Pro Talk: Tracey Cunningham
“I first realized I wanted to be a hairdresser when I was 8 or 9 years old and I would do my Mom’s hair like the girls from Charlie’s Angels, Farrah Fawcett or Jaclyn Smith. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and it was in highschool that I met this girl from Norway and she just looked so blah. I looked at her and said, “You need to dye your hair either really dark or really light.” So we picked out a box of dye that we thought would suit her and we colored her hair. The next week at school she was such a huge success and it was at that moment that I realized then how important color was. That was a very Clueless moment; “Oh okay, I get it now. I get why people color their hair.” That was kind of a big deal.
I moved out to California and of course, I got a little lost and I wasn’t doing hair. Instead, I started working for Bette Midler as a nanny to her daughter Sophie and my favorite moments were when Robert Ramos would come over and style her hair. I still think he’s one of the greatest. He just styled her hair so amazingly and I told Bette that I wanted to style her hair in the mornings, every morning. Robert did her hair for all her big events and right away, she let me style her hair in the mornings. My formal training up until that point included doing hair for my Mom and my friends.
Bette paid for me to go to beauty school, which was great. I walked into Estillo Salon where Robert worked and he told me to go to the cheapest school because you have to assist for so long after. Not an expensive school like Vidal Sassoon, just any school will do. And that’s what I did, I went to Marinello’s and it was fine. I realized later that the kids that went to Vidal Sassoon had a much stronger knowledge with hair cutting and were just more knowledgeable overall; but I did assist for a long time after school, so it worked out fine.
When I finished school, I went straight to Art Luna Salon and I assisted Sherry and Art Luna and Sherry decided she was going to start taking Saturdays off, so I would come in and work on Saturdays. It was a bit of a risk because Art didn’t work on Saturdays either, so no one was really watching me. No one was seeing what I could do. One day Art stopped in and he saw me working and he said, “Oh my God, you should be on the floor. You’re really good.” I was really scared because I wasn’t sure if anyone would come and pay me to co their hair, but Art was amazing. For the first six months he was building me and I was doing really well, he gave me Portia de Rossi, Angie Featherstone and Nanci Ryder, who loved my blow dries. Nanci sent me to do Renee Zellweger for the Tonight Show and Renee loved my blow dries, which was good news. Then I started doing her color. At that point I had Portia, Angie, and Renee as clients and then one day Harper’s Bazaar came in and saw me with all these girls because, as luck would have it, I happened to be doing them at the same time. Harper’s Bazaar ended up writing about me and I still have clients that come to me from that interview. That was a long time ago, around 1999 or maybe earlier. Nicky and Sherry Hale, two of my favorite clients, mother and daughter, came to me from that article and I still see them.
After Art Luna, I moved to Sally Hershberger and I was there for quite awhile. I was nervous when I began; I was kind of an outsider and no one knew me, so it was like being the new kid at school and no one wants you to sit at their lunch table. They initially hired me for three days a week and I said, “Well, if I have a client that wants to come in on a Friday, is that okay?” So I thought I would be working three days a week, but I can tell you now, I never worked part-time because people would always call for me — “can I have Tracey on Friday, can I have Tracey on Saturday, can I have Tracey on Thursday?” I was really apprehensive about leaving Art because I thought I would fail. I also lost a lot of clients too because Art was such good friends with these people that came to his shop. Later, I also gained clients of my own. I worked my butt off. I never said no. Around this time, Allure Magazine did an interview with me, which was so awesome because it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I gained so many clients from it. It was amazing. So I would like to thank Bette Midler, Nanci Ryder, Harper’s Bazaar and Allure!
When I do color, I try to do what nature would do naturally. I do client requests too, for example, a client said to me yesterday, “I want my hair very, very blond and very chunky.” I said, “Ok,” and she said, “Nothing fine.” Then afterwards, she asked me what this bit of color was and I told her, “That’s the chunk.” So you follow what your clients say but at the same time, you need to put your own spin on it. I spend a lot of time looking at natural hair color, it’s my obsession. How it naturally grows out, how it naturally comes to be. Like when people don’t color their hair, they have natural highlights, natural red heads, natural brunettes, and how the sun would naturally highlight hair.
I used to work with Neil Wiesberg at Art Luna and he and Amanda George had teamed up to form Neil George. They got this space and became partners and I said I was going to leave John Frieda because I wanted something a little more low key, a little less corporate. Neil was telling me about this great new space and I ended up going there. I had a great job, I was the first one there and the last to leave. Then I thought I really wanted to open my own place. I had people begging me to do a salon with them. I had backers for my own salon and then Byron [Williams] had asked me to come over to be a partner. We’ve had Bryon and Tracey for 3.5 years and it’s been a great ride.
I’m opening up my own salon. It’s going to be called MECHE and I’m partnering with Neil Weisberg. Neil and I work really well together and Byron and I work really well together. But I’m really excited because I feel like I should be opening up my own place; This is where I should be. Meche means highlight in French. It could either mean a lock of hair or highlight. For example, if you were to say “I’m going to get my highlights done,” it would be the same as “I’m going to get my meche done.”
Color advice I would give: Less is more, meaning don’t go crazy. Be sure you really, really want to do something before you do it. Highlights are not a big deal. You can go crazy on your highlights because you can always low light them. For example, somebody going from blond, who has always been a blond and people see as a blond, and they themselves see as a blond, decides to go with a trend like ombre, red, dark brown, etc. I need them to make sure they really want to do that because when you’re a blond and you’re a natural blond, they tell me, “Please don’t overlap on my hair, I don’t want it to be damaged.” Well, color correction is basically a big overlap and you really have to make sure that’s what you want.
I used to do a lot of styling and I’ve traveled with Renee Zellweger all over the world and Reese Witherspoon as well. I just did Amanda Peet for the cover of Self Magazine last year. I’ve done a lot of editorial but color is my real passion. I love styling hair but I don’t think I’m a Robert Ramos or an Andy Lecompte. I loved the travel but I also had to make a decision because my own clients would suffer when I’m away for two weeks. Being a colorist, I don’t go on tour, or go on set, or go backstage. Jennifer Lopez had me come to the set to do her video and I was out of mind with excitement. I was so excited. Today I’m going with Kate Beckinsale to the Ellen Show to style her hair and I’m so excited. I’m usually at the salon or in their bathroom. I don’t get to see the glamor of it all. But if you want to build a good business you’re either a salon hairdresser or a set hairdresser. I personally like the security of the salon.” — Tracey Cunningham; @traceycolorist