Photograph by Mike DeFilippo
Donnal is the only hairstylist in St. Louis brazen enough to ignore a client’s wishes, and there’s a club of women out there who’ve been scorched by his candor. Some have left his salon in hysterics; a few have threatened lawsuits. And a surprising number have come back, weeks or even years later, and sheepishly admitted he was right
Reckless even with his own mystique, he reveals his last name readily: It’s Chung.
And now you can forget it—the way he’d like to forget the years when he needed it, as a kid in Communist China. Now everyone refers to him simply as “Donnal.” And those two syllables carry enough emotional valence—awe, outrage, adoration, fury, fawning gratitude, stunned incredulity or grudging, wary respect—to stage a Shakespearean production.
Self-made, Donnal initially chose the first name of his hero, Ronald Reagan—but back in Hong Kong, where he first learned to style hair, no one could pronounce it. (“They said ‘Donald,’ like Donald Duck,” he explains.) He rechristened himself Donnal, and in 1986 he came to St. Louis.
Donnal worked for a while at the Jon’ Tomas salon, then one day tore up his paycheck in front of stunned onlookers and stalked out. In 1993 he opened Donnal’s, on Brentwood. There he mentors an ever-changing roster of apprentices, but no peers work alongside him.
A young woman sits in one of his chairs dithering, switching her ponytail this way and that in front of the mirror, deciding how much to have trimmed. Donnal rolls by on his stool, en route to another client, and lops off the ponytail as he passes.
A society maven brings him multiple issues of The Ladue News. “Here’s my style,” she tells him, pointing. He drops the pages on the floor and says, “You don’t need another person doing a big blonde bob.”
He cuts a longtime client and friend’s hair about 12 inches without asking. Her boyfriend breaks up with her. When she mentions the reaction, Donnal seems upset that she’d question his judgment.
Another longtime client, Stephanie Schnuck, brings in her sister, who carefully instructs Donnal about keeping her hair long because she’s just had a baby and has no time to style a short cut. He gives her a short cut. “You don’t need this, you are too pretty,” he informs her as a long section of hair hits the ground. “You can tuck it behind your ear.”
The sister glares at Schnuck—who is also pretty, but far taller, with blonde tresses cascading well below her shoulders. Months later, Schnuck walks into the salon and announces, “You can cut it off, Donnal. I’m ready.”
Asked to explain, he shrugs.
He’s an artist.
“Chalk on the wall, painting all the time,” Donnal says, remembering his childhood in Tianjin, China. “It’s the only thing I could do. The Communists—all we’re learning is the same stupid thing like Mao Zedong, all over again and again and again. So every time there’s some kind of holiday, I get out of the boring programs by decorating the lobby of the school.”
His father moved to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution, but by then Donnal was so far behind academically, he didn’t finish high school. Both his parents were doctors; it was becoming obvious that he wasn’t going to follow in their footsteps. His stepmother sent him to study watchmaking so he could make a living.
Donnal made enough money to buy his own house at 21—but hated the work. “Why do I not do something I love to do and not have my stepmother set me up in life?” he asked himself.
He was still wondering when he saw the movie Saturday Night Fever. He left the theater obsessed with the hairstyles: How did they do that? He was sure no one in Hong Kong could re-create John Travolta’s haircut. Then he saw it on a guy in the street, buttonholed him and found out his hair had been cut at a salon.
“I’d never been to a hair salon in my life; I thought they belonged to women,” he says. “But I loved my haircut; I was so happy to go to the desk and pay for it. Then I realize how much it cost me. I only have a few bob to take the bus home. But at the bus station I can see the eyes looking at me.”
He never went back to the salon himself—“Too expensive!”—but he took a girlfriend there and watched the hairdresser’s every move. He set out to learn everything he could learn in Hong Kong, then bought a one-way ticket to London. “Early empire for all the world,” he explains. “So the royalty, the judges and lawyers, they all have the hair done, because the hair represents power.”
In London, he found no willing teachers: “The masters don’t like leaking the high technique out. So I have to do everything possible, clean the salon, watch and steal.”
He shares his secrets with students gladly, he says, adding with a grin, “It takes a long time to get it, even when they are watching!”
