Pro Talk: Celebrity Hairstylist Mark Townsend
“I’ve always been obsessed with hair, ever since I was a small child.. I was born a hairdresser. I have a sister that’s two years older and she was a tomboy when we were young. Because we’re so close in age, we would get similar presents at Christmas. I’ll never forget, one year she got a Princess Leia doll and I got Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. We both looked at our dolls and immediately switched. With Princess Leia, all I wanted to do was undo her giant cinnamon buns and restyle her hair. That was when I was around 7. That same Christmas, my sister also got an over-sized Barbie head, where you could play with her hair and put makeup on. That was the greatest day of MY life. I watched my sister open her presents and she was never that impressed with them, but for me, all I kept thinking was, “I can’t wait to get my hands on that.” Within a week, Barbie had a short pixie hair cut.
When I graduated from high school, I went straight to college at Traviss Vocational Technical School in Lakeland, Florida. College for me was such a bore. On the weekends, I was a club kid. I was known as the club kid that would do everyone’s hair. I would make hair-dos with plastic flowers, plastic skirts. We had no money, so we had to be really creative — we would come up with these crazy outfits and hair styles. At some point, I decided to hunker down. I dropped out of college and enrolled at hair school. I put myself through cosmetology school, working part-time as an assistant at a local salon. I graduated and within a year, a good friend of mine was going up to New York City to interview at colleges. I was 25 at the time and I just tagged along for the ride. While he went to his interviews, I went to the salons that I read about in magazines. At the time, I was so inspired and fascinated by Oribe and Danilo. Every time I read their names in magazines, it was always the hair that I was most attracted to.
While in New York, I went into the Oribe Salon and the manager at the time must have seen my chin on the floor, and asked if he could help me. I told him that I had just recently graduated from hair school and my dream was just to be here and look around. He offered to show me around, to Oribe’s private room, to all the stylists on the floor, to the color room. I literally thought I died and went to hair heaven. By the time he finished, he told me there was an opening on Oribe’s team if I wanted to try out for it. The next day I returned with a friend; I had to do three hair styles on her without cutting her hair. The first was a blow-out and I did two different up-dos. I got the job! Within three weeks, I went back to Florida, sold my car, broke the lease on my apartment, and convinced a friend in Glen Cove, Long Island to let me crash on his couch.
I was with Oribe for almost a year. He has a huge team of assistants and I was the new kid, so I really just assisted the assistants. What I really wanted to do though, was be that assistant. I wanted to be that person, right next to him. So I ended up stalking Danilo. Anyone that had every worked with him, I found a way to get in touch with them. I wanted to be his assistant and I was willing to do anything.
I finally took a job at the John Frieda Hair Salon as an assistant, just because Danilo was based out of there. I spent, what was probably the worst month of my career as an assistant, at John Frieda. But one day I was told, “Hey Mark, you have a phone call,” and I horribly thought, “Oh no, someone died.” I go to the front desk and I pick up the phone and I hear, “Hi, this is Danilo. I hear you want to work with me.” And I said, “Yes, I do,” and he responds, “Well, today is your lucky day.” He told me to clean up the private room for two clients that were coming in for color. He was running late and asked that I give them conditioning treatments, while they waited. Those two clients were Cindy Lauper and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s. As a former club kid, inspired by the dance music and the crazy styles, I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as them, hanging out. That was one of the highlights of my entire life, never mind my career. Danilo and I worked really well and I became his assistant for the next two years. As his assistant I went everywhere with him — to photo shoots with celebrities, fashion shoots, press junkets and red carpet events. I was always with Danilo, no matter what. The things I’ve learned from that man were just unbelievable. I don’t think he’s even a hairdresser. He’s an artist and hair is his medium. It was truly an inspiring time for me.
After Danilo, I decided it was time for me to try and make it on my own. I started doing front-of-the-book magazines, like Paper and Interview, but it was slow at the time. An agent [at a hair and makeup artist agency] was trying to help me out and she told me they just signed Sally Hershberger and Sally needed a New York-based assistant, someone who could fill in for her when she wasn’t around. I met with Sally and it was fantastic. We did one super easy job for a photo shoot and we got along really well. I became her assistant in New York for the next three years. Sally was at the height of beauty and fashion at the time and we were being flown all over the place — to Miami for a Vanity Fair cover, to the Hamptons for a Vogue cover, it was unbelievable. Sally was based in Los Angeles, so I would look after her clients in New York when she wasn’t there.
Working with Sally, I learned to be a on a set — how to act on a photo shoot, how to talk to a celebrity, how to talk to a publicist, and Sally could not be more opposite from Danilo. She’s so technical and working with her was like getting my Masters degree, in a way. For a while, I had amazing and creative input and with Sally it was much more technical. My whole career is based on how I was able to go between those two realms.
Sally referred me to work on the movie Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise. I met with Tom and the director, and as a result, I got to work with Tom, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz on set. That’s how I learned to be on a film set. After that, I did three movies with Penelope, while doing red carpet and press junkets. I went on two world tours with them doing premieres in Europe and Asia. It was incredible. Penelope is a daughter of a hairdresser and she would get in front of the mirror and hold her hands in her hair and tell me what shapes she loved. I would put hairpins in, around her fingers and around her hands, to lock in that shape. I learned from her it doesn’t need to be a perfect French twist or a perfect chignon. I’ve learned from clients more than they’ve ever learned from me about hair.
I love hair that’s soft and touchable, but has shape to it as well. I’ve never liked hair that’s overdone. The perfect examples are Mary Kate and Ashley. I’ve worked with them for almost 11 years now. Ashely hasn’t let anyone else cut her hair in 11 years! I really learned about hair texture from them. That amazing, beachy wave we were doing for so long, has been a trend forever. Those girls walk out the door with new trends. Experimenting and working with them was how I became a hairdresser. I like a little fuzz in the hair, a couple fly-aways aren’t a bad thing. Sending Reese Witherspoon down the red carpet for the Golden Globes with just down, straight hair, sums up my aesthetic. It’s a beautiful dress, it’s a beautiful girl, let’s not over think this. Just because it’s a red carpet event or a fancy party, doesn’t mean you have to put your hair up into a bun.
Being a freelance hair stylist is perfect for me. I love not knowing where I’ll be next week or what I’ll be doing. I may be on a boat in the West Indies for a photo shoot or I might have to go to New York for a fashion show. I always see my clients when I can and it’s worked out so well for me. My dream is to take what people see on the red carpet and make it accessible for them and that’s why salons are key. I could be on a set and come up with a crazy hair-do but then I want to be able to tell my client what to do, how to do the same look at home. On sets and on photo shoots, I can’t experiment so salons are my playground. In a salon I can play around with my friends and clients and try new products on them. That way, if something doesn’t turn out, we can always go back to the shampoo bowl and start over. If I didn’t have that balance, I don’t think I’d be as happy being a hairdresser as I am.” — celebrity hairstylist Mark Townsend