Mane Masters Share How They Fell in Love with Hair

Basketball boasts Michael Jordan; opera aficionados sing odes to Pavarotti—every industry is defined by its legends, and beauty is no exception. All those who toil in tresses look to certain luminaries for inspiration; not because they’re gods, but rather ordinary hairdressers who through passion, drive and perseverance have achieved extraordinary feats. Many rose above humble beginnings to forge innovative styles that have permanently shifted the way we view hair. How did these greats get their starts? We asked the tress masters to share their stories.

Hairdresser Detra Smith

Detra Smith, artistic director for Hot Tools

“There was never a time in my life when I didn’t know I was destined to be a stylist. As a young girl, I found comfort by closing myself in a room with my mannequin head and fashioning its tresses; I styled Barbie’s hair, too. Now the same childhood calm comes over me when I move hair and it transforms into something beautiful. And that stillness morphs into excitement after I put a model in front of a camera and the look comes alive. There have been bumps along my career path: I was too young and inexperienced when opening my salon, but I also learned a valuable lesson; namely, self-discipline. While struggling, I never stopped studying, practicing my craft or developing these skills

Andrew Dale, founder and CEO of UNITE

“As a kid growing up in the suburbs of London, I sometimes accompanied my mom to her salon appointments. I loved the energy and creativity, and as I got older, the connection I found between fashion and hair. It looked like an exciting career. At 14, a teacher asked what I’d be when I grew up. Always a bit of a rebel, I proclaimed, ‘A hairdresser!’ He laughed at me. And that was the moment I decided to prove him wrong. The first time I cut someone’s hair and saw the smile on her face was the first time I felt successful in my career. It was a small moment, but the simple things are often most meaningful.”

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Beth Minardi, founder of Beth Minardi Signature

“Even as a child, I felt the impact images can make. My aunt was a painter who introduced me to color, and I loved learning how it behaves when intermixed. Color has power. After graduating from Murwood Beauty Academy in Orlando, FL, I worked on my first film, The Meal—starring Dina Merrill and Carl Betz in 1975. That’s when I fully understood the magic surrounding hair and makeup—and I was sold. Later I fell in love with the first fab foil highlight I successfully placed while working at Clairol in New York. To this day, the contrast of shades in tresses and cosmetics continue to intrigue as much as they did when I was young.”

Garren, celebrity stylist and cofounder of R+Co

“My mother was in her late 30s when her hair went silver, and her hairdresser started giving her stuffy styles. She was a young woman made to look old, and I couldn’t stand that. I’d brush and tease out her hair when she got home, combing out ‘grandma’ to make her cool. It was the ’60s, and I was in love with Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. I’d look at the cuts Vidal Sassoon created in magazines and try to copy them—tease the crown, get fronts straight and at, make everything geometric. In high school, I did hair for all the girls’ proms and senior pictures. I came from a small town and wanted everyone to look glamorous! I’ve been through so many changes. I remember when supermodels were the stars, then it shifted to celebrities. I’ve worked with Farrah Fawcett, Madonna, Sophia Loren and Nicole Kidman. But everything came full circle when my dream to style Audrey Hepburn was realized.”

Jim Markham, founder, product developer and CEO of ColorProof Evolved Color Care

“By 15, I already had a wife and child to support, and my mother suggested I do hair as a means of providing for my family. I enrolled at Lubbock Barber College in Texas, only to learn I was quite good at cutting. Through barbering I could make money and be in charge of my own destiny, and I loved that from the start. At 17, I had my own shop. I started entering— and winning—competitions. That’s when I realized I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to, as long as I worked hard with confidence and a strategy. Enter my ‘Markham Method,’ a two-part process that revolutionarily took into consideration a man’s lifestyle, head shape and natural growth pattern, which clients like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra came to swear by. If a product I desired didn’t exist, I began developing it myself. This started me on the path of crafting superior formulations for all five of the brands I’ve owned.”

Hairdresser Jen Atkin

Jen Atkin, celebrity stylist and creator of OUAI Haircare

“I was obsessed with Natalie Imbruglia’s short hair in her ‘Torn’ music video when I was a teenager in Utah. No one could give me the cut I wanted, so I bought a pack of razors and shaved my own head. After graduation, I drove to California with 300 dollars in my Honda Civic hatchback. I called all the salons in Allure’s beauty directory until Estilo Salon in Beverly Hills hired me as a receptionist. It took three years to save for beauty school, during which time I worked as a hostess by night and stylist assistant during the day, where I learned the business of how to run a salon. Several moments in my career have felt like major accomplishments, including scoring a job as Andy LeCompte’s assistant, going on Madonna’s world tour, and launching the Mane Addicts brand. I love that brands are now empowering women to learn to do their own hair, and women are becoming more active on social media. We’re changing the conversation in business and beauty.”

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Kien Hoang, director of training and content for Oribe

“My teen years in San Jose, CA, were an exciting time of diversity and experimentation. You had your preppies, punk rockers, the loud crowd—I loved the romance of it, and soon began cutting the strands of all these friends and rebels. I’d shave heads and fashion undercuts with complete creative freedom. In the ’90s, I pursued education to acquire the basics needed to complement that early artistic foundation, and was lucky enough to apprentice with the Bumble and bumble masters before finding Oribe and assisting Guido Palau. I’m never content sitting still, instead always searching for what’s coming next.”

