Career Advice from Celeb Stylist Tracey Cunningham
Career Advice from Celeb Stylist Tracey Cunningham


Be the Best Assistant Who Ever Lived

W magazine wasn’t kidding when it called Art Luna the hottest hairstylist in Hollywood. Art was an incredibly strict teacher and mentor (he even made everyone wear a uniform because he didn’t like the outfits his staff would put together on their own), and he expected greatness from everyone who worked for him—me, his assistant, very much included. A lot of people couldn’t take it, but having such a tough boss really made me stronger. Even at a buzzy celebrity-filled salon, assisting a stylist isn’t a glamorous job. You work ridiculously long hours, have to greet clients with a smile even when you’re having the worst day ever, and get stuck sweeping up piles of hair. You’re expected to get whatever your stylist needs—lunch, coffee, a different hairbrush, money for the parking meter, even cigarettes—the second they need it, all while making sure their station is spotless for each arriving client. Thirteen hours on your feet, six days a week. Or, if your salon is flexible with your schedule, you might be working multiple jobs to make ends meet. You might get yelled at by stressed-out stylists. Clients might be nasty and rude to you because you’re “just” the assistant. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Before you make a career U-turn and decide you want to teach English after all, let me just say that this real talk isn’t meant to deter you from pursuing a career in hair. Quite the opposite. I just want you to be ready for what it’s going to take to get where you want to go. You have to really want it and not be able to imagine yourself doing anything but this, because it’s going to be hard. Sometimes so hard you’ll wonder what would ever prompt you to get into it in the first place. And you can’t give up or take that smile off your face or show up late for work because you stayed late the night before and are exhausted. You have to be curious and not only want to learn but ask to be taught. I’ll repeat it again: You have to want to be a hairstylist so badly that you can feel it in your bones. Because only then will you be the kind of kick-ass assistant that will allow you to have a truly great career.

On top of really wanting it, being an amazing assistant who gets hired over the other people vying to assist (and there will be plenty of others) requires a few other non negotiables: You have to have an unwavering work ethic with no trace of arrogance or a bad attitude, be curious and excited to learn, and demonstrate that you genuinely have the ability to make a stylist’s life easier. Make yourself absolutely indispensable. When I was an assistant, I would write down personal notes about each client on their color cards so my bosses knew someone’s favorite drink, where they just went on vacation, and who was going through a divorce and might need a little extra TLC. Those details are what will make you stand out. Show that you’re reliable, accommodating, and able to think on your feet to solve problems.

Be productive, especially when you think you have downtime. You’re not there to make friends with the clients, but you are there to be friendly and personable so they feel welcome and comfortable from the second they walk through the salon door. Be communicative with your stylist and ask them how they want and need you to work so you can be the most helpful to them. Ask for feedback and don’t take criticism personally but use it as an opportunity to grow and be better at your job. I’m saying this again because it is so important: Use criticism as an opportunity to grow and be better at your job!

No matter what line of work you’re in, it can be really hard to receive critical feedback. It’s never fun to hear that your blowout made your client look like a very old lady, or get a talking-to from your boss because the highlights you just posted on Instagram look kind of terrible. These are only crappy moments if you make the feedback personal and walk away dejectedly without turning them into learning opportunities. Ask your boss why they thought your blowout looked like your great-grandma Yetta’s wig and how you can do it differently to get a better result next time. Dive deeper into the Instagram highlights. Did they not work because of your hair technique, or do you need better light in your photo? What does your boss think you can do better—on both fronts—for next time? As a boss who loves her assistants, I can tell you that it’s not always easy for me to give critical feedback, either. I hate even the remotest possibility that I might be hurting someone’s feelings. But I know that the best thing I can do is be honest when I think there is room for improvement, so my assistants learn and keep growing. Your boss and other people you respect might be too shy to give you unsolicited feedback, so you should always ask for it if you genuinely want to keep getting better.

Of course, before you can show a salon that you’re the answer to their prayers, you have to actually find your opportunity.

