Two Hairstylists on Respect and Navigating Egos (Hint: It’s Not the Celebrities)
For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
Back in 1995, when Jennifer Aniston, starring on the hit show “Friends” in its first season, was trying to grow out her hair, she asked her friend Chris McMillan for a trim. Neither could have predicted that cut — which would become known as “The Rachel,” named for Ms. Aniston’s character — would become arguably the most famous haircut in half a century.
In the decades that followed, Mr. McMillan became the preferred hairdresser of virtually every actress in Hollywood, including Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman and Salma Hayek. Mr. McMillan, who owns the Chris McMillan Salon in Beverly Hills, Calif., also works with models, musicians and heads of state. He may be the most revered hairstylist working today.
“The amount of time I have Googled the term, ‘Jennifer Aniston hair,’ I’m telling you, in the last six months, I’ve done it at least five times,” Bryce Scarlett said. Mr. Scarlett, best known for his work with Margot Robbie, as well as Brie Lawson and Claire Danes, is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after hairstylists in the rarefied world of celebrity hairstyling.
Mr. Scarlett, 35, and Mr. McMillan, 58, share similar biographies — both were born and raised in Southern California, and both know their way around a red carpet event. But they cut their teeth in the industry decades apart. Mr. McMillan started working in the 1990s on magazine photo shoots, advertisements and notably as the hairstylist on “Friends” — years before social media took hold, influencers usurped editors as arbiters of trends and anyone with a smartphone and a TikTok account could be a critic.
Mr. Scarlett came of age smack in the middle of the social media era, but both men would tell you that, despite the changing landscape of the past 30 years, skill, not followers, is still what predicts success.
The two hairstylists joined a Zoom call from their homes in Los Angeles to discuss, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed, staying on top in an industry known for constant change.
What does it take to be a leader in the hairstyling industry?
CHRIS McMILLAN You have to be a collaborator because that’s what hairstyling is. Keep your mind open, collaborate with everybody and keep your ego at check. There are a lot of hairdressers out there that make it “The Hairdresser Show.” That’s not how I roll. I am part of a team. Even at my salon I keep a mind-set of, “We’re co-workers. I’m not your boss.” I don’t ever want to be anybody’s boss. The irony is that I guess that made me a leader in the industry.
I’ve been a sober alcoholic for 24 years, so I know very well that my ego is my worst enemy. When I was doing “Friends,” I was smoking crack on a regular basis, and I know every day how lucky I am to have sobriety on my side. It makes me especially grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. At the end of the day, I am constantly reminded that I am the hairdresser.
BRYCE SCARLETT All I’ve ever cared about is being respected by my peers. Chris calling me and asking me to do this with you guys was one of the most touching things that’s ever happened in my career. I’m so beyond moved that someone like Chris would look at my work, respect me and my work.
When did you first notice each other’s work?
SCARLETT Everyone knows who Chris is, but the first time I was really aware of his work was when I saw an editorial with the women from “Sex and the City.” I remember thinking that they all looked so insanely good and looking at the credits and thinking, “Oh my god, did he do all of them?”
McMILLAN Marie Claire?
SCARLETT Yes, Marie Claire. That was my earliest memory of really noticing Chris’s work. I was an assistant in L.A., and of course, I already knew his salon.
McMILLAN I remember Bryce was working with Margot Robbie, and she was just starting to look relaxed and modern, not all done up. Every time we saw her she looked so natural, like her hair just grew out of her head like that. It didn’t look forced. Of course, I knew that there was a lot of work that went into that hair.
SCARLETT Thank you! Yes! I have never felt more seen.
McMILLAN I love that kind of hair, and I know that you’ve got to put a lot of effort and muscle into it to get it to look like that. I did Gwyneth Paltrow for the Oscars one year — she was in a big pink Stella McCartney dress — and someone said, “Did he even do anything to her hair?” and I was like, “If you only knew.”
McMILLAN To me, that means I succeeded. When the hair looks natural but beautiful, that’s what I want.
SCARLETT That has been my biggest insecurity. I create a look and immediately think: “It’s too simple. People will think I’m a hack.” It has taken me a long time to own it.
How do you navigate all the egos in your industry?
McMILLAN Let’s be clear: The celebrities are not the problem.
Bryce and I actually work with the same stylist. She’s good, but she always has some smart, esoteric idea, and I have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. Her references are always from the Renaissance or some 17th-century woman. I’m like, “Um, I’m from the beach.” Same thing with some photographers — they’ll go to some obscure intellectual reference, and I’ll have to say, “Please dumb it down.”
SCARLETT The photographers and the art directors, that’s where it can get more — how do I say this? It takes more finessing. The first time with a new photographer or a new stylist you’ve really got to find your way slowly. I let them come to me with their ideas and I process it, and do the best I can, while still staying true to myself.
