Winn Claybaugh Interviews Ken Paves

Winn Claybaugh is the dean and cofounder of Paul Mitchell Schools and the founder of MASTERS Audio Club. He interviewed Ken Paves, one of the world's most sought after and recognizable hairstylists. Ken has created award-winning styles for Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few. He is part of Simon Cowell's X Factor creative team and designed the hair for Periwinkle, Disney's newest character. Although his résumé screams the names of major celebrities and accomplishments, you will find Ken to be humble, genuine, and loving.

Winn: We're sitting in Ken's beautiful salon in the middle of West Hollywood. How long have you been in this location?

Ken: We've been here for about eight years now. I actually bought the salon from an amazing hairstylist named Jordan Schwartz who was one of the revolutionaries in the '60s. He did an incredible haircut on Jean Seberg—I'll get off track for a minute because it's a great story.

I rented a space to do makeovers for the Oprah show, which I did for nine years. And one of the stylists came down to get a flower from this building for her hair. She came back up with an amazing flower in her hair and said, "You've got to come down. The place next door is a salon," which I didn't know. "You have to meet Jordan, he's the owner." So I came down, I met this incredible guy, one of the coolest-looking cats you'll ever see in your entire life. He looked like he just came out of the '60s. Beatnik. You know, plaid pants, argyle socks, great loafers, the whole nine yards. One of the coolest people I've ever met. And we talked for about two hours. And I wasn't looking to buy a salon. And he said to me, "I've been asking my angels to send me someone to take the salon over. I want to tell you, I have cancer and I've been looking for someone to take the salon over." And I said, "You know what, Jordan? I've never thought about having a salon here. I have one in my hometown, but I believe I was supposed to be here. I think we have a deal. My mom's coming into town tomorrow and some other friends of mine, so can I come back and show them the salon? If my mom says yes, then cool, we've got a deal." Loved him. I mean, he was just this incredible guy. Came back the next day with my mother and then my friend Nate Berkus, who was the decorator on the Oprah show, in tow to see what this salon should look like. And we walked in. My mom said, "You have to have it. This feels like home." And then one of the women who was working here said, "Hey wait a minute, those two boys are the boys from Oprah. Wait a second." And Jordan walked over and he said, "Should I know you?" And I said, "No, not at all." And I went ahead and took the salon over. Before Jordan's passing he had been an incredible hairdresser but wanted to do some of the things that we were doing, some of the shows, and some of all this kind of stuff. And I learned so much from him. You never stop learning. He became one of my greatest teachers and role models.

We were shooting the sixth installment of America's Next Top Model here and there was this incredible, cool, short haircut that the producers said to me, "We want this on this girl." And I said, "Okay, well, I've got the perfect hairdresser." And they said, "No, we want you to do it." And I said, "No, no, no, I've got someone who's going to do it better than me." And they're like, "Okay." So I brought Jordan over. Well, by this time, you know, his illness had progressed a little bit and he was a little bit shaky. Not a problem; I think it makes for a better haircut, gives more texture. So he came over with a couple pairs of triple-bladed shears and all his accouterments. He was getting ready and the producer walked over and said, "Hey, whoa, wait a second. Can you do this?" And he said, "Yeah, I've got this." And the producer said, "No, no, are you sure you can do this? This is what I want." Jordan was really humble in his eccentricity. You've got to see a picture of him. Neon pants, a neon thong, and plaid—I mean, everything. Coolest guy ever but he's very humble in his work. And he said, "No, no, no, I've got this. I can do this." So a few more times they asked, "Can you do this?" And then they said to him, "Well, how do you know you can do this?" And he said, "Because I did that haircut on Jean Seberg in 1967." This salon is a home to everyone that works here and all the people that come here as well as mine. So it's a pretty cool career we have. We have a responsibility to everybody who influenced our career, good or bad, to recognize them and say thank you. Because they helped to mold us who we are. Without challenges and without greatness, we would never be who we are. I appreciate more so the challenges; I really do.

Winn: What do you charge now?

