Breaking into Show Business…is Hollywood for you?

How did you become a Television and Film Hairstylist?

I get asked this question ALL THE TIME.  But you know what? I don’t mind.  I am actually happy to answer it because I was asking the same question 20 years ago.

My career as an “On Set” hairstylist has it share of ups and downs.  The upside is that I am very lucky to do a job I love. The creativity is endless and I work with some amazing, talented actors and wonderful, funny and dedicated crews.  I have traveled to many interesting locations and have had private conversations and once in a lifetime moments with some of Hollywoods biggest stars.  I am proud to call many actors and crew members I have worked with over the years friends of mine. If you have a connection, the friendship can stay long after the production. I am still in touch with actors from my very first job: Babylon 5.  I can’t believe they just held the 20th Anniversary of Babylon 5 at the Phoenix Comicon in May. Twenty one years I have been a film and television hairstylist. Some say “Celebrity Hairstylist” or “On Set” Hairstylist. I even hear “HAIR!!”  That means an actor needs a touch up fast! Wow. I had no idea where this path would lead me back when I started out. It has been an amazing ride. Hair and makeup artists work very intimately with talent.  Of course there are many I have lost touch with, and for the limited time we worked together, the experience was still fun and the many memories remain.  But there are many I am still friends with. You often share a lot of life stories in a hair and makeup trailer. I have heard many a heartbreak, health issues, success stories, some of the best and worst jokes ever and of course shared tears when things get tough in life or when everything can seem overwhelming.  Cast and crew can work long hours and often drive home very tired from a 12 hour, 15 hour even 18 hour day. I have actually worked a 24 hour shift. Honest! It was brutal. did many 18-20 hour shifts on other shows too.  The hours…THAT is the downside of our business.  It never use to bother me until I became a mother.  When I was single the hours didn’t phase me.  I could sleep in the next day or make up for not seeing friends by packing in lots of get togethers over the weekends. When you have a family Show Business can make you reflect on what is really important and what your priorities really are. You quickly learn just how important sleep can be!

No one really tells you about the long hours, late nights, or the time away from your
family.  I think what many people see is the glamour of Hollywood sets and the famous celebrities that you get to hang out with and work on.  They fantasize how fun it would be to travel in those circles and be close to the elite.  Maybe even become famous themselves?!?  Again, it all sounds great and looks exciting to the outside world but to those who work hard every day…we know it is just a job and we long to get home to our families most nights.

I do have many young hairstylists find me through my blog, mutual friends, fellow crew members, family members and even through my website. I always enjoy hearing from hairstylists who were once like me…wanting to “Break into the Biz”.  I want to share a story of why I ALWAYS try to help and advise anyone who comes my way.

Out of High school-I was an aspiring writer. I was working my way through college by cutting hair.  I had been an editor for my high school yearbook and I was Features Editor for my college paper and thought someday… I could be a journalist or novelist or maybe freelance writer after college.  I went to beauty school right after high school, because my parents always said “It is good to have a trade-something you can always fall back on to support yourself.”  I think they worried about my pursuit of writing and it’s lack of financial stability.  Which is why they completely supported my voyage into Cosmetology School.  It made them feel I was safe…I could always find a job or make some extra cash.

I had to wear the traditional white, unflattering ‘nurses’ uniform to my school every day.  It was a 9 month course if you go full time, every day, which I did.  I went to school in McHenry, IL which was about a 40 minute drive from my home. I loved going there.  I enjoyed the scenic drive, quickly learned where the cops set their speed traps along my route through the farmland and discovered many restaurants in the area where other students and i would grab lunch every day and chat about…you guessed it…hair.  I had been doing hair since I was young and I have the butchered barbie dolls and shaved stuffed animals to prove it.  In High School I was always doing everyones hair for the school plays.  It was just something I enjoyed…and found I was good at it.  Of course the fact that I had naturally curly hair in a period when Farrah flips and waves were popular helped to fuel my desire to get good at hair.  I realized if I was good at braiding…I could hide my curls with braids.  And that is what I did. I also used way too much ‘Sun In” spray and turned my hair orange-y blonde. Yup, I thought I was so cool.

