The Legend Gets Real: Chris McMillan
By Mary Rector-Gable
I couldn’t have written the script better. To interview the legendary celebrity hairstylist Chris McMillan over the phone, from his hotel room in Paris, watching the Academy Awards together? It was a happy ending to a process that spanned five days, three continents and six phone calls. Chris was flying around the world—Los Angeles to Bangkok to Paris. I would await his calls—from an airport lounge, an airplane, a hotel room. On our final call, it went something like this: We would be talking about a life-changing experience, and suddenly Chris would burst out: “Oh, look at Rooney’s hair—it’s great! Look, it’s like a peanut-bun on the top of her head, and is that a braid down her back, hmmm I can’t see it?” Or, “Oh, that dress, that hair—it makes her look so old-fashioned.” To say interviewing Chris during the Academy Awards was anything other than surreal would be downplaying the bigness of the moment. Had it been the same time last year, this moment would not have happened. He would have been getting Jen ready for Oscar night.
Timing is everything.
Chris is one of those people you’ll cancel your whole day to talk to. It’s easy to see why his clients love him so much. He’s irresistibly infectious. He’s smart, disarmingly honest, opinionated and loyal. His clients pay him $750 for a haircut, with a few exceptions, like Bonnie Grider, a school teacher from San Pedro, CA, who pays Chris $65 because she has been his client since 1984, he was only 18.
Chris McMillan: he is the official creator of “The Rachel,” the legendary haircut for Jennifer Aniston, of the “Friends” fame. It’s the cut that disrupted an entire decade of hair and catapulted Chris into superstar celebrity hairdresser status.
Chris met Jennifer through Courteney Cox, who turned to him to fix a bad haircut after she finished filming “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.” Impressed, Jennifer’s manager suggested Chris cut her client’s hair for the pilot of a new show called “Friends.” Like all of McMillan’s hairstyles, The Rachel came together for a specific reason. “She had bangs that I thought she should grow out,” Chris reveals. “So I brought up the length to make the bangs seem longer. Then I pulled the hair over so she didn’t look like she had bangs, and the layers started falling forward, and that’s how it started looking like that haircut.”
That haircut became the sensation of the mid-1990s. It was fresh and new. It was flattering on nearly everyone and suitable for nearly every type of hair. The actress who made it famous was pretty, talented and relatable. She was a rising star. And even though Chris was already an established celebrity and editorial hairdresser in Southern California, the disruptive result of Jen Aniston and her layered haircut propelled him to a new stratosphere.
Chris’ relationship with his famous client has lasted long beyond that initial haircut. They are close friends. He always tries to make himself available when she needs him. And his admiration is evident whenever he speaks about her. “People wonder what it’s like to work with such a huge celebrity like her, but what’s funny is I kind of don’t even realize it,” he says. “To me, she’s so normal, I forget how famous she is. She’s a great human being.” But he reveals that her famous hair—for years the most-requested cut and color in salons—is a bond they share. “She’s a hairdresser deep down inside,” he laughs. “If the ends are dry from balayaging, she knows it’s time to cut a bob. If it gets longer, it’s time to cut some layers around the face. She knows if she needs to go darker or lighter for a role. And that’s why I’ve never felt pigeonholed with her. She doesn’t change her look drastically, like some actresses, but she’s always making changes that gently morph into each other.”
It was during the time The Rachel was “happening” that fashion magazines began placing celebrities on their covers, which also contributed to the stratospheric rise of celebrity hairdressers. “When ‘Friends’ was becoming popular, we started to see more celebrities on covers,” recalls Chris. “It started with Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. I remember if you got one of those covers, it was a huge deal. Then, I remember being in treatment and seeing Jennifer on the cover of W. She was gracing that cover like Gisele.”
From that time forward, all the fashion magazines began adorning their covers with the celebs of the moment, and the world’s fascination with celebrity hairdressers and their clients launched those relationships into the spotlight—think Ken Paves and Jessica Simpson, Oribe and Jennifer Lopez, and, of course the most famous of all, Chris McMillan and Jennifer Aniston. We couldn’t get enough of them traveling together, touring together, “being” together.
The Allure cover, shot in 2014 by Michael Thompson, of Chris and Jen topless and holding each other is the very essence of their closeness, the rawness of the relationship between a hairdresser and his client. “We are there for them for so many moments—good moments and bad moments,” Chris reflects. “We are in their homes washing their hair in sinks, helping them take their clothes on and off for events. And due to the crazy world of celebrities and paparazzi, a celebrity’s world has become so big, that in reality, their world ends up becoming small. They want—they need—to have people around that they trust, and we become that person for our clients.” In fact, to that point, Jen was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “With all the paparazzi chasing everyone, you have to work really hard not to become like Howard Hughes.”