Ken: Haircuts in the salon are $600 for me. My day rate begins at $6,000 on eight hours and goes up from there. I do more free things than anything nowadays, obviously, for people who can't—you know, I give a free wig to any woman in the world in medical need. If I see a woman on the street who looks like she's having a hard day, I'll invite her to the salon. When I hear my résumé, I know that in each of those accomplishments I made somebody feel great, and that's why I was there. I was there for them.

Winn: You said it was your insecurities that got you into the industry. Can you expand on that?

Ken: I always knew I was different. I played baseball, built my first car, did all those type of things. Rode a motorcycle from six on. But then there were other things about me that were different, and I also looked different. When I was about 12 to 14, whenever my mom and I would go anywhere, they would say, "Hi ladies, come on in." Everybody thought I was a girl. I don't know why; I thought I looked like a boy. Then I went through a phase where my nickname was Chunky. I gained a little weight and my friend's grandmother said, "Oh honey, you're looking chunky," and that was my nickname for a long time after that.

I do with the best with what I have, and now I'm confident in who I am because I accept who I am. But all those years of feeling incredibly insecure and feeling like people were looking at me because I didn't look a certain way, or because I was from the wrong side of town, all those doubts and insecurities that could've been hurtful, and were hurtful at the time, actually made me who I am today, and made me incredibly powerful in myself. I make no excuses for who I am, no apologies, and I believe in myself. And that allows me to believe in everyone around me.

Winn: I wonder how many people in this industry or in other industries didn't necessarily fit into traditional learning environments and were kind of the outcasts because we felt like we were different. There are people listening to this right now thinking, "Well, I don't fit in, and therefore I'm going to be less than, I'm not going to be successful." You're saying the fact that you don't fit in could be your best asset.

Ken: It is. Absolutely. Here's the thing that I think you should do as stylists. Even though people were giving me a hard time, saying I didn't look like I fit in, and calling me names and all that kind of stuff, I quickly built up my own reputation. I started doing things for the local news channels; I started doing little fashion shows. I was like, "I don't care what they think about me. What do you guys think? You want to give me a chance here? Let's make this happen." And suddenly I was busier and more popular than the chick calling me bad names.

Once you drop the walls—and that's one thing in our industry that I'd love to see change, is the arrogance against each other and the animosity towards each other. Just because we're hairdressers doesn't mean we can't get along. I love other hairdressers. I love seeing what they're doing. I don't ever feel a sense of competition and I never have. The great thing about this industry is that there's room for all of us.

The amazing thing about this career is that you can make it. It's no one else's responsibility. I don't think you should ever go into a salon and say, "What are you going to do for me?" You should go into a salon and say, "Here's what I'm going to do for you."

Winn: Don't pass by that message that quickly. Expand on that.

Ken: I used to have these cards up front with about 40 of my covers on them, showing everybody you can imagine. A girl that worked here for a year or so and went up, not knowing that I was around, and she tapped on the covers, all the pictures, and said, "When am I gonna get this? That's why I'm here." I spun around and said, "Well, that's so funny. When do you go out and make it happen? I'm going to give you the opportunities, I'll give you a house to do them within, I'll support you, you can use anything of mine that you want." I'm really supportive of my stylists. I give them anything they need. But go out and do it yourself. And that's what I tell anyone that comes here. I will help you. I'll teach you everything I know. I'll share with you everything I have and you, hopefully, will share and inspire and teach me as well. But there's no greater way to feel accomplished than knowing you've had a major part in it yourself. If somebody just hands you something, there's not much pride in that. If somebody gives you tools and wherewithal and you grow and are inspired and create something from that, there's a lot of pride in that.

When I worked at Oribe, I was working for one of the most incredible hairdressers in the world and so grateful for the opportunity. I didn't see him for the first six months. I was working all over the streets, doing all different stuff. I started these little fashion lunches at the Astor Place Hotel. I borrowed models from a modeling agency, clothes from clothing stores, and I was making my own things happen because I was so honored to be there and I felt responsible to honor Oribe. I also knew that just having that badge, even though I hadn't seen him for the first six months, he had already given me something by letting me work there. I'd go into Gucci at Bal Harbor and say, "I don't have any clients yet but guess what? I'm working at Oribe. Do you want to come in on Saturdays? I'm assisting these day, but come in Saturdays. I'll give you free blowouts if you tell all your customers that can afford to shop here in Gucci that I did your hair." You know what I mean? You can find ways to make it happen. It shouldn't be easy. Nothing great in life comes easy.

