Winn Claybaugh Interviews Diana Schmidtke

Winn Claybaugh Interviews Diana Schmidtke

Winn Claybaugh is the dean and cofounder of Paul Mitchell Schools and the founder of MASTERS audio club. He recently interviewed Los Angeles-based freelance stylist Diana Schmidtke, who specializes in men’s grooming, style, and hair care. Her clients include celebrities George Clooney, Viggo Mortensen, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, John Travolta, and Taylor Lautner, with whom Diana completed two Twilight movie press tours. Diana has styled clients on film sets and photo shoots, and her work has been featured in many consumer magazines. She was also featured in an Oprah Winfrey Show episode titled, "Oprah, Make Over My Man," along with Carson Kressley and Project Runway's Tim Gunn. Her book, Shortcuts to a Successful Career as a Stylist or Makeup Artist for the Fashion and Entertainment Industry, features inside advice for anyone interested in breaking into the business.

Diana's "anything is possible" message will leave you knowing all the options in the world of beauty.

WC:  You work with a veritable who’s-who list of Hollywood stars, and you styled George Clooney for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. What was George like?

DS:  Amazing. He’s just as nice as everyone says he is. He’s classy and a gentleman to everyone. From the person who cleans up the food to the photographer who’s also the star on set that day, he treats everyone the same. He’s unbelievable.

WC:   You’ve been on the Oprah show twice. The “Make Over My Man” episode with you, Tim Gunn, and Carson Kressley was the highest episode ever. Didn’t they invite you back a second time? 

DS:   Yes, we came back less than six months later for Sweeps Week, which was a huge compliment. Thankfully, Oprah’s producers didn’t tell me until I got there that Carson and Tim were on the show. It was really overwhelming and a huge career highlight and blessing.

Oprah’s notorious for inspiring people, and I became extremely inspired. I actually had to grab a tissue when one woman started crying upon seeing her husband for the first time. She ended up rushing the stage, which is quite high, hugged her husband, and said, “That’s my man!” It was priceless.

This is something all of us hairdressers do every single day. Whether it’s long-term or temporary, helping people feel good about themselves really is like a drug, and the best drug that exists because it’s pure, it feels good, and it’s human-to-human. You're doing this with your hands; it’s your art, your love, and your passion. As a hairdresser, helping people feel good about themselves is the most incredible feeling. 

WC:   Is that why you enjoy men’s grooming: because there’s such an opportunity for transformation? 

SK:  I didn’t always do men. Hollywood made me a groomer. A series of events led to my big lucky break of getting into the industry. I worked for two years at Trio salon in Chicago. Then, at age 21, I’d saved enough money to take a California spring break vacation with a bunch of girls from beauty school. I saw blue-green water for the first time, went home, quit my job, and said, “That’s it, I’m moving to the ocean.” I moved here with $800, a car, and a friend. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have a job. 

WC:  How long did you stay? What mistakes did you make, and what did you learn? 

DS:   I stayed for six months. I could not break in for the life of me. I waited for a friend to do it with me, and the friend got into all kinds of trouble. I had to move home because of her actions. That was a crucial relationship in two ways: I learned what not to do, but it was also the motivation to get me out here. I did have a plan: I thought $800 was a huge amount of money and I had a car, but I was wrong; that was nothing.

My friend had a college degree. In Hollywood, you need a college degree to get hired for anything. Through her degree she got a job at a production company. This was before the Internet existed the way it does today, so you can imagine the amount of research it took to find these freelance jobs. I thought I was coming out here to do commercials and runway. There’s not a whole lot of runway in California. I didn’t have the right idea of what was really going on out here.

I decided to go home, regroup, and wait tables again. I took every class I could, from product companies, the salon distributor, anything I could get my hands on. I also took classes in wigs, weaves, extensions, black hair, long hair, bridal hair, and men’s cutting. I didn’t focus on color because I had learned color earlier and when you do freelance, your focus needs to be on cutting and styling. 

WC:   You were a licensed hairdresser and you went back to waiting on tables. I like that message of “Do whatever it takes to live you dream.”

DS:  When you’re a hairdresser, you have to remind yourself that you're an artist first. At the time, I felt that I would rather starve myself for my art than to be dishonest, and that gave me the motivation to wait tables. I worked at night so I could take those classes during the day.

WC:   You said that freelance stylists don’t do a lot of color. Why not? 