Miley’s Major Shift
On the opposite side of Jennifer’s “changing gradually” spectrum is another of Chris’ high-profile clients. It was again a case of a disruptive hair change that jolted Miley Cyrus from the category of Disney darling to daring young woman, and Chris was behind it. “We were doing a test for a Marie Claire cover,” he remembers. “I already knew her and we had lots of fun together. The night before the shoot, she had decided to remove her hair extensions, head to the grocery store with her friend and buy a bottle of haircolor. The next day, she showed up with ‘blorange’ roots and green ends. We were in the middle of nowhere, in the Malibu Hills. I sent my assistant to Rite Aid and told her to buy a basic frosting kit. I figured I’d balance the colors by balayaging her hair with bleach. I painted on the color, let it dry and wiped it off. It looked amazing and brought out great natural texture. A month later, she called and asked for more highlights. I’m not a colorist, but I love her rogue attitude so I did it. Then she told me she wanted to cut her hair. We sent pictures back and forth for two weeks. First, shots of Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn with the undercut we liked. Then pictures of hair we didn’t like. Her boyfriend at the time was shooting a movie in Philadelphia. I had a job in New York. So we met at The Mercer Hotel, stayed up all night, and that’s how it all happened.”
New Wave Hair
Ironically, frosted highlights, undercuts and asymmetric bobs are where it all began for Chris. He describes his first hair muse—his mom—as “fabulous.” In the ’60s, she sported great teased height and frosted ends. She was the Pamela Anderson of her time. “I was two or three,” he says, “and I would tell her not to comb her hair after she teased it. I always had an opinion!” During high school in Huntington Beach, CA, he remembers the day his friend, Sharon Hawkins, showed up before Christmas vacation with a Farrah Fawcett hairstyle and bellbottoms. Sharon’s mother was a hairdresser, and after Christmas, she returned to school with skinny jeans and a bob. “I was obsessed!” he says. “She became my girlfriend-ish, and we went to beauty school together.” It was the late ’70s and soon disco became New Wave. The fact that Chris was gay never impacted his social life, but once he started doing skater and “Flock of Seagulls” cuts for his friends and classmates in his backyard, his acceptance and popularity were cemented. His art teacher thought his work was so cool, she based his grade on how he transformed his subjects with his cuts, including his favorite—the asymmetric bob.
Sharon and he went to Palm Springs Beauty College. His first job after beauty school was at Nicole’s, which he describes as “the coolest salon in Manhattan Beach.” It’s where his mom had her hair done. Maybe it’s the sun and the availability of a beach volleyball game any time, any day, but Manhattan Beach breeds gorgeous girls and beautiful boys. Many of the latter are skaters and surfers, and they often catch the attention of model scouts. A few years into his stint at Nicole’s, one of Chris’ surfer clients was spotted by the photographer Bruce Weber and invited to do a test shoot. The guy begged Chris to accompany him to the shoot. “He told me that nobody could cut his hair like I could,” Chris remembers. Chris and Bruce hit it off and bookings for photo shoots, from Weber and other photographers, started coming his way. Eager for even more opportunities, Chris and a friend began spending six months a year in Milan, where all of the young photographers, hair and makeup artists of the time went to find work and gain experience. They’d spend weekends in Paris. “We would work, and on the weekends, we would test with people like Steven Meisel’s assistant,” he says. “By the time I came back from Europe, I had a portfolio. And I kept testing. At the time, I met this girl named Cameron Diaz. And a girl named Charlize Theron. And another girl Jennifer Gimenez. They were just models at the time and we all got together to test.”
After seven years in Manhattan Beach, Chris was offered a chance to move to the city. He joined former Sebastian artist Philip Carreon at Estilo on Beverly Boulevard in L.A where he first met Jennifer Aniston. It’s also where his world would begin to fall apart.
In a brutally honest interview for Allure magazine in 2008 entitled, “How Jennifer Aniston’s Hairstylist Chris McMillan Kicked His Drug Addiction,” Chris revealed how he first started smoking pot at the age of 17 when his uncle handed him a joint. After high school, as his career in hairdressing accelerated, so did his drug habit. “Hairdressers are often fueled by drugs and alcohol—we think we’re one step away from rock stardom,” Chris reveals. It was the ’80s, drugs were everywhere and they suited his creative, outsized personality. Soon he was doing cocaine every day, and leveling off with alcohol. After years of cocaine abuse ravaged his sinuses, he switched to smoking crack. He was often high at work, and sometimes he missed jobs entirely. An initial attempt to get sober at Betty Ford only lasted a short time, and soon he was back at it. Even though he was working with stars like Jennifer, Helen Hunt and Cameron Diaz, he was flat broke because all of his money went to his dealer. At one point he was homeless—living in his car. The turning point came when an undercover cop noticed him smoking crack in his vehicle. After an actual, O.J.-style high-speed chase, Chris was arrested and spent six harrowing days in jail. “That,” he told the Allure writer, “made me willing to do whatever it took to get sober.” He spent 18 months in treatment. And he has been sober since October 14, 1999.
