As Tracey Cunningham and I speak on the phone, she’s sitting in The Hamptons having breakfast before heading to see a client. “There’s so many moments I could tell you,” she says when I ask about her career highlights. “Flying to New York and doing people's hair all over the world. I've gone to England for a blow-dry. My life has been so crazy. And I love it.” Cunningham is undoubtedly living out her dream, but it didn’t come easy — and it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
Before she was perfecting Emma Stone’s strawberry red hair or giving Margot Robbie highlights, Cunningham was a nanny and assistant to none other than Bette Midler. “I was obsessed with Robert Ramos, her hairdresser,” she says. “I would tell Bette, 'I'll do your hair just like Robert', and I would just watch him, everything that he did.”
Soon, the pair had developed a routine. “Every morning, I would make her breakfast and I'd bring up cookbooks,” Cunningham says. “And while she was looking through cookbooks and deciding what we were having for dinner, I'd be blowing out her hair. Obviously, I was never as good as Robert,” she says with a laugh. Eventually, Cunningham confessed that she wanted to pursue a career in hair, and Midler supported her all the way (the two are still close and Midler even penned the forward for Cunningham’s new book, True Color: The Essential Hair Color Handbook).
She went through beauty school and then began assisting in salons, a trajectory that Cunningham notes she’s seeing less and less of these days. “Assistants don't really enjoy being assistants, they want to be a stylist right away,” she says. While she herself didn’t particularly enjoy assisting (or beauty school, for that matter), Cunningham pushed through. Over time, she built a solid roster of clients, working carefully and diligently to establish herself as the best of the best.
“When I built my career, it was all word of mouth,” she says when I ask about how she’s seen the industry change. Now, she says, social media plays a huge role. “Everybody buys followers now,” she continues. “I promise you I didn't buy my followers. That's why I have so little. But if I were smart and one of the cool kids, I would have bought more to make it look like I'm cooler and have a bigger reach.” (Cunningham clarifies that she isn’t criticizing those who buy followers, but merely pointing out that it’s become the industry norm.)
“I see this with actresses too,” she adds. “They're like, 'How does this person have so many followers?' And I'm like, 'They probably bought them.' And they're like 'Well, they're getting the movies and I'm not.' And these are well-known actors.”
Despite the pressure to grow a following, Cunningham opted for longevity. “People are too anxious these days to be number one and they don't have to be, it takes time,” she tells TZR. “Like, I made so many mistakes. I feel like I'm still making mistakes and learning from them. So my point is to everybody: Don't be in a rush.”
While building her impressive clientele, Cunningham also developed her own hair color philosophy. Essentially, she believes that a person’s best hair color is likely the one they had as a child, or one close to it. She frequently asks celebrity clients to bring in photos of themselves as children in order to create their custom shade — a process that she shares in detail in her book.
“The minute you're born you start aging,” she says. “And the first thing that you do to turn back time is highlight. Everyone was a little blonder when they were younger. I was a redhead and I was hoping and praying it was gonna go away.”
Red, Cunningham says, is one of today’s trendiest hair colors. When I ask which celebs she thinks have inspired the red hair trend, Cunningham has the answer ready: “Emma Stone. The Queen's Gambit. Cruella. Abby [Abigail] Cowen, has the most beautiful natural red ever. She went blonde for a movie and couldn't wait to get back to the red hair.”
The colorist notes that now that the world is opening up again, people are eager to change up their hair. “When COVID first got out, I feel like people were afraid of getting too many highlights,” she says. “But now people are like ‘I'm vaccinated, give me highlights’.” Her favorite post-quarantine celebrity hair transformations? “Margo Robbie's new hair color. It's a darker gold. She was on the cover of British Vogue,” Cunningham tells TZR. “Jennifer Lopez just went darker and I love it. Abby Cowen is going back to red hair. I love when I have to make somebody's hair look like it was when they had virgin hair.”
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