Today, some celebrity hairstylists have become famous in their own right: People like Jen Atkin, Ted Gibson and Tracey Cunningham garner social media followings to rival their clients (who include the Kardashians, Angelina Jolie and Emma Stone, respectively).
But most of their peers remain largely behind-the-scenes in a job that isn’t always so glamorous. Relying solely on celebrity clients — with their unpredictable schedules that often wax and wane — is not sustainable, causing most of these hairstylists to work in a salon as well, or seek out other part-time gigs.
Gregg Giannillo has been working in the industry since 1992. At age 19, he dropped out of college to pursue beauty school, a choice maligned by his parents. Growing up in Long Island, he said, it was considered to be a woman’s job only. Nevertheless, he moved forward with his decision, resulting in what he calls “a series of beneficial accidents and cosmic coincidences” that led him to Hollywood clientele.
Since then, he’s become the go-to hairstylist for various celebrities, including Vanessa Williams and her daughter Jillian Hervey (also known to music fans as Lion Babe), as well as “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer. But after relying on the grinding celebrity circuit for years, he’s found a little more solace since adding his own salon and line of hair products to the mix.
We chatted with Giannillo about what working for celebrities is really like, the biggest challenges hairstylists face starting out and which hair products are mostly bullshit.
Was getting your start in the industry tough?
I lucked out. At the time, getting into a good salon was tough (and it still is). You had to wait for a chair to open up or someone to freaking die before you could really work your way up. But a friend ended up connecting me to this salon called J Sisters that Vogue had just written a big article about. It was the first place in New York to offer Brazilian waxing, and everyone was talking about it. Suddenly, there were celebrities galore coming by and I had this huge platform to put the work I’d been doing for years in front of them.
Was it really that easy to make a name for yourself?
No; when I first started at J Sisters, I was scared out of my mind because it was commission-based. The average person comes in for a haircut about every six weeks, and I didn’t have many clients. I was doing a lot of freebies at the beginning and was constantly panicked about building a big enough clientele to support myself.
At that stage in your career, you have to be willing to be flexible and to take a pay cut by showing off your work for free. Even if you didn’t have many clients on a certain day, you were expected to be there the whole time. You have to be constantly available and visible because you want people to get used to seeing your name. To this day, I rarely say no to things because I want to be out there, planting that seed.
Do stylists getting their start in the industry today have it worse?
I think it’s gotten harder for people to really make it big in this industry. There’s a different level and quality of training out there now; it’s just not as good and results in a lot of inexperienced people who aren’t going to go very far. They get frustrated by what they don’t know and quit, so there’s a big turnover rate in salons.
If the training has gotten worse, is beauty school still worth attending?
Beauty school doesn’t teach you crap — it never has. It’s like studying for the SATs in that it doesn’t actually teach you about math or English, it just helps you pass the test. I think I spent five days on cutting hair while at beauty school. All it really does is help you get a cosmetology license, but even the test for that is archaic. They’re still teaching people how to use roller sets, create pin-curls, etc., which are far less important today. I learned much more from assisting out in the field, through the osmosis of being in a salon around other hairstylists.
Was there a moment in your career that was most difficult?
I worked on this show called “The Insider” with Lara Spencer, and that was a really intense period. I had to move to L.A. for it, which led to me giving up 90 percent of my clients. The schedule was insane. I was starting work at 3 a.m. every day, and it was just too much to handle. It really wears on your mental state. Four months later, I came back to New York and most of my clients had moved on to other stylists. It took a while to bounce back.
What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
We’re not all trying to be celebrities ourselves. I’m much more interested in doing a makeover. People also often expect us to be very snobby and uppity just because we work with celebrities. I love to prove those people wrong.
Celebrities are not as difficult to work with as you might expect, either. Yes, they often have very tight schedules, but I have rich, housewife clients with everything at their feet who are much bitchier than celebrities.
So not every stylist today needs to be all over Instagram?
I don’t think so. I’m not interested in that life, and it hasn’t been a problem for me — which is good, because I suck at Instagram.
Would you call your job glamorous?
I think it’s a lot more glamorous than being a mailman, but it’s all relative, and I don’t think it’s as glamorous as people imagine. People believe what they want to believe, and they like the dream behind it. There was a time when I was very busy and really thought I was a big shot — which is no longer the case — and I had to go to L.A. at the last minute for the Golden Globes. I had to cancel on 25 clients to do that, but not one of them cared. One client even liked it, telling me she had bragged about it to all of her friends.
Other than extending your reach, why did you decide to launch your own product line?
It was a bit of a crusade against the hair care distributors I was dealing with at my salon, who would only sell me full product lines rather than select products. It was so frustrating that I was often buying things at retail instead, because I didn’t want to dedicate my shelf space and money to these entire lines. Hairstylists, just like people, want to use a variety of products from different brands, and wholesalers need to realize that. You get more flies with honey than vinegar, as they say.
Are there any popular hair products that you consider bullshit?
I think that serums are very overrated. The number of uses for them is quite limited, and yet everyone thinks they need one. They don’t — and so they’re often misused or used too much. They should also be emulsified and somewhat solid, not liquid, which most of them are. Volumizers are also tricky: They usually either do nothing or they’re so intense that you can’t even get a brush through them.
The Brazilian Keratin craze also started this whole wave of sulphate-free products, even though sulphates were really only in shampoo to begin with. Now, every label unnecessarily advertises that they’re sulphate free, even if it’s a product like conditioner, which has always been that way.
What about haircuts — should people really be getting them so often or is that a ploy?
I pride myself on being the lowest maintenance hairstylist in the business, because I want my clients’ haircuts to actually last them at least four months. You shouldn’t be having to coming back every three to four weeks, and if someone tells you that you do, go elsewhere.