The very first job Chris had after his treatment was Jen’s wedding. It was a new beginning—a new starting point. “My sobriety really grounded me,” he says. “I learned how to be there as a friend, and as a person. I learned to have a relationship with my family. I learned to realize that it didn’t matter whether it was a good one or a bad one; I just had to have one. Also, while I was in treatment, I learned that I had used hairdressing as a way to manipulate people into liking me. I’d cut your hair and make you feel good and you liked me, but not for who I was as a person, or for who you were as a person. I never learned how to be a friend or a brother or a son—a person outside of hairdressing. For the first six months in treatment, I had to introduce myself to others with a verbal commitment: ‘Hi, my name is Chris, I’m a drug addict and alcoholic and I cut hair for a living.’ I had to re-learn what it was to be a person and have a productive life again.”
After Chris got sober, he went to work for famous L.A. hairdresser Carrie White, who wrote a very humbling book, “Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life,” about her struggles with drug addiction. Carrie’s salon was a safe place for Chris—there he could work and know that others around him had shared similar experiences.
Chris McMillan The Salon
Chris opened his own salon, Chris McMillan The Salon, in 2002. Like Carrie’s salon, it is well known in L.A. as a safe zone for sober hairdressers.
“Every year, I work the day after Thanksgiving,” Chris says. “I’m usually the only hairdresser in the salon that day, but it’s sort of a tradition for me and I have always done it. One day at AA, a young hairdresser said that he would love to assist me. I told him if he wanted a job, he could come and assist me on the day that everyone else wanted off. So, he showed up on that Friday and I looked at him and said, ‘Man, you look stoned. When was the last time you got high?’ He said about 20 minutes ago. I still needed an assistant, so he stayed and helped me and, at the end of the day, I took him to treatment. He’s been clean since that day. His name is Jason Schneidman and he still works for us.”
Chris is proud that his salon helps other hairdressers maintain their sobriety. That’s not to say that many of his hairdressers don’t drink. “We’ve got drunks like you don’t know in our salon, and I love to make fun of them all the time. There’s a time and a place. But, our salon is very respectful of our sober hairdressers and their personal goals.”
Chris’ salon is situated behind a beautiful courtyard that keeps paparazzi at bay, and celebrities can slip in and out of the back in peace. “Jen Garner is a morning person,” Chris reveals. “She comes in at eight in the morning, I do her hair and she’s on her way without being bothered. It’s nice for her that way.”
Unlike many high-profile hairdressers, Chris spends 50 percent of his time caring for clients behind the chair. He books a full hour for women’s cuts and a half-hour for men. “I take care of my clients from start to finish, including blow-dry and styling. It’s that special time I get to spend with my clients,” Chris admits. Prices for new clients are $750 a cut, but many long-time clients are grandfathered in at his earlier, lower rates, including Bonnie. As a result, he estimates his current average is about $600 an hour. “I may do a new client for $750, but she’ll come in twice a year, and the rest of the time, someone else will take care of her hair,” he says. “Other long-time clients come in more frequently and I might charge them less. It all averages out.” And yes—celebrities pay for their services, according to Chris. “Absolutely,” he says. “They want to be treated like everyone else.”
Chris admits he prefers to take care of celebrities in his salon instead of doing house calls. It’s so much more comfortable in the salon. But being a celebrity hairdresser requires home visits. “All I ask is that I have a mirror in front of me,” he says. “It’s hard. Trying to wash hair in a sink. Trying to make schedules work. It’s especially hard when they’re a long distance away. I have a very famous male client, and he lives a long way from the salon. I charge for my time, so if it’s an hour away and then an hour haircut and an hour home, you can do the math. It feels like it’s not worth it. But we have to charge for our time, even if it’s drive time. We could be taking care of another client.”
One of the main reasons Chris stays in the salon and works with clients so often is to stay nimble. “I might need to do something for a shoot or a film, so I’ll practice on my regular clients,” he explains. “Or I may get an idea for a project while I’m working on a client in the salon.”
Another reason for the salon is camaraderie. Everyone on Team McMillan is an independent contractor, but they’re all like-minded artists with diverse outside projects. And McMillan picks the team. “It naturally progresses,” he notes. “We often move assistants up to become stylists. It’s rare we get outside hairdressers. And we are careful not to choose hairdressers who started in the business for the sole purpose of being a celebrity hairdresser. I want classic hairdressers whose experience is focused on technique first. For example, my assistant today has a TONI&GUY; background and a love for the craft. We need more celebrity hairdressers who have a love of the craft first, and appreciate that working with celebrities is just a bonus for being a great haircutter or colorist.”
