uncle and auntie.
This probably, obviously put me and helped me have a bit of stability in my life that I’d never had going from different houses and children’s homes and stuff.
That was such a traumatic upbringing for you, especially that moment of watching your brother being killed.
How did you get through those first few months after that?
Were you able to turn to your uncle and family members for help?
I think whenever it all happened, looking back now, I never got any counselling or anything at all or any support. I think the thing that probably saved me was how young I was at the time.
Because I was so young, I think that’s what actually helped me.
Obviously, it was a horrific thing that happened, but I think just getting by and thinking to myself, I was going to be fostered and everything else.
It’s like the inner child, how young you were, you’re just thinking to yourself, it’s something bigger. Even now, even when I wrote my book and stuff, you look back and think to yourself the mindset that you had. It’s like mindsets that people have now.
When I was a child, I just went, “Everything’s going to be alright.” I was often thinking, “Something better is going to coming up,” but you were just dealing with it self-consciously.
Actually, that optimism you had as a child probably got you through what was a really traumatic time.
Working for free will get you the experience and exposure you need
And you partly found relief from your profession. I know you’ve been a barber for the past 16 years.
Started out working for free, sweeping the floor, making coffee.
What made you turn to that profession?
I think the reason that I turned to it, I always wanted to do it. And I was in the army, and I was cutting hair there, and I always wanted to do it. I always put it off because I didn’t have the confidence to do it.
Then I went and worked in a barbershop in Northern Ireland. I started there. I went to do a trade test. A trade test is you go do a haircut to see if you’re good enough.
Prior to this, I was actually cutting hair and charging, and I was doing ok. And I went and done the trade test, and when I walked in the shop, it was amazing.
And I went and done the haircut, and they came back to me and said, “You weren’t good enough. You didn’t get the job.”
And I went, “What do you mean?”
So three weeks’ later I sent them an email survey saying, “Please keep me in mind if there’s any other further stuff that comes up.”
So three weeks’ later, by chance, I got an email from one of the owners asking me to come up. And I knew the woman when I walked in, and she was smiling. She says, “I’ve got an offer for you. I’m going to give you a job, but I’m not paying you.” And I said, “No problem.”
So I actually went and worked there for probably seven months for free, doing all the chores and everything else. But I’m glad I did it because it helped me become the barber I am now.
Whereas if everything came too fast, it wouldn’t be any good.
I think it put a lot of foundations into the way I am now, whether it’s like cleaning toilets or making coffee or customer service or whatever it is, it really stands by you later in life when you’re actually cutting hair.
Having the right energy and mindset will attract customers
Yeah, you had to really roll up your sleeves, do a bit of everything and work really hard.
And you did work your way up to manager. How did you build up your clientele and your reputation?
I think building up my reputation was a lot of hard work.
At the time, there were times that I actually worked there and didn’t have enough money to get my bus fare. You had to get two buses to where it was, and I actually had to walk from where I lived at the time, which was probably eight miles or something around.
But all wee things like that and me doing it and becoming the manager for House of Fraser was a big, big stepping stone in my career because with what I learned very early on, people might not remember your name, but they’ll always remember what you made them feel.
So I always applied that to every single thing and just worked and worked and worked. And it’s got to be where I am today with so many clients and everything that I’m doing.
And I think when you have that sort of mindset, and you have that sort of energy, everything else attracts to you because obviously, the sort of way you’re thinking and the way you’re treating people and the way you’re trying to give people a good service, it all ties in together.
Your own difficult experiences can help you to deliver better customer service
I mean, so much of that profession does rely on customer service.
Do you think you brought a different kind of empathy and energy given your background?
Definitely I think because of what I’ve been through. It’s like if somebody says to me, “You’ve done really well or whatever,” I can’t really take that on board because of the childhood I had.
I feel like I don’t deserve people bigging me up or giving me compliments, because obviously I’ve been through a hell of a lot.
And obviously, as a child growing up with not very much, it gives you the sort of mindset like, “I just have to keep going. I just have to keep patient, patient and patient.”
And I certainly felt like Peter Pan at the start when I was doing it. I never grew up. I only grew up really later in my barbering career, whereas at the start I thought to myself, “Just keep pushing yourself.”
When working hard leads to you to playing even harder
And you did keep pushing yourself and were doing really well.
So, what is it that made you turn to drugs?