Anyway, I graduated and worked pretty soon after at Fantastic Sams.  Yes…Fantastic Sams.  It was a wonderful way to learn.  I had so many different heads of hair coming in the shop that I really got to put my school skills to the test.  My knowledge from school books and hands on experience came in handy.  I had many different kinds of success stories and failure as well with haircuts, colors and perms. I had a boss, Vicki Miller, she was like a big sister.  She was the manager and use to help me when I was in over my head. One of the best things I learned here was speed.  I became really fast and really good.  Practice paid off.  My ability to be quick with people in my chair made me money but also still helps me today in the hair trailer.  On set time is money…no one wants to wait on talent.  You have to be fast…but not go too fast or your client will feel rushed and think you have not done a good job.  I eventually worked my way up to Assistant Manager and then had toe good fortune of learning how to actually run a small business at a very young age.  I was 19.  It was eye opening.  Again, thanks to Vicki for giving me that chance.  I was there about 2 years and then decided to move on to a salon closer to my home in Gurnee.  I found Off Broadway Hair Salon, a cute little place owned and operated by Voula Katres.  She was such a good business woman role model…I learned a lot from her as well.  How lucky I was to have these wonderful female role models. I perfected my color skills and gained new clients and really grew as a hairstylist.  One day, we did a commercial for her shop to air on cable…that was fun.  Lights, cameras…I did the makeup oh it was a blast.  We hired some local models from Chicago-I was inspired to work on my makeup skills but there were no schools back then like there are today.  I sought out a Theatrical Makeup Class at the famous Goodman Theatre School of DePaul.  I had to meet with the Dean as it was very unusual to admit a student who was not an acting major.  I just wanted to take a class, makeup, thats all.  I passed the interview and was allowed to take the semester with a class full of hopeful actors who thought I was weird.  Thats ok, I knew I didn’t really fit in…but I had fun anyway.  I learned how to shadow and contour faces and completely change a face by manipulating it with a brush and face paint.  It was amazing!  My teacher, Nan Zabriskie, was so kind.  She also gave me other tasks like theater wigs…the care and cleaning of them…so I could learn how they did it for the school.  I found it all fascinating-I had never been exposed to behind the scene stuff and it was scary and cool all in one.

I became the regular makeup girl for weddings, proms and special occasions at the salon.  It was smart to expand my upon talents of hair coloring, cutting, styling and to add to my growth and profit margins another skill that got me noticed and made me money.

Then, one day in 1991 the event that changed the course of my life happened.  I was walking around a mall in Libertyville, IL when I stumbled upon the film production of “Curly Sue”.  For those of you who do not know this film, it starred Jim Belushi and being a girl from Chicago…having a Belushi sighting was a BIG DEAL.  We worshipped The Blues Brothers and here is his little brother right in front of me. Wow.  I had no idea what got into me, I was a bit shy back then…but I took the chance and walked up to a person with a headset on and asked “Um, where are the people who do hair or makeup?”  The PA (production assistant) pointed over to a few people sitting on camping chairs behind a bunch of Directors chairs and a monitor.  They were setting up for the next shot and were just talking to other crew members.  The whole way over I was telling myself…”Don’t turn back! You can do this!”  I had no idea what I would say, but as I walked up a sweet woman turned around and said hello, her name was Sam Mayer and she was a real live makeup artist.  I must have turned bright red but somehow found my voice and told her I was a student at the theater school and wanted to know if she knew if I could learn makeup anywhere else in town.  She invited me to sit and asked “Is Nan still teaching that class?”  I was shocked and nodded yes.  She, like me, had taken that class-and then she explained that she decided to move to Los Angeles because that is where the schools and work are.  Sam actually spent the next 2 hours with me.  Her actors were not working so she showed me around a bit explaining what things were and how it worked but the most important words she said were the first after our meeting.  She looked me in the eye and said “I am happy to tell you how I got started but I need you to make me a promise, ok?”  “Of course!”  I said.  “When you become a makeup artist in the business and someone comes to you and asks you for help or advice…I want you to promise me you will take the time and talk to them like I am talking to you right now.  That way we, as artists, keep the positive circle going my dear.  Can you do that?”  She was smiling…and so was I.

And that was it.  I made the promise and I have lived up to that promise to this day.  Such a generous, loving woman who had the spirit of sharing, and helping and wanted to pass on her knowledge to a total stranger.  I was in awe and I was eternally grateful.  Without Sam, my life would not be what it is today.

Sam introduced me to some crew members, she let me watch a few takes, she introduced me to Jim Belushi…I could barely speak but kept my cool and did ok.  The most memorable was meeting Ve Neill.  In my world, Ve Neill is a superstar.  I knew who she was because I always watch the credits on the films I see and she was the makeup artist on all of my favorite makeups!  She had done Edward Scissorhands, Dick Tracy, Beetlejuice, The Lost Boys…I knew who she was when Sam said her name.

Ve Neill looked at me and sized me up.  She told me how she was one of the first female makeup artists in the business and that it had been a tough road.  It was mostly a mans world and she had to work twice as hard to get to where she was. She actually told me I probably won’t make it…it is a hard business to break into.  She gave me a reality check, an honest one– not in a harsh tone at all.  I was actually grateful for her bluntness.  But in the end, she softened a little and sincerely said “Good Luck, I hope you make it.”  I thanked her but she had already turned, they were calling for her on set and Sam excused herself as well for touch ups.  I got a quick hug and she was off to set as well.  Sam and I had exchanged addresses and said we could be pen pals and when I moved to LA to let her know.

