Behind the Look: Seeing Red With Expert Colorist Tracey Cunningham

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Behind the Look: Seeing Red With Expert Colorist Tracey Cunningham

From Emma Stone’s iconic Superbad look to Daisy Jones and the Six, Cunningham shows that redheads have more fun

Jennifer Lopez. Kiernan Shipka. Julia Garner. Lana del Rey. One only needs to scroll through Tracey Cunningham’s Instagram feed for a few moments to see examples of her stunning work as one of Los Angeles’ most in-demand hair colorists. As a co-founder of Mèche Salon, one of Boulevard’s first customers, Cunningham and her business partner Jacob Schwartz have created a self-care haven for A-listers and LA residents looking for a little bit of that movie star glamour. And while she clearly knows how to work with hair of any color, Cunningham has a particular gift for reds.

So how did this Seattle native, whose early gigs included cleaning up salons, working as a receptionist, and nannying for a legendary diva, become the master of red hair? Here’s how it all came together.

Getting by with a little help from Bette Midler

“When I was younger I really only had one interest; it’s always been hair,” Cunningham said in an interview with Into the Gloss. “I couldn't do a lot of things, but if you showed me a photo of someone’s hair, I could replicate it.”

Cunningham honed her early skills by practicing on her mother and dreamed of someday styling hair for a living. One of her first jobs was at Gene Juarez, which she describes as “the hottest salon in Seattle.” Rather than coloring or styling hair, however, Cunningham worked “basically as a maid” serving tea, sweeping floors, and doing laundry.

When she finally made the move to California, she held off on pursuing her dream. “I knew I wanted to be a hairdresser, but I didn’t go into it straight away because I think I had a perception that the girls who were going to be hairdressers were actually girls that just didn’t know what they wanted to do,” she said. Instead, she began working as a receptionist at a Merrill Lynch real estate office in La Jolla, later moving on to PR firm PMK in Los Angeles.

“I was so depressed there, answering phones, and I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life,” she says of her stint as a receptionist.

A chance meeting with one of the PR firm’s clients, the one and only Bette Midler, put her back on the right path. When Midler was looking for a nanny, Cunningham grabbed the opportunity. Before long, she was styling Midler’s hair as part of their morning routine. “I’d make her breakfast and coffee, and then I’d come upstairs and do her hair,” she said.

Seeing Cunningham’s talent for hairdressing, Midler encouraged her to go to beauty school. When Cunningham failed to qualify for financial aid and lacked the resources to do so, Midler paid for it herself. As she put it, “Bette really took care of me.”

From sweeping in Seattle to styling Superbad

Cunningham’s first foray into the world of celebrity styling — after Ms. Midler, of course — was coloring Portia de Rossi’s hair during her run on the turn-of-the-millennium legal drama Ally McBeal. “Then, my business started growing by word of mouth, and I was getting referrals from big stars,” she explained in an interview with Refinery29.

Fast forward a few years, and Cunningham has developed a reputation as the go-to colorist among the Hollywood crowd. “Then one day, I got a call from Judd Apatow.” Apatow was getting ready to direct his next movie, a raunchy teen comedy called Superbad, and he needed a colorist for his leading lady, an up-and-coming actress named Emma Stone.

Of course, we now know Emma Stone as an Academy Award-winning actress with dozens of noteworthy performances under her belt. At the time, however, she was a teenager preparing to appear in her first feature film — a role that required red hair. “He said she was a natural blonde, but he wanted her to be a redhead in the movie, and he needed me to make her red,” Cunningham said.

Stone was a natural blonde, but at the time, she’d been dying her hair “this sort of murky brown color.” Apatow wanted a redhead lead so that Stone wouldn’t be confused with the film’s other romantic lead. As the director put it, “There was a concern that she had the same color hair as Martha MacIsaac's. And I said, 'Well, maybe it could be like red or something.'”

“Without hesitation, I made her really red,” Cunningham explained.

The rest is Hollywood history. Though Stone has also appeared as a blonde in some films, her red hair is undeniably part of her iconic look. She’s continued to rock that red shade for over 15 years, in part because of her ongoing relationship with Cunningham. “We’ve been working together ever since, and I always credit Judd for bringing us together,” she said. 

Making red hair a science

So what’s the secret to the perfect red? Cunningham credits Redken Shade EQ gloss. “That color gloss is amazing because it feels like a conditioner, but it actually stains the hair. It’s not a real color dye, but because it's acid-based, it lays so nicely on the hair, giving it that shine.”

Since turning the young Emma Stone into “this sort of hair icon,” Cunningham’s clients have requested that specific shade of red. However, as Cunningham explains, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to red hair. “The technique will have to be tailored to the individual,” she said. That’s why her approach to red hair is always customized, whether she’s working with Lindsay Lohan or Riley Keough.

Her advice to aspiring redheads? Have patience and be willing to do the maintenance. “The most important thing to keep in mind when switching your color — whether you're a natural brunette going red or a blonde going darker — is that breakage is very real. You need to be patient and accept incremental color changes, because that's what's going to protect your hair in the long run.”

To maintain color and hair health, Cunningham recommends Olaplex’s line of professional-quality products. “Olaplex No.3 is the best pre-treatment for your hair. Then when you're in the shower, use the Olaplex No.4 shampoo, followed by the Olaplex No.5 conditioner, which is nice and hydrating.” As any redhead — natural or otherwise — will tell you, it’s worth the effort; who says blondes have more fun?

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