Feet set wide, he bends from the waist, broad shoulders slanting, coming in close to Maggie Hales’ thick red hair. “I have to try to release that stress on the angle and make the hair fall more successfully,” he mutters as he snips rapid-fire, using two fingers, no thumb. “Each section of the hair is talking to you. I like to say, ‘This haircut will dance with you.’ If the cut is right, it can follow your movement.” His fingers are a blur, scissors jabbing forward, thinning hair. Hales says something about his talent, and he chuckles. “They are afraid of my scissors, they have to say something nice!” He meets her eyes in the mirror as he explains, “I tell her, ‘The first time I met you, I don’t really like you, you are a pretty hard person, very strict.’ Now I say, ‘You are changing a lot, you need a boost up, so I give you a more aggressive cut.’ I do not say she is older or tired, just laid-back. When she was pregnant and having babies, I was easy on her. So I just say, ‘Maggie, I don’t know why, I just say it is time you are changing. You need energy, seems like you have slowed down.’”
A woman walks in, a Burberry shawl around her shoulders. “Robin!” he says, and she settles into his chair happily. Robin Sheldon, president of Soft Surroundings, says she was flying to New York to get her hair done when a friend suggested Donnal. “I was a blown-out blonde. He took a look and said, ‘Oh. Hair looks bad.’ I didn’t know it was that bad. In a two-week period he cut off my hair—by the time he finished, it looked like a small dog on the floor—and colored it darker. I kept saying, ‘My daughter’s getting married in Italy, I can’t look too—’ and he went, ‘Zsssst.’ [She draws a finger across her lips.] He said, ‘Wait till you see the photos; you will thank me.’”
Halfway through her first appointment, Sheldon texted the friend who recommended Donnal: “You didn’t tell me HOW different he was.” The friend texted back: “Are you OK?”
“I was,” Sheldon says. “Best haircut I’ve ever had in St. Louis.”
Donnal has clients who have moved to San Francisco or Chicago and still come back to have him cut their hair. Ellen Rippeto drove three hours each way when she moved to Peoria—then she moved to Charleston, W.Va., and now she flies in every two months.
Others come once and never return.
“People say I’m mean,” he says cheerfully. “People do not like to hear anything but good. But my job is not hiding in my eyes. My job is to see your worst point and cycle to your best point. You can’t handle it, don’t start.”
What’s odd about his trademark bluntness is that some people, he will coax along gently, delicately, for a year or more. “You have to play your profession,” he says. “I don’t go to work, I go to play. So how do you play with this person? Sometimes have a nervous situation, you play gentle. Some people are bored, and then you know what I love to do?” He holds his hands up as though holding two hanks of hair straight out to either side. “I have them hold their hair out like this and—” He mimes cutting in midair. “You know you have to cut it anyway, so why not have some fun with it?”
What he doesn’t say is that if you don’t trust him or respect his artistry, he’ll either announce that the karma’s not right and refuse to cut your hair or forge ahead, testing you. He’s not afraid of what you’ll think—and if he senses that your fear is going to get in the way of what he thinks best, watch out.
“People come in and say, ‘Donnal, I have fine hair.’ You think I don’t know that? I am a professional!” He freely ignores restrictions he deems silly—like the woman who told him, “Donnal, you can do anything you want, but don’t show my forehead.”
“She have wrinkles,” he explains. “I know the situation. I have nowhere to go. She has a very short forehead. I have to do what I have to do sometimes. If I tell them, it’s not going to happen. So I cut 1 inch up the bang. She cried and couldn’t believe it and yelled at me. I have a very calm and strong attitude: ‘My job is to make you look beautiful. It’s not about your wrinkles’—or your nose or your chest or your butt! Body is not that important. People want to know, ‘Do you love yourself still?’”
The woman with the bangs left sobbing. “The second week I got a beautiful card: ‘Donnal, everywhere I go people give me compliments, thank you so much!’ People don’t see her wrinkles, they see her confidence.”
Donnal talks constantly about confidence: how he’s always had it, how people need it, how a good haircut can give the illusion of confidence just long enough for someone to acquire the real thing. A Buddhist, he’s never heard of the Biblical story of Samson, but he insists that “if your hair is special, you already have a natural power.”
He’s been studying power since his childhood, when he lived in wealth and privilege and then had everything torn away by the revolution and lived alongside the powerless. “You see all the levels—poor, wealthy, royalty, success and then really down, helpless, almost like starting over again. You hang out with people, you feel them, their pain. I hate to tell people that’s what I’ve been through, but that’s how I gain success.”
