James Corbett has one of those contagious smiles. He’s the kind of person you want to hang out with when you’re in bad mood, and his studio near Union Square is the kind of place where you want to hang out while you recover from that bad mood—it’s long and clean and shot through with light, and then there’s the garden…Corbett is the visionary behind the James Corbett Studio and the National Color Director for Clairol. He believes that helping people look their best creates a ripple effect in their lives—when they feel happier and more confident, they tend to be kinder and more generous. And he’s someone who doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. In 2010, he started Hair 2 Help, a non-profit dedicated to providing spa services to cancer patients and their caregivers. “I always knew I wanted to give back,” he said, “and at some point I realized that what I was doing could be more than just lip gloss.” For more about feeling good and doing good, read on!
First, I want to know how you would describe yourself. If someone were to ask you what you do, what would your answer be?
I make happy happen, and I do it by cultivating individual beauty. I love what I do. I love expressing myself and using someone’s head as a canvas of sorts, and bringing out the light in them and making them feel better. It’s an amazing thing to have a job where just doing some highlights or giving somebody a haircut or fixing the shape of their hair makes somebody feel better. What an amazing thing to be able to make a living out of that. I feel very fortunate and very blessed.
What’s your approach to beauty?
I’m very solution-oriented: I want to know what problems you’re having, whether you’re looking for a new lipstick color or a new job. It’s important to me to establish a sense of community. That’s what the word salon used to mean back in the day—it was a community, it was a gathering, and that’s how I like to think of it. I worked at large salons for many years. It was churning and burning and nobody really caring about the client, just 80 or 90 people running around the salon telling everyone how fabulous they were but forgetting that at the end of the day, it’s about that person in your chair. That’s your brand. It’s so simple but so lost.
How did you know that hair was your calling? When did it become clear?
I grew up in the late 70s and 80s, and it was all about the surfer boys. I would look at pictures and kind of emulate them, Leif Garrett, Bo Duke—big, handsome blonde guys. I was a little runt, and my hair was getting darker as I was getting older, so I started playing around with Sun In and other things. I paid my way through college by working part-time at a hair salon. At the time, there was a commercial on TV with Elaine from Seinfeld. In it, she sees a woman on a bus and says, “You’d look great as a blonde. You’d stop traffic.” I was depressed because I wasn’t out of the closet, and I’d just broken up with my first boyfriend. I thought, “Yeah, I need to be blonde, and I need to stop traffic!” So I went to the store and bought Nice ‘n’ Easy, and I put it on my head. Well, I was stopping traffic, but not in the way that I had hoped. And I swore I was going to learn to do it the right way. Finally I decided to go to beauty school, and when I did, it just clicked. I knew that was it.
What’s beauty school like? I have visions of the “Beauty School Dropout” scene from Grease.
It’s awful. They’re teaching an incredibly antiquated system to pass a test. I was always interested in the science behind hair color. It’s like A+B=C, but why does it do that? If you know the why, then you can replace B with a myriad of things to get to that point. Color and hair and beauty—it’s all very subjective. One person’s idea of blonde is not the same as another person’s idea of blonde.
So I know that you have a nonprofit called Hair 2 Help. What is it, and what inspired you to start it?
I always wanted to give back. It’s one thing to be able to command a certain price for somebody that can afford it, and it’s another thing to be able to help somebody out who is going through a hard time. My father passed away from cancer in 1986. I was fourteen years old. My mom was the school cafeteria lady. We had no money, and my mom worked three to four jobs to try to make ends meet. The woman who cut her hair was a family friend, and she refused to take payment from us. It was just something simple that meant so much to us. I always remembered that, and when I started this program I thought, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to make these women feel better. They’re going to look better, and that’s going to make them feel better.”
What are the three most common mistakes that you see women making in terms of their hair?
- They fight their texture. When it’s the middle of the summer, and it’s crazy hot and humid, and you know you have frizzy hair, why fight it? You might as well just use some leave-in conditioner and work with the wave instead of working against it.
- Communication between the client and the stylist is big. If you don’t understand each other, you shouldn’t move forward. Pictures can be great, but they don’t always work. You need to get to know the person. Then you can look at a picture and say, “If I made you this blonde, you would tell me you’re too blonde.”
- Not giving the stylist enough time to get into your groove. The relationship is like a recipe, and sometimes you need to tweak it and fine-tune it a little bit. You need to take the time to develop a relationship and make that relationship work. I think that goes for so many things in our lives right now. It’s so easy to be like, “I’m done, now on to the next!” We’ve got a little bit of a short attention span these days. Find the love.