He's anxious now. It won't take much. He avoids looking anywhere but the barber's mirror - the mirror doesn't lie. He keeps up the pleasantries. He keeps up the bravery. There's chatter going on. He's got a lump in his throat. He's fidgety. He's tired. A hand touches his face. He unintentionally focuses on the mirror. He can't control it now. He's been seen. He doesn't want to do it, but it just happens. He cries.

Sam Dowdall doesn't just walk into Mt Maunganui's Astrolabe, he practically bounces.

"Hey,'' he says with a grin and a hug that could be aimed at a best mate. Dowdall is a stranger but only for a second.

I want to go somewhere quiet, and he suggests Nana's Batch - Astrolabe's outdoor bar.


Hot on Dowdall's heels, then scampering away from his heels, is Bo, his poodle-cross, a soon-to-be-registered service dog.

"Bo, Bo! Come here, dude," he instructs gently. "Up. Stay. Stop." Bo does all this and relaxes into his own chair beside Dowdall.

"Today's the naughtiest he's been in a long time. His ears aren't working today. Usually, he'll do everything. He is incredible."

Shortly after, a tall glass of Hop Rocker beer in hand, Dowdall is still grinning. His smile drops when the topic switches to suicide. Few have paid a greater price for our nation's mental health crisis than the loved ones of the severely mentally ill.

Sam Dowdall, Barter Barber, and his dog Bo. Photo/George Novak
Sam Dowdall, Barter Barber, and his dog Bo. Photo/George Novak

Dowdall is one. In three years the Tauranga barber has lost four male mates to suicide - three of them from Tauranga - and he's lost countless clients too.

"You just think they've stopped coming to you," he says of past clients' sudden absence.

"Then you'll say [to another client] 'Where's Nige?' 'Oh mate', they murmur. 'Haven't you heard? Nige topped himself six months ago.' And that's so incredibly common.

"People don't realise how common it is until it actually affects them. Once it's affected you, you see it everywhere."


Dowdall, who has suffered anxiety since his early 20s, is on a mission to get men talking about their mental health.

He's teamed up with Lifeline and is touring the country with Bo. He was back in town briefly when Bay of Plenty Times Weekend caught up with him but is now back on the road.

Known as The Barter Barber, Dowdall and Bo have been living out of a 1971 Bedford ambulance since February - towing a barbershop caravan with it.

Sam Dowdall, Barter Barber. Photo/George Novak
Sam Dowdall, Barter Barber. Photo/George Novak

An amateur film-maker, he's filming the journey over two years and hopes to produce a documentary, which he'll dedicate to the last friend he lost to suicide, in December.

Instead of trading money, Dowdall trades haircuts for services.

It's an uncertain way to live in these fiscally challenging times but Dowdall, once a foundation pupil of Aquinas College, is living life the way he feels he should: "To live by my own convictions - bartering is my own conviction," he says.

"I feel like I don't need to contribute to a broken system."

He's disillusioned by inflation and the gap between rich and poor.

Ironically it is the poor who have been most generous since he set off on his journey, visiting everywhere from flood-ravaged Edgecumbe to Wellington. Some people applaud what he's doing; others are ambivalent.

"A lot of guys go 'Oh I love what you're doing, but it doesn't apply to me. You know, I haven't had depression'."

"If you're 100 per cent you're floating. If you're at 15 per cent, you can't get out of bed, you're suicidal. But if you're at 51 per cent you're not exactly well, and that's what I'm trying to push the idea of."

How does he have that conversation?

"It's not like this," Dowdall says . "It's too intense like this for a lot of guys, so we have to do something with our hands.

"We go and fix a car, we go hunting, go for a surf, and we use that time to turn around to our mates and go 'Are you all right?' You don't have to fix things. People get really worried that 'Oh, I don't know what I'd be doing'.

"Listening is enough. Being validated, being heard, is a huge thing."

Strangers receive no slack-jawed horror from secrets shared with Dowdall.

