I graduated from beauty school nearly 30 years ago, and my first salon job was out on Long Island, where I grew up. But, it didn’t take me long to realize that this wasn’t the place for me. None of the women wanted to change anything about their look, and every time I tried to flex my creative muscles, I was shot down. My artistic talents were being wasted, and soon I started searching for a new position. As this was before Google, I scoured fashion magazines. Eventually, I landed on the name Brad Johns, the color director of the Oribe salon.
Brad invited me in for an interview, and when that went well, he asked me to return for a trial day with the instructions that I wear black, all black — no paisley or checks. I flushed crimson with embarrassment as I looked down at my interview outfit: Checkered blazer paired with a paisley button-down shirt. I covered my red hot cheeks with my hands and thought, I haven't even started the job, and already, I was learning. The clothing advice was the first of many great things I learned from Brad, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. I had found my mentor.
The Oribe salon was a hotbed of talent in the '90s. It turned out beauty industry superstars on a regular basis. Ken Paves, Kevin Mancuso, and Danilo all had stints in the styling department, and the salon makeup artist at that time was Francois Nars. I couldn't believe my good fortune, and I was determined to make the most of it by absorbing everything I could from all these magnificent talented people.
Conversing with celebrity clients was a daily occurrence, and yet I felt nervous speaking to them, which might help explain why after giving Marla Trump (who was married to Donald at the time) a message to call her mother back, instead of just saying "thank you," she made fun of my Long Island accent.
Even though this exchange completely humiliated me, with Brad’s help, I was able to learn from it. When I told him how Ms. Trump had mimicked my accent, Brad gently explained that — right or wrong — sometimes people judge you by your accent. That week I received a voucher in the mail for eight sessions with a speech therapist.
The speech lessons, however, were nothing compared to the hair-color knowledge I received. Brad taught me to take pride in my work and to never lose my artistic integrity. Once, during color class, after I had completed my model’s ‘do, Brad complimented me on her beautiful golden highlights and said it was a job well done. The funny thing is, the model had asked for frosted highlights and demanded we bleach her hair.
Fortunately, Brad reminded her that she had signed a release to take part in a color class with a focus on current color and refused to change it. Even after she caused a scene and shouted, "You, sir, may teach class, but you have no class!!" He stood his ground. This was the first of many times Brad would stand up for me. He always supported his team, and I'd grow to be the same way when I was a color director.
Another great lesson from Brad was learning to say no because if you don't sometimes say no, you can make things worse. When, not long after winning the academy award for My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei came to see him with badly damaged platinum blonde hair with a faint pinkish cast, I barely recognized her. Her hair was breaking in spots, and Brad told her she needed to wait before putting more chemicals on it. I couldn't believe he wasn't jumping on this incredible opportunity to work on an A-list celebrity, instead just sending her off with a bottle of deep conditioner and instructions to return at a later date.
Tomei come back though and when she did, she told him that after they spoke, she went to see a different colorist who worked on her color and damaged her hair further. Because he was honest and didn't let the potential personal benefit affect his professional judgment, she was now that much more loyal to him. This story always crosses my mind when I have to turn someone away.
A good mentor is generous with his knowledge and advice, but Brad was beyond generous. One Sunday evening, he brought me to Johnny Depp’s apartment, where he was getting the star’s hair ready for an upcoming movie role. I remember being there for a really long time, trying to get the extensions just so, but I didn’t mind. I mean, c’mon, I was basically hanging out with Johnny Depp.
When we finally finished, Brad handed me a fistful of cash on our way out. Although I shrugged it off and tried not to accept it, Brad told me I was never to refuse a tip. About a week later, I received a check for $500 from Johnny Depp as a payment for the hair wash at his apartment.
I try to pass on the many informative and helpful lessons I learned from my mentor to my assistants, with the hopes that they'll pass it along to theirs. I know I can't reach every single person who comes under my tutelage, but because of the way my mentor trained me, I make a conscience effort to at least try.
Next: Getting The Color You Want Involves Communicating With Your Stylist