Interview: Syd Curry – celebrity hair stylist
This is a combination of transcript from his interview on Solessence Radio and subsequent phone calls and emails.
Hi Syd. Today we’ve got you down in Aberdeen, Mississippi. First, I was wondering if you would give everyone a little bit of background on how you started. Of course, you are a celebrity hair stylist; you had a big break with Mariah Carey.
SC: I did have a big break with Mariah Carey, but I started my career years before her. I started beauty school when I was 16, got my license at 18, and moved to Hollywood from Simi Valley, this small little town in Ventura, California. I got my break from Chantal Cloutier, who owns the Cloutier Agency, and my first editorial was with Matthew Rolston [photographer], who was just starting at the time. I started my career with Paul Starr, who sadly just passed away a few months ago, and we started doing catalog. There really was no fashion work to speak of at all in LA, but there was a lot of catalog, which taught me everything I know. I was fortunate I got to work with girls like Gia, and Jerry Hall, and the young, pre-surgery Janice Dickenson – who is probably the best model I’ve ever watched work, by the way.
Those girls taught me what to do for a camera. I did that for years and years, and I went to Las Vegas to do one of my first videos for Buster Pointdexter, who is David Johanson, lead singer of the New York Dolls, and met my business partner and best friend, [celebrity makeup artist] Billy b. Twenty something years ago. Way longer than we care to talk about. And we became best friends. I found out he was from Mississippi, my whole family is from Mississippi, and we started testing together. I used to go and I’d sleep on his kitchen floor in New York and he’d come to LA and we’d do jobs for free, and years later, he started working with Mariah. They came to LA and he introduced us, and then we spent about the next four years traveling all over the world with Mariah, which was my really huge break.
Did you intend to break into music and fashion?
SC: Yes, absolutely. I like to cut hair, and I like to do color. But styling is always what I love. It’s what I’ve always been best at, and it lets you be creative. It’s what I always wanted. Right about the same time I met Mariah I met Sally Hershberger, who is a very famous hairdresser, who couldn’t do a job and recommended me to Cindy Crawford. At the time Cindy was hosting House of Style for MTV, and that really took my career to another level. She was at the height of the 90’s supermodel.
That was one of my favorite looks – I loved her hair.
SC: It was an amazing time. The 90’s were good to me. Many years before, like I said, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in LA, and I was never interested in living in New York, I don’t know why. And then everything changed.
What do you mean by that?
SC: Well, everything changed for LA. They started shooting fashion there. Then all of the magazines started putting celebrities on the cover. So LA became the place to be. The celebrity thing is a whole other story. It’s a lot of babysitting. It’s very fun, I love it, but you know, it’s a lot of babysitting to be perfectly honest.
You started beauty school at a very young age – 16. Were your parents supportive?
SC: My parents were very supportive of me going to beauty school. I didn’t do well in school and they were smart enough to know that my talents lay elsewhere and let me go to continuation school. At 16 I went to high school half day and beauty school half day. My ma passed away March 7 and she was my biggest fan. She NEVER got tired of telling people that I did President Clinton’s hair, even though she didn’t vote for him.
Did you have any professional challenges you had to overcome?
SC:Yeah. Well, it’s well documented, my drug addiction. I’ve been clean, in April; knock on wood, three years. I had a little drug problem that lasted 30 years. You know, it took its toll. And when I talk about this in the context of work, I don’t want anyone to think I’m glamorizing it or anything. But I was able to work. I was on heroin for 30 years. I was also on methadone for 20 of those years. And the methadone allowed me to not be sick at work, so nobody really knew. It had nothing to do with the business – I didn’t do it with anybody I worked with – it was my thing. A lot of people, when they talk to me about it they say, “Well it was the time, there was drugs on set.” I never did drugs on set. With anyone. Ever.
It all came crashing down at the end of ’99. It’s going to catch up with you sooner or later, and it caught up with me. I walked away from my career and didn’t work from 2000 until 2005. It was a very dark time. I thought my career was over for sure. Fortunately, I had a great agent then who realized there was a problem and stopped sending me out before I ruined my reputation. Billy b. thought I was dead. Nobody knew where I was, and Billy finally tracked me down. When I finally went into rehab I had my mom call him and he was just really supportive and there for me.