It may not seem like it in the age of Instagram, but the way I found my assisting job in 1995 still works today, whether you live in Los Angeles or Lacon, Illinois (population 1,781): good, old-fashioned research. Do your homework on the salons in your area and figure out which ones have the kind of talent that you think will teach you to be the kind of stylist you want to be. If you’re not super familiar with which salons have good reputations, look for client reviews on Yelp and Facebook and do a quick Google search to see if they’ve received any press in local newspapers or magazines. Are you dying to work on editorial photo shoots in addition to working with clients in the salon? Read the staff bios on a salon’s website to learn about the résumé highlights various stylists have. If there are people working there who seem to have career points that align with your goals, you know that you’ll be able to network with and learn from specific colleagues, which could be a huge help in your future.

Once you find a salon you’d love to work with, literally call and ask if they have an assisting program. Some actually have formal programs designed to mentor aspiring hairstylists while others don’t. Regard- less, non-annoying persistence will be key—keep calling until you find someone who needs help. If no one does when you call, ask when they expect to need someone and make sure you follow up. If you’re able to financially, ask them if they’d be open to letting you shadow someone as an unpaid apprentice for a period of time. Send thank-you notes to everyone you meet with as soon as your meetings are over and say specifically why you want to work with them.

Matt Rez was sent away the first time he tried to get a job at MèCHE because we didn’t have a job to give him. But Matt’s dream was to work with us, and he wasn’t going to give up after the first no. So he waited outside the salon for six hours just to introduce himself to me and my partner, Neil. It was a little crazy, but after we met him and realized his talent (not to mention his persistence and willingness to get the job done), we figured out how to make space. Matt is now a full-fledged, full-time colorist at MèCHE and counts Eiza González, Lili Reinhart, and The Blonde Salad helmer Chiara Ferragni as clients.

I’m not suggesting that sitting outside of a salon for six hours is the best way you get yourself hired (in some situations it may even get you arrested). My point is this: Pick up the phone, ask the questions, send the emails, and keep going until you land somewhere that you think will really teach you how to be the stylist you want to be. You have to be persistent, and you have to show them that you want it.

One thing I always tell my assistants is, “I hope you’re watching me and thinking you can do it better.” And I actually truly mean that! Because when I was an assistant, I would watch and pay attention to the stylists and that’s what I thought. Not because I was full of myself, but because I thought about ways I could improve and build upon someone’s process. It’s important to really pay attention to the way other people work. You’ll get ideas and learn tips and tricks that you can incorporate into your own practice, and you’ll also realize how not to do something, which is a major lesson in itself.

Art and Sheri, the other stylist at Art Luna who I was assisting, decided to take Saturdays off. Instead of joining them, I decided that Saturday would be the day I would go in and practice my skills on models. It was while I was busy working my ass off that Art noticed it was time for me to start seeing clients on the floor.



When It’s Time to Become a Boss

We’ve gone over the basics of how I personally think you have the best shot of becoming the colorist you always wanted to be. I know a lot of you probably have other dreams and plans that likely involve a name of your choosing hanging on the door of your very own salon. And that’s great! You should always be thinking big and going after your dreams. But—fair warning—owning a salon is no joke. Not only is it an incredible amount of work—a lot of which involves skill sets far, far beyond beauty school—but it also has to be timed to the right moment in your career to make sense. This section isn’t meant to crush your dreams (I genuinely hope you DM me from your salon’s Instagram next year and show me how amazing you’re doing!), it’s more about being realistic so you don’t end up with a million-dollar loan you can’t pay back and a group of employees who are suing you for nonpayment.

For me, opening MèCHE, my Beverly Hills salon, in 2012 really boiled down to timing. I had already spent my career working at five different salons, each of which benefited from the buzz generated by my celebrity clientele. I felt ready, for once, to put myself on the map. But my divine timing didn’t come from my gut check; it came from the state of my finances. As you’ve likely gathered, I like to have my shit together and have all my adulting buttoned up. And in the year before opening MèCHE, I realized that all of my prudent saving and planning had allowed me to get to a place where I was able to build a salon without taking out a loan, something that was really important for me as a new small business owner: not starting with debt.

