Winn Claybaugh Interviews Ruth Roche

Winn Claybaugh and Ruth Roche

Winn Claybaugh is the dean and cofounder of Paul Mitchell Schools and the founder of MASTERS Audio Club. He interviewed Ruth Roche, salon owner, editorial stylist, platform artist, and educator. Ruth's work has appeared in major fashion magazines and she has worked with renowned photographers like Annie Leibovitz. Ruth's celebrity clients have included Anne Hathaway, Mariah Carey, Lindsay Lohan, Sheryl Crow, Kelly Ripa, and many others. Ruth was Redken's Global Artistic Director of Design and previously worked with Trevor Sorbie. Currently, Ruth is the Artistic Ambassador for Pureology. In 2003 she opened RARE Salon and Academy in New York City, passing the torch to stylist Fatima Sheikh in 2010, who now owns Rare Salon. Ruth has been honored multiple times by the North American Hairstyling Awards, including Master Stylist of the Year, and is featured in the documentary "Stars Behind the Chair: The Leading Ladies of Hair." There is nothing Ruth loves more than learning from and sharing knowledge with her fellow hairdressers.

WC: In 2009, you entered NAHA in the Salon Team category for the first time. What was that like?

RR: I had had my salon for about six years at the time and never done a shoot with my team before (they had assisted at my shoots). We did a beautiful shoot and were really excited because we loved the collection. Then came the day NAHA was notifying the finalists. As the day went on and we didn't get a phone call, everybody's face got a little longer. Eight o'clock rolled around, and we still hadn't heard anything. We didn't place as finalists. One of my stylists said something like, "Well, that sucks. They don't know what they're talking about." Because I've won before, they thought we'd win again. It was a humbling experience to realize we didn't place, but we had to ask ourselves, "Are we going to give up and never do it again, or are we going to try again next year?" It's more about entering, being a part of it, and acknowledging your own success for completing a collection. It all counts, and you have to celebrate all of it.

WC: James Morrison tells the joke: How many hairdressers does it take to teach a haircut? One hundred: one to do the cut, and 99 to stand there and say, "Oh, I could do that." That's the attitude some people have about entering NAHA. They say, "Well, I could do that," but they didn't.

RR: I can't remember who it was, but somebody said they don't enter NAHA because they can't afford to be seen losing; their reputation is too important. But I think it gives people more courage to see both the disappointments and the exciting times. All of those things make you the strongest person.

WC: A few years back, you told an audience of Beacon students about your first photo shoot—it was in the back of a Chinese restaurant—and you showed the images. People sometimes think every image you've produced since birth is beautiful work that wins awards, receives accolades, and gets printed in top magazines, but you showed them that's not always the case and you sent out a fabulous, strong message that we all start somewhere. The great makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin's first model was his sister; he worked his way up to Naomi Campbell. When students ask how they can become successful editorial stylists, I tell them to grab a camera and do the work!

RR: Even if it's not going to get published, it teaches you how to see what the camera sees and you start to learn about what makes a look a look. You might think it looks great when you're staring at it in person, but then you shoot it on film and it looks different than you expected.

WC: People are fascinated by the world of freelance session work. What's it like to do a TV commercial like Head and Shoulders, or a catalog shoot like Victoria's Secret? Does it pay really well

RR: TV commercials pay well. You don't get royalties (at least in my case). The production company hires you, and the director gets the final say. The catalog didn't pay as much as you would think because it wasn't an ad campaign. We did two models each day, styling and dressing their hair. The cutting and coloring is usually done someplace else, separate from the editorial work. To make it in this business, you have to learn how to do everything: finger waves, roller sets, comb-outs. You need dexterity in learning how hair moves and getting volume in hair. If you can't dress hair in different ways and create beautiful shapes, you're never going to make it in that world.

WC: I've never had a boring experience with Ruth Roche. Every time we get together, it's fun. In 2009, when you were onstage as one of the emcees for the NAHA awards, every time you came out the whole audience perked up. The fact that someone like you can come along and lighten the mood—how much does your personality play into getting hired?

RR: It's interesting that you ask that because I have so much confidence when I'm working in our industry (onstage and all that stuff), but sometimes in session work, editorial, and advertising, I'm a different person. Sometimes when a director says, "We don't want hair-show hair," I get insecure and I pull back. I don't do as much as I want to do because I'm afraid they'll think it's hair-show hair.

WC: You're not a name-dropper, but which celebrity clients have you worked with? I'm only asking so people can see that if you did it, they can, too.