In his inner sanctum, a small messy office with a bed at the back of the salon (no, he doesn’t live here; he has a condo downtown and another he’s selling), Donnal brings out photo albums. Eagerly, he points out his grandmother (“Always holding me”) and his first car (“Only one week I have it, I crashed it”) and the Ferrari he wants next. Less eagerly, he acknowledges a shot of his father the doctor, who came only once to St. Louis. “He’s very proud of me,” Donnal insists. “He always wanted me to be the doctor. Now I say, ‘I’m doctor, too, but doctor for hair, and I can make people feel good right away.’”
And the blurred, faded shot of the other doctor, his mother, looking a little stiff but poised and lovely? “My parents divorced when I was 18 months old,” he says, all the buoyancy gone from his voice. “My father’s side is businesspeople, see the world, wealthy and powerful. My mother’s was royal family from the Manchu dynasty, traditional Chinese for generations. Two powerful families; it was hard for them to understand together. My mother and father separated.”
Donnal stayed with his father, and they eventually moved to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution. “My great-uncle jumped off a building and killed himself; my grandfather got poisoned in jail,” he says. “In China we listen to too much; we don’t feel anything anymore.”
He did feel lonely, though, for the mother who answered all his letters. Only later did he find out that his beloved grandmother had arranged fake letters to soothe him.
Meanwhile, his father had remarried, but Donnal says his stepmother showed little interest in mothering. In his teens he found an alternative family: “I hung out with a lot of not very good people, very unhealthy, many dangerous situations. When I have a legal right in Hong Kong, at 18 years old, I straight go see my mother. I have a difficult time to understand why she cannot love me, and I never can figure that out. I thought I would find my dream mother.”
He didn’t call, just showed up at her hospital office. She introduced him to her family—she had remarried too—and tried to explain why she had left him. “She did spend one week with me,” he says. “That is, in my entire lifetime, the happiness I never forget. We go to parks, we canoe, she told me about her life. I thought I’d found the lost piece of my heart. But when I go back home, she never wrote or called.”
He kept trying; he even, in later years, invited her to visit him here, see his salon. “She said, ‘It’s because you were not spoiled growing up, that’s why you are so successful. Because everything you need you have to find a way to get for yourself.’ And that was totally breaking my heart. I would love to tell her, ‘I wish I don’t have anything; I would just love to be your child.’” He brightens. “But she taught me one very important thing. She said, ‘Every day you live, do not waste your life. Do what you want to do.’”
“People always lie to themselves about how they look,” Donnal remarks. “I have to teach them how to love how they look. That’s a happy thing to do, but
What gives him the courage to be so honest? “Because of what I go through in my life,” he says. “I grow up in a wealthy, powerful family. I go to Hong Kong, I feel homeless. Then, here, I feel the difference of freedom.”
At first, its messy complexity terrified him. He kept an arm’s length from gay hairdressers, for example, and he sought marriage counseling from a priest he later learned was guilty of pedophilia. The world shocked and exhilarated Donnal by turns: “I didn’t realize human life had so much more going on than I thought. So I’m proud to be American because I learned so much I never knew.”
He also realized that freedom cuts some people adrift. “They are floating on the ocean: ‘I want this,’ ‘I want that.’ They don’t know where to go,” he says. “A lot of hairdressers don’t stress; they just say, ‘Tell me what you want.’ But sometimes I am so excited about the haircut I forget to breathe. The hair is 30 percent of the beauty of the body. Remember what Hillary used to look like? Oprah!—is that her body and her clothing? How important the hairdresser is in people’s life.”
He pulls out his price list. “Men and women the same: Men’s haircut harder, more short, more detailed, you make a little mistake, you can see where it is. Long hair you can hide.” A haircut by him is $85; color retouching $70 and up. From new clients he requires a $40 deposit, no-shows pay 50 percent, and he tacks on a 40 percent surcharge for cuts after 6 p.m. “And one more rule,” he adds, grinning. “Client is not always right.”
Men in this society, Donnal continues, “take medicine, spray, anything to hold onto their hair as long as they can. So my job sometimes is charge them $100 for haircut and buy them razor and tell the wife to help them shave their head. It’s not about $100, it’s about who has guts to tell you to shave your head.”
