When Hairstylists to the Stars Change Salons, Celebrity Clients Follow

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Emma Stone, left, and Charlize Theron

The L.A. landscape is upended as stylists decline to put down roots long enough for them to show.

This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Actresses are fickle. After all, fame is fickle. But the one person stars stick with through fat and thin is their hair colorist, whose blending, brewing and balayaging (hand-painting highlights) affect not only their profile but also their bottom line.

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Tracey Cunningham, who presided over client Emma Stone's newsmaking change from red to blond for The Amazing Spider-Man and back again for awards season (now back to blond again), helped the industry's perception of Stone evolve from teen ingenue to franchise star. Johnathan Gale, at Serge Normant at John Frieda Salon, beautifully executed Christian Dior's desire for spokesmodel Charlize Theron to go blonder than blond for its ad campaigns, leading to a rumored $6 million payday for the actress. Unfortunately, the results were punishing to her hair. "Good thing she shaved it off for Mad Max," jokes Gale, whose clients include Dianna Agron and Diane Keaton.

Meanwhile, Laura Dern credits him with helping her create the off-kilter executive she plays on HBO's Enlightened. "The color made it easier to become her," she told him.

While stars commit to colorists, the colorists themselves have a penchant for wandering. And where these Pied Piper alpha colorists go, other colorists and stylists and their superstar clients follow, creating a seismic shift for the perceived salon of the moment.

So it was that a sonic boom rang out in the Hollywood hairstyling community a month ago when Cunningham, whose clients include Drew Barrymore and Gwyneth Paltrow, left her Byron & Tracey salon in Beverly Hills to rejoin Neil Weisberg, co-owner of Neil George -- famed for its warm blonds and cafe-latte brunettes -- in a new venture, with ownership of Neil George reverting to co-owner Amanda George. Only several years ago, Cunningham worked for Weisberg; in November, she'll be co-owner with him of Meche, where the salon Menage a Trois was on Burton Way. Meche is 3,000 square feet -- which means a lot more hairdressers will join them.

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To pour oil on the fire, the industry's other A-list colorist, Lorri Goddard, is rumored to be leaving Prive Salon, known for smokey-toned blonds and golden reds. Avon's global hair color expert, Goddard counts Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson among loyalists.

"When a top-drawer colorist says, 'This isn't working; I'll work at this new place,' everyone looks around because they want to work at the happening place," says Steven Tapp, who's been coloring Madonna's hair for 11 years and now is at Andy Lecompte, which excels at labor-intensive deep coppers and crimsons. Plus, "stylists have loyalties to colorists who helped them," says a stylist whose client list has benefited from a colorist's referrals.

Nobody can attest to the migratory patterns of heat-seeking staff and their celebrity clients better than Weisberg, who signed Cunningham's and Goddard's checks when they worked at Neil George. "To have Lorri and Tracey in one salon was amazing," says Weisberg. Although a solid clientele of managers, agents and producers remains, he witnessed star clients vanish the salon floor for newer pastures such as Byron & Tracey and Prive without so much as a trace of peroxide.

"Neil George was never the same when Tracey left," says Weisberg. "I didn't have Reese Witherspoon popping into my salon all the time."

Hair-salon hotness lasts only slightly longer than Hollywood marriages. Byron & Tracey, which saw Lindsay Lohan coming and going, has been a paparazzi magnet the past five years. How will Cunningham's departure affect Byron Williams, best known for styling Rachel Zoe, who brought them together in the first place? Even Williams expects Cervando Maldonado, who cuts Kirsten Dunst's and Nina Dobrev's locks and is a Cunningham crony, to switch to Meche. But he's not overly concerned about cuts in revenue.

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"Celebrities bring a lot of PR to a salon," admits Williams, "but not necessarily money. Stars pay big when they have film and TV budgets; when they don't, they get freebies." Adds Weisberg: "Moneywise, celebs count depending on the percentage you're giving the colorist. If it's a large percentage, it doesn't mean more money. But in the end, celebs are what people want to write about. And celebs just want the 'new new' place." But apparently with the same old colorists.