Tracey Cunningham on What Working With Stars Is Really Like

Helena V Berbie

Tracey Cunningham
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Tracey Cunningham

If you’ve ever wished you could use that color-picker eyedropper tool to grab a celebrity’s hair color because it’s just that good, there’s a high likelihood that Tracey Cunningham was responsible for it.

The legendary Hollywood colorist is who A-listers call after they book a new gig and before they go on tour. We see them walking red carpets and strutting on stage with fresh highlights, but Cunningham knows them as people in pajamas and salon visitors in sweats. “I remember going to one of J.Lo’s concerts, and she asked, ‘Did you like the concert?’ I said I did, and she goes, ‘Oh, you’re acting so weird … ’” Cunningham recounts to the Cut. “And I said, ‘Oh, well, I’ve never met J.Lo before; I only know Jennifer in her sweatpants.’” Celebrities: they’re just like us, and Cunningham? Also just like us. “It’s always shocking when they come in with makeup; it’s so different to see them in glam,” she admits. “The other day, Sarah Paulson came over, and she had makeup on. I was like [gasps], ‘Where’d you come from?!’ It’s very exciting to see a movie star.”

In addition to Lopez’s and Paulson’s bronze, Cunningham concocted Anya Taylor-Joy’s award-winning blonde, Riley Keough and Emma Stone’s specific shades of strawberry, Halle Berry’s baby bob highlights, Margot Robbie’s lowlights, and Lily Aldridge’s famed ombré that still gets requested to this day. To save you from zooming in on the aforementioned Instagram posts at your next salon appointment, Cunningham recently launched the closest thing to having that eyedropper tool in real life: True Color: The Essential Hair Color Handbook, a thorough guide to achieving your dream shade with the help of her expertise and her celebrity clientele’s personal childhood photos that reveal their real roots.

The Cut caught up with Cunningham to talk accidentally getting microneedling, having Bette Midler as a boss, and meeting the miracle-worker Olaplex for the first time before her advisership.

Do you think of beauty as self-care? Why or why not?
Yes, I do. I definitely do. I think when people let themselves go, it’s really telling that there’s a huge depression in there. Say I’m hanging out with a bunch of moms that all do their own hair, or they go to other people and ask me about their hair, I’m always like, “You look great! You look great!” But if I see someone who looks depressed, and that means unkept, I’m like, 911. I’ll say, “Hey, guess what? Why don’t you come in and let me take care of you?”

Has the way you think about beauty changed during the pandemic?
As a very busy person, who I would say never really cares about herself, yes, that’s changed because of the pandemic. When I didn’t leave my house for days, I realized how important it is: your mind and working out and beauty are all connected. It’s not just like, “Go get some highlights, and you’re good.” You know? You need to walk, you need to breathe, you need to take a little bit of time for yourself. I say a little bit, because that’s all I can afford. But I’ve got to learn from all of this. Somebody said to me, “The best thing you could spend your money on is fitness.” Because without feeling good inside, so what, you get your hair done? Or you put makeup on? If you’re not feeling well inside, it’s just a temporary fix.

What do you wish more people understood about what you do?
I wish they knew that it’s not this really cool, luxurious job. Sometimes I’ll go months without hearing from people, and they’ll go, “Oh, I just didn’t want to bother you.” I’m like, please bother me, please reach out to me. They’re like, “But you’re always so busy … ” and I’m like, I know! But I like getting text messages and invitations, even though I can’t do anything. People think, Oh, she’s fancy. No! She’s not! She’s like the maid. That’s how I think of myself, like part of the support group.

Where would you like to see the beauty industry go from here?
I would like it to be cleaner. One thing Olaplex has always been really proud of is that we are a clean brand, but we never went out and said, “Hey! We’re a clean brand!” It was kind of like, of course we’re clean. We’re in the 2000’s, of course we’re clean! That’s important. If you hurt your back, you can put a cream on your back and it goes right into your bloodstream. So I’m thinking, if I’m washing my body with shower gel, and it’s not clean … it’s going straight into my blood system. That’s where my brain goes. I try to use clean brands; Monika Blunder beauty, Jillian Dempsey, and Chantecaille, which is supposed to be clean. They have the best mascara that makes your lashes so long. I loved it so much, I bought four because what if it’s discontinued? And then somebody said, “Tracy, they expire … ”

Also, recognizing all types of people. I invested in this company, Thirteen Lune. It’s for everybody, but we started off with Black and brown-owned companies, because they’ve been neglected for such a long time. My friend Barbara Sturm told me that years ago, she made all these different colors for her concealers, and she was upset because most companies were only ordering certain ones. You see the same with hair. Thankfully, now, there are more and more products for curly hair and coarse curly hair, but everybody has to be recognized. We need more things for everybody.