The "Don Barber" or "Doodle" as he's affectionately known, is a genuinely warm person to meet. He's also incredibly colourful - or "eclectic" his friends might say - with his wavy, shoulder-length hair, vintage attire, a nose ring he's had for 12 years.

He reckons he might have been the first in Tauranga to get one, it garnered that much shock.

He likes to dress up in drag too. He's been doing it for a year and a half; initially while living in Wellington as "an empathy thing for a few gay and queer friends" and to try it out.

"I went out that [first] night and found a piece of myself I'd never been allowed to express."

It's also a rebellion against male stereotypes.

He's got countless tattoos. I say numerous because he can't give me a number, there's so many.

Here are just a few of the things he does: writes poetry (he's competed in Wellington's Poetry Slam), he writes music, he can rap - he obligingly busts out an original rap for me on request - he's made a short film (it's on YouTube), he's an entrepreneur, and he very much hopes to grace the stages of Tedx Talks in the near future.

But of all these things, it's his handlebar moustache that makes Dowdall, a bachelor, an immediate head-turner.

How long has he had the mo?

"Um, it comes and goes, but it stays mostly," he says. He's had the current one for about a year.

Does it take a lot of work to maintain?

"No, it pretty much does its own thing now, I just push a little harder," he says, instinctively twisting the ends simultaneously.

Has it got a name? "No, no. But that is so funny! What would I call him? Fuzzy Harold? Hmm."

In his own words, the moustache is "incredible branding" for The Barter Barber, but not everyone admires it.

"My mum always says that there are a hundred things a moustache says about a man and none of them are good! Ha, ha, ha. I love that. I absolutely love that," he grins.

His mum, Robyne Dowdall, is creative director design for Tarnished Frocks and Divas and is his "best friend" and No 1 Bo babysitter.

Dowdall credits his mum and step-dad, Lloyd Walker, for shaping his caring character. He's always been a bit of a go-getter, and a is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie.

As a side note, it took him just two days to learn how to backflip a BMX bike.

Growing up with four sisters, Dowdall was the baby of the family and given a lot of chances to try things.

"They had a little tether you know, and they'd give it a tug if I was getting too far," he says mischievously.

He left school at 15 when the lure of swimming and skateboarding all day became too much but quickly turned student drop-out into student success, forging a lucrative career in high-end barbering at home and overseas as the barber industry hit a renaissance.

At one point while barbering in Australia, he was making $2500 a week.

He trained at Clifford Lamar in Tauranga, stayed there six years, headed overseas to the States, came home, opened The Godbarber in 17th Ave, sold it a year later, and moved to Melbourne.

Dowdall travelled Australia teaching businesspeople how to start barbershops and opened his own store in Canberra.

A year later he came home, and for the past two years he's been working for Barkers, putting barbershops together and working in their Wellington store, while simultaneously planning his journey as The Barter Barber, which has been three years in the making.

At the tender age of 27, he's ready to temporarily forgo money to pursue a humanitarian goal.

Cutting men's hair and shaving men's faces all day gives him a platform to reach out.

"Everybody knows or is interested in something. If I can tee onto that, then someone is talking about themselves and as soon as they're talking about their passions and hobbies, they'll walk out feeling like they know me."

Half an hour in his barber chair every four weeks sees clients opening up and furthering conversations each time.

"I have men cry in my chair once a week."

He tries to cut hair one on one, but when other men are waiting they'll sometimes be a group discussion, "but it doesn't get that far".

How does he respond to men in tears?

"Just let 'em have it. Just let it happen because that's exactly what needs to happen. They need to feel okay about being vulnerable. "

He plans to grow his hair until his two-year journey as The Barter Barber is up.

"This is as much about me learning as it is about me teaching and I'm going to be learning from every single person I come across about how to be just that little bit more empathetic and connected."

Those who meet The Barter Barber will be lucky.

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/barterbarber
7bull; On Facebook: The Barter Barber

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Canterbury Support Line: 0800 777 846