Winn: If I were to ask you, "Name the big break," or "What's the one thing you do in this salon that makes you so successful?" you couldn't name one thing. It's hundreds of little, from the right music to the right coffee to the clean salon and the dress code. All those little things add up. People think they'll be successful once that big break comes along. Quit looking for that and say yes to all the little things along the way.

Ken: Nobody will consider you for that big break you think you need unless you have built up a reputation or a body of work before that to make yourself qualified for that big break. Oprah said it, I think. I don't want to quote her exactly because I don't remember exactly what she said, but it's something along the lines of there's no such thing as luck. It's when preparation meets opportunity. So you can say I'm lucky, but I was prepared when an opportunity came along. If you're waiting for this big break and it comes along and you're not prepared, they'll look right over you. If you don't have it there with you to show what you've done and what you're qualified and capable of, you can't just tell someone, "Hey, this is how qualified I am." Okay great, show me something. What have you done? "Well, I haven't, but I know this is my break." Okay, keep it moving!

Winn: Marianne Williamson used to say everybody's waiting for that spotlight, when the truth of the matter is they haven't practiced the gig. So if they ever got the spotlight, they'd make total fools of themselves. Practice, practice, practice the gig before you're ever going to get the spotlight.

Ken: That's right. No matter what. And some of the most gratifying things I've ever done have been things where nobody ever saw them. There was no money exchanged. There was no recognition. I was not written up in a magazine. Some of the greatest things I've ever done are my private things that I have with somebody, those accomplishments.

I actually had this conversation with a chef over dinner last night. We were talking about a mutual friend, Gordon Ramsay, who's an accomplished chef with 19 Michelin stars on his restaurants and all these things. Someone said, "Yeah, he's kind of, you know—" along the lines of saying someone is "just a hairdresser" in my field. I said, "You know, it's funny because years ago people didn't look at our jobs in the service industry as— if you weren't going to school to be a lawyer or a doctor, whatever you were doing wasn't good enough. And now chefs and hairdressers and all these people in the service industry who use our hands and our tools are getting this recognition, which is great. When you work as hard as we have worked and lots of other people out there have worked, you deserve to be recognized and celebrated. But I feel like the word celebrity is almost a nasty term in the fact that everybody wants it now. When younger people are going to school, it's to become a celebrity hairdresser. What does that mean to you? I guarantee it doesn't mean to me what you think it means to me, or even what my career might even suggest. That's not what it means to me.

When you think of all these little things that have happened and your quote with Marianne Williamson—you have to practice the gig before you get in the spotlight—that's what makes a true celebrity to me. Somebody who's pounded the pavement, somebody who's worked their ass off with nothing. There were so many moments along this career where I was way behind on my rent, where I couldn't afford this, where I was calling my mom to use her credit card to buy a hairpiece for somebody because I couldn't afford it. Those are the moments I celebrate. If that makes me a celebrity hairdresser, then rock on because that's what I'm most proud of: that I kicked ass when I had to kick ass and I made it happen. That's what I think is cool, to me.

Winn: I wonder how many people would pass up those opportunities because they think, "I'm not going to get any press for this, so why do it? I'm not going to get paid."

Ken: That's right. If you really love something, you do it no matter what. When I was doing tons of covers and flying around the world—I flew to Greece to do a cover of one of the InStyles with Jennifer Lopez, then flew back for Dancing With the Stars or something with Lady Gaga—I got $75 for that cover of InStyle or $150, whatever it is. When you're doing editorial, there's no money in it. You use more money in product, so you have to do it because you love it. You can do 8 million covers. I have so many great friends of mine who live in New York City who are the biggest and baddest and coolest unsung heroes, who are these amazing editorial stylists who blow me away and are just so unbelievable. And they're making editorial rates, so they're not living high on the hog. They're doing it because they really love it.