What was the biggest “no” you heard in your career, and what did you learn from it?
There are so many nos. Sooo many nos. How do you even add them up? [Laughs.] But when I was Bette Midler’s nanny, she went around the room one day, and she goes, “Everything you see … See this coaster? Somebody told this person, ‘No.’ See this phone strap? Somebody told this person, ‘No.’” She just kept going around the room: “See this toothpick? See this slipper with no backing? Somebody said, ‘No, who’s gonna buy that?’ Go back to work, stay in your fucking job!” So everybody gets told no, and you just have to keep going. If you have a good idea, just keep going. I always say that rejection is God’s protection.

What’s the wildest luxury beauty experience you’ve ever had?
When I was in Qatar, I was treated to this island and a spa. I don’t even know what it was, but they gave it to us for four days after doing a job, and it was just so wonderful and luxurious. I’m not kidding you, a celebrity called and needed her hair done, so I was just there for the day, but my assistants and I all ended up staying and got to enjoy the four days. You can’t make it up, but that’s me: I always give up my holidays or trips for a client. But I’m not dedicated. I just know what my job is. I work in the service industry. If you’re in the service industry, you have to give up your life; you have to be there to serve people, and I have a very busy clientele. They’re not like, “Oh, I want my hair done. I want to look good for a party.” It’s always like, I’ve got this Dior campaign, or this Gucci campaign, or I’m doing a movie, I’m starting my new TV show, or there’s continuity for a movie, you know? It’s just what you have to do in order to serve.

What’s one fan experience that stood out to you?
I don’t have that many followers on Instagram, but what I do have is a very solid hairdresser community. The reason why I said that my job isn’t glamorous is because they think I’m glamorous, and I’m trying to tell them, no. I go to these Redken shows, they’re called symposiums, where I meet all the hairdressers. I remember one time this girl was like, “Tell me how I can be like you. I mean, like, how did you do it?!” And I was like, okay, you need to find a really well-adjusted person, someone who seems to have it all. They have kids; they seem to have a really great work-life balance; they have a social life; and they go on vacations, and they actually stay at them. Find that person that’s not me; who does not do 40 to 50 people the day before the pandemic before doing a house call at night and not having a weekend. Find that person and try to be that person, because I think that’s a better life than mine. It’s funny to meet people that are so in love with your career. When I have assistants who work with me, when they go on the floor, they’re like, “I don’t want to be here.” They realize it: I don’t want to be you. I want a little bit, but I don’t want all of it. I want a life. And you can have both.

Fill in the blank: Unfortunately, _______ is worth it.
Microneedling. It’s so good. I’ve only done it twice, but both times, everybody notices a difference in my skin. Everybody. Barbara Sturm told me about, and she kept saying, Let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it, but I didn’t know what it was. I don’t do Botox or Restalin or anything like that, so I was scared it was something like that. Then I went to see Dr. Jason Diamond, and he was like, “Let’s do a Diamond facial!” and I didn’t know that it was microneedling. At one point, he goes, “Oh, yeah, so, we’re numbing your face for microneedling … ” and I’m like, “THAT’S the Diamond facial!?” But I’m telling you right now, it was just the most fantastic thing. If I could do it every other week, I would do it. I’m being like my clients that are like, Blonder! Blonder! Blonder! You give them a little bit of blonde and then the next thing you know, they want to be platinum.

What, in your opinion, is the best affordable beauty product or products?
For hair, obviously Olaplex. I don’t care what brands you’re using, you have to buy No. 3, the original, and No. 0, which is a liquid, and the new extra-strength pre-treatment. They suggest you put the No. 0 all over your hair — I put my hair up in a bun so it doesn’t go everywhere, and I just put it inside the bun and move it around in my scalp. Then I put the No. 3 or No. 5 over it. But what it does is it strengthens your hair by linking the bonds together, and the reason it’s so cool is because it’s a brand new category. It had never been thought of before. This chemist originally invented it to put inside a perm, and they were like, Well, wait, maybe it’ll work in color. So they brought it to me to try it in color, and I noticed such a difference when bleaching hair. Such a difference; it was bananas incredible. I called the guy and was like, “Dude, you just gave all hair colorist superpowers.”

I was trying it on clients, and their hair felt so much better; I would give it to people with curly hair and say, “Just try this, put it on your hair, leave it on for like an hour, and shampoo and condition your hair with whatever you want.” This is not going to condition your hair at all. There are no conditioning properties, because Olaplex wanted to be O blood for the beauty community. They didn’t want to threaten a big shampoo, conditioner, or color brand. Just squeeze it in your bleach — we don’t care which one — and then put this in your hair before you before you shampoo and condition— we don’t care what shampoo and conditioner you use. People were coming back and saying, Oh my gosh, my curls are better, my waves are better, my everything’s better. You don’t even have to color your hair to use it, you can use it on virgin hair. Everybody notices a difference in their hair. Now Olaplex has shampoos and conditioners with the product in it, and they just came out with a new moisture mask No. 8, which is also super amazing.

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