DS:   As a freelance artist, you’ll mostly utilize your cutting and styling skills. There are freelance colorists who can show up a little bit early and provide color services for actors and actresses on the set, but the day-to-day stylists who travel personally with actors and actresses need to have their cutting and styling skills up to par.

WC:   Even then, aren’t you doing more styling? How often do you cut somebody’s hair?

DS:   Well, now you’re opening Pandora’s box. There are rules that go into working in fashion, television, and movies. There are non-union jobs and union jobs. Non-union jobs are in fashion, such as the cover of Esquire magazine. Union artists specialize in TV and film; in layman’s terms, they’re good at making characters. I’m non-union, and I’m good at making people look their best, as themselves, any time they’re in front of the camera (such as when they’re on press tours). I don’t create characters; I create you to be the best that you can be.

One of the reasons for my book was because no one seemed to know how to break down union and non-union work. Typically speaking, non-union work includes photo shoots, press tours, and getting people ready for red carpet events. For example, I got John Hamm and Matthew Morrison ready for the Emmy’s at their homes; that’s considered non-union. On the union side, you have TV shows and commercials, music videos, and movies, but the production crew can hire a certain amount of non-union artists on their job. This is all explained in my book, because it is confusing. If I’m doing a Burberry ad, it’s non-union. If I’m doing a Burberry commercial with a high-profile actor or actress, that could be a union job. In preparation for the book, I interviewed union artists. After 20 years in the union, even they had no idea how they got in or what the rules were. No one seemed to know any information.

WC:   I get hundreds of e-mails every week from beauty school students who want to do hair in the entertainment world. What advice would you give them? 

DS:   Just show up at school every day. Plug through it, burn through it, go for it. Otherwise, you’re only hurting yourself. Utilize your teachers; they’re there for a reason. I was a rascal in beauty school, and at the end of the day, it hurt me. If I went to beauty school today, with the mind I have now, I would be in the library, I would watch every DVD, and I would be kind to my teachers, even if they weren’t kind to me. It matters. This is the foundation for the rest of your life. The good habits you practice now will carry through for the rest of your career.

Some people are born with natural talent, but I also believe that hairdressing is a learned art. You have to learn it from someone else; it’s a trade. Even with the résumé I have, I still go to hair shows and take advanced classes because there’s always something to learn. There’s always a braid or a twist or some tool that I’ve forgotten about, or some tool or technique that just came out. Shows and classes are inspiring and they’re great opportunities to network and learn. 

WC:   Do you feel like you had natural ability?

DC:  I don’t believe I had natural talent, but my mom tells a different story. I had my comb taken away in the fourth grade for combing my own hair too much, so my mom says she knew then. I went to beauty school thinking I could have a career in nine months. Six years later, I was able to afford my own apartment.

WC:   I’m all for people wanting to get there quicker, but some kids hit one tennis ball and think they're ready for Wimbledon.

DS:  It just doesn’t work that way. It’s layers upon layers upon layers of foundation and education, as it is with anything. No one wakes up one day and has everything come together. You have to be honest with yourself and keep your passion alive. And by all means, if you’re not passionate about hairdressing, find something new. It’s an incredible industry to be a part of; the sky’s the limit. We meet wonderful people and we have the opportunity to change lives on a daily basis, and that’s something you won’t find in many other careers.

WC:   Stars like Christian Bale have probably had experts, stylists, and groomers teach them along the way, whereas in the salon you might be the first and only person to give your guest great advice on styling, grooming, fashion, colors, and trends. 

DS:   And you know what? When it comes to men, if you are that one person they will be loyal to you for the rest of their lives.

WC:   Are men more loyal than women?

DS:   Yes, absolutely. I’ve had clients like Ashton Kutcher since he was 22, and now he’s in his 30s and we still work together on a lot of shoots. That kind of loyalty is more in a man’s nature. A woman will read something in a magazine and think, “Oh, I want to try that person.” Men tend to be more private with their grooming. 

WC:   Is there a reason you prefer working with men?

DS:   At first it was because I was young and I liked guys! I was working with a lot of women, and then I got into the music industry and it was band after band. I remember working with John Mayer, Stone Temple Pilots, Snoop Dogg; it was a lot of music. Because of a rock photographer I worked with, I had an entire portfolio full of guys. Then I was in a studio one day, working for Out magazine. We were shooting Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar winners when a photographer from another studio came running in and said, “Our groomer didn’t show up. Do you think you could help us?” It was divine intervention in my favor. I talked to the photographer from Out, and because this particular client was so hot, he said, “As long as you let me meet him, you can go and shoot the other job. Just keep coming back and forth, and we're your priority.” The client was David Boreanaz at the height of the show Angel. A week later, David’s publicist put me on a job with Chris Klein for the American Pie junket. That was my very first celebrity client and my very first press junket. Through her, I met everyone else at the agency and they just decided, “She’s really good with guys.”

