Celebrity Hairstylists on Iconic Doobies, Edgy Cuts, and the Business of Hair

When it comes to Hollywood, the celebrity hair game is no joke. Whether it’s a bold transformation or a signature style for television, celebs like Rihanna, Jennifer Hudson, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco are calling on the best to get their hair slayed. Many A-listers know the importance of having edgy hair that keeps the people guessing. We caught up with celebrity hairstylists Ursula Stephens, Cesar Ramirez, and Cynthia Alvarez to talk doobies on the red carpet, chopping off a star’s locks, breaking into the glamour business.

Ursula Stephens
Clients:
Rihanna (pictured), Iggy Azalea, Rita Ora, K.Michelle, and Laverne Cox.

[Photo Credit: @ursulastephen]

How did you come up with some of Rihanna’s most iconic looks?
Ursula Stephens
: When I first did Rihanna she was a good girl gone bad, so we did a bob which fit what she was doing. It was taking that risk of chopping her hair off, but not really going super short. When she decided to do her Good Girl Gone Bad album she was ready to show the world who Rihanna was. She was very forbidden by the label to change her look, so this was her coming out. She wore the bob for a while and I kept saying, “You can’t change it, it’s too early.” And one day I just felt like, I’m over this bob I want to change it. And that was her going to Rated R. So a lot of things happened because our mood changed at the right time.

Rated R was more of an edgy mohawk look, right?
Yes, more edgy and the music was tougher. I didn’t really think about it that much when we did it, it kind of just rippled. And then after that it was just a lot of, “I want to try this, I want to try that, I want to have that.” Just a lot of fun.

What about the looks for albums Loud and Talk That Talk?
She talked about going red before and I remember her saying, “I want to go red because there’s nothing louder than red.” I was on a flight and her team called me like, “Bring everything you need to make her red.” After Loud there was Talk That Talk, and I think she got kind of cocky in that era — in a good way. We did a lot of different things. It got sexy and vintage at the same time. Every time she would want to do something or I wanted to do something, we would always be on the same page.

How do you balance input from your clients? Do you have to pull the “I’m the stylist, trust me!” card a lot?
Hell yeah! Definitely. Sometimes you have to really pull back with them because they want to do a lot of crazy things that may be fun — or sometimes they want to do something so bad they don’t think [about whether] it’s appropriate. Some styles are great for red carpet and some are really great editorial.

Was there ever a time when Rihanna wanted to do something really bad and you had to talk her out of it?
I think it was more of a hair accessory. I was like, “I don’t think you should wear that hat,” but the stylist really wanted it ’cause the stylist was thinking about the wardrobe. That was a back and forth, but we never really thought ahead like that when it came to hair. With the red, she was like, “I want to do it,” it was like, “Fuck it, we’ll do it.”

Let’s talk about Rihanna’s doobie at the 2013 American Music Awards. Whose idea was that?
That was one I didn’t want to do and she did. I wasn’t really into that and we went back and forth but after a while it was like, “Let’s take the risk and do it.” It wasn’t a plan. I got to work to talk creative with her and it’s what she wanted.

When you guys meet to discuss creative, do you do it the day of or do you meet with the whole glam squad a few days before?
It’s different every time. We just text back and forth and send images to each other with our ideas.

Obviously the doobie was a bit controversial. How do you deal with criticism you get for some of your work?
It is what it is. It’s not like I’m going to a psychiatrist and talking about it. It’s my job. I love what I do, and I work with clients who want to take chances, and who are willing and want to have fun. So I’m not really bothered by it. I’m confident in my work and what I do.

Do you think more stylists should take risks?
I feel like if you have a client who could pull it off, yes.

Which celebs do you think can pull off any look?
Rita Ora
is one — she doesn’t really have a problem coming up with looks. She does it really easy and confidently.

What can we expect from Rihanna’s hair over the next few months?
I don’t know. It changes all the time! She changes her hair so much [that] even working with her you don’t know what she’s going to do or what she’s going to want.

What’s next for you?
I have a shoot with InStyle. I’m also going to be doing some classes and my salon [The Salon in Brooklyn, NY] is gonna be three years old in May, so I’m preparing for that. I’m going to do a big photo shoot for that.

Ursula is the queen of finding her client’s brand through hair, but check out the video of celebrity hairstylist Tokyo Stylez helping us with our struggle extensions.

Cesar Ramirez
Clients:
Jennifer Hudson (pictured), Ciara, LaLa Anthony, Kelly Rowland, and Cassie.

[Photo Credit: @cesar4styles]

A lot of your clients have been cutting off their hair. Are these short looks pushed by you?
Cesar Ramirez
: I got tired of seeing everyone wearing extensions and looking, in my opinion, a little unnatural. I really wanted them to try something new and fresh. Also, I wanted the everyday women to be like, “Oh wow, I can wear my hair like that,” and be inspired.

What is it like working on major television shows like La La’s Full Court Life with LaLa Anthony and X-Factor with Kelly Rowland?
Well for one the hours are really long. Working on a reality show, you’re filming all day every day and there’s not a lot of room for creativity. Which is OK, but as an artist, you always want to do something creative and fun. For a show like X-Factor, we get to play everyday. We only shot twice a week, and on those shoots it was full makeup, full glam, full hair. So we got to really play with different styles and every week was like bam, bam, bam, a different look.

Who would you say gave you your break out moment as a celebrity artist?
Cassie was the first major celebrity that I worked with. And at the time it was really exciting ’cause I had always worked at a salon and assisted other hairstylists who did celebrities or editorial work. I got to travel around the world with her, and we went on tour with her for two years [beginning] in 2006.