I think the reason that I turned to drugs is because I thought because I was working so hard and the money that I was making, that I deserved this. And I just got out of control.
At the start it was going out partying and everything else and taking a bit of coke here. I think my personality is like a productive personality where I can work loads, but on the other hand, if you’re going to work as hard, you’re going to play harder.
And then the two of them don’t mix, with how much money that I was making at the start.
When I opened Jay’s Male Grooming in 2012, it was crazy money that I was making compared to what I was making working for the barbershop.
And the partying was just, little by little, the cocaine, I just couldn’t get enough. Nothing was ever enough for me. It was just party, party, party.
And obviously everything around you is just like a sandcastle. It might not be next week, it might be in five years’ time, but eventually everything’s going to come down around you.
Whether it be your workers, your family, your support, your marriage or whatever, everything’s going to definitely take its toll.
Underselling your business is heartbreaking, but sometimes it is needed for a fresh start
And at what point did everything around you fall down?
What was the lowest point, and how did you then start to turn your life around?
The thing for me was, I was going between £2,000-£2,500 and sometimes more, sometimes a little bit less. That’s what I was making at Jay’s Male Grooming, having five people working for me.
Everybody really, as I said at the start of the interview, the goal from here was zero to hero, whatever way it was going to be. At the start, it was zero to hero.
Whenever that all came down, and I sold my shop, the big thing for me was I sold a really, really successful business for very, very little money. The reason I’d done that was because I was hitting the self-destruct button.
And I was offered over £50,000 a couple of years before, and I think I sold the business for just under £6,000, and that was with everything in it.
But that’s the sort of mindset that I was in. I just felt like it was a failure, and a lot to do with the way I was thinking about taking drugs and everything else.
And I remember my wife Orla pleading with me and crying, saying, “Please don’t sell this. Please don’t sell this.”
And I just wanted to get rid of it because I created this monster, and I needed to get rid of it as well, because it was so successful and there’s so many people coming in the shop and everything else.
It took me so much to build it up, but to get rid of it, it was hard, but it was good because it obviously had to happen. But the lowest point was obviously selling that business for such little money with every single thing in it.
But obviously, because of my actions of taking drugs and everything else, because you can’t be like a workaholic and then doing that as well and thinking that you’re going to give people a good service.
And people can see it. They can see that there is something wrong.
Ending addiction isn’t as straightforward as selling your business
Do you think you associated your business then with that downfall and the drug addiction, and you just wanted to completely cut that lifestyle and start again?
Whenever I was living that lifestyle, whenever I cut it away, there was part of me thought, “If I can give this away, the shop and everything else and the money and everything else, maybe it’ll come to an end.”
But to be honest, when I sold the shop, it wasn’t the end.
I mean, it just didn’t get me off drugs. I was in so many dark places. And once I took that, at the start the way it makes you feel and the way it makes you feel at the end, how much it can infiltrate your mind and think to yourself, “I’m alright,” but you’re not.
And little by little, it’s taking its toll. It’s like cutting your big toe off and still walking about whilst you’re bleeding, and your life’s just bleeding out.
And going from that and everything else, and I had a bad fall. I was taking drugs one night, and I had a fall out of a third-story window in a hotel. I broke my wrist, I had broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and 150 stitches in my leg. And even all that didn’t stop me.
This is why I’ve done talks for young males that are going through depression. And I’ve stood on top of a stage and told them even after all that I went through, it still didn’t take stop me from taking cocaine.
And I’ve stood there, and I’ve told them all that you can think to yourself that you’re going to stop doing drugs because of things like that, and the things that happened to me, but that didn’t stop me.
There’s a big, big problem because at the end of the day, if you’re not going to stop after something like that happens and something so serious. The wound of my leg was opening right up at the outer side of my right knee. You could actually nearly see the bones. It was madness.
The thing about all that and the mindset that I was in, it was just like it wouldn’t have bothered me if I had died because I was just in such a bad place.
No matter what I was taking, the cocaine, it was just making me really, really agitated. It was making me very anxious. It was making me very paranoid.
And no matter what anybody would’ve said to me, they’re like, “You’re alright. You’re alright.”
But I wasn’t. I was far from all right. It was just a really, really bad place I was in.
Finding a community in faith and ditching addiction
So, what did it take then for you to stop the drugs? How did you stop that addiction?
The way I stopped it, I was in the laundry shop close to my home, the valley laundry shop and I bumped into one of my friends, Ricky Malone. And it’s crazy how it happened.