Kim Kimble, celebrity stylist and founder of eponymous haircare line

“My mother and grandmother were hairdressers, so I grew up in the business. When I decided to attend beauty school, it was strictly a means to an end: I’d get a job as a stylist to work my way through fashion school. One day in the barbershop I heard a group talking about a play being staged to raise money for a local church in my California  neighborhood. It was a ’60s period piece, and they needed a pro to work with the wigs. That’s how I met actor and director Robert Townsend, who was producing the project. His assistant made the mistake of giving me his number, and for months I called, asking about assistant work on his films. All I heard was ‘We don’t have any openings,’ until the day Townsend walked into my salon with Halle Berry and asked if I had experience fashioning fantasy hair—that opened everything up. A Wrinkle in Time, coming out next month, is my latest movie. It’s a fantasy film, which I love, because I get to channel my creativity.”

Mary Brunetti, celebrity stylist and owner of Brunetti Salon in Westhampton Beach, NY

“Upon graduating art school in Manhattan, NY, I moved to Florence, Italy, to continue my education. I wanted to be a fashion designer. To keep myself afloat, I started cutting hair for all the students and their moms. My father had owned a salon where I spent my free time so I knew about the trade, but I only accidentally fell in love with the craft while living in Italy. I returned to New York and started working in salons, and one day a friend called in desperate need of a session stylist because the one on set had stormed off. I had zero experience but she said, ‘I’ll give you $750 for half a day’s work,’ so I hopped in a cab. The photographer and I hit it off and I started getting booked for more jobs. The day Trevor Sorbie hired me as an educator was what launched my work with celeb clients.”

Nicholas French, celebrity stylist and artistic director for Matrix

“Freddy French was a famous London hairdresser who also happened to be my dad. Every weekend he’d take me to his salon in Curzon Place, which overlooked Hyde Park
near Buckingham Palace, and I’d watch in awe the amazing artistry of him brushing, cutting and styling in his trademark flamboyant manner. It was so beautiful and exciting, and it just got into my blood. I spent my formative years studying with my father and other mentors like Vidal Sassoon, and have been privileged to create hair for print, film, pop videos, TV spots and royalty—namely, Princess Margaret. Working in this industry is rather like climbing a mountain: Just when you think you’ve reached the top, you turn around and there are three more peaks to ascend. The key is to have courage, grit and determination.”

Hairdresser Rafe Hardy

Rafe Hardy, artistic director for Sexy Hair

“Being the son, nephew and cousin of stylists, I always had an interest in the industry. But it wasn’t until I started beauty school in 1983 that the true love affair began. On that first day, I experienced a sense of accomplishment and artistic expression, and it felt amazing. My first photo session out of school was likewise a game-changer. We did before-and-after makeovers, and while the transformations were incredible and I had a blast, the real treasure was knowing I’d made someone look and feel fantastic.”

Leland, celebrity colorist and founder/CEO of Celeb Luxury

“I rst fell for the science behind this industry. I didn’t become involved in professional beauty solely to be a colorist; I wanted to be a scientist, too. I sought to learn about the chemistry of color and which dyes and compositions would let me achieve the best results for the different types of hair and the situations we as colorists come across. I further fell for the industry because I loved the very notion of creating diverse color results; it’s amazing the power we as colorists wield. I keep falling in love with this industry again and again—between my past work traveling and lecturing at major shows for Redken; developing the ARTEC color brand; and my present goal of increasing the industry’s COLORBRAIN and helping to educate clients on the best products for them with my brand, Celeb Luxury.”

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Robert Cromeans, global artistic and business director for John Paul Mitchell Systems

“My original dream was to become a hairdresser, work in a salon, dress how I wanted and make a living—that was it. In beauty school I became exposed to classes, shows and platform artists, and that revealed another possible career path within this expansive industry. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs. I could make people laugh, yet at first I wasn’t very talented. I’ve opened salons and closed them. But Vidal Sassoon told me I was the greatest showman he’s ever seen! What’s most wonderful is getting to wear many professional hats.”

Rocco, celebrity stylist and artistic advisor for Aloxxi

“When I decided to move from my home country of Argentina to Miami, I knew the transition would be difficult—but the first four years were terrible! I worked in a salon while saving to open my own shop. After two years, we launched Rocco Donna Hair and Beauty Art, but a poor decision on my partner’s part almost cost me everything I’d fought so hard to achieve: my business, my brand and even my American dream. Loyal clients plus the enormous passion I feel for this industry kept me going. I find inspiration everywhere—in nature, architecture, fashion magazines, restaurants, boutiques and during my travels to cities around the world.”

