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The lady in black: Q&A with Tabatha Coffey

Tabatha Coffey at Innovate 2011 presented by Salon Centre

To television viewers and hairstylists, she may be known as the queen of mean, but Tabatha Coffey, host of Tabatha’s Salon Takeover and Tabatha Takes Over, as well as a bestselling author, got to where she is by her outspoken personality, her brutal honesty, and the fact that she’s a bitch (Brave, Intelligent, Tenacious, Creative, and Honest — her words, not ours).

Clippings magazine managing editor Shayna Wiwierski sat down with Coffey when she was in town attending the Innovate Twenty-Eleven show presented by Salon Centre in October 2011 for an exclusive Q&A about her childhood, her hair idols, her TV counterparts, and so much more.

Shayna Wiwierski: You had quite a childhood, how did those events shape you as a person?

Tabatha Coffey: It is everything to all of us. Our childhood and our upbringing makes us the people who we are.I think for me, some of the things that happened and the environments that I grew up in, it’s definitely a part of where that no-holds-barred honesty comes from and it’s also part of that tough love that I have. People do misconstrue us, I speak about it in the book, that they like to call me a bitch, I’m not; I’m tough, I’m direct, and I’m honest.  That doesn’t make me a mean person or a person who is non- caring, it makes me someone who is direct and doesn’t mince their words. And I think that they are from my childhood experiences, having a strong mother who was very much like that way growing up in the nightclubs that I grew up in, having my father leave at such an early age.  They are the things that, at a young age, toughen you up for when you grow up and kind of allow you I guess to say what’s on your mind and your need for people and what they’re expectations are. But they also, especially growing up in the clubs, allowed me to be very open-minded and compassionate and caring and also honest.

SW: You have worked at and studied at some iconic hair pioneers in the industry, Vidal Sassoon and Toni & Guy.  How did that experience resonate with you as a stylist?

TC: That was everything, especially, I mean for me still now, they are the mecca. There are a million amazing hairdressers out there but especially when I was coming up and at the age that I was because I started hairdressing so young, Vidal Sassoon was the person that we wanted to grow up and be and the person who we wanted that education and that precision and eye and structure and all the things that Sassoon stood for.  For me, it was a personal goal and dream to go there and be able to train and work, and same thing with going to Toni & Guy.

Tabatha Coffey signing copies of her book, It’s Not Really About the Hair, for fans.

SW: On your show you meet with a lot of stylists.  Where do you think the profession of hairstyling is going?

TC: I hope up; I hope up and I hope I have a small part in that and I make them take a hard look at what they are doing.  Look, we are a customer service industry, we are there to please people and we are there to make people feel great about themselves and that is what hairdressers do, we are really there to make people feel and look beautiful. A lot of it is to really make [clients] feel good about themselves and take care of them, and for some women, that is truly the only time they get to sit down, for an hour and turn off the cellphone or walk away from their kids or husband and really get pampered and taken care of in their day. That’s why the standards that I have, I know they seem high to some people, but we can really make people feel amazing about themselves or we can make them feel like hell about themselves and that hell will last for awhile.  If they feel like their hair is messed up it will take them awhile to make them feel good about themselves for awhile. So you know, it is a very important industry for me because of what we do and how we do it and the personal directions we have with people and I think that hairdressers generally are realizing that education is on the rise.

I mean, I’ve noticed myself coming, whether it’s coming to Canada — and I’ve been to Canada several times this year to go to hair shows — or to go to the U.S. to go to hair shows, that hairdressers are realizing that they need to continue their education and get more education. They are also realizing that it isn’t just about being a good hairdresser behind the chair, it’s also about the business of it.  It’s how you speak to people, how you treat them, how you run your business, and the money that you make so you can make a good living and I hope that this is one of the things that the show shows people, that you can meet the most creative hairdresser in the world but you can be a real crap business person, you know?  You have to invest in it.  Whatever you invest in in life, you get back out tenfold and especially if you truly love it.

SW: What are some tips you have for both aspiring stylists and those that have been in the industry for a long time?

TC: Never stop learning.  You know, it’s really a profession that changes; trends change, products change, new things come out, fashion changes very quickly.  You have to keep yourself current and up to date, and education is really the best way to do that.  To not become complacent; to realize that every single client that comes and sits in your chair deserves to be the individual they are and you need to give them a great consultation and treat them differently to every other person so that you are really tapping into what it is they are looking for, how to make them feel great about themselves,and how they can take care of their hair properly.  The other thing is that hairdressers need to realize this is a business and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s okay to make money while you are doing something you love, but a lot of hairdressers get caught up in, you know, the part of us being a creative person; they get caught up in the process of pretty, the pretty of making everyone pretty and doing pretty work and ‘I just executed this amazing haircut and it’s fantastic’, and well it’s great to do that and to make money while you are doing that; there’s nothing wrong with that.