I drove home in a daze.  I vowed to show Ve i could make it.  I wanted to show Sam she had not wasted her time on me.  I knew things would change and that scared me.  I had a very comfortable life in Illinois.  I had a family that loved me. I had good friends,  a great client list and a boyfriend who was so sweet and treated me well.  I knew none of these people would understand my desire to leave and start all over again in a strange town in a very weird business.  But…I found a direction…a path…I knew I had stumbled onto a chaos I wanted to be a part of.  I am smiling now just typing this.  Remembering that feeling…so hard to put into words.  The day you learn your path is a powerful one.  And for some, there can be many paths…but this one really shifted everything for me.  Determination took over and I saved everything I had and moved to Los Angeles a year later.  Yes, Sam and I kept in touch…and when I moved to LA she invited me to come to set on the 20th Century Fox lot.  Again giving me some advice and showing me around, she even bought me lunch!  I tried, believe me I tried to buy it for her in the commissary!

My first few months in LA I took time to learn my way around.  I had never left home before and I was a farm girl in a big city…and it freaked me out and sucked me in at the same time.  I got a job at a hair salon being a shampoo girl, starting all over.  I had flown out to LA before moving there and got my California Cosmetology License so I could legally work in the city I moved to.  I would advice ANYONE to do the same thing.  Be able to provide for yourself…LA is an expensive place to live, have a way to support yourself, like my parents said!  It will make it a lot easier to stay if you can pay your bills!

I met a cool photographer, Vincent Versace-(yes, related to the Versace) who did a lot of actors head shots. He had a great skill for capturing people with natural light.  I worked with him on Sundays, doing hair and makeup for $75.00.  I eventually went up to $100…big time!  I would put music on in Vincent’s apartment in Los Feliz and do their makeup and hair, then go with them out on various locations to shoot a few hours and touch them up.  I also held reflection boards and learned a ton about photography thanks to Vincent.  He always fed me…think he felt sorry for me being so new…great guy and amazing chef by the way!  Vincent… thank you for giving a new girl a break and for being so kind and supportive on my dreams.

I also went to local film schools like AFI and put a business card on their bulletin boards.  I worked for $100 for a 3 day shoot more then once.  I learned. That is what I needed.  I built my kit up and got the feeling I could handle this business.  Whatever they threw at me I was able to keep up.  It was learning on the job.  I recommend that to anyone who wants to learn.  Know that you will not make money at first…that is part of the process.  I worked at the salon for a year and saved everything I earned to support myself in my first year in LA.

The pivotal moment came when the hairstylist I was working for got a call that the pilot he had down makeup for had been picked up and was going to series.  He invited me to come on as his assistant and I eagerly accepted.  This show was my way in.  I worked for $100 a week on the beginning.  I ran errands watched as the hair and makeup teams worked and became friends with the special effects makeup team and really learned from those guys all the amazing things they could do with makeup.  I was thrilled to be on a set.  Within a few months I got a raise and became a full time assistant doing both Hair and Makeup as it was a non-union show.  When you are non-union you can do both.  When your show turns union…you have to choose. And happily the stars aligned two and a half years into filming and Babylon 5 turned into a union show and I became an official union hairstylist. I truly loved doing makeup, and special effects makeup…but hair was my first love.  I was doing wigs, hairpieces, sculpting styles into Sci-Fi history and I really loved it.  I was also well aware that there were more makeup artists in our union then hairstylists.  Almost twice as many actually.  So I was told. I made the decision to stay with hair…and I assumed I would always work as there were less hairstylists in the union as competition.  That choice has paid off…I have always worked since the age of 24.  If you are curious please feel free to IMDB me, every job is there…and you can see there is hardly a break in there anywhere!  I am not complaining…I feel very lucky and blessed to have a good career and a solid reputation for being someone a production can rely on.  I try to employ friends that have helped me along the way and always attempt to spread the work around.  I believe you get back what you put out.

I want to thank all of the hairstylists who write to me.  I try to answer you all personally and I am dedicating this blog to all of you!  For being brave and reaching out to me, for having the courage to pursue your dreams and keeping the faith when some days it is hard to.

Good luck to all who choose this path in the entertainment industry.  It is a fun filled road and also a tough one but I am a big believer in following a dream because if you don’t you will always wonder “what if”.  I knew I could move on if I tried and failed but i would not forgive myself if I never believed in myself enough to risk it and try.

I send good vibes out to you all and hope some of this helped you in your pursuit of a dream.

My best as always-
HairFerry Flying Out.


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