Winn: How did you get to Oprah? How did that come about?

Ken: A really great client of mine, a friend of mine, was an actress by the name of Victoria Principal. We had been working together for years. I did all of her skin care infomercials and everything, and she had gotten called—her and some other actresses, Beverly Peele and some other people—had gotten called to do age-defying makeovers at Oprah. Victoria called me up and said, "Would you want to come on Oprah and be my hands? I'll tell you what you need to do, and would you be my hands?" I said, "Absolutely." So I went there and I made over a rock ‘n' roll couple who both had matching perms down to their waist. Killed it. Killed it. And Oprah obviously liked what she saw, and so did all the producers because they called me back in two weeks and said, "We're doing another show. We want you to come on your own this time." I called Victoria and said, "I want to make sure you're okay with this." Because you can never forget who brought you to the dance and you can never, ever, ever not give kudos to those people. In my book that I wrote, I mentioned everyone along the way that helped me. If one of those people didn't help me, I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now.

So I called Victoria and I said, "You know, Victoria, they've asked me to come back and I just want to make sure it's okay with you. I'm sure it's just background hairdresser, whatever else." And I went back and did a great job again, and Ellen Rackieten, executive producer over there for 19 or 20 years with 13 Emmys in her apartment, said to me recently, "You were on the show about 40 times," with all the reruns and everything, this kind of stuff.

I grew up loving Oprah because in 1986 when the show came on, that's around the time people were calling me Miss. She was the person who put herself out there, and I felt like she campaigned for all of us. She actually made me feel great about myself before she ever even knew it. To eventually one day stand before Oprah and have her recognize my work—if there's any one moment that is my absolute greatest moment, it was to stand before somebody who, even before she knew me, I looked up to for acceptance. And then to have her accept me, oh my God, you have no idea. I mean, literally shaking in my boots, gives me goose bumps still. That is something you work hard for. And I had worked hard up until that point to have the opportunity, and when I had the opportunity I performed. So it wasn't by a chance of luck, and it wasn't like I just went there and did this. I actually worked for it, and in that I can take pride that she recognized me and feel like I gave her something, too, in return for what she gave me, which was immeasurable, you know. So I love her.

Winn: Have you ever run the salon as though it were not a business?

Ken: For many years.

Winn: And what did that look like?

Ken: Not good. I wasn't always the best businessperson. I didn't get into this for any business reasons or any great financial gain. I did it from a place of love and with passion. I love people, I love to be around people and hang around. I get all warm and fuzzy inside when we do something good together and when I get to see new stylists spread their wings. Then I had some people on my personal business team say, "Okay, well, now we need to turn this over to make a profit because you're still paying for everything. You're still kicking in to keep it going." And I was like, "Oh wow. Well, how is that? Why is that? How could that be?" And they're like, "Okay, let us show you how, what plus what is supposed to equal this." So I got an education in being a salon owner, and that's the other thing. For myself, I needed to learn that this is a serious business. I had created this career for myself outside that I had become successful in, and then owning a salon was a whole other avenue of this professional business. You need to have an education and you need to take it serious. You need to teach yourself, you need to constantly learn, and you need to talk to other people.

I talk to a good friend of mine; Byron Williams has a great salon out here. He and I threw a baby shower recently for a friend of ours. I picked his brain, too; you know what I mean? He's got a salon close to mine.

Winn: You mentioned a couple of things that allow you to reach out to people. Number one, you are still giving accolades to the people who opened those doors for you, no matter how long ago. Number two, you never forget who brought you to the dance. When you practice those things, then you still have the right, so to speak, to pick up the phone and say, "Hey, give me some advice on this, how can you help me on this?" But you've got to still be giving it back and remember where you came from.

Ken: One hundred percent. When I did Celine Dion's show, 4,100 programs went out a night to the audience, and the thing I was most proud of was in my bio page, the last sentence about me. It said: "The greatest thing about Ken Paves may not be the hair that you see styled on the stage, but the fact that he's never forgotten he's in the service industry." That, to me, is a huge compliment.