It was a long process, and when I got out, Billy introduced me to Patricia Field. My first job out of rehab was doing Pat’s hair for her Academy Award nomination for The Devil Wears Prada. What a way to comeback, right? You know, there’s a whole lot that goes into that story. It was a very dark time, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but the business I’m in is very forgiving. People have been amazing, and welcomed me back with open arms, because it’s about me being clean and sober now, and doing a good job with what they hire me for.
And you are still very definitely in demand. Just last year you did the Oscars.
SC: Yes, I did Daniel Day Lewis for his Oscar win. Long story short, this past year Pat’s been my main client. I bought a house in Mississippi in Billy’s hometown and my whole family was from here. We opened this business, but my mother was also very sick and passed away this past March, just a couple of months ago, so I really focused on being back here with her. Sunday, in two days, I go back to LA to do some fun stuff. It’s an exciting time for me.
Let’s touch on that.
SC: We launched in January. This is Billy’s hometown, Aberdeen, Mississippi, and he’d been trying to get me back for years. I hadn’t been back to see my family since ’86. I’m the only one in my family not born and raised back here, and me and my mom moved back to be with her family. So I came back to Billy’s hometown and found a 102-year-old Arts & Crafts home and restored it and fell in love with it. Billy has a big old Victorian house and one day we were having dinner or something and we said “Why don’t we turn this into a salon?” Just kind of joking around – but we did it. You can see the gallery pictures on www.billyandsyd.com. It’s just great, very steel magnolias. It is a beautiful old Victorian house that we put our spin on. Well, Billy did, I don’t have the decorating gene. Billy’s the kind of person that walks in and says Tear that Wall down, put that up and I just go “ok.”
You’ve collaborated for years
SC: Yeah, close to 25 years
I was just thinking about this. I met him with Arianne Phillips, Madonna’s stylist, and I’m going to work with Ari who I haven’t worked with in, gosh, I can’t remember the last time I worked with Ari and Billy, all three of us. I’m going to do a fragrance campaign for Christian Audigier. The beautiful Guinevere Van Neesus for Numero with photographer Jeff Burton. I’m doing Numero with Ari, and I think Billy, or my friend Katy Young. And then I’m shooting Kathy Rodriquez, LA designer, and three models. She owns Resurrection Vintage stores, amazing stores. I’ve been doing her shows and campaigns and we’re shooting her for Vanity Fair.
With the traveling, how much time do you spend at your new shop? If people want to call up and book, what kind of schedule should they expect?
SC: Originally I was going to spend a week a month, but my house is done, I’ve got a new dog, and I’m getting to know family for the first time. So I’m really kind of here, and kind of loving it. I think this is going to be my base. I say that for now. I will always consider LA home. I was born in Santa Monica, my best and dearest friends are there, but I’m kinda loving Mississippi.
New experiences are good.
SC:I may be 500 pounds when I get out of here (laughs)
All of that southern comfort food
SC:Yes, all of that comfort food, fried which is my favorite. Fry it I’ll eat it.
Do you have a new favorite?
SC:Yeah yeah , I love friend pickles. My dad always made them, and my mom, my mom moved to California and became my California beach girl and made everything out of a box. My dad fried everything. And down in Jackson, by Aunt Gertie’s house, is a great catfish place I’m in love with.
Do you actually fish yourself or just eat it?
SC:You know, I haven’t fished while I’ve been here,but I grew up fishing, I love fishing. We could walk to the lake. Kind of amazing, everybody should come to Mississippi and check it out. It’s not what everybody thinks. We get a bad rap here. And there’s some very stylish people. And the cool thing is, where we are, we’re about an hour and a half from Memphis. I’ve been getting people from Memphis, from Atlanta, from Nashville, from all over have been coming. Billy is very well known here and I’m kind of guilty by association.