He tells men that baldness is good news: “You can grow your mustache to decorate your face, have wonderful glasses, and also I believe men always in history have a hat, so wear different hats, cowboy hat, sport hat, gentleman hat.” He’s speaking in the third person, but his sunglasses perch on the rim of the ball cap that replaced
“Artists’ eyes have no ugly in them,” he says. “Everything, an artist can use. I remember the master teaching me—we are 10 people drawing one apple on the table. Some draw it not like an apple at all; some better than the real one. My apple getting A straight, because I tried to make that apple just like that apple.
“In St. Louis I cannot be always right,” he acknowledges, “because art have different opinions. My grandmother taught me: Real gold is not afraid of fire. So I provide my art, do my magic.”
He urges instructions to an assistant, then continues. “The most hard job I have is I hear somebody have bad news—divorce, cancer. I hate it. I have to see psychologist for that part. One favorite client, one time she called and asked me how to get here. It paralyzed me. Alzheimer’s. I call her family and tell them never to let her come here alone.”
He swears he’s going to retire early so his clients don’t die before he does. “I have great advice from a priest; he said, ‘It doesn’t really matter, Donnal, how long people live; it matters how they live.’ He said, ‘Give beautiful hair, that’s what you can give them, and don’t be upset.’ But I wish I could die first.”
Now 52, Donnal came to St. Louis 21 years ago, when his young wife, Hayley Lee, started graduate work in economics at Washington University. She had the academic credentials he lacked, but she had, he says, no confidence. “She had to be perfect, even to go to the grocery store. She was insecure. I feel like I am in jail all the time. I did think about changing my career for her. I worked two jobs, moving company and Pizza Hut, and tried to tell her how much I loved her, but I realized, if I’m not happy, the whole world not happy. So I have to figure out, I love her, but do I love myself?”
They divorced, and Donnal stayed here. “I realize I don’t have to be in New York to be a great artist. St. Louis people just don’t know the art. So I have a heavy-duty job here. I won’t say Midwesterners are stupid, but they are used to letting somebody decide for them—and then telling that person what to do! It’s not the people’s fault. Artists try to earn the money easy to please the people. The designer gets paid to do the job but doesn’t do it; the client pays the designer to do the job but doesn’t let him do it. And if I address this problem, I am the number-one Hair Nazi!
“Midwest women have a tremendous problem: They love to copy people,” he adds. “Very dangerous. Because that is the first failure for the confidence. St. Louis people do not like to taste differences, they do not like challenges a lot, because they are very comfortable. The reality, the environment, doesn’t pressure them. It’s very family-oriented—so very easy to lose who they are.
“I have a very hard time to make people trust me here,” he adds. The old craze for highlights, for example: “A highlight is all bleach. Bleach is not a color. A lot of white-skinned clients have a different tone of white skin. But Midwesterners don’t accept any kind of tone because their eyes only understand one color: bleach!”
Much of Donnal’s famous rudeness comes, client Marlene Hammerman suspects, from the language barrier, because he doesn’t have the power to smooth his simple, abrupt words. “He has this intuitive sense of people,” she says, “but his communication keeps people from understanding how good he is at knowing what is good for you.”
Hammerman does advocacy work in D.C. and remembers telling him, “I want to be taken seriously.” He countered, “Don’t let it get in your way. I know the other side of you. You will be OK if your hair is a little different, if it has you in it.”
And so she was.
Donnal’s apprentices study for three years with no pay. They learn to clean and oil his expensive shears daily and to snip and blow-dry in four directions (“American way only one”). They learn not to date clients, not to smoke, not to look for tips. “Your job is art,” he reminds them in Cantonese. They learn Cantonese.
Only six students have completed his program. One, Stephanie Harvey, now owns her own salon, S.D. Design, in Creve Coeur. “He’s a tough taskmaster,” she says. “But I’ve never seen anyone who can cut like him.”
Donnal met Harvey 22 years ago, when she was the shampoo girl at a salon where he cut hair. She had the same license he did, but she was African-American. “She is a beautiful girl, intelligent. I ask her all the time, ‘Why don’t you cut hair?’ She says this is her only option.” Years later, when she came to him for advice, his first rule was “You must forget who you are. You are just like everybody.”
