"When I was younger I really only had one interest; it’s always been hair. I was like an idiot-savant. I couldn't do a lot of things, but if you showed me a photo of someone’s hair, I could replicate it. I practiced on my beautiful mom, and then I got a job at Gene Juarez, which was the hottest salon in Seattle, basically as a maid. I served tea, swept up, and did laundry. It was the most awesome job ever.
I’m the first person in my family to never have gone to college. That was a big deal. I knew I wanted to be a hairdresser, but I didn’t go into it straight away because I think I had a perception that the girls who were going to be hairdressers were actually girls that just didn’t know what they wanted to do. Because I did know what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to be lumped in with them. [Laughs] I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, so what I ended up doing was moving down to La Jolla with my friend Alison, and getting a job as a receptionist at Merrill Lynch’s real estate office. And at a certain point after that, I decided to move to LA. I’m really not a planner—are you getting this?
When I got to LA I got a job as a receptionist at PMK, which was the biggest PR firm back then, working for Pat Kingsley, who was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. I was so depressed there, answering phones, and I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. Bette Midler, who was a client of Pat's, was looking for a nanny for her daughter, and I told myself that it would be great for me to do that for a year. I really like doing household things. Bette’s hairstylist was a guy named Robert Ramos, and he would come over and do Bette’s hair. Obviously, Robert couldn’t be at Bette’s house all the time, so one day I offered to blow out her hair. It became our morning ritual: I’d make her breakfast and coffee, and then I’d come upstairs and do her hair. And on the weekends I’d go hang out at Robert’s salon, Estilo [now called Ramos Carreon]. I loved salon life. Bette encouraged me to go to beauty school, but I didn’t qualify for financial aid and couldn’t just quit my job. So she offered to pay for it. Bette really took care of me. She said I could go to any school I wanted to, but I chose the cheapest one, Marinello’s, because the guys at Estilo said you learn pretty much everything after school anyway. The school was horrible, but I was just there to get my 1600 hours.
I knew Laura Lyons, who is Lily Aldridge’s mom, through Bette and her daughter. Once when I was at her house she was showing me an issue of W her son had just shot the cover for, with the coverline 'Hollywood’s Hippest Hairdresser' on the front. Inside, there was an article about Art Luna salon, and I called the up right away. It's easy to think, 'Oh, they already have assistants. I shouldn’t apply there, they’ll only laugh at me.' But I say apply. If you want something, go after it. A lot of the time, the people who get hired are the people who show up. And so, he hired me.
Being an assistant is really hard work. It’s not glamorous. But I was actually doing hair, blowing people dry, watching how Art would do people’s highlights and apply bases, and how they formulated… It was good. Like training for the Olympics, you know? And eventually, Art Luna put me on the floor doing color. I’d do the color and then blow dried their hair to finish. Then people started to ask for blowouts all the time. A great blowout is all about understanding the way the hair lies, and how to hold your brush. I’d watch stylists cut really great bangs, but then not be able to blow them dry—I get that blowouts can be challenging, but they honestly never were for me.
Around that time Allure listed me in their beauty directory as ‘Best Blow Out’. Eventually I left Art Luna and went to Sally Hershberger at John Frieda. Before I even had an interview with them, they asked me for a list of all my celebrity and influential clients. I had a good handful of starlets and Hollywood movers and shakers, like agents, producers, and managers, and I also had fashion designers. After Sally I went to Neil George, which is when Lily mania happened.
Lily Aldridge, who I had known since she was a little girl, had just done the cover of Vogue Mexico and they made her hair darker. I thought that was really strange—I told her, 'A young girl can’t have a base color.' Lily wanted to go blonde, but what we did was highlight it and then root it. Now, had I seen this color before? Of course! I’d seen it on so many blonde girls with their color grown out, and it always looked so pretty. Everybody thought that I just tipped it out, but I actually lightened up the whole head and then put dark ammonia-free hair color on the roots, so her own color never went red. I toned the middle with a level 8 or 9, and then I just left the bottom area raw. It was fantastic because you’d see those lighter pieces, so she felt lighter everywhere, but she still had dark hair. Plus, she could go six months without a touch up. Most of the world, I want to say 60 to 70 percent, is brunette. When Lily went out there with that color, it gave everybody an opportunity to go light but still be dark.
I’ve never done that thing where I just whisk in and do one celebrity client, or go to one celebrity’s house in a day and then do pilates for the rest of it. I was spending five days in the salon, and I would do 30, 40 clients… the most I’ve ever done in a day is 55. I usually have five assistants. I do all of my own bases and highlights, and when I’d finish applying color on one person an assistant would take over and I’d move on to someone else. It’s this whole dance, you know? From one chair to another chair, just moving everybody around. I also know how to work a room. I’d say to my client, 'Oh my gosh, Carol! Do you know Joyce? Joyce works at Paramount. She does marketing for them. Carol does marketing for Sony.' Or, 'Oh my gosh, her son goes to Brentwood, and I know your daughter just graduated from Brentwood!' I’m doing one person at a time, but we’re all having fun. I was also traveling a lot, doing styling and press junkets for Renée Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon, photo shoots with other young girls... I really cannot say no. Being in the service business, you have to be good at leaving your vacations or your friend’s baby shower because you have to work. I literally gave up everything for my job because, at the time, I felt like I had to. I did say no a few times, and I lost clients. By the way, it wasn’t like I just said no, it was like, 'No, I’m in England.' Everyone is disposable, so I really bent over backwards to make things happen. But at a certain point my son started getting really anxious because I was leaving him all the time, and I had to stop traveling so much.
I reached a point where it made sense to open my own salon. I did it with Neil Weisberg, who I had worked with at Art Luna and his salon, Neil George. Mèche is like Studio 54—the best party. Or like 'Cheers,' where everybody knows your name. It's also all ages. The other day I had one of my favorite clients come in—she just turned 82. Meanwhile, the stylist who sits next to me was working on a woman, Sue, who’s nearly 90. She’s had like five husbands. Sue sits down and is like, 'How are you doing? I just broke up with my boyfriend, I’m usually working out three times a week down in Venice at Gold’s Gym but it’s closed.' I tell my client her age, and she’s whispering to me, 'She’s not! She’s really 88?' And Sue goes, 'I’m 87, I turn 88 in two months!' When I was 40 I still thought I was 20, and when you’re 20, you don’t realize that. You write people off—she’s old, she’s a grandma, she’s this or that. But people come to a salon like Mèche not just because they’re gray and need their hair colored. They’re here for youth—to look the way they feel! You have to style their hair beautifully, like you would for a younger client. We’re in the feel-good business. Gotta make ‘em feel good.
My book, True Color, came out on May 4. I’m really excited about it because there's a lot of information inside. It’s a color manual, but it’s really for anybody who has hair, not just for people who do hair. A lot of it focuses on how people should bring their baby pictures into the salon so I can see their true color. I've been talking about this for a long time before anyone gave me a book deal. [Laughs] There are so many things I can do with my eyes closed, but there are also things that are just really difficult. For example, I’m still up all night sometimes when I know I have some big color correction to do the next day—like, say somebody is blonde and they went black for a movie, and wants to go back to blonde. I’m not God, you know? I’m just a hair colorist with Olaplex and bleach! When you’ve worked since you’re 15 like I have, you have to make an effort to not work. I don’t want to do 40 to 50 people a day anymore. I want to start enjoying my life, like our fabulous clients that waltz in and waltz out and get their hair done every week.”
—as told to ITG
Tracey Cunningham photographed by Dana Boulos on June 4, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.