SC:I’m using everything that I love. I keep my backroom stocked with everything I like over the years. I keep (L’Oreal) Elnett Hairspray, I love Moroccan Oil, but we’re in this really small town and there’s not a lot of people who are going to want to spend money on Moroccan Oil, so business wise? It’s not a smart thing.
I love Paul Mitchell Super Skinny line, I love the serum, but you know, you can get it at the drugstore. So I’m not so focused on the product thing, I’m focused on what I use to achieve the look on women and then I tell them what to get. You know, you can get Elnett at Target! Aren’t you the one that told me? You did tell me that! I almost fell over, I was so excited.
Yes, you’re right (that was from a conversation in 2008. He’s got an good memory)
SC: I know who we didn’t talk about that I worked with this year – Tina Turner! That might have been the biggest highlight of my career. Little back-story: I never wanted to work with Ann-Margaret, Tina Turner or David Bowie because they are my favorite (celebrities). Tina Turner, I used to hitchhike to go see, by myself. Her music meant so much to me, and I didn’t want that rock star fantasy in my head to be blown. If they were jerks, I didn’t want to know it. Fast forward from age 15 when I used to hitch hike to, well, I just turned 55 this year. That’s a lot of years later. And I get a call to do her hair, and I’m like sure, why not. She was everything I wanted her to be. She had the (Rolling) Stones playing the whole time,
Were you nervous?
SC:No! Which is the cool thing about it. I’m old, you know? I’ve worked with the President of the United States. I’ve done Madonna’s hair. I’ve done a lot of work with nasty people, I’ve worked with amazing people, and when I was a mess, and younger, I would make myself sick being nervous. Things are so different now. You know what? I can do hair. And I go in and do my job.
I was nervous driving over but as soon as I met her she said “What do you think I need?” I told her and she said “You’ve done your homework” and I’m like, “Honey, I know every hairdo you’ve ever had” (laughs). She invited me to come sit on the couch, and I told her about all those times I went to see her as a kid, and what her music meant to me. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
I was talking about Paul Starr, and I hadn’t seen Paul for seven or eight years. He did her makeup, and so I got to spend two days with Paul. He passed away a couple of months later. It was a special memory, that whole job. Paul and I both loved her, and we both used to crack up and sing her songs, you know, lip sync with the little headphone sets. It was a full circle kind of thing.
You mentioned your resume, the names you can drop, yet you are so down to earth.
SC: It’s one of those things like at work, people are, “Well you’re really nice.” Well, why wouldn’t I be? I’m just a hairdresser. You know? It’s like most people think celebrities are going to be nightmares, but in fact, most are just regular people who happen to be famous.
Syd created the raven bob for George Michael’s video Father Figure
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of them that aren’t. But on the whole, there’s a handful of people who I won’t name, that I would never set foot in a room with again. But 85% of the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. They‘ve been great and decent and really fun. You know, even the drugs, all that stuff, I wouldn’t change a minute of anything. Because it’s all made possible what is happening today, which is living my life, enjoying success and a million things to be thankful for.
For people trying to become stylists today, what are the challenges?
SC: I think everyone wants to become hair and makeup artists now. First of all, we have to go to the times we are in. It’s hard out there for everybody now. To put it into
numbers, without saying what the numbers were, in the 90’s they threw money at us. Stupid money. It was great to get, but crazy. You know, now they pay you for your job. It’s not excessive. It’s a very different time and I think what’s happening, not so much in big fashion, but, if you want to make a living doing catalog , there is always someone coming up that is willing to do it for a little bit less, and that is what I think people are doing. I think it’s a hard time in this industry. I know it’s a hard time for people in the film business, I know that for a fact.
I never was in the union, but I know people in the union and they are losing their benefits because they can’t get jobs to work enough hours to keep them. It’s not a good time anywhere, but I just think there’s a million people that want to do hair and makeup, freelance, celebrity stuff. And again, I don’t mean this the wrong way at all, but I think a lot more need to pay their dues. Let’s put it this way: people who I idolized before I had any kind of a name were Oribe and Garren and Danilo, who are still very famous, and there is a reason for it. Because they all do quality work. They are famous, they make top money, but they don’t slack on anything. They are new and they’re inventive.
