Tracey Cunningham Has Been Coloring Hair for Decades—Here Are Her Top Tips

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Some women seem to have tapped into the time-space continuum to do the impossible, which is to do it all. Tracey Cunningham has managed to juggle a career that caters to Hollywood stars and normal women like us. Her many hats include being an industry-renowned colorist, co-owner of her own Los Angeles–based salon MèCHE, a mentor/teacher to hundreds of would-be colorists a year, and most recently, an author.

Her new book, Tracey Cunningham True Color, chronicles her career while also equipping readers with tips for healthier hair. But with a clientele roster that includes J.Lo, Sarah Paulson, Khloé Kardashian, and Emma Stone (it might be easier to list which A-listers Cunningham doesn't work with), only so much could fit within the pages of her book. Our co-founder Hillary Kerr managed to carve time out of the in-demand colorist's schedule to get more insight into how we can prepare for our own salon visits. Read on to see some of our favorite tips and tricks shared in this week's Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr.


(Image credit: Getty)

What can we do as clients before we get to the salon to make sure that everything goes smoothly once we're there? You wrote about this in your book, Tracey Cunningham's True Color. Walk me through some of that pre-salon checklist, the crucial things to do right before you're getting colored. Is there something you should do a week before, a day before, the morning of? What is your dream scenario for a client?

Tracey Cunningham: My dream scenario would be somebody to do an Olaplex treatment before. When you're like, "I want to go blonder today!" I would love it if you did an Olaplex treatment. And also, if your hair looks a little green, go on Amazon and buy some Malibu 2000 and do a Malibu treatment on your hair. It's so important to get the green out of your hair. I talked about it in my book, too. Say your hair is super blonde and it's your dream color and you're like, "Thank you so much. I love my hair," and then you come back and you're like, "My hair is dull, my hair is this, my hair is that. How come it didn't last?" It's because of the water. You could prepare yourself by scrubbing out your hair, getting the minerals out of your hair (there are so many new products right now for that), and then you can also Olaplex. There's No.0, which is the extra strength and then there's the original No.3, which is amazing. I like to do them together.

Do you want them to heat style? Does that matter?

TC: It doesn't matter. We hate it when you come in from the gym with hair sopping wet with sweat.

Audience, take note: Do not go and get your hair colored with dirty hair from the gym, period.

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Let's talk about when things go wrong because I know that there are lots of professionals who listen to the show who work in the beauty industry, who work in the hair industry, who are colorists. If you lift someone and the hair goes orange (I know that there are a million different variables), what's a good fix? Or how would you fix something like that?

TC: You know what? Things like that do happen to everyone—it doesn't matter who you are. There are days when I go home and I just think, "I never want to work again." That's why we are best friends with other colorists. I'm on the phone with Lorri Goddard all the time. Cassondra Kaeding and I were just having a conversation yesterday. We were in tears, but it's just the way it goes. As long as you have friends and you talk about these things, we just have to stay calm when things like this happen. I always tell my assistants, "If you mix the wrong color, it's not on you, it's on me. Anything that you do wrong is not your fault—it's my fault." Honestly, things do happen and we stay calm. If I have to throw in a few highlights and do like a quick little thing, I just tell my client that it's a gift.

Yesterday, I did a highlight on someone and I forgot that she was a side-parter. I did her whole head and the middle part, and I felt so bad. I was like, "Oh, let me just fix it. It'll take five, 10 minutes," and she was like, "I can't—I've got to go to dinner." I was horrified. But you know what, I just didn't charge her and I'm going to [fix] it today. And I'm going to apologize and apologize. I make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes.

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Can you walk me through a little bit from the client side, what to ask for? If you're going in and you really love, let's say Jennifer Lopez's hair as it is today, what would you ask for from a color and process standpoint?

TC: Well, you wouldn't go in and say I want J.Lo's hair color. What I would do is I would say, I want J.Lo's hair color and I have a photo. And when I say a photo, I mean one photo because there are so many different pictures of her out there that are completely different, in different tones. In my book, I did a glossary of different terms of hair colors so you know what you're asking for. Yesterday, I did a client who wanted her hair to look like J.Lo's because her son's having a bar mitzvah. We narrowed it down to one photo because she had three J.Lo photos and they were all different. In photos, whatever the lighting is, one could be gold, one could be ash, and Jennifer is a golden bronde.


(Image credit: @jlo)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Next up, check out our previous episode featuring bridal and RTW designer Monique Lhuillier.

Contributing Editor

Ray Lowe is a contributing editor for Who What Wear. She's spent the last decade living in New York, but now that she professionally works from home, she's slowly been going back to her roots by splitting time between NYC and L.A. A year ago, she left a four-year stint as a fashion editor for Refinery29 to explore the freelance life. Nowadays, she does just about everything from penning online articles (for Who What Wear, Refinery29, Elle, Cosmo, and many more) to writing scripts, styling, and finding ways to fuse her love for both Disney and fashion. Her main beat is fashion (trends, emerging brands, affordable finds, you name it), but you may find her dropping in with a beauty story every now and then. As for her personal style, she'd best describe it as a balanced blend of basics and contemporary trends, often with a dash of Mickey Mouse thrown in for good measure. In her spare time, she can be found coddling my pets (a French bulldog and a rescue cat), curating travel itineraries for her friends, scrolling through Instagram for up-and-coming brands, and watching so-bad-they're-good films.