What's wrong with being a working man or woman? If you forget that you're working for somebody, what ends up happening is an unhappy customer. An unhappy client. My greatest successes are when it's a compromise. If somebody sits in your chair, it's not your job to say, "Oh guess what? You're only going to look great with this haircut and here's what you get." Then you have somebody that walks out with their shoulders arched over, they're not happy, not feeling confident. But if you can listen to somebody and realize that your job is to provide a service to them and to communicate their hopes and dreams through that service, not just dictate what they're going to have, that's the great success. So that's why it's so important to me, because I'm not doing my job or serving my purpose if I'm not including the person in my chair. I see so many times all these little hairdressers that have so much attitude and so much arrogance who forget that there's somebody else in the chair. Then it becomes all about them and their haircut, and then the haircut overpowers the woman. It's about everything.

Winn: Talk about your ongoing training. I'm you're sure still learning technically, you're still learning in business. Give our listeners some resources of where they should be looking.

Ken: To continue to learn and grow, you should look everywhere around you and never underestimate what could be learned in the littlest of situations. I learn from people on the street, I learn from artists. I'm influenced hugely by culture, by art, by entertainment. I'm hugely influenced by my environment and people around me. But I think the greatest thing we can do, even though I have been talking a lot here, it's about listening. When you listen to people, you learn. So I'm always trying to grow. It might have been on The Biggest Loser when we taped that recently. I had somebody come over and show me on a haircut I was doing—I asked the person, "How would you do this? I actually want to see how you would do this." And people are always like, "Wait a minute, you're Ken Paves. What do you mean?" But that other person may know something more, may actually be more qualified for this area. I want to see what she's going to bring. You continue to always learn, you know what I mean?

When you stand behind your chair and you look at the person next to you, if you're the kind of person that can say, "Wow, that's amazing. Great job," I promise you you're going to go far. If you're the kind of person that looks next to them and is like, "Mm, mmm hmm," you're not going to go as far as you think you are.

The greatest way to learn is to acknowledge everyone around you. I've never, ever said, even one time in an interview or anything, good or bad about a haircut or hairstyle. I won't be that person. I get tons of requests for interviews and they're like, "So we want to do this thing where you tell us why this is better than that." I'm like, "I'm not this person." Because guess what? The hairdresser that did that believed in what they did, and it works for a certain reason. People judge my work all the time. "Oh why did he do that? Oh my God, she looked better before. Okay, she's had that look since 1968. It's now 2013." Whether it was better before, fine, you can have your opinion. But I wanted her to be current. To me, the only thing I'm ever trying to do is have people be current in themselves. I don't want to be a vintage version of myself. Vintage handbag, cute. Vintage you, not so cute. You know what I mean? Because you look in the mirror and you're like, "Ooh, my hair looks the same, I'm wearing the same T-shirt I used to wear, but ooh the face, what happened?" If you can always evolve and look your best for where you are in that moment, I think you stay current as yourself.

Winn: Have you ever created something that, within a very short period of time, you said to yourself, "What was I thinking?"

Ken: Oh, I'm sure I have. I'm the type of hairdresser that will literally chase my client to the car and even sometimes jump in the car with them. I've been in the car with clients as they're approaching a red carpet because at the last second, I didn't love what I did. And they're like, "Oh my God, I love it, what do you mean?" I'm like, "No, no, it's not perfect." I've done hair in a helicopter, I've done hair in elevators, in basements, everywhere because that's what we do. "Oh my God, wait a minute, it's slipping, hold on a second."

Winn: A lot of people who work in the field of art are a little insecure, but I don't see that as a bad thing. I think that's probably why you took my phone call, that's why you're still approachable, that's why you'll still mentor that next generation, because it's that part of you that keeps you humble. I think the flip side of insecurity sometimes is humility.

Ken: One hundred percent. It's funny because you always grow. You still grow. The things that interest me the most today are those moments, because by mentoring somebody else, guess what happens? I learn. I continue to learn. So even though they think I'm giving them an education, they're giving me an education back because their eyes are different than mine.