RR: I've worked with Mariah Carey, styling her hair for events. I did her for a red carpet event, and that was pretty cool because I got to travel with the group. I worked with Mariska Hargitay from Law and Order for quite a while. I love her! I also worked with Lindsay Lohan for a few years, and Jessica Szohr (one of the Gossip Girls) quite a bit.

WC: You were the global artistic director for Redken for several years, you worked with Trevor Sorbie as artistic director, you've been a salon owner working with clientele, and you're now Pureology's Artistic Ambassador. You're building your own name and your own brand, but you've always pursued education. Is there something about education that you just love?

RR: It's my first love, for sure.

WC: Was running a salon more difficult than you imagined it would be?

RR: Yes. I love people and I'm a natural leader, but that doesn't make me a manager. I'm positive and excited but I'm always onto the next idea. A manager follows through, follows up with the team. I could not have done it without the right people around me: people who support and believe in the vision I have, people who are willing to work really hard, always say yes, show up early, stay late, and do whatever it takes. I love to have those people around me because they inspire me to be better, and I want to be better for them because they're so supportive of me. I wouldn't have been able to do what I've done without those kinds of people around me.

WC: I love your stories about how you chose your mentors in your early career and tried to duplicate them.

RR: Yes, I did. Vivienne Mackinder was the epitome of grace, style, and talent and I tried to be the American version of that. But I'm short, I'm built for having children, and I'm American. I'm never going to have a British accent. She's Grace Kelly and I'm Lucille Ball trying to be Grace Kelly! Embracing who I am and finding that person, finding my own feet as an educator and onstage—Trevor Sorbie really gave me that chance. I started doing blowouts for him onstage, and then little by little he gave me more responsibility. I remember the first time an audience laughed when I said something and I thought, "Ooh, they actually liked what I said. I'm onstage with Trevor Sorbie and they're actually interested in what I'm saying. That's pretty cool." It was one of those moments when I thought, "Holy cow, how lucky am I?"

WC: How hard have you had to work for the opportunities and positions you've had?

RR: I have worked really hard. I was with Trevor Sorbie for nine years. When I first started on the team, I had only been doing hair for three and a half years. I'd never done a demonstration, and I had no knowledge of how to cut hair and talk at the same time, or represent a product line I was just learning about. Going through the training, I was just a mess, falling on my face and crying all the time. Thank God that Trevor saw something in me and kept me around. I also lost my mother at that time, so I threw myself into my training and became the team trainer for the U.S.

WC: You became a nonsmoker 7 years ago. There's a purpose for asking that question: Here you are, you're successful, but you still have your little demons to overcome.

RR: I think most creative, driven people have to battle with something, and I definitely tend toward excess. Smoking makes your brain stop and take a break for a minute. When I quit, it was like I lost what I thought was my friend, which was really a big lie. I had quit two other times and lasted about ten months, a year and a half. I don't want to discourage anyone, but it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I smoked for over 20 years, and I smoked a lot. When I quit, my body chemistry went off and I was very emotional. I still had to be a leader in my salon, and it was tough. I went to the bathroom and cried a lot, but I was determined and I did it cold turkey. I didn't want to have a monkey on my back. I didn't want something that I was a slave to. It made me so mad that something had control over me like that. I also didn't want the health problems that it could cause. Heart disease runs in my family, and I was coughing all the time. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I am SO GRATEFUL to be free of the addiction. Then there's the whole smelling-like-smoke thing, and the public shame of having to smoke outside. It's 40 degrees below zero and snowing, and you're out there like a total idiot, smoking outside. It also took me away from being present because I'd be doing something and I'd be thinking, "I've got to go, I need to have a cigarette, I've got to have a cigarette." We used to be able to smoke in the model room, and now I think, how could we do that to all those people who didn't smoke?

WC: What have you sacrificed and what advice do you have for others? If you could, what advice would you give your 23-year-old self?

RR: It's difficult to maintain balance, and I don't know that I've ever actually achieved that. My advice would be to nurture your relationships with your friends. I traveled so much when I worked with Redken that my friends stopped inviting me to things because they figured I was on the road. Wearing all those hats is difficult, especially with a salon in the mix; my brain is in so many different places, multitasking all the time. If I don't exercise, I start to get nutty. You have to take care of yourself to endure the pressures and stress that all those things bring to your plate. I don't regret anything. I have wonderful friends, and I work with my friends, but I had a hard time meeting people, meeting guys, because I was always working. I'm still in that situation. It's like, "Oops, I forgot to have children!" Sometimes you have to make choices, say no, and look at your priorities. My father is 88 and very healthy, and I want to spend as much time as I can with him, so I'll block out five days and fly home to be with my dad. In the early years, I never said no to anything; that's part of the reason I got where I am. So go for it, but also nurture those relationships.

