Jimmy Paul's Advice for Finding Success As a Hairstylist

Legendary hairstylist Jimmy Paul has collaborated with nearly every major fashion editor, led backstage hair at countless fashion weeks, and worked with well-known brands like Bumble and bumble. We gave him a ring to hear more about his journey, from his Pittsburgh beginnings to the world of Olaplex, and to get his top tips for beauty pros on navigating the beauty industry and finding success.

Tell us a little bit about your beginnings for those who aren't familiar.

I’m from a little town outside Pittsburgh. My mom is a hairstylist, so that was my beginning influence. She used to take me to hair shows when I was a kid. I always loved fashion and music and that kind of fantasy. I moved to New York when I was 19, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I met some people that did hair that I thought were really great. They worked in the fashion business. I went to beauty school in New York and worked in some salons, and it seemed like an impossible dream because I wasn’t really thriving. Then Oribe [Canales] opened a salon, and I started to work there. His partner, Omar [Ismail], was his agent. Omar started to represent the people at the salon, too. My agent Susan [Price], who I’m still with now, worked for Omar. When I first moved to New York I worked for some night clubs and met Susan there around 1990. She’s been with me from 0 to Olaplex.


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What would you credit as your "big break"?
Meeting Oribe and being under his wing was the first. Then I worked with Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue. Even before I saw the magazine, people heard about it or saw it in Europe—it wasn’t like now, where everything is online. I remember running into [fashion editor Joe McKenna], on the street and he was like, I saw your story in Italian Vogue with Steven! It scared me because while I was working and doing some good stuff, that was new. He was a really important editor and he was talking like he was in awe of me and the job I had done. Working with Steven that was a life-changing thing. Everything changed after that. 

Who were your other mentors or advocates?

I was always a groupie for the business—I was a real nerd and read every credit. Besides working for Oribe, I worked for Garren. He is remarkable, one of the most impressive talents. Pretty early on I got to meet the great hairdresser Christiaan. He comes from a completely different, much more free, side. Those are my big two hair heroes. Then there’s the editors. Whether it was Camilla Nickerson or later Grace Coddington or Tonne Goodman or Joe McKenna, who was a very early supporter, Paul Cavaco, or Victoria Bartlett. Many people don’t know that they helped choose hair and makeup people. Say, for instance, you’re doing a photo shoot. The fashion editor will have a meeting with the photographer and decide what they’re going to do and who they want to work with. Those people were on my side and really supportive.

When did the beauty brands start calling?
My first contract was with Clinique, around 1999 or 2000. They have a small haircare company but at one point they wanted to make it bigger. It was Jane Lauder’s baby. She was very young and it might have been her first big thing. We went to Asia and all over Europe and had meetings with editors. It was a completely different experience for me. My next thing was a long relationship with Bumble and bumble. I helped product development and did fashion shows and credited them in magazines.

Any fashion shows that stand out from others?

I would say the Thom Browne show where I did braids that stick up straight like rabbit ears. That was really exciting. In fashion show hair, it can be very minimal, which can be very beautiful. But to get to do something that’s so conceptual was really great. I had a particularly great team that year. We made all the braids beforehand and it was very organized. My first assistant, Lucas Wilson, is now doing his own fantastic work—he just did the big Vogue World show himself. I have a lot of assistants that went on to have these fantastic careers— maybe that’s a different story!


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What's your advice for hairstylists who want to make it in fashion or become a brand ambassador?
It’s not easy and it's extremely competitive. You have to be a minute man. I could never buy a ticket for a play for three weeks from now. This August was supposed to be vacation but I changed that all because of some work that came in. It's hard on being a human and it’s hard on relationships. If you want to do this, you have to really want to do it—it has to be a dream.

Besides doing hair, you also have to know how to navigate the industry. You can’t drop the ball. If something comes in that’s really important, you can't say no, because that could be the catalyst to something really important and future relationships. It’s a very big gamble to say no. I’ve seen people that I thought were much better at hair than me not be able to navigate the industry or have the right energy. I think my gift is not so much technique but more a touch or a softness or a way of seeing a woman—it's not being able to do the perfect bob. Those are things you can work on, too. But you have to give 100 percent. You have to be obsessed with the industry. And not everybody has that love for hair and fashion. A lot of it is just ridiculous, and of course it’s a business of tremendous luxury. You  have to sacrifice a lot. To get to the point where you’re making more money than a salon hairdresser, you have to carry yourself to get there. You have to give blood to get there. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

How do you stay authentic to your style and talent and achieve the goals of the brand you're working with?
The lucky thing is, no matter what, it’s my hands. So if they want a ponytail, it still comes out of my hands. So I always feel like it’s my hairstyle. It’s my approach to it. It can be very subtle—the placement of the ponytail, the grain of the hair. A fashion ponytail can be a work of art. It’s an extremely tedious thing you have to really learn. A right ponytail or little chignon like we did at Carolina Herrera or the knots at Jason Wu are very particular. It takes a lifetime of training to know how to accentuate a model’s features. It’s a lifetime of looking and studying and choosing the right products.


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Speaking of products, tell us more about your new role with Olaplex!
I was so excited when Olaplex approached me. One of the executives, Kathy Lewis, who I know from a previous role, DM’d me and I was like, What, really, is this real? It’s such an elevated line. I’m still kind of pinching myself. To be able to work with such beautiful products is such a luxury and a privilege.

How is working with Olaplex different from your previous relationships with brands?
It’s very new, but I can tell you I feel so respected and everyone is being so kind to me. That’s not always the case. I learned the hard way that sometimes people say they want your ideas, but they really don’t because it's someone else’s job. Not to say I didn’t work with nice people before! But I feel a difference—I feel a commitment to me and our relationship. It feels like a new level of respect and collaboration. Plus, The Daily Mail had something about the [Jason Wu] show and the hair I did—I’ve never had that before! And I’ve been invited to the lab—I’ve never been to a lab in my life! There’s so few things like this. It’s such a privilege for me to be with Olaplex.

Any additional pieces of advice for beauty pros?
My advice is to do the best work you can do and pray something like this might happen. The world is so much bigger than it was when I started. But it really comes down to learning your craft and loving hair and loving the fashion business. It's not just a fashion—there's also celebrity hair. Whatever it is, you have to excel and be very fortunate.

When I was working in salons, I'd never worked so hard in my life. There wasn’t a minute to do anything else. I was lucky that it became my dream. I went from being on the fence to having a taste of it, and actually applying myself and giving it everything. When I was in beauty school I thought, I'll do hair and maybe I'll do something else too, like I'd have another dream and hair is what I'd do in the meantime. That was such a rude awakening. There’s no room. You have to give it everything.



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