SW: Why do you think your shows, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover and Tabatha Takes Over, has been so popular?

TC: Well, I think… look, everyone has been to have their hair cut and been to a hairdresser at some point, so they can definitely relate to ‘I’ve gone to a salon and had an experience’, whether it be a great experience or a bad experience.  I also just think the business element of it, that you know, I truly believe that business is business and especially when you are running a small business there are those principles that you need to apply when you are in the customer service industry.  There are certain principles that you need to apply when you are a business owner and a leader of how to lead your team, how to manage your team, how to inspire people, how to manage people, how to motivate people, how to reprimand people, there are certain standards and practices that every business has to have to be successful and to reach another level.   I think that whether you are a hairdresser or not you can watch the show and maybe relate to a staff member who is doing something either wrong or right or look at yourself and think ‘you know, I can step up my game a little bit’.

It’s not just a show that hairdressers watch, it’s a show that people watch in general and realize that there’s room for improvement.  There’s room for improvement in all of us and I think it’s, not to sound trite, it’s sort of inspirational, you know?  It’s inspirational for me; I know I get inspired when I watch the show and I’m there, and I don’t actually watch because I’m living it.  I get inspired when I go back and see that these salon owners have really changed, I really do.  Every single time I’m amazed by it and I am still in contact with a lot of them from all the seasons and it’s always so inspiring to me to go back and see the changes that people have made, personally for themselves to make themselves better or within their business, and they are doing so much better and that’s a great thing to see and a great thing to be part of.


SW: You have often been called the Gordon Ramsey or Simon Cowell of hairstyling.  What are your thoughts on that?

TC: Gordon’s lovely. Gordon’s a lovely guy; I’ve met him several times and he’s a really lovely guy.  Look, I think the similarities between Gordon and I, he’s incredibly passionate about what he does, and he doesn’t mince words and that’s why people have that comparison.  Same thing with Simon.  Simon says what he thinks and I do the same, that’s why people like to make similarities.  It’s that honesty, I guess, with Gordon especially, Gordon and I truly do share the passion for what we do.  He loves restaurants and being a chef and I love hairdressers and being a hairdresser.

SW: In your book It’s Not Really About The Hair  you mention that at one of your first salon jobs, working as a free assistant, you had to scrub the floor with a toothbrush, which taught you humility and respect.  What other traits do you think lack in young hairstylists today?

TC: I think it is the work ethic.  I came up a long time ago and a lot of us, Damien [Carney, international artistic director for Joico] one of them, him and I talk about it all the time.  A lot of us that came up a long time ago we came up in a different way.  For myself and someone like Damien, and actually for many Canadian hairstylists, there was a process and it was a four year apprenticeship and you had to earn the right, and part of owning the right and moving up the reigns was getting on your knees and scrubbing the floor. You had to earn the right to get behind the chair to take care of a client and it does teach you to enjoy the process and it does teach you to be respectful of your surroundings, to take pride in it and I think that’s something that more hairdressers should do.

I think it’s realizing that it’s not about you, it’s about the client; you have to take your ego out of it, it’s not about you.  The decisions that I make have to be the best decisions for the client.  It’s not for me to get off on doing a haircut, to colour it; it’s about the client to feel amazing about herself, and part of my job is to be able to say ‘no, that’s not going to work’ and to be honest with someone.  At the end of the day it’s about taking care of that person and taking yourself out of it, and that includes talking about them, not talking about yourself, taking care of them, you know?  Not waffling on because you had a bad day or you had a fight with your boyfriend or something.  I think that that’s something that some of the younger people don’t realize.

SW: What is it like to work for you?

TC: My staff would say that I’m incredibly demanding; I’m incredibly tough.  I never ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.  That I put in as many hours as they put in, that I respect them, and that I make sure that they know they are appreciated, and that they also know what the rules are and that if they break the rules there are consequences.

SW: How do you have time for everything? How do you balance your show, speaking engagements, styling clients’ hair, etc.?

TC: When I do the show it’s a block of time that I’m gone and I have a great manager and staff.  Also, with technology it’s easier now with Skype. You can Skype a meeting, which is great because you can see each other and keep in touch. I call everyday and text message and things like that, so yes, when I’m gone, I’m gone, and when I’m back, I’m back.
SW: If you weren’t a reality star, what do you think you would be doing?

TC: I couldn’t imagine being anything but a hairdresser to be honest with you.  It’s all I’ve ever done; I couldn’t imagine not being a hairdresser.