He walked past me, and then he walked back and shook my hand, and we got talking.
And he says, “Hi, how are you?” and all this. And I took his number. And that night he sent me his testimony.
He’d done an Alpha course with the church, and I remember reading it. I remember sitting on the sofa looking at it and going, “I would absolutely love to do something like that.”
So Ricky invited me to go on the 12-week Alpha course with the church, and I went and attended that. And I missed one week of it, and at the end, I ended up getting saved by a fellow called Michael Wiley, who is an absolute gentleman.
So, the answer to your question about how did I get off it, I’d done an Alpha course, and I just started walking with God, and that’s the only reason.
That’s the thing that can get through to people, because a lot of people don’t even believe me.
I can see it because of how I handled it, I was drinking, doing drugs and partying. And they’re going, “There’s no way.”
There’s actually people, men, or women, that have run out the church to speak to my pastor and say, “Is it definitely Jay, the one with the tattoos? Is that the one you saved?”
It just shows you on the outside looking in, how bad people thought my drug addiction was.
It’s probably taken me a long time to accept and speak openly about it, actually. But if I can help anybody else, that’s what I’m really driven to do, and that’s why I’ve done many, many talks in front of a lot of people.
Do you think for the first time you felt like you had that support and community around you that perhaps you didn’t have growing up?
Yeah, that’s actually a good point.
Obviously, growing up as a young fellow, with everything I went through, I never had any support, I didn’t have a counsellor, or anyone throwing their arm around me and showing me that everything was going to be okay.
I can’t even remember, as a child, anybody hugging me and saying, “I love you.” And I have children myself. I have four boys and three girls.
And at the end of the day, it’s literally like I’m breaking generational cycles, which I’m very aware of now with the stuff like the drug taking and getting out clean and doing what I’m doing now.
Self-reflection can be a good form of therapy
And Jay, what prompted you to write a book about your experiences, and how hard was that process?
I was actually going to write a book 10 years prior to me writing a book, and it was for all the wrong reasons.
I was writing the book just because I thought, “I’m doing so well and everybody’s going to want to know why.”
And really, it’s about how God works in your life, and it shows in what he’s done for me.
For me doing that book, I had to dig in really, really deep into all of my feelings, and I never thought, until I had actually done it, what I was going to be dragging up, and all the things I thought I’d actually dealt with but hadn’t.
And it’s been very, very good because I’ve sold over nearly 600 copies now, and with the life I’ve had and the amount of people that have reached out to me about the positive of the impact of doing that book. But even with how hard it was, it’s been unbelievable.
Was it hard for you to write that book? You mentioned that you never had any kind of counselling.
Was writing the book almost like a therapy session in itself?
Yeah, definitely. Because whenever you’re saying all these things, you’re going, “Did I actually go through that?” It’s nearly like a dream.
I’m coming up to 41 now, and that stuff all happened obviously when I was such a young age. You’re going like, “How did I get through all that?”
But it was very, very good for me accepting the things that I’ve been through and seeing it all for what it is and for a long time, a really long time, I’d blamed myself for letting Wayne come with me and getting killed.
And obviously, by accepting everything, I realised it was always going to happen. I couldn’t have done anything about it.
So, for a long period of time, I was carrying that about with me, about what happened. And me taking the drink and drugs and everything else, a part of me was probably being childish and selfish and thinking to myself, “Well, look what I’ve been through. I deserve to do this.”
When realistically, I needed to stand up and accept everything for what it is and be accountable for what’s happened in my life.
Teach not only trade skills but life skills to your employers
So you got your life back on track. You started Jay’s Barber Club. And you also have a training academy for anyone who wants to learn the trade.
What made you launch that?
So, from my opening my own barbers in 2012, I was always teaching people. I taught my workers, and then I give them the job. I didn’t really bring anybody in to work that wasn’t trained by me.
So then about four-and-a-half years ago, I launched the barber club where I was teaching in my CV shop in Belfast. Then it was just too small, and now we’ve got a proper academy where I train them and not even just train them, I try and mentor them life skills as well.
Because as soon as they walk through the door, I can sort of know who’s who and what they’re going through, I can realise if people are having a hard time.
And I’ve helped many people, and I’m very, very grateful that the people that are on the course aren’t just here to learn about becoming a barber. They can learn so much more.
