As the go-to colourist for Hollywood’s A-list, including Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron and Khloe Kardashian, Tracey Cunningham is known for doing things her own way. From working behind the chair in her Beverly Hills salon to her role as a brand ambassador for Olaplex and Redken to being the author of her own book, nothing is slowing her down—and she hopes to keep it that way.
You grew up in Seattle before moving to Los Angeles, where you’ve become known for your work with celebrities. Is this surprising to you, or is it something you always knew you would be doing?
It’s so funny because I wasn’t a girl with a plan, but nothing is shocking to me. I’ve worked so hard and it organically happened this way. I was never sitting around going, “I hope I get a celebrity.” I just started getting them and I was very lucky. I built my career before the internet, so it was all by word of mouth and that’s really amazing because you’re getting clients based on your work and not a filter [on social media].
People look at me and think I’m living the life when really, I’m a slave [to my craft]. My life is so envious, but I don’t even have a life. People like me work the hardest, and we always will. I really work hard, and I don’t just do celebrities. I work hard for everyone.
I understand that it’s important to you to treat your clients like family. Would you say that’s your secret to working with celebrities and building a loyal clientele?
I try to treat all my clients the same, and I guess I’m so personable with them because I’ve had them all for so long, so it just feels natural. There’s no secret [to working with celebrities]. You can’t make a plan where you say, “I’m going to work with celebrities,” and go out and fish for them; that’s not how it works. With the internet, you can really do well on Instagram and get celebrities [interested in your work].
I think Instagram has become your new resume. When our receptionist talks to someone who wants to come to the salon and they tell them that I don’t take new clients but want to recommend someone else, they’ll ask them to look at their Instagram [feeds] and call back to see who they like. Your staff needs to take their Instagram seriously.
Any tips for hairstylists who are trying to build their social media presence and following?
Just try to show your best work. Style the hair amazingly and make sure it looks appealing. If you notice, most people do the same thing; they create waves because colour looks better in a wave than in straight hair. To be honest, I’m not great at social media. It’s changing all the time and I talk to these young kids who get down about their number of followers. It’s hard, and it’s a little bit like high school. I’ll gather a bunch of my staff to see everybody’s Instagram; most of it has been at Coachella, partying with their friends and hanging out. Someone might have a before and after photo and I’ll be like, “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for!” Have a separate Instagram for your private life but try to build your career [with your professional account].
We actually hired someone from [Newfoundland, based on his Instagram]. This guy, Chris Greene, showed up [at the salon] and was like, “Hey Tracey, I just wanted to say hi. We follow each other on Instagram.” I remembered him because I do follow a lot of my followers and people who are really engaged with me and was excited to meet him. He was so sweet and said he would love a job and introduced himself to my business partner, Neil Weisberg. Chris would come to the salon a few times a year and just sort of became our friend. One day, Neil said, “I think we should give him a chance,” and we did. I used him in a chapter in my book on how to have a good Instagram.
Treating her clients like family, Tracey Cunningham has built long-lasting friendships with many of her celebrity clientele.
Congratulations on your book, True Color. Tell us about that.
It’s basically a book about my life, but it’s also about the history of hair colour and all the different things you need to know, like what’s in the water that can make your colour dull, as well as nutrition, hair balding, and topics like how to be a good assistant and getting to the next level when you’re working behind the chair. It’s photo-packed because even though it’s an easy read, people don’t just want to sit and read—they want to look at pictures, too.
I have a lot of celebrities who gave me their baby photos, so we also talk about your “true colour.” What is the colour you were born with? The first thing that happens in your anti-age journey is that you lose your highlights, and then you want your highlights back. That’s why it’s this billion-dollar business. I have a page called “Better Than Botox” because highlights are better than Botox.
That seems to relate to your “less is more” approach, which is something that seems quite popular right now.
“Less is more” has always been my thing, and I think people can go overboard [with colour], but nothing is prettier to me than a brunette. When they want highlights, I don’t want them to become a blonde. It’s good to preserve the integrity of your client’s natural base and colour, and sometimes I’ll look at somebody and think that their hair is so awful on them. That’s when I’ll go above and beyond “less is more.” But I do think the “less is more” approach is a good rule to stick with; you’re never too far from what you should be.
As an ambassador for Olaplex and Redken, what do you most enjoy about your role? What’s important to you when partnering with a brand?
I love the support I get, and the way they listen to me. If I ask for a product, they make it. It’s great for them to be this amazing company, but you have to listen to what hairdressers need. [When working with a brand,] I have to like the product. I’m not a bullshitter and can’t sit there and go, “I love this product!” if I don’t
What has your experience been like during the pandemic?
It’s been horrible, but I think this has also taught people to relax. As bad as the pandemic has been, it’s also somehow good. Whenever I say I want things to go back to how they were, I don’t really mean it, but I would like to see at least 15 people a day. It’s kind of my social life, too. It’s so fun being in the salon— it’s like a party!
What advice do you have for colourists right now? Is there anything that you’re noticing people may be struggling with as salons reopen?
“Should I stay or should I go?” is what a lot of staff have been asking themselves during the pandemic. People think they can make so much money working on their own, but the truth of the matter is that [when operating] at 25 per cent [capacity], we can’t have all staff working at once; most people can only work one or two days a week. I’m telling people to work one or two days a week [in the salon] to keep your foot in the door. Every single person who left my salon can stay away. I feel like
I booked them with all these clients, but now they’re going to take them and just do them from home? It’s not fair. It’s good to stay loyal to the people who built you. Also, clients are not going to want [in-home hair services] forever. At some point, everyone is going to want to go back to the salon. The salon is a happy place.