You see a lot of people who are new and come on and they latch on – that’s the wrong term – but who get attached to one celebrity, but it makes their career big. But it’s just one look. Do you know what I mean? And I don’t mean that mean spirited at all. I just appreciate someone who’s worked hard and can do more than one thing. Which all of those people I named have proven over and over and over again. And there are a lot of others. Chris McMillan I think is very talented. There is a different person for every job. Sally Herschberger is incredibly talented. Sally’s great at one thing, Chris is great at another, Oribe is great at another thing, you know what I mean? I don’t know, it’s a weird time in the business. I’m just happy to still be a part of it.
What has been your favorite look?
SC: I’ve had a few. My favorite thing right now is in my salon. It’s huge, it’s almost wall sized. It’ – is the story I did for Prestige, the Queen Mary story – the Asian girl with the big white wig I made. Kathy Young did the makeup, my friend Paris Libby, who is now living in Hong Kong and is one of the editors of Prestige, was “Ok, we’re going to put a ballcap on her, and you’re going to need you to make a wig. It was one of those things where I didn’t have time to think about it and I just did it and did it and went “Oh my God, did I do that?” (laughs). And it’s absolutely my favorite thing from the past few years. I love the Pat Field Destination campaign. Tthere are a million other things but, I love stupid little things. Like giving Mariah (Carey) pigtails for the Dream Lover video. It completely changed her look without changing it. I love all my stuff that has a retro feel to it, you know that looks done without being done. I’m not about a blowdry. Even if I’m on the beach. The stuff I did with Chante and Cindy is great, but that hair is work. My first and only Vogue cover was with Chante, with Stephanie Seymour. It was my first job with Chante, we shot for British Vogue and that will always be a huge huge, well, you know, I had no idea it was for a cover. My agency called and said “The Vogue’s out, go pick it up” and it was the cover. It’s one of those moments. So I have some favorites. But right now it’s the Chinese girl. And it’s kind of hysterical in Mississippi. People come in and they go (in a southern accent) “I don’t wanna look like that!” (peals of laughter) I love it.
Thanks so much Syd.
SC:Thanks so much, it was fun and say hi to Billy, well, I’ll see Billy before you will I’ll see him Sunday.
Syd returns back to Los Angeles this week for a shoot with German Vogue.
1. Billy is such an important person in your life. Have you ever been involved on a personal level?
a. No no no never have been, never will be. He is my best friend.
2. There are always tough customers, the types of jobs you mentioned requiring babysitting. What is the best way to handle this type of customer?
The way I handle it is:
ii. Do your job
iii. Get your check
iv. Don’t look back
3. You are placing an open call here for Los Angeles based assistants. An incredible opportunity. What are you looking for?
SC: I need to find new assistants based in LA. Anybody listening in based in LA? I have been away, or when I work with Pat, I often work by myself. My friend Johnny Stumps works with me all of the time, but he’s a hairdresser in his own right, not an assistant.
I’m looking for somebody who knows what hot rollers are. Somebody that knows how to do something besides blow dry and flatiron, and I’m not being nasty at all. I just feel like a lot of schools don’t teach the old school things you need to know. Like I said, I learned so much from all of those women that taught me when I was very young coming up. Like Jerry Hall, she made me set her hair wet, and had a portable dryer. It’s all of that old school stuff, like everything I learned in beauty school – pin curls and finger waves. It is all stuff I use everyday.
I always love to meet a kid who’s hungry. I love new talent and ideas, which is how I learn, and is also exciting for me. If you show me something new – hey. I love that. That’s one thing that has been good working in a salon for a change. I have some people around me where I go “Hey, I’ve never seen that before.” Because usually when you are on a set, it’s you. You don’t get to watch other people work. When I did Pat (Field) for fashion week, her show, I think I had 18 assistants and it was so much fun watching everyone work. That’s what I want. I just want somebody that’s hungry, that maybe I can learn from too.
To contact Syd Curry about an opportunity to assist, or to book him for a shoot, please use one of the following contacts:
~ Hillary Fry / solessence