And the thing I’m very, very excited and grateful for is, there are so many people on the course. At the minute, there are 30 people a week on my course, and they come from everywhere.
There are people from Scotland, Romania, everywhere. And by opening my academy, I can actually give people jobs as well.
So there’s a lot of people that are super grateful, and they text me all the time and say, “Jay, I’m so grateful for you giving me this chance.” And all I say back to them is, “Just keep pushing. Just keep pushing.”
Not to be that chap that’s sat here going, “Here I am, doing really well and helping people.” I don’t mean to be arrogant.
It’s just because of what I’ve been through, I can’t accept that praise, all that. See if I can get these people, and what I am doing is helping them and lifting people up as much as possible.
Helping others to believe in themselves will get you out of bed in the morning
Is that what motivates you and gets you out of bed every morning?
Yeah. Me getting out of bed in the morning, it’s like when people play a match on a Saturday, they might get butterflies in their stomach, and that’s exactly the way I feel if I’m going to work on a Saturday because of how busy it’ll be.
It helps me get up in the morning, because I know so many people are there looking up to me, and these people are on my course, and they know my story too.
So there are people that are booked on this course because they’ve read my book. And at the end of the day, everybody’s going through their own challenges.
Everybody’s going through life. And people think life’s easy because they’re on social media. They’re on all sorts of platforms thinking, “I want that life.” But they don’t realise that’s fake. It’s not real.
And I think people that are on the course, they literally look at me and go, “Flip me. He’s real, and he’s been through it.”
And that’s what gives me the fuel, not anything about the money, it’s about helping people, because there’s so many people out there. At my academy, I have skateboards and each skateboard says, “Believe in yourself.”
And I tell all of them when they first come on the first night of the course, “Everybody put your hand up and pat yourself on the back because the hardest thing on this course was to come tonight, because you’re obviously nervous, and you’re scared.”
So it’s all these small things to take out, just to try and help people. That helps me too because, at the end of the day, I’m grateful I can be in a position to help so many people.
Jay, do you feel like you believe in yourself yet? You said it’s really hard still for you to take compliments and accept the success of your business.
I definitely do believe in myself, but I just believe I can keep pushing myself. And whether that’s come from me having such a successful business in the industry, or because of where I was mentally with drinking and drugs, and then where I am now, I 100% believe in myself in every way.
But the thing is, the mindset and the flow that I’m in now is because of how good the business was and, more or less overnight, it went away.
So now it’s like I’m in the boat going, “I will never let that happen to me again, never. And I will do whatever it takes just to keep on the right track.”
And if that’s helping people along the way or lifting people up, then that’s what it takes.
Never forget your roots—use your business to give back to disadvantaged backgrounds
You talk a lot about lifting other people up. I’d love to know your advice for other business owners on how they can support people from disadvantaged backgrounds and really break that glass ceiling.
The thing about helping other business owners, I think there’s probably a lot of people out there would love to do it, but they don’t know how to go about it.
So I think maybe getting the knowledge and what you’re actually wanting to do or having to focus or having to plan or sitting down. If there’s anybody I can help along the way in business, I will, and I’ll help them bring people in.
I’ve actually been asked to go into a local deal and teach as well, but because I’m so busy, I can’t really commit to it because realistically I’m working nearly six days a week.
I’m off on a Wednesday, which is today. After this podcast, I’m going into Belfast. And I cut hair for the homeless, and I’ve done that for maybe 18 months.
And if I don’t go, they actually text the pastor and say, “Is Jay coming today? Is Jay coming?”
So stuff like that where if other business owners maybe had a bit of knowledge of either reaching out to somebody, maybe helping other people, they’ll be very, very humble for doing it.
Running online courses and featuring on the big screen
And you mentioned that you are never going to stop pushing yourself.
So what is your vision for Jay’s Barber Club and the academy? What does success look like for you?
So I opened the barbershop in an area which is very challenging for some people in Belfast. So I put that, my business, in Belfast, and trying to give them a really, really good service for smaller money than Belfast c ity centre.
So then I cracked that because we’re flooded and really, really busy in there. Then I opened up the academy, and the academy’s really busy.
So my vision for the next five years is to, which I’ve already started, is to do online courses. So I’ve filmed all that. It’s cost a lot of money to do it.
I’ve got a mentor, Daniel, who is very, very supportive. So I’ve got a successful mentor. We meet up once a week, and we go through different things and where we’re going to go and write stuff down and have a bit of a head-to-head on what we’re doing.
