With an exhaustive client list that includes Emma Stone, Lana Del Ray, Dakota Johnson, and Anya Taylor Joy, Tracey Cunningham is among the most renowned hair colorists in the world. But the co-owner of Los Angeles salon MèCHE — who is also global ambassador for Redken and Olaplex — is also a hell of an entrepreneur. Tracey transformed herself from a young, single mom and celebrity assistant to go-to colorist Hollywood can’t live without. (Just ask Mariah Carey, who has Cunningham on her emergency contacts list).
Those of us who don’t have the colorist on demand could wait a lifetime to get an appointment with the hair pro. Now, she’s giving us something better. Thanks to the launch of her first book, True Color: The Essential Hair Color Handbook, we can glean Cunningham’s tips for landing the most flattering hair color of our lives (spoiler: it’s found in your parents’ old photo albums). But perhaps even more valuable is the entrepreneur’s no-BS take on navigating what she calls the “feel-good” business of hair styling. Ahead, we talked to the beauty pro about upping our Instagram game, her unconventional advice about beauty school, and the real cost of springing for that BMW. Because even without a flashy car, Cunningham shows us how to become creatively fulfilled and house-in-Palm-Springs rich.
Mane Addicts: People often look to Instagram for hair color inspiration. But you talk in your book about the benefit of using your own childhood photos for hair color inspo instead. Why might this be better than bookmarking pictures of Emma Stone, or whomever?
Tracey Cunningham: It’s more of a home run. If the person [from whom you’re drawing inspiration] is really different than you, then the colorist has to really know their craft in order to navigate you to the right hair color.
If you’re born white-blonde hair, a lot of the times, you’re going to look good with dark, dark, dark hair. When JLo goes too dark, it doesn’t look good on her because she was born with much lighter hair. People might think that because she’s of Puerto Rican descent, that she might have much darker hair naturally, but that’s just not the case. Then there are people like Lana Del Rey and Minka Kelly who are born blonde and look dynamite with darker color. It all depends on the person. So the idea of showing your childhood photos to your colorist helps to inform them on creating the perfect shade, even if you want a different color than what you had as a kid.
MA: Speaking of Instagram, it can seem like going from a very dark color to a very light color takes no time at all when looking at drastic hair transformations on social media. How do suggest colorists manage client expectations about what’s possible?
TC: As a colorist, you have to be honest with your clients and tell them when something isn’t going to happen overnight. You can even make it seem like their request will never work. And then, you do it, they’ll say you’re amazing. I sometimes tell people: it’s not going to happen. But I really try to make it happen and when I do, they think I’m a genius.
MA: Even before you started your career as a colorist, you assisted Bette Midler and have subsequently been around the world of celebrity for most of your life. What’s the lesson you’ve learned from working with high-profile clientele?
TC: Just keep your mouth shut and do a good job — that’s the best advice I can give. That, and invest in your future. I see hairstylists who think they’re a celebrity after working with talent. They get too big for their britches and they lease cars that they can’t afford. It’s easy to get wrapped up into [the lifestyle] You see a nice car and you’re like, ’Wow, I work so hard and I drive so much going from job to job, that I should have a nice car too.’ You’d be surprised: sometimes even your successful clients are broke, too, and are robbing Peter to pay Paul. So instead, think about your future: What does your retirement look like? What is your home setup? Instead of spending that extra money on an expensive car payment, buy a little condo in Miami or in Palm Springs.
MA: How do you help other stylists you mentor to get real about their finances?
TC: We have this conversation with all the assistants at my work, and we get them on this whole savings program, where they’re all saving money. Just for fun, I’ll say, ‘okay how much did you save?’ and it’s almost like a competition. Once they reach a certain point, they’re so much happier to have money in the bank and drive a Kia, than have no money in the bank and drive a BMW.
MA: What else should burgeoning hair professionals do for a successful career?
TC: Get your Instagram in order because it’s the new resume and a free way to showcase your work. When a new client calls a salon, the salon receptionist will suggest that the client look at the employees’ Instagram feeds. So take it seriously and really put time into the styling and presentation. For example, try not to post the same exact hairstyle that everyone else does, like those loose waves. They’re great, but they’re also very forgiving when it comes to color and you don’t want clients who are unhappy when they’re wearing their hair straight. When you’re in the service business, you can’t even assume the client in your chair won’t book with someone else for her or his next appointment. So I encourage hairstylists to promote themselves in a way that shows their work through different types of styles. It proves you can do more than one thing. And if you’re a client, look for colorists who show their work on straight, wavy, curly and coily hair because even stripey highlights can be disguised when hair is styled in loose waves
MA: What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a boss?
TC: It’s an honor being boss. I get to teach kids — and I consider 20 and 30-year olds ‘kids’ — to really love their job, enjoy what they do, and to work hard. I show them that it’s not easy being me and you don’t just get to be me and not work hard. I help make the young people around me save their money and keep their boots on the ground. I really care for them. It’s nice.
MA: People may think working as a celebrity colorist is all glamour and champagne. What are the real rewards and challenges of being a colorist at the top of her game?
TC: I’ve had such a long and wonderful ride working alongside Mane Addicts. Back in 2016, we did a summer class in Hawaii and we were all just so excited to go to Maui, which in itself was amazing. We did a couple of days of classes with a packed audience of brilliant young things from all over the world — Australia, Norway, England, Texas, Chicago Texas — and the ballroom was electrifying. At that particular event, my time on the stage with Jen Atkin was so refreshing and a real turning point in my career to be on stage and educating, because I strongly believe in education, that we never stop learning, and we should always have the desire to be better and do better. Near the end of the trip, I got a call from Mariah Carey asking me to do her hair. I told her I’d be there in 10 hours and at 4am the next morning, I was on a flight. My class time was cut short and I missed the “relaxing” part of the program — snorkeling, surfing, and more — which is the story of my life. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
MA: In your book, you give unconventional career advice, like: it doesn’t matter where you go to school. Why might going to the Harvard of cosmetology schools be less important than we might think?
TC: By all means, you can go to a $30,000 school. But you can also go to a more affordable school or one with less prestige, and then find a salon with a really good assisting program once you get out of cosmetology school. Then once you’re assisting, just really have to absorb everything around you. Absorb what your boss is doing and the person next to your boss. Be alert and watch everything. Watch YouTube videos — it’s learning your craft.
People will say, ‘I assisted Tracey Cunningham’ and really, they just went to one of my Mane Addicts color classes. But it’s great when you take pride in bettering yourself. That’s all it is. But you can’t just demand a career. You have to start from scratch and learn from people in different parts of our industry. Even if you’re already a hot hairdresser in a salon, you might have to ask Guido if you can assist him in order to get into fashion week. If you want more, go after more. I always wanted more.