If you lust for perfectly untouched, soft, feminine hair, there’s no one who has perfected it’s art more than Mark Townsend. Having started his career as an assistant for Sally Hershberger, Mark has created some of the industry’s most iconic mane moments, including Reese Witherspoon’s gorgeous Oscar ‘fringe’ debut and Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen’s signature relaxed waves. It seems that every time a Hollywood it-girl is on the rise, Mark Townsend is behind their mane, styling notable celebs including Dakota Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Kirsten Dunst, and Chloe Sevigny [to name a few]. If you’ve ever wondered about the trials and tribulations of one of the most in-demand bi-coastal hairstylists, just scroll down to hear what Mark has to say…
How did you get your start in the industry?
I was born doing hair! I was stealing my sister’s Barbie dolls and doing their hair from a very young age. I remember how obsessed I was with her Princess Leia doll and just had to get my hands on it so I could take down those cinnamon buns and give her a haircut. After graduating high school I started college to get my psychology degree but I really lost all interest so I decided to take a year off and I went to cosmetology school and really found my passion. When I got my license in 1996 I moved to New York with nothing more than a blow dryer and some big dreams and stalked the hairdressers that had inspired me. I started at the Oribe salon which was heaven for this fat gay kid from a small town in Florida; you could literally feel the creativity in the air in that salon and I got to watch and learn from amazing hairstylists and colorists like Saturo, Kevin Woon, Ken Paves, Michael Murphy, and Rita Hazan.
Through those stylists I met Danilo and became his assistant for almost 2 years. When I was in hair school I covered my walls with all the beautiful pages from fashion magazines with hair that inspired me and Danilo was the stylist behind the majority of those looks. I don’t think of Danilo has a hairdresser, I think he is an artist and hair is the medium he works with to express himself. The things I saw him do to and with hair was nothing short of magical and breathtaking to watch. One of the first jobs I assisted him on was a shoot for Absolute Curant vodka and he used purple hair extensions and sculpting wire to create a bottle on top of the model’s head, it was incredible. If they were shooting that today the photographer would just photoshop the entire thing but Danilo took his time and perfected a bottle-shaped headpiece, it was so inspiring! Danilo was insanely creative and taught me how to approach hair and never fear it.
Danilo’s agent, Brooke Wall then introduced me to Sally Hershberger, the queen of cool, rock and roll hair, and I became her New York assistant. Sally was responsible for some of the biggest haircuts in the fashion and film industries; she did everybody! She gave Cindy Crawford and Gisele blunt collarbone length haircuts way before anyone thought up the word “lob” and gave Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda, Sheryl Crow, and Meg Ryan shags. She knows how to make women look so sexy like no one else can. I was Sally’s New York assistant so I would see her clients when she was in LA. Sally is very precise and her approach to hair is very technical, the exact opposite of Danilo. Sally taught me that you have to first make the hair perfect before you can mess it up. She taught me so much about hair texture and how to create the perfect beachy wave. I also learned so much from Sally about the business side of doing hair and how to navigate through the crazy world of being a freelance hairstylist. Sally expected a lot from her assistants and was an extremely generous teacher; I am the stylist I am today because of her. It was her referral that landed me on the set of the film Vanilla Sky where I worked with Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz. Working on that film brought me to LA where I met the woman who changed my life and my career; my agent Lisa Walker. Lisa wanted nothing to do with me at first but I eventually wore her down and she agreed to meet with me and take me on. She encouraged me to stay in LA and it was the best advice I ever received. 15 years later we still work very closely together and I take every piece of advice she gives me. I really owe my career to that brilliant lady!
What was one of your biggest career challenges and how did you overcome it?
Every day of a freelance hair stylist’s life can be a challenge! You meet new people every day and have to make so many people happy; on photo shoots you have to make the photographer, the editor, the stylist, the talent (and their publicists) happy with the way the hair looks and sometimes that can be a huge challenge because everyone has different expectations. Award season is always a challenge and can be very political and it’s impossible not to leave someone feeling like they aren’t special because you can’t get to all of your clients in a single day. The FUN challenges are when your kit doesn’t make it to your destination and you have to get real creative, REAL quick. I remember one year I took the red eye flight to Toronto for the film festival and my kit got lost somewhere. I had to go straight from the airport to my clients hotel room to begin work so I had no time to even stop and buy new tools and products so I tried to stay as calm as possible while I asked one of the biggest (and luckily nicest) actresses in the business to come with me to the bathroom while I used the blow dryer attached to the wall to dry her hair. Then I used a little of the hotel conditioner to tame flyaways and then gave her an updo using the sewing kit from the minibar. Days like that are so stressful but also push you and keep you on your toes!
