Have you ever heard that statement, “If you’re a jack of all trades, you’re a master at none”? Well, Nikki Providence is living proof that that is not always the case. A hair stylist for pretty much her entire life, Nikki has definitely spent time mastering her craft – from the best salons in Chicago, the fashion scene in New York City, and the hairstyles of celebs like Miranda July and Florence Welch in Los Angeles. Nikki utilizes her craftsmanship nationwide while harnessing her multi-faceted skills in various areas of her life – whether she’s cooking, gardening, cutting her own bangs or styling the hair of Miley Cyrus for the cover of Rolling Stone.
Here’s a sneak peak into the inspirational mind of Mane Master Nikki Providence…
How did you get your start in the industry?
It depends on when you start counting. I was the cliche, always cutting my dolls’ hair and then cutting my hair and my friends’ hair in high school and bleaching it and putting crazy colors in it. I was in high school theatre and we always had to do our own hair and makeup and I loved that. I was kind of a weirdo and a tomboy and a bookworm so I wasn’t into traditional beauty exactly, but I was always into making things with my hands. I would knit and sew my own clothes, and cut my own hair, all of which are related in my mind.
But as for getting started in the beauty industry- I went to school at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis, back when it was a small privately owned company. I had a mentor at school named Oscar Bond who introduced me to the Vidal Sassoon method of cutting hair and convinced me to move to Chicago and get advanced training. I went to work for his friends Alex, Jimmy and Philip at Trio Salon in Chicago where I spent over two years learning how to cut hair from some of the best teachers around. They taught me to understand shape and texture and also to respect the heritage of my industry. I worked in salons in Chicago for about 8 years in my twenties and I had a blast- I made great money, had a great social life, and did a lot of haircuts.
When I realized I didn’t want to work in a salon anymore, it was winter and I was sick of being cold so I moved to Los Angeles and began assisting on commercials and music videos. It was really fun and challenging, but after a few years I realized that still wasn’t quite it. So I began working on still photo shoots and discovered the world of fashion and soon moved to New York to assist there. After a couple of years, I decided to move back to LA to live in the city that makes me the happiest. And luckily that was where I met my agent, India, who really gave me my start by believing in me.
What was one of your biggest career challenges and how did you overcome it?
Focus has always been my biggest challenge in life, as well as in my career. I’ve never been that person who had a clear picture of what I wanted and headed straight for it. I’ve always been interested in so many aspects of the creative life, and the industry, that I’ve jumped around a lot.
I love working with private clients in the salon, and I am really inspired by writers and actors and directors, but I also have always loved fashion since I was a little girl and I’m so lucky to get to work with incredible stylists and photographers. I have never been able to pick just one aspect of the industry. I’ve always let my career grow more by following my intuition and taking opportunities that excite me, no matter whether they seem like they will be great for my career or maybe a detour. Not to mention- I love being home in my kitchen cooking, or in my garden pulling weeds, or remodeling my old house. As long as I’m doing something with my hands or with my brain, I’m happy. So I have a hard time seeing any project to completion because I always get interested in something else halfway through.
I don’t know that I’ve overcome it, but I’ve stopped thinking of it as an obstacle. I’m always excited to see what might come next. I don’t have a traditional career path but that’s really not why I got into this industry to begin with, is it?! I don’t think I had any idea that this career path existed when I started doing hair. And so often on shoots I have to be thinking of multiple models, or the next look- I think my multi-focus brain makes me okay with that.
The thing that most helps me be okay with the way my mind works is meditation. It’s changed my relationship with my thoughts so I can let them come and go without so much angst. And that frees me up to be more creative and also to be more in the moment with my clients and my work.
Who are some role models who have inspired you?
I’m afraid to name names, because I’m sure I’ll forget lots of people! Every teacher I’ve had has been an inspiration in some way. I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years so I’ve had a lot of teachers! All the people who taught me in Chicago were incredibly smart and dedicated to their craft, and I’m lucky that they were my first teachers.
I was first assistant to Shay Ashual, who’s a master of wigs, and he taught me to embrace my perfectionism and that I’d better learn how to work with wind. I’ve done shows with lots of people but the first show I ever did was with Kevin Ryan, who always seems to have a good time at work which is definitely inspiring. And I’ve worked with Duffy who has always been really encouraging- he was the first person who told me it was good that I’ve worked with lots of different people. I was always a little insecure about that because I felt like I should have trained under one specific person, and that just never happened for me. Instead I tried to work with everyone I possibly could which is why I’m not going to try to name them all.
Now I’m really inspired by the stylists and photographers that I work with. I’ve been reading Grace Coddington’s memoir and it’s a reminder of all the reasons I got into this to begin with- hearing her talk about the looks of the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and the 90s- all of those images made me want to be a part of this industry!
Not to mention, my clients are an inspiration- creative people who love to express themselves are so much fun to be around.
What app do you use the most?
Google maps. I like to delegate that thinking to my phone, so I can use my brain for something else.
Audible.com and podcatcher- I spend so much time in my car, and I’ve always loved reading, so this is a way to “read” during my only off time- the hours I spend driving. Books and podcasts keep me sane. I’m currently loving “Mystery Show” from Starlee Kine.
Do you have a signature look or style that you are known for?
I love working with different textures of hair, and people say that I’m really good with curly hair. I love the weightlessness of curly hair. I really love shapes and texture. I love to play with hair and see what it can do- whether with products or tools or extensions or whatever, bringing out the best in a texture and making it do more than anyone thought. I’m really excited when I work with a photographer and stylist that lets the hair be another shape in the frame. And having a model or client that knows how to work their head of hair is a major win.
My favorite feeling for hair, that I’m always striving for, incorporates texture and movement and enhances the beauty of the person wearing it.
What was your last major makeover that you’ve done?
I just gave myself baby bangs like I had in the 90’s. Most of the makeovers I do on other people are temporary.
Which hair products or tools are always in your kit?
Good scissors. Razors. Every single curling iron size I can find, plus any obscure or weird tools. Elastic. YS Park combs. These special little curl clips that I inherited from my grandmother that I can’t find anywhere. A toothbrush (for hair).
Products are always changing but Oribe products are always a crowd pleaser- everyone loves the scent, plus they do what they promise and then some. Some of the Ouidad products for curly hair are really innovative and work really well. I love Free Your Mane Pomade and reviving spray. I always use this one mousse called tri design that I’ve been using since the 90’s. It’s great for shine and hold and volume and it smells clean and fresh and delicious.
What is your favorite Instagram account to follow?
In fashion, I like the ones that show inspiration shots mixed in with real life. Instagram is great for feeding my inspiration well. I follow a lot of food instagrams because I am pretty much always thinking about food. @Food52 is my current favorite, and I love @Gardenista too.
What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
You’re not going to be an assistant forever so make the most of it now and stop worrying about moving on just yet! Find your people, and spend as much time as you can in their presence. Don’t be shy about asking questions of the people you admire. Having mentors is invaluable and the people you learn from have so much influence on your future- make sure to learn as much as you can from the people around you, and make sure the people around you are the ones whose habits you want to learn.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received? What advice would you give to new stylists?
Always be learning. Learn how to listen- if you’re not listening, you’re not learning. If something inspires you, whether it’s a movie or a painting or a song or a book or a tree, find out more about it. Dig deep – take art history, read fashion magazines, fill your brain with inspiration. Your unique set of interests is what’s going to make your creative vision your own. Don’t forget to learn the basic techniques before you start trying to show off. Practice what you already know, and spend more time learning more and trying and failing and trying again.
For more #manespiration, follow @NikkiProvidence.