WC: For a while you were under Trevor Sorbie's brand, then you were under Redken 5th Avenue's brand. What was it like when you decided to go your own way and build your own brand?

RR: It was terrifying. I had actually started my academy but I didn't have a salon yet. For the first two years I rented a venue when I had classes. My very first class was on September 11, 2001. I was expecting people to travel to New York, and of course, that was a time when people stopped traveling. So the first year of my academy, I was really scared. I had invested all this money and left a great company to pursue my own thing. I made some huge mistakes financially, trusting certain people too much and not knowing what I was getting into. On the other hand, if I had known, I might've been too scared to do it. Building my own business was like building a haircut. It's fun and it's creative. I love coming up with ideas. It's the execution and discipline that I hate, but I know I have to do it.

WC: What advice would you give someone who feels stuck, bored, or in a rut? What ideas would you give them to find inspiration? Is it looking through magazines, enrolling in a class, studying architecture, all of the above? What works for you?

RR: What works for me is being around people. For example, I've sat in on your classes with the Beacon students and I was inspired by listening to someone inspiring. Learning how to do different things, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and letting people see your vulnerability so you can get help are all good ideas. Magazines are good, if you go through them with someone else. At our salon, we'd do it as a team: everybody would bring in tear sheets with ideas they liked—it could be jewelry, lighting, colors, or anything they were drawn to. We'd sit in a semi-circle and each person would tell why he or she chose the images. Usually, we'd get about three different themes from this exercise.

WC: When you get burned out, what went wrong?

RR: What went wrong was I didn't rest, I didn't turn it off. During one of those periods, I was working 15 hours a day, doing clients all day long, paying the bills at night, and doing everything I'd done in the beginning of my career. I was working like a maniac and feeling like I didn't have time to do anything new or create. I had the stress of not taking care of myself physically and the mental beat-yourself-up, you're-a-loser thing. I got really, really sad, so I reached out to a few good friends, rested, and tried to shut my mind up. For me, the main thing is ruminating and thinking about what I could have done differently and things I have no control over. It's exhausting. I spent two days with one of my best friends. We didn't do anything, we had no agenda. I went shopping—I don't ever do that kind of stuff—and I felt rested, I felt good, I was smiling again. My advice to myself and other people like me is to do a little resting on a daily basis, even if you just rest your brain, and stop working at some point.

WC: I always know that when I hook up with you, it's going to be fun, informational, and you'll still be the same person you were when I first met you. That's so refreshing. People who get the press, money, accolades, and celebrity clientele but attach a lot of ego to it don't last long in this industry, but there are those who've been around for a very long time and they're still brilliant, creative, and love what they do—and they're the most humble, fun, approachable people. I think there are two gifts: the first is the talent and the skill, and the second is the humility attached to that skill. Some people didn't get that second gift, but maybe you got both. Do you have to work at being approachable?

RR: No. When someone approaches me, like a stylist or a student at one of the schools, and they say, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm talking to you," I'm thinking, "I can't believe I'm talking to YOU!" I am honored when somebody wants to take a picture with me or ask a question or get advice. I remember doing a hands-on workshop in Australia and I was so stressed out because I wanted to give them as much as possible. We had tables with clamp-on mannequin stands, and everyone was kneeling on the floor doing a haircut that I had designed. They were so excited to be there and talk to me, and I was overwhelmed. I just want to cry when that happens because all these people pay to be there and I am really humbled by that. Big time.

WC: Do you have a final message?

RR: This is your life and you get to do what you want with it. You get to create it the way you want it to be. If you have a dream, no matter what your dream is, there's no reason you can't make it come true. If I can do it, tripping and falling in front of celebrities at a set, knocking down a $10,000 light, and I can have a salon in New York City and start with no clients and do well, if I can get an agent in New York City and do really cool stuff—if I can do that, anyone can do it wherever they are, whatever they want to do. It's just being patient. Sometimes we want things right away, and that's normal. But I've been doing this for 29 years. It didn't take 29 years for me to get some cool things going on, but I always strived to be better at what I was doing. I learned that from Trevor and from Vivienne. Focus on your craft, be nice, reach out to people, get to know people, offer to help people. The biggest way to get some of the things you want is to help people get what they want. Be present, keep your eyes open for opportunities, and always say yes. And have balance. And let me know how you do it, when you find out!