Dominic Bertani, one of St. Louis’ premier hairstylists, says, “I do know that he enjoys a good reputation. Mmm ... I think I’ll just leave it at that.” Would Bertani override a client’s wishes? “I’m in the business of attracting and retaining customers. Whacking someone’s hair off without permission, forcing your artistic sensibilities on them, is just unwise, period.”
Donnal’s son, Collin Chung, now 20 and in college, says he gets off easy compared to his dad’s students. “As a businessman, he’s very strict. He doesn’t like it when people are late, and he has a big thing about respect. He’s a very diligent, hard worker, which is kind of surprising; he only went to second grade in China. He had a lot of peers that took him in—they were a lot older—when he was a teen. Very streetwise, business-oriented people who literally made their wealth off their knowledge.
“As a father, he’s much more caring—he thinks I’m perfect no matter what—but he’s also a disciplinarian. He doesn’t have the eloquence of English, and I don’t speak a word of Chinese, so he taught me everything by actions. For example, there’s this delicate balance between work and play. He narrowed it down to ‘No matter what you do, don’t do anything unless it makes you happy.’ It’s a very deep life lesson you don’t practice until you really realize it.”
Is his dad as happy as he seems? “He puts on a face a lot of the time, I think,” Collin confides. “That’s why he’s such a workaholic—when you are at work, you can’t think about your personal life.”
Told that Donnal brags about him constantly, Collin’s silent for a few seconds. “I really honestly had no idea until later in my life,” he admits. “I got older and said, ‘Where is all this money coming from?’ He was paying for my college and everything, and I hardly knew him. When I was younger, I just marked him off as someone who wasn’t very educated.
“He used to have so much fun with my hair,” Collin continues. “From my point of view, a weird form of entertainment. He’d cut one side really short and leave the other, and there would be an inch difference in the bangs in the middle of my forehead. I always had a fashionable haircut. I was like 4.
“He can wear whatever he wants, he has that much power,” Collin adds. “We’ll go into a suit-and-tie restaurant, and he’ll wear a wife beater and swim trunks and sandals. In our teen society we call it O.G., original gangster. Not like one of those thugs who wear huge clothes that make no sense, but someone who just happens to have a lot of power.”
What does Collin think his father’s deepest sadness is? “Not seeing me. Not being able to be with me. Everything is usually fleeting with this man. Women, if they break up with him, who cares? Usually his relationships last three to four months. He’s very fastidious, very hard to please; you basically are limited to one screw-up and that’s it. Except me. He always calls me. He just left a message: ‘Why don’t you ever call me, why are you such an asshole?’ I try to call him every other day or so. I should call every day.”
Donnal’s sport is racing—both cars and motorcycles. “It is the most disciplined sport,” he says. “You have to win but not crash.” His bike’s an Orange County Chopper. (“I don’t want to ride a Harley-Davidson, just like a uniform, everybody for the same thing. OCC chopper is art.”) His favorite fashion designer’s Versace; his favorite music’s the blues, because “there is tremendous passion, and it’s deep in the soul.” And the high point of his week is the Wednesday-night darts league at Blueberry Hill.
“My son is in college. After work, where I go? I drink alcohol as my good friend, but it’s just social. I’m not from this country; I have a hard time to accept all the sports. I try, but I just sit there, be the couch potato and drink beer. Darts are a discipline, and a little something to look forward to.”
So ... did he really wear swim trunks to a swank restaurant? He grins. “For my thinking, clothing is the fun thing to wear. I do not worry about what people think. Most of the time I do the opposite: At a five-star hotel, I don’t dress very well. I do not like people to treat the look of who I am.” Isn’t his art all about making the exterior represent who someone is? “That’s a good argument,” he answers. “Some people need to dress to make them have confidence.” He waits a beat. “Some people have confidence enough.”
Donnal has scant formal education, yet talks constantly about educating people. He carefully constructs his style, but not his self; for better or worse, he is entirely spontaneous in his interactions with the world. He craved his parents’ love and resents their lack of support, yet he values self-reliance above all else. And right after he says he’d love to marry again, he admits he doesn’t believe in marriage. “Marriage is a long, long time to live with somebody. People change. Sometimes marriage brings so much unhappiness and stress. I see so many untold stories. So many women looking at me, their eyes: ‘If I could live again, I would do this and this ...’ I hate being a hairdresser sometimes, because I know so much. It’s scary.”