Who are some of your clients? Can you tell us about working with them?
I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working with some amazingly talented and inspiring people. My relationship with Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen is probably what I’m most proud of in my career. I met them 14 years ago on a photo shoot for Teen Vogue and by the end of the shoot I agreed to go to Canada with them to style their hair for the film New York Minute and we really bonded during that time. I’ve learned so much from them over the years, everything I know about hair texture I learned from them.
I met Elizabeth Olsen through her sisters and I’m blown away every time I see her in a film, she is so talented! I have the same relationship with her that I have with her sisters; we have a short hand when discussing how the hair should look and I’m fiercely protective and they are fiercely loyal! I’m back working at the Sally Hershberger Salon in Los Angeles and I recently said I will only cancel salon appointments if it’s for an Olsen and I meant it.
I recently starting working with Elizabeth Banks and she is such an incredible wealth of inspiration; she’s so smart and so professional and a riot to be around!
Do you have a signature look or style that you are known for?
I like hair that is soft and touchable but has shape to it as well, I’ve never liked hair that’s too overdone or locked into place. I love up dos that look effortless; it might take me 2 hours to do an up do and there may be over 100 pins holding every hair in place but I want it to look like it took no time at all.
Which hair products or tools are always in your kit?
I cannot go a day without Dove Dry Shampoo, I use it more than any other product in my kit. I don’t really love working with clean hair, it has no guts and doesn’t always like to hold a wave or a curl, but 2nd or 3rd day hair needs a little “freshening up” so I spray this on the roots so the starch and powder in the dry shampoo can absorb any oil or dirt and it gives the hair such great texture and volume.
Sally Hershberger 24K Texturizing Paste is a new obsession of mine; I take a small amount in my hands and rake it through the hair to create the perfect amount of piecey-ness and it gives the hair the most beautiful texture. I love taking this through the hair before pulling it up for definition.
R Session Pro Tools Nalu Waver is the most used tool in my kit by far! It’s a double barrel iron that I use to create those imperfect bends in the hair, which is the new new beach wave. They are hard to find but worth every penny if you are lucky enough to find one online!
R+Co Air Craft Pomade Mousse is brilliant for giving hair that 2nd day hair texture and enhancing natural curls or waves.
Dove Oxygen Moisture Root Lift Spray is so amazing for getting volume in the hair! So many volumizers rely on loads of alcohol to open the cuticle which makes the hair feel rough and dry but this spray gives amazing body and volume and keeps the hair soft and shiny.
Who are some role models who have inspired you?
My mother is my biggest role model and inspiration. When I was young I would sit on the bathroom counter and watch her do her hair and makeup and it was fascinating to see the rituals and process of “getting ready”. My mom, my aunt, and my grandmother would sit in the kitchen and give each other perms and haircuts and I would watch and listen, it was heaven for me and I saw the sense of camaraderie that happens when women talk about hair.
I’m asked all the time if I ever get star struck and the answer yes, of course I get star struck when I work with a famous person for the first time, but if you want to see me turn into a fumbling, mumbling fan then put me in a room with Oribe, Odile Gilbert, Orlando Pita, Garren, or Serge Normant; these brilliant artists have been huge influences on the way I do hair.
What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago or what was the best piece of advice you received? What advice would you give to new stylists?
10 years ago I would tell myself to calm down and enjoy this incredible life I have! I used to get so worked up about doing every job and every client and worked myself to exhaustion but I realized I was doing that out of fear and not out of enjoyment. I would also tell myself to save every penny because the industry is about to change in a HUGE way!
I was really upset a few years ago when a client I had been working with very closely decided she didn’t want to work with me any longer (okay I was more than upset; I was devastated). My agent Lisa Walker told me (and it’s the advice I would give to new stylist): clients are temporary, every actor and every musician had a hairdresser before you and will most likely have another hairdresser after you so make each day special.
How would you describe your beauty and hair philosophy?
There is nothing more gorgeous than confidence.
Where can we find you working today?
When I’m not on photo shoots or doing red carpet events I’m at the Sally Hershberger Salon in LA a few days a month.
For more #manespiration follow @marktownsend1.