Sam Villa, co- founder of Sam Villa and Redken global artistic ambassador

“I was an athlete in college and loved coaching various sports. I never thought of hair as my destiny, despite the fact that my dad owned a barbershop where my older brother and I worked on Saturdays, sweeping hair and shining shoes. I went to beauty school only to follow in my father’s footsteps, and two weeks in I started questioning my decision and talents as a hairdresser. Those doubts vanished the day my dad took me to my first show where I watched Vidal Sassoon and his team of magicians cut, melt and morph tresses on stage. In that moment, I decided I wanted to become a platform artist and teacher. The next day I returned to school—and all of a sudden, I could do hair! I could hold the comb without dropping it and cut a straight line because I’d found my purpose. The journey has been the reward for me. I experience enormous joy guiding students on their creative paths.”

Luis Alvarez

Luis Alvarez, VP of marketing, creative and education for BaBylissPRO

“I was 18 years old and had trained for six months to prepare for a hair competition; all of my preparation served me well and my work turned out beautifully. As I was leaving the stage an industry professional approached me and asked if I cared to participate in a photo shoot. I accepted, but had no idea what I was getting myself into. The photographer for the shoot worked regularly for Cosmopolitan. I delivered what was asked of me and it became the cover of the magazine! I was forever smitten with the beauty and fashion industries after that shoot. I still have a copy of that cover to this day. It serves as a constant reminder to never stop training, learning and reaching for higher creative ground.”

Sharon Blain, international educator for Goldwell

“To be honest, hairdressing wasn’t an easy road. I never attended beauty school—it wasn’t an option in the early days—so for years I traveled blind, unsure of my abilities. Only when a client returned for a second cut because she said the first one I gave her was the best she’d ever had did I become empowered. I started taking Sassoon Academy courses in London. Life as an educator can be a hard slog, but I get an incredible adrenaline rush when I see fabulous runway looks or an editorial spread with fantastic hair that
I created. At age 50 I reinvented myself again, now determined to act as a role model for fellow professional women of my generation.”

Sonya Dove, global top stylist for Wella Professionals

“Hairdressing wasn’t on my radar. I wanted to be a nutritionist, but at school in England you needed an ‘A’ in Biology and though I tried twice, I couldn’t get the grades. I was dating Christopher Dove at the time and told his mother that what I most wanted was to help people, so she suggested I join her son in cosmetology school. Our first break came after a big show in London. We put all our hearts, love and energy into that work and it resonated with the audience. Nevertheless, my career has been bumpy, mainly because I never had great self-esteem, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of incredible colleagues. So now I nurture younger stylists in whom I recognize that same personality. I still love being around people and learning something new from them each day. If you ever get to a place where you think you’ve mastered all the skills and tools, it’s time to switch industries, because you’ll never learn it all. The fun is to keep trying.”

Vivienne Mackinder, founder of HairdesignerTV and guest artistic director for Joico

“When I left the world of professional dancing, the beauty industry grabbed my attention. I saw performers take on new personalities through hair and makeup and thought, ‘I’ll give up dieting and do hair instead!’ I graduated from the London College of Fashion, but it took many years to fall in love with this craft—the work proved harder than expected. I was shy and lacked confidence. Fear became my companion. Standing onstage in London was exciting but terrifying; I didn’t know how I’d cut hair with trembling hands. My mentor Vidal Sassoon sent me on editorial shoots and I made countless mistakes with little guidance. You could say I failed my way to success. I thought I’d work backstage, but my career has been very public. I’ve done TV stage performances, shoots and more than 600 video appearances on HairdesignerTV, an online educational website I launched 15 years ago back in the days of dial-up.”

Wayne Grund, founder of Surface Hair

“It was meant to be. I’m a third-generation hairdresser; my after-school job was sweeping hair in my dad’s barbershop when I was seven years old. An early memory is of him holding up a mirror and teaching me to scissor-over-comb his hair. My wife and I have been salon owners for 40 years. The ’80s were hard; we had two major staff walkouts with competing businesses opening down the street. That taught us the importance of putting our loyal stylists—our family—first, just as founding Surface is about first respecting the
health of our planet. I’m no longer behind the chair, but what I now enjoy most is inspiring colleagues to love their vocations while serving others.”

Tracey Cunningham

Tracey Cunningham, Redken celebrity colorist

“Bette Midler made me do it! While working as her daughter’s nanny, she said, ‘Tracey, I’m sending you to beauty school.’ I had always loved styling and coloring my friends in high school, and sometimes I’d do Bette’s hair when her regular stylist wasn’t around. That ignited my career. Truthfully, the beauty industry gets better and better every year. I’m in awe of what we can do and how far we’ve come from when I started in the ’80s. The ingenuity is limitless, and that keeps my passion and creativity fueled.”

Gina Khan, colorist and North American spokesperson for TIGI

​“Endless hours of combing and fixing my dolls’ hair defined my childhood. There was never a time I didn’t love beauty. I remember not being allowed to wear lipstick until I turned 18—now, the brighter the better! Professionally, I realized I could be the best if I worked hard after six months as an assistant. The salon’s artistic director, who tormented every employee, asked me to blow-dry his client, then proceeded to proudly show off my work. It was a small moment that stayed with me. I love teaching, coaching and coloring hair. It’s a blessing, getting to do what you love.”


[Images: Courtesy of artists and manufacturers]

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