And from meeting Daniel about nine, 10 months ago, I’ve actually filmed all my online courses. I’ve got 10 modules and going forward with that, it’s just starting to get that in front of people, so we can sell it.
And I’ve got good news about my book as well. They’re going to make it into a film, and it’s going to be made into a play as well. So there are exciting times ahead.
So it’s going to be amazing whenever all that comes, because if you’re thinking positively, and you’re focused on the right things, anything’s possible.
That’s amazing. Who’s going to play you in the film?
I’m not too sure about the film, but in the play, in the grand opera house in Belfast, the boy that’s going to be doing that is, I don’t know if you know the grandad that’s in the TV show, Derry Girls? It’s his son that produces it, and he makes plays.
But he actually sent word through one of my colleagues, “Would Jay be willing to stand onstage and speak?” So I don’t know if I’ll be involved in it or not.
So it’ll be challenging, but at the end of the day, you have to do these things. You’re not going to grow if you’re comfortable all the time.
Exactly. You have to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
How having a mentor can help take your business to the next level
Speaking of which, you mentioned your mentor. How did you meet him, and what have you learned from him?
Daniel and I met through one of my clients that I was cutting hair for a long time ago. And when I was cutting this client’s hair, he told me that, he says, “You need to contact Daniel and go and speak to Daniel. He’s amazing. He’s amazing.”
And I let it slip. It didn’t happen. Maybe a year and a half ago he was in Dubai, and he sent me a message out of the blue. I’d sent him a message probably months before, asked about was he still doing coaching and stuff?
And I never followed up because I’m so, so busy and everything. Just life gets in the way. And he sent me a message and said, “Hey Jay, it’s Daniel. I’d love to have a Zoom call. I’m in Dubai.”
And I was like, “What? What’s this about?”
We had the meeting, and then he came back from Dubai. He actually lives in Northern Ireland, and I went and met him. And he says, “You’ve got amazing energy, and I think we should work together.”
And ever since, everything that’s happened for me, from then to now, has been unbelievable, really, really good, because I have an online shop, have an online presence now where I never had before.
Yes, I had Facebook. I had social media. But I never had a place where people can go buy my clothing or my hats or like clothing ranges and stuff, or my books and my online courses as well.
So there’s really been a really, really positive impact from I met Daniel, obviously from a business point of view as well.
And do you think having a coach has changed the way you run the business?
100%. Because the way I run the business now and meeting Daniel, it shows me how I didn’t run the first business very well when I had the first shop.
And now that I’m doing it, it just shows you how much of a well-oiled machine it is. I’m very, very strict, but I’m very, very fair, because at the end of the day, I wouldn’t ask any of my workers to do something I wouldn’t do.
Every morning at half eight, we go and clean the shop all together. And I think they respect you more. But as you said, the mindset with meeting Daniel and people like him, it’s madness the difference of where you’re thinking is at.
Connecting with your staff and helping the homeless
What are some of the other disciplines you’ve put in place to make sure the business does run like a well-oiled machine?
I make sure that the shop’s always spotless, that all the bills are paid, and just having face-to-faces and having team meetings with my workers to make sure that they’re happy, making sure that the clients are all happy as well.
Because at the end of the day, what I tell my workers all the time when we’ll have team meetings, “It’s all right to get the top. It’s even harder to stay there.”
So, at the end of the day, don’t be ever thinking that you just haven’t made it, because you haven’t made it yet. Because I’m living proof that anything can happen if you take your eye off the ball or whatever.
So you need to keep pushing yourselves and just the small things like that, and the cleanliness of the shop and just all the different tips that we would do with the clients of actually getting new clients in, like referring friends or going around to colleges offering free haircuts.
I volunteer in a palliative care hospital for end-of-life patients.
So a few months ago I put a Facebook video out of me, asking other barbers, to jump on board in place. “Can anybody help me with this? Because I can’t do it all myself.”
And I ended up with about 15 other barbers in a group chat.
So now I can work. I made sure the video said that I wasn’t trying to get them to just and come work for me. I just want this to help me, help others. There’s so many homeless people in Belfast. There are so many aspects to it and so many people that need their hair cut.
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Want to know more about Jay’s Barber Club & Jay’s Pro Barber Academy or Jason Millar?
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You can find out more about Jay’s Pro Barber Academy on their website.
And check out Jay’s book for more on his life story.