His ex-wife is a lawyer in Atlanta. Reached by phone, Lee offers hard-won insights. “He thinks people look down on him because he is not highly educated,” she says, adding that he’s plenty smart. “I mean, I married him! And I really didn’t care what he did for a living.” So she doesn’t agree that she wanted him to be anything but a hairdresser? “Not at all! Because that was his talent. I think his upbringing ... He was kind of a wild child; he was in the streets a lot. I needed stability. He thinks he wants it too, but he can’t handle stability.” She still hasn’t forgiven him for going off to a disco after Collin was born. “Our values were very different,” she says firmly. “I’d rather have a house before I bought a Porsche.”
They don’t talk anymore; conversations turn a dull ache sharp again. “He basically thinks I bloomed and flew away,” Lee says. “He always expected I would.”
When a few of Lee’s remarks are repeated to him, Donnal announces, “If she hate me, she must still love me! I think I still love her. But opinions and goals and lifestyles were very different.” He pauses. “I have one problem: I’m never satisfied. Every time I move to one house, after it’s perfect, I’m ready to find the next one. If not, I feel like my life is ending. Like racing: 48 seconds finish the lap; next time 39 seconds, then 38 seconds—till you crash.”
Sandra, a former hairdresser, is excited to try Donnal; she loves playing with her long, streaky hair, but she’s ready for a dramatic change.
“Her hair is a little too thin for long hair,” Donnal murmurs, letting a strand fall between his fingers. “When you do highlights, only 50 percent of the chemicals touch your hair and give it texture.” He turns to her. “I think your long hair definitely looks beautiful.”
She looks disappointed. “Honestly, I adjust really well,” she promises him. “I’ve had my hair long and really short.”
“If I can do the long hair, I can do a lot better than what you have,” he says. “Unless you tell me, ‘I don’t want long hair.’ Then I will ask you what is in your mind.”
How oddly docile.
“The haircut I get, I always like to be able to do a couple styles with it,” she says. “I’m typically not a very conservative person. Sometimes I stretch it out; sometimes I scrunch it.”
His hand cradles the side of his face. “Interesting.”
“I like funky, fun, very textured,” she continues eagerly. “I’ve always been very blonde, but the last time, I did a little bit of auburn, too. I want my hair to be as striking as it can be.”
He bends over her hair again, and you can feel the focus sharpen. “Your hair is very dry. Reality is very funny: When you have a beautiful style but your hair doesn’t shine, people don’t give you any credit. You need healthy hair. So I cannot give you long hair anyway, because 50 percent of your hair is dry.” He pauses. “I have a feeling maybe I will go a little harder for you, I will do something fun. I realize you are looking for more than just simple.”
She pulls out folded magazine photographs.
“Mmmphh,” he says under his breath.
“I think I like Christy Brinkley’s better.”
“You want a little more aggressive,” he suggests.
“I don’t want any wishy-washy color. I want it to be—”
“Classy,” he interjects.
She nods, looking bemused.
“You have really classic features,” he says.
“With some of the haircuts I like to pull the bangs out or over to one side,” she says in a rush. “I like my hair off my face and sometimes on it but never all on it. Something—”
He moves his hand ever so slightly, the gesture just enough to quell her flood of words.
“See what happens.”
When Sandra leaves the salon, her hair is more subtly streaked, the bob smooth, the look sleek. “She’s going to go home and tease it,” he predicts. “She liked very big hair, that hoosier style.” He shrugs. “Success is to bring her something maybe she never thought about. Classic, who she is.
“My job,” he says abruptly, “is very mean. First time people walk in the door, I’m watching. Personality, background, job, earrings, watch, material of the hair, height, body shape, the way they talk, the attitude—if the nails perfect, the shoes shining, they sit very straight, you know who they are. They cannot lie to you, because if they didn’t like something they would not wear it. So I hate myself sometimes, because I have to have very strong judgment. But the judgment comes from who they are.”
And who is he? “I love that I have a very confident attitude all the time,” he confides. “I was born in a country where no matter how intelligent you are, you are just a little piece of grass in the yard.” And his greatest weakness? “I would love to find out my greatest weakness,” he says—sincerely. He’s silent for a moment. “I never ever in my life have been loved,” he says. “Only my grandma. If I can live all over again, I’d rather have love than anything.”