How did you get that job?
I worked at a salon and I had a client, Amanda Silverman, who would come in every week to get her hair blown out. She’s a really huge publicist in New York, and at the time Cassie was her client. She hadn’t even had her album out yet, but was shooting for GQ magazine. Amanda came in for her weekly blow out and was like, “I have this new client she’s really cute and really young. I think you guys would be great. Do you want to style her for a shoot for GQ?” Because she was so beautiful a lot of other celebrities saw my work, so it was like a great advertisement.

What are some of the challenges you face working with celebrities?
Having personal time. You are giving a lot of your energy and time for someone else. They’re building a brand, they’re building their career, they’re living their dream, and you’re a part of that. When you’re first going into it, it’s so exciting, but it’s not as fabulous as everyone may think. You’re on an airplane every day, you don’t really get a lot of sleep, and you don’t get to see your friends and family that often.

Two of your clients Ciara and Sevyn Streeter have new music coming out. What can you tell us about their looks?
I shot a video and two album packagings this week for Ciara’s new album, and we shot Sevyn Streeter’s album packaging.

Will we be seeing a new look from Ciara for her upcoming album?
I definitely think it’s a 180 from what we did last [time]. The look is completely different in every way. We went short and blonde, [so] now we’re long and dark. People are going to be excited when they see the album packaging. It’s art.

Is there anyone whose hair you’re obsessed with?
I have always and will always love Jennifer Lopez. She’s super sexy and has the ability to do all of it — edgy, sexy, chic — all at the same time. She is the full package. I also really like Zendaya. I think she’s so beautiful and young. I love her current hairstylist, Tymothe Wallace.

Do you feel like there is a lot of completion among celebrity hairstylist?
Yeah. I think it stems from fear, because celebrities tend to always try to look for the next best thing. It’s like how they say on Project Runway, “One day you’re in and one day you’re out.” So you can be totally apart of someone’s team and work with them and get attached and then suddenly it’s the next big name in hair coming along.

So what have you done to make sure you’re always are one step ahead of being cut?
I’m really lucky that my clients are super loyal. I have actual relationships with my clients and I’ve been able to build an actual friendship with them. I also really believe in remaining professional at all times.

What are some of the things you do to remain professional?
I’m always prepared, I’m extremely resourceful at all times, I don’t treat them as if they are a celebrity, and I give them their space and respect. We’re always around other celebrities and I’m not like part of a fan club and trying to meet them and take pictures. I’m always available and a team player.

What’s next for you?
I’ve been working with Mizani which is a textured ethnic hair line with L’Oreal. I’m working on starting some education [around that] so I’ll be starting my own classes. Next month I’m in LA. — I can’t give too much detail, but I will be working on a new TV show.

Check out the video to learn how fashion stylist Rachel Johnson styles her celebrity clients from courside to front row.

Cynthia Alvarez
Clients:
Alicia Keys, Becky G, Keke Palmer (pictured), Dascha Polanco, and Jessie J.

[Photo: @cynthiaglam]

How did you get your start as a hairstylist?
I started doing hair at like 12 or 13 – we are a family of Latina women. While I was in beauty school, I assisted Tippy Shorter and the makeup artist AJ Crimson. At the time they were working with Alicia Keys, Keyshia Cole, and Rihanna. [After] I graduated beauty school and was assisting at a hair salon on [New York’s] Upper East Side, I got a phone call from Tippy asking me if I wanted to go on tour with Alicia. I’m 20 at the time and was like, “What? Of course!” I was a diehard Alicia fan, being from New York, and she was at the high of her career.

How was it being on tour?
It was amazing — one of my dreams was to always travel the world. Being on tour you get to paid to do it. It was so exciting, I feel like I got to experience so many different cultures.

How was it going from being an assistant to traveling the world with a huge celebrity at 20 years old?
I felt like I could [have] died tomorrow. I accomplished so much in so little time. I’ve worked with my favorite artist [and] it doesn’t get any better than this. My mom and family were really proud. I got to pay my family back for the loan I took out for school. I was also really scared [because] I came back home and didn’t have a job. I was hoping Tippy’s agent would pick me up, but I was still so new and I think she still viewed me as an assistant. So I kind of kept assisting even after the tour was over. Then slowly her agent started trusting me and booking me on my own job as a professional hairstylist.

What happened next after working with Alicia Keys?
After Alicia, I went on tour with Shakira. That tour was exciting, and I was on tour [while] pregnant. I recently did the album packaging for Jazmine Sullivan [and] we shot that in Philly. It was very vintage. She was really the creative director for that shoot. I had no idea what I was walking into.

Becky G is has been killing it lately. What are some of your favorite looks?
The last thing I did with Becky G was her New Year’s Eve performance for the Pitbull event — that was really fun! She had recently colored her hair and cut it since I last saw her. She sent me a whole bunch of pictures saying she missed her long hair and that she wanted it back.

What do you when you have to drastically change a client’s look last minute?
For Becky, I had to run out and get extensions, color the extensions, and try to match them to her hair. She sent me three pictures and they all had different filters on them. I’m like, “Can you just send me one in plain daylight with no filter?” We just went with loads of extensions and she loved it. She’s a glam girl so she really pulled off the long hair really well. We’ve done a lot of award [shows] together.

What about some of your other clients recent looks?
For Dascha Polanco, I did her look for the SAG Awards. The dress was Micheal Costello, he’s awesome. She’s really been on her fitness tip so her body looked better than ever!

Check out the photo gallery to see some of Ursula, Cesar, and Cynthia’s work on their clients.

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[Photo Credit: Getty Images]