WC:   You talk about teaching soft skills and not technique. What do you mean by that?

DS:   With all due respect, I think a lot of beauty schools are archaic in the sense that they stick to a certain formula: artists come in and show a technique. I don’t care how good of a hairdresser you are, if you can’t run your own business, you will fail. You have to learn basic accounting skills and how to be organized. You’re running a business. I gently remind students about things like taxes and keeping track of receipts.

WC:   You said it was a good six years before you felt like you were getting somewhere. Sometimes students are disappointed to hear that it takes time, but that doesn’t mean those years are miserable. They can be an exciting adventure.

DS:   Right, but you have to stay honest to yourself and true to your art and be willing to do the work. Show up for school, do your work, practice on your mannequins. If you're not doing those things, why would we want to hire you? We want that person who is like us, who will do anything to get to the top, because there are people out there who will. If you're not one of those people, you’ll get passed up.

WC:   Can you share some tips about making money from men’s grooming? 

DS:   When it comes to men, start at the top with the hair and work your way down. You have haircuts, hair color, and products. Don’t pluck the eyebrows too much or you’ll give your client a feminine look—but of course, the unibrow has to go. Moving further down, we have shaving and beard trimming. Although this goes into barbering, there are plenty of male-focused product lines that offer these types of classes. Understand the types of beards, how to groom them, where to make the lines, and where to cut. It’s not just a beard; it’s a shape, as your haircuts are. A beard can change the shape of the face. As we get older, the skin under the chin starts to sag. It happens with women, too, but men are luckier because they can grow a beard. In the beard area, you have the opportunity to upsell on beard trimmers, lotions, potions, and shaving creams. You can also color a man’s eyebrows and beard. For nose and ear hair, have a trimmer on hand. That’s another upsell.

Be aware of everything that has to do with the face; look at a man as a whole, including his body shape. I only cut a client’s hair to a certain point with the black cape on. When I’m starting to put on my finishing touches, I rip the cape off so I can see the shoulders, the width, the personality. That black cape makes everyone look the same, but when I take it off, I can see their T-shirt, the way they dress, their shoulder width, their body size, and their best feature. I take the cape off and finish the last 15 minutes or so. Yes, it’s gross; they get hair all over the place (I pre-warn them to bring two shirts), but haircutting is all about shape. My motivation is to create the best shape for your face.

Become an expert on all of these elements, including things you don’t typically think about when it comes to women’s hair. You don’t have to learn how to give hair transplants, but you’d better know what advice to give your client when he asks about hair plugs, hair transplants, Propecia, or any of the other drugs out there. It’s your job as a men’s specialist to know a little bit about all of that. You need to be able to guide your client in the right direction and not be afraid. Balding and thinning hair is the most sensitive area of men’s grooming. Your job is to do your research, comfort them, and tell them what exists. I had a client who had talked about hair loss and surgical options during his last six visits. After a while I looked at him and said, “I think all you're really looking for is permission to see the doctor and take the next step. If that’s true, allow me to give you the permission and the name of the doctor I trust.” 

WC:   For today’s younger generation, everyone on the Little League team got a trophy. In real life, some people get the gig and some don’t.

DS:   I’ve lost clients and gained clients. In the salon, one day your client might be sitting in the artist’s chair next to yours. Don’t be mad at the hairdresser, and don’t be mad at the client because now someone you like will fill that spot. Be very, very cautious about being jealous and putting out negative energy.

It's great to have goals like styling your favorite singer or working on a TV show, but that’s not how it works. When you're at the point when your agent asks, “Is there anyone you want to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?” that’s when you can say “Britney Spears!” In the beginning, you’ll start who knows where. I waited tables for eight years to get to a job like I have today. It’s not realistic to pinpoint your goals to working with a certain celebrity; what you need to pinpoint is your burning desire, such as doing freelance or session work. Have an open mind. While you’re thinking you want to work with Britney, what if Katy Perry calls? Are you going to say no? Of course not! You’ll say, “Wow, this is amazing! And I didn’t even dream of it.”