BTC Exclusive! America’s Celebrity Stylists Are Bringing Hollywood Hair to the Middle East
When your clients are A-listers who show up nearly every day in movies, on TV and on social media—think Emma Stone, Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen, Drew Barrymore—your work is bound to be noticed. Everywhere. Around the world. As a result, some of today’s top stylists and colorists are now in demand far beyond their 90210 zip code. They’re regularly settling into the First Class cabin on carriers like Emirates Airlines, headed to Dubai to tend to the tresses of some of the world’s wealthiest ladies, including royal family members.
the road to Dubai
Five years ago, Bodour Al Hilali, owner of the luxurious Belle Femme Salon in Dubai, placed a call to New York Celebrity Colorist Marie Robinson (Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman). She asked if Marie would be willing to travel to Dubai and work as a guest stylist with some of her salon clients. She made the trip, and it was such a success that the next time she visited, she invited Celebrity Colorist Tracey Cunningham (Drew Barrymore, Kim Kardashian) to join her. Then Tracey invited Jen Atkins, and Jen invited Matrix Celebrity Colorist George Papanikolas. “Now we all go!” says Tracey.
Each time these stylists visit, they work with clients from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. They enjoy lavish dinners and seven-star accommodations, but they also work 12-hour days, taking back-to-back appointments with these ladies who have extremely long, thick hair. It’s hard work, but well worth it for the experience.
To give you some insight into what it’s really like to tend the tresses of royals, these globetrotters set aside some time to chat with BTC about Islamic traditions, popular haircolor requests and how social media has changed the way the world receives trends.
BTC: Hair and beauty are important to the wealthy women in this part of the world. Do they make it worth your while to travel?
Tracey: Belle Femme Salon flies us over and takes really good care of us. I’ve met a lot of really great people; I’ve dined at the palace. It’s such an incredible culture.
George: The salon pays for our travel expenses, accommodations…everything. It’s like a working vacation—being surrounded by some of the nicest, most beautiful people in the world.
BTC: Although the laws in the United Arab Emirates are relatively lax compared to other Islamic countries in the Middle East, social codes remain complex. Are there any specific guidelines or rules you have to follow?
George: In Dubai, they have what are called Free Zones where men can do women’s hair and where they can serve alcohol. You want to make sure you are always working in one of those places.
Tracey: Those who are devoutly religious are always covered, and they cannot see George. It is not permissible for a man to see their faces.
BTC: Tell us about your clients.
Tracey: We all work with clients at Belle Femme Salon. I also work with a few royal clients who fly in from Saudi Arabia, and I have Emirates royals from Dubai who see me. I meet the coolest girls there—I’m always so impressed by their beauty, their manners and just who they are.
George: I also have private clients who fly me in, and those people tend to be from royal families and heads of state. Usually they have salons in their homes, so it’s private. In Dubai, I work at Belle Femme where we get the upper tier of the Saudis and Kuwaitis. But Dubai is very international, so we see a lot of successful, dynamic women from Europe and the U.S. as well.
Jen: About 50 percent of my clients are covered with a hijab (a cover or veil that women wear over their head and face), which they wear for religious reasons. The other 50 percent are more laid back, less conservative—these are the women who can see George.
BTC: What are clients typically requesting in terms of color?
George: Most of the time, they are starting with dark hair and want to go lighter, which is my specialty. I don’t overdo the highlights. I like to paint a few well-placed highlights to create a lighter effect.
Tracey: The last time I was there they all brought in pictures of Lily Aldridge—almost every single one of them. Also, not all the women there have dark hair. A lot of them come from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, so they have blonde hair and green eyes. “It” model Gigi Hadid’s father is actually Palestinian. When these women come in, they typically request highlights and balayage services.
Jen: They also want Miranda Kerr’s color! Although I don’t color, I cut and get a lot of Gisele Bündchen, Kim Kardashian and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley requests.
BTC: Describe a typical day.
George: The salon environment is pretty intense. I typically have about 30 appointments a day, which can make for a very long day since the women often have long hair. My focus is primarily on the color, but we have a lot of support from the Belle Femme staff who assist with blowouts and cuts. I usually bring one of my assistants along as well.
Jen: It’s busy, busy! I typically work with 20 clients a day, giving them the perfect cut and style to accentuate their new color. We have hip hop music and Beyoncé blasting in the background—it’s like a party! Working here, you don’t feel like you’re in another country.
BTC: How are you compensated?
George: We are each paid a flat rate, with the responsibility falling on the salon to book the clients. I make about double what I make in L.A., which might seem strange, but our services are something women can’t get anywhere else. Our hair services are like designer accessories—we’re the Gucci bags of hair! It’s a status symbol.
Tracey: I own my own salon, so the compensation works out to be about the same. I honestly do it because I don’t want to live my life stuck behind the chair in L.A., without ever having explored or done anything different. I really treasure my time there, making new friends. I feel truly blessed to be in this situation.
BTC: How often do you travel there and how long do you stay?
Jen: I go every three months and usually stay five to six days.
George: The salon has been bringing me over about every three months, and private clients have been flying me out every two months or so. Last year I visited six times, and so far this year, I have made four trips! I typically stay for a week at a time.
Tracey: I usually travel there twice a year and stay for five days.
BTC: Can you share any great stories?
George: One of the last times I was over there, my suitcase containing my haircolor didn’t arrive—it got stuck in transit. So I had to tell my client I couldn’t do her hair. The next day one of my bags arrived, but the lightener wasn’t in it. I told the client I needed to find a local beauty supply store to get lightener, and she texted me a picture of Matrix Light Master and said, “I have this.” Turns out she knew I used Matrix color and she went on EBay before I arrived and bought every single Matrix product she could find. It’s almost like she knew I was going to lose my bag!
BTC: What’s something you’ve discovered about your overseas clients we would be surprised to learn?
George: Social media has really changed the way the world receives trends. There was a time when trends started in Paris, then they would move to New York and L.A. Now, whatever happens in Paris or Milan is everywhere, immediately. My clients are following their favorite celebs on Instagram, and they follow celebrity hairdressers to stay up-to-date on the latest Hollywood trends.
Jen: Because women are so covered in front of men, they actually get dolled up for other women, and not for the attention of men!
Tracey: The women over there are just like you and me. They come from the gym, spin class, from dropping off their kids, and they keep up with celebrities.