Vidal Sassoon once shared with me that he was disappointed in the quality of work by some celebrity stylists when we were discussing the red carpet years ago. Chris concurs and shares that part of it has to do with the desire to be a celebrity stylist. “Did you know that you don’t even need a license to do freelance hair work? Anyone can go to your home and do your hair under the label of freelance and that’s how many who come out here to work with celebrities label themselves. Celebrities are not hair experts, so sometimes it’s difficult for them to know who is great or not so great. So much of it is who you know, and trusting who you know.”
It’s one of the reasons why so many celebrity hairdressers in L.A. work together and share their clients, certainly not something we see on the East Coast. “When you have a relationship and trust with a celebrity, they never want you to leave town. But, it happens, and we can’t always take care of all of their needs,” Chris points out. “So we each have other hairdressers we trust to call in to help us when our clients have an event that we can’t service them for.”
Chris McMillan The Salon has been a breeding ground for great talent. When Andy LeCompte worked there, Jen Atkin was his assistant. When Andy got busy, Jen got on the floor—and look where both of them are today. Chris believes that change is good, even when great talent leaves your salon. “There is something positive that always comes from change. I have to live my life believing that. L.A. is ever-changing. Someone is always leaving one salon to start another and taking people with them. You can’t be mad. There’s no good energy in that. Growth requires change sometimes. We always support each other and support our team’s goals and dreams.”
A few years ago, in 2013, Chris and Jen decided it was time to collaborate on a product line. It started when the team from Living Proof approached Jen’s people. Jen insisted that Chris vet the products, so he met with them and fell in love with the formulas. “The science was so strong,” he says. “And I’ve always been a fan of [Living Proof co-founder and editorial stylist] Ward Stegerhoek.” Since their involvement, Jen and Chris have been heavily involved in the product development of the line and Chris loves that it’s something different, something better. “Creating a line of products as a celebrity hairdresser has become the ‘thing’ to do. It’s great to leverage a celebrity and/or celeb hairdresser’s name for the sake of building awareness and credibility, but for me, something has to be different and special about the product. It can’t be a me-too. Our clients and other hairdressers are too smart for that.”
The line has gone on to win multiple awards, including Allure’s Best in Beauty, and continues to innovate. Today, the company is excited to begin to build a larger audience with hairdressers and more distribution in salons. “Back in the days of The Rachel, one of the big regrets I had is that I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to create a product line to support the incredible press and notoriety at the time,” says Chris. “But, timing is everything, and I’m excited to be a part of the Living Proof family with the person who was my partner in The Rachel—Jennifer.”
With a client list that includes just about every well-known television, film and music celebrity—Jennifer, Courteney Cox, Miley, the Kardashians, Jennifer Garner, Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Roberts—a lack of humility could be expected. Yet when Chris talks about ego, it’s with disapproval. “What’s important to any hairdresser’s success is attitude,” he declares. “We have to watch our egos. To stay relevant, you have to let your ego go. It’s like sobriety— you have to give it away to keep it.”
Today, despite the whirl of activity that comes with a career like Chris’, he lives a simple life that keeps him grounded. “I have a beautiful life. A beautiful house. A beautiful marriage.” In 2014, he married Martin Sevillano, an L.A.-based architect. He does yoga, CrossFit and spinning. Fitness is important and he works out every day. While I was talking to him in Paris, he had built in a few extra days to sleep, exercise, shop (at his favorite store, Colette) and watch the Oscars (with me!) before doing Paris Fashion Week.
At 51, and sober for 17 years, there’s a certain serenity to his point of view. He loves watching the millennial generation take risks. “They inspire me. I love seeing their work,” he shares. He loves how technology allows one to communicate so easily. He also loves watching older hairdressers embrace change. “Just opening a magazine and seeing Garren on the page makes me so happy,” he declares. “He’s been a genius for so long and continues to own it.”
As a result of his experience and time in the business, he’s developed a certain philosophical stance. “I have never thought I was fabulous. I have never let any of this go to my head. I have never let my ego get in the way of my work—even when I was using drugs. And, I have been very, very loyal.”
Chris knows he’s been lucky in life—lucky to have the life he has, lucky to have his friends and family and, frankly, lucky to be alive. But, he’s worked hard for his luck and doesn’t take it for granted.
Chris reminded us, “We live in the world of opportunity, especially in LA. It’s at our feet every day. Every hour a new client sits in our chair, it’s a new opportunity we’ve been given, a privilege we should never take for granted.”
And, when I texted him to say I needed to fill in a few last missing pieces in his story, Chris texted me this…
I met Jen at Estilo.
Then freelance took over.
Then drugs took over.
Then went to work sober with Carrie White.
Then opened Chris McMillan The Salon.
The rest is history.
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