Once I realized I was in the right place financially to open my salon, my friend and colleague Tyle reminded me that Neil Weisberg was also ready for his next thing. I was excited to work with Neil because he not only had business experience and had already owned salons, he was also a hairdresser and therefore had both the understanding of and the passion for the business we’d be building— something that I think is absolutely mandatory when finding an actual partner, instead of merely someone who is willing to write you a check.

Once we found a location we loved, Neil and I each put up $250,000 of our own money to gut the space and redo it. But as I quickly learned, opening a business comes with surprises. And remodeling a commercial building in Beverly Hills is not the HGTV fairy tale I imagined it to be. We were $500,000 short, and despite my financial preparedness, we realized we needed a loan after all.

I was really lucky in that I banked with a small, family-owned institution that believed in me and my vision for MèCHE instead of a large, commercial bank. And that personal relationship is a huge reason we were able to secure our loan and finish the space. But opening a salon is so much more than picking out bathroom tiles. As we got closer to opening, I realized just how expensive it is to run your own salon (hint: very). You need a bookkeeper, a CPA for taxes, a manager to run everything, housekeepers to keep everything tidy and wash towels every day, a front-desk staff, assistants, flowers, beverages for the clients, lawyers, and, of course, supplies. I’ll say it again: It is so expensive to run a salon.

I’m so happy that I own MèCHE, even though we’ve had our ups and downs. But as I said earlier and can’t say enough, it’s really hard work. Cutting hair is the easiest part; firing employees and actually keeping the lights on are much, much harder. I’m lucky that I have a business partner who oversees our day-to-day operations, which isn’t my sweet spot (oftentimes I don’t even know which clients are scheduled until I get to work in the morning and my wonderful team lets me know). Because Neil and our team keep things running like a well-oiled machine, I get to focus on doing what I love. (Neil will tell you about all the sleep he loses because he’s so stressed about running the operations.) So I always tell anyone who wants to open a business that they have to treat it like a marriage: Enter into it for the right reasons (no, being able to post your new logo on Instagram is not a good reason) and have implicit trust with your team and your partners.

I will also say this: I don’t think everyone should open a salon. I don’t care how busy you are. Just because you’re busy does not mean you should open your own salon. On top of all of the things I just mentioned, you have to get stylists for your salon and add marketing and press and social media to your to-do list so you actually build a client book. Then you have to keep training your staff and your stylists to be the best that they can so those clients keep coming back. All of these things take strategic thinking, time, and money (so much money). You have to really know that your destiny is to be a salon owner and either figure out how to do these things for your business, or have the resources to outsource them to people who know how to do them better than you.

Having millions of Instagram followers does not mean you should open your own salon (Jen Atkin, who as of this writing has 3.6 million Instagram followers, her own global agency, Mane Addicts content studio, and a bestselling product line called Ouai, doesn’t have her own salon). Feeling like you need more time to hone your skills as a hairdresser away from your “day job” working for someone else does not mean you should open your own salon. And again, being really busy where you currently are doesn’t mean you should open your own salon. It might. But it could also mean that your packed schedule and burgeoning stellar reputation mean that it’s the perfect time to explore ambassador deals with hair product companies and look into teaching opportunities that bring you even more recognition, opportunity, and income. There are many paths to bosshood—not all of which require a building lease.

Another thing Neil and I both feel very strongly about is this: Don’t have a salon if you’re not going to be there. I know your Instagram is full of stylists posting from private planes and Paris Fashion Week hotel rooms and other glamorous, exotic locales. But the truth is that no one is going to care about your salon as much as you. You might have the best manager in the entire world who feels like family, and they still will not care about the business you have poured your life savings and dreams into as much as you. My travel has picked up over the last few years, but I try to be at MèCHE as much as I possibly can. Not only do I love being there, because in my heart I am and always will be a salon worker, but also, when an owner is at their salon, it’s busy. That’s dozens of clients coming through the door to see you every day, which—brace yourself for this insider confession—is much more lucrative than spending twelve hours on a fancy magazine shoot set or spending two days to travel across the world to see a client (though I’m always happy to see my faraway clients when they call!). If you are one of the 99 percent of stylists who work outside of London, Los Angeles, or New York and you want to build a strong, solid business, you should plan to be in the salon you own.

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