Celebrity Hairstylists on Being Black in the Beauty Industry

 

Ted Gibson is an influencer, independent hairdresser, salon owner and celebrity stylist. He has worked with models, actresses, fashion and beauty insiders and influential women. He was also the resident hair guru on TLC’s “What Not to Wear” and was responsible for participants’ life-changing makeovers. Ted Gibson is one of the most sought-after editorial, runway and celebrity hair stylists in the business. Despite his success, he feels a lack of recognition from his peers in beauty. Most elusive has been the opportunity to style the hair for the cover of one of the world’s best-known fashion magazines. And most unfair, he said, is that throughout his entire career, in order to work at a certain level, he had to include white actresses as part of his clientele. His white counterparts, he explained, have not had to do Black actress’ hair–and have still gotten recognition for their work.

Jason Backe has established himself as a highly accomplished color artist. From editors and models to actresses and executives, clients love Jason’s color for its chic and complimentary wearability. They also love his friendly, down-to-earth personality and his positive, upbeat vibe.

The two, who are married, are co-owners of Starring Salon in Los Angeles, California. 

Here, CEW Beauty News speaks with Ted and Jason about their experience in running a Black co-owned business, Ted’s own experience as a Black celebrity hairstylist, how they’re ensuring inclusivity and diversity within their company.

Ted Gibson: It’s been a perfect storm over the last few months. We have COVID, which made all of us stay at home, and then we had the untimely death of George Floyd, who was really the one who got everybody back out again. The climate of where we are in America needs to change. As a person of color who is gay and Black, there are a lot of touch points for me that I am feeling the last few weeks. What it means to be Black in America, what it means to walk down the street and have people feel a certain kind of way about me just because of the color of my skin. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a suit or if I’m wearing Louboutin loafers or driving a Range Rover. Those things really don’t matter.

The death of Mr. Floyd has brought that to light, more so than anything else, because we’re used to this. We’re used to police brutality. People don’t necessarily have respect for Black men and women. All of us who saw the video saw a man being killed. And there’s something about that that I think is different than other videos we’ve seen about police brutality.  Everyone saw this man die on the ground. For almost nine minutes. So I think it brought another perspective on what it looks like to be Black in America.

Jason Backe: Like Ted said, it was a perfect storm. Maybe if COVID hadn’t happened, and we all weren’t having that pent-up energy, maybe things would have been different. So many people are working from home and now have the time and the availability. That’s a good way to join into a demonstration, where if all of us were still going to the office every single day… it might not have reached a critical boiling point. But it did. I’m so horrified by what happened. And the yin and yang is interesting. I’m also grateful that we’re all opening our eyes and paying attention.

Ted has a very different experience going through life than I do. I can walk down the street and no one’s really going to assume anything about me. I’m grateful that I’m in this relationship. And I can have those difficult conversations and that I’ve been around the world, and have met all kinds of people from all different walks of life and have had that sort of influence. I think it’s really important for people who are in more homogenized communities to still examine that in themselves and have those conversations with each other, because that’s how things can change.

TG: I’ve been very vocal about this over the last week or so about my experience of being Black in the fashion and beauty business. I’m going to continue to talk about it. I’ve talked on my Instagram about being a Black hairdresser in the beauty business as someone who has created some of the most iconic products out there. Jason and I funded all of that and we never, ever, ever had an investor. But it’s not for a lack of trying.

JB: We’ve done the dog and pony show. We’ve traveled from New York to L.A. to Florida to meet people who could potentially be investors. Not one in 20 years together, not one has panned out.

TG: The thing that really upsets me about that is, again, it’s not for a lack of trying. So yeah, I do have to feel that my race comes into play. The entire time I’ve been a hairdresser, I’ve had to do the hair of Black girls and white girls. Other hairdressers at the same level as me don’t have to do that. They don’t have to do Black girls’ hair at all—and that’s interesting. In order to create a name for myself in a way that I wanted I had to do white girls’ hair. So, that’s been my career over the last 20 years. And it’s my fault because I haven’t been vocal about it—I’ve been kind of letting it slide, letting it slide, letting it slide.

JB: In his defense if he doesn’t let it slide, then he doesn’t get hired for the next job. Then he’s seen as difficult to work with. Here’s another example of how subtle it can be. Once, there was a photo of Renee Zellweger outside of a hotel and Ted was working with her; walking behind her with a can of hairspray in his back pocket and a brush in his hand. A certain magazine put that picture in their pages and captioned it as ‘Renee Zellweger with her bodyguard.’

TG: Starring is our fourth salon. We’ve had successful product lines that have been sold at Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sephora and Target. I’ve done every major fashion show all over the world from London to Milan and Paris. I’ve worked on a long list of celebrities. I was on a successful television show for years called “What Not To Wear.” I’m involved in education, editorial. But it’s still not enough. I still have not gotten the recognition that my white counterparts have after all these years.

I got my experience in the fashion business over a long period of time. Years ago I was looking for new representation. I went to a meeting at a well-known NYC-based agency for hair stylists. [For those who know me know I’m generally always in a suit jacket because of what my mother taught me growing up. She said, ‘Look, if you’re gonna be successful, if you’re gonna have any amount of success, you’re going to have to look different than the person next to you.’ And she meant the white person next to me. So what I needed to do is be 10 times greater than my counterpart because of the color of my skin. So I always, always wore a jacket.] I went to the agency and I brought my book. There’s a feeling I get any time I go into a place where I feel I’m not necessarily wanted. There’s an immediate response, a feeling I get from someone who thinks that I don’t deserve to be there. I got that feeling immediately when I walked into this office to drop off my [portfolio] for consideration. A couple of days later, I went to pick up my book. I got in, and this woman says to me, ‘The books are over there.’ Very dismissive. They never represented Black artists, not until five years ago.

Even as a celebrity hairdresser who’s worked with Angelina Jolie and Gabrielle Union, one well-known fashion magazine would never book me for a cover. Because they consider me a Black hairdresser. They never thought of me as just a hairdresser. Even if the actress herself requests me. And if there were a Black actress on the cover of this certain fashion magazine, a white hairdresser would be booked to do her hair. More recently, there’s been a shift with Kim Kimble doing Beyonce’s hair and Vernon Francis doing Lupita Nyong’o. I’ll be called occasionally to do a Black model’s hair for the inside of this particular magazine.

JB: At Starring, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done. We are inclusive, we are diverse, we go out of our way to make sure that there’s balanced representation in all of the imagery that we put out for our branding and with regard to our salon staff. We train our staff to know how to do all textures of hair and we have since day one in 2003 when we opened the Ted Gibson Salon in New York City. We’ve never had to say to someone who gets off of the elevator there’s no one here who can do your hair.

TG: My responsibility is to be a voice. This is the time for me to use my voice to bring awareness to the next generation of hairdressers that’s coming up. To see past where we are at the moment. It’s my responsibility, as the most expensive haircut in the country. I’ve done so many things in my career and have gotten all these accolades.

What would I like? I’d like some recognition from my peers and from the business — the business that I’ve been in all my career, and the strides that I’ve made. The lack of recognition is not because of a lack of talent.

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