McMILLAN You have to stay true to your authentic self. We don’t usually work in fashion — we work with fashionable celebrities. It’s different. Fashion people —
SCARLETT Can be very hard.
I’ve worked with incredible photographers, stylists, art directors. I’ve been in the room with legends. Most of the time, I’m there because the actress asked for me, which is a hard dynamic. Years ago, I did Claire Danes for American Vogue, shot by Steven Klein. Let me tell you, they didn’t want me there. I walked in and wanted to say, “I’m sorry you’re forced to have me, but trust that all I want to do is make you happy.” It was not easy. The photographer was nice, but the Vogue stylist tortured me.
McMILLAN Remember, the only moving part on a photo shoot is the hair.
SCARLETT Hair is the hardest job on set. If they don’t like the photo, the first thing they don’t like is the hair.
McMILLAN Ninety percent of the time when you see someone’s hair slicked back in a shoot, it’s because the hair wasn’t working.
SCARLETT It’s also an incredibly physical job. Here’s an example: I shot a fragrance ad last weekend, on a sailboat. That was the hardest job of my life. We were out at sea on a tiny sailboat. I was walking back and forth, holding my tools, fixing hair, straddling things, trying not to fall overboard. I came home, and I felt like I had been in a car accident.
How do you create a brand? How do you stand out?
McMILLAN You stay true to yourself and your aesthetic. No matter what.
SCARLETT Hairdressers feel this pressure to do everything — extensions, cut, color, style, braiding, everything.
For me, I don’t cut hair. I can do it in a pinch, but I am not a cutter. I am confident telling my clients, “That is what I’m good at.” But if I have a friend who can do something better, like a haircut, I’m going to send you to that friend. That builds confidence. That’s how you become known for something.
Chris is rare. He’s one of the few people who is as good at cutting as he is at styling. There are very few hairdressers on that list.
McMILLAN I’m old school. I am of a generation when that’s what we did. There was a situation once: Miley Cyrus showed up for a photo shoot, and the night before, she had dyed her hair herself. She showed up at the shoot with orange roots and green ends. So I ran to Rite Aid, bought a frosted tip kit, and painted bleach around her face — and that was the cover of Marie Claire. It was actually beautiful.
What advice would you give newcomers?
SCARLETT Do what you love to do. Be proud of the things you are great at. Don’t feel like you have to answer everyone’s question.
McMILLAN Be an assistant and eat it up. Everything I learned was from assisting and working with people.
And go with your gut. Obviously, I’m inspired by other people’s work, but I always do my own interpretation. Hair is something I was born to do. When I was 8, my mom would get her hair bleached and tell the hairdresser, “Don’t worry, my son gets out of school at 2. He blow-dries my hair perfectly.” I was in third grade, and I could style my mom’s hair so she looked like Farrah Fawcett — actually how even Farrah Fawcett should have looked. Even as a little kid I would think, “Oh, if only Farrah would have only done this. We need to rake it back with our fingers, spray it and pull it from underneath.”
I’ve always had an opinion. I remember looking at pictures of Florence Henderson from “The Brady Bunch” and thinking, “If only she got rid of those flips on the neck her hair would have been perfect.”
Knowing what you like is a tremendous advantage.
Any styles you would have done differently in hindsight?
SCARLETT I hate 60 percent of what I do.
McMILLAN I don’t like everything I do, either.
SCARLETT But then I look back at things years later and think, “You’re so mean to yourself. That was beautiful.”
McMILLAN Years ago, I did a story for Allure magazine. It was the top hairstylists — Garren, Oribe, Orlando Pita, me and Serge Normant — doing one model’s hair. We each did our own interpretation. The only rule is that we weren’t allowed to use scissors, but Garren cut bangs on her. I had to fake bangs. Oh, I hated that hair. It was so bad.
SCARLETT I remember that shoot! It was Amber Valletta! I remember looking at what you did and thinking, “Wow. That is incredible. What a career.”
McMILLAN I lost sleep over that hair. Still to this day, I was like — [shudders]
What do you do if you get stuck?
McMILLAN I turn on the wind machine. Works every time. If the shoot is just not working, I’ll say, “Shake your head as hard as you can.” It’s a great reset button and if the hairdresser is telling them to do it, they’re not afraid of messing up their hair.
SCARLETT If a photo is dead and everything is flat, movement in the hair brings things to life.
It’s not just about hair. Like Chris was saying earlier, it’s a whole collaborative thing. I remember a picture of Charlize Theron at the Oscars, in a tangerine Vera Wang gown. I was probably 7. I thought, “This woman looks so stunning,” and everything about it was so interesting to me. I wanted to be part of how these people are seen. It’s about giving someone a vibe or helping them discover who they are aesthetically and pushing that out into the world.
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