In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Mark Townsend is behind the dreamy, effortless hairstyles of so many stylish Hollywood stars. Dakota Johnson, Gal Gadot, Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Dormer and Kirsten Dunst are just a few examples, but I know him best as the man who has tended to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's hair since they were 15. I feel I should disclose that I've been obsessed with the Olsens for...my entire life. Today, I scan their Instagram fan accounts with the same excitement and focus I used to experience opening mailings from their official fan club. And over the years, I've always longed for their exact hair, from the choppy, highlighted bobs of the aughts to the super-long, air-dried waves they have today.
While he cut my hair (technically trimmed; like the Olsens, I'm trying to grow mine out right now) at a Beverly Hills salon, and afterwards, on the record, Townsend enthusiastically indulged my obsession with the stylish twins. "It makes me very, very proud that there is no other hairdresser on the planet that can speak with any kind of authority or any integrity about their hair because they have been so loyal," he says.
As far as people who mostly work with extremely famous people go, Townsend is unusually humble and kind, and has a way of making you feel comfortable and confident immediately. It's one of many skills that have likely served him well in his career, which began in a small Florida town.
To get to the level of success he's achieved today, he pounded the pavement — literally. With no connections, he walked into the biggest salons in New York during a trip up from Florida and ended up with a job at Oribe. Over time, his clientele evolved from Barbies to club kids to A-listers; and he hustled his way up and listened to his influential superiors — he assisted big industry names, including Danilo and Sally Hershberger. Eventually, he hopes to open is own salon.
Read on for our interview to learn how he climbed the salon ranks, what he learned from assisting, how he started working with his famous clients and how social media has changed the game.
Were you always interested in hair?
I have a sister that's two years older. Every Christmas morning when she got a Barbie, it was the greatest day of my life. I remember one year we got the "Star Wars" action figures, and of course I had Luke Skywalker and she had Princess Leia, and we immediately switched because I had to take those two big buns down. One Christmas morning my sister opened her present — she had the Barbie head that you can do hair and makeup on. Literally, my life changed.
I always found myself doing hair when I was bored; I'd braid my hair while I was studying for tests in school. Once I got out of high school, I wasn't totally focused [on hair]. I took a little bit of time off and I became a club kid. I did everyone's hair. The first day of cosmetology school was the first day I knew I was on the right path; this was exactly what I'm meant to do.
Where did you go to cosmetology school and what happened next?
Traviss [Career Center] in Lakeland, Florida. I went full-time — it takes a little over a year — then I worked in a local salon as an assistant just to build up my hours. I've always believed that experience is a better education. I just did shampoos and swept floors and then they let me start doing treatments. Eventually I started learning how to blowdry hair. Once I'd graduated and got my license, it was that one fateful trip to New York.
I went tagging along with a friend but I walked into the Oribe salon, I went into Frederic Fekkai, I went into Salon AKS. There were trends back then and these were the hairdressers setting all those trends, doing the fashion shows that I wanted to do.
How did you move up the ranks at Oribe?
I wanted to be Oribe's first assistant, but he already had met Judy, who is still his assistant to this day 23 years later. I wanted to be that person right next to the hairdresser. Several of the hairdressers at the Oribe salon helped me get in touch with Danilo. I literally stalked him, I called his agent every day. She told me if I ever called again, I would never work in this town again — like, I didn't think people really said that until she said it.
I finally got the opportunity to work with him one day and that led to two years of assisting him, and that's back when hairdressers brought their assistant everywhere.
What are the biggest lessons you've learned from assisting?
I would not be the hairdresser I am without assisting because it allowed me the opportunity to watch. Now I don't get to bring an assistant with me on every job — a lot of times the client doesn't want it or the publicist doesn't want so many people in the room, and I think it's a real misfortune for the younger generation because I got to just stand there and watch Sally Hershberger talk to a celebrity. She taught me no matter how scared or how intimidated I am — like my knees are shaking — but I can stand there and fake it. She taught me in the very beginning, celebrities are like sharks: They smell fear, so you have to be the most confident person in the room. I've seen a celebrity walk the red carpet and I see that moment that they're not sure and I want to make sure they know that they feel confident because the photos are gonna be better if they're confident in their look, the hair's gonna look better if they like it.
How did you end up working for Sally?
I started getting booked on things, [Danilo's] agent knew me really well so they would put me on little jobs: I was doing front of book for Vogue, Paper magazine. I was slowly moving my way up the ranks and learning who the editors were and then I got a call from Sally's agent saying that Sally's going to be spending a lot of time in New York and she needs a really really strong assistant. I thought, 'I just spent two years assisting, I'm going to do this again?' It was the fact that Sally needed someone that her clients could see when she was traveling. She was the first time I saw a hairdresser have to really juggle a schedule because Sally does it all. This was when the celebrities first started getting the covers and Sally was right on the cusp of that.
Because I got such a technical education from Sally and such a creative education from Danilo, that I've been able to combine them and create my look. I do like an effortless look. I love hair to be touchable.
How has Instagram changed the game for you?
Now you can actually turn your friends into Instagram models and do photoshoots with them. They don't get the education that I did but you can find it yourself now. I answer DMs all the time, especially from hairdressers. And what Jen Atkin did with Mane Addicts: We have a whole collection of hairdressers all working together and sharing info and telling each other about our favorite products and techniques instead of being super secretive about it. It's not such a competitive sport like it used to be.
A lot of the times that I'm working with a new client, they immediately tell me, 'I love your Instagram.' I used to literally have to send my portfolio. I've started working with several photographers just because they found me on Instagram. It's not just having a website and your agency making calls for you. We really are a whole industry of self-promoters, but we kind of always have been.
I literally pounded the pavement working in salons, and when I was assisting Sally and she would go to LA, I just approached Sharon Dorram, the colorist — she's the most expensive colorist in New York City, she runs like eight chairs at a time — and said, 'What if I just gave your clients free blowouts?' I mean, if they're paying $500 for highlights, you should get a free blowout. From there, I still have, like, seven or eight of those clients in New York. Some of them fly me back to New York just so I can blow out or cut their hair for them. Social media has just made the hustle a lot easier.
How did you end up striking off on your own and moving to Los Angeles?
[Sally] had set the look for a movie called 'Vanilla Sky' and the first day of shooting, she got called to set just to tweak the hair a little bit and I went with. I went back the second day, and they asked me if I could stay, so all of a sudden I was doing Tom Cruise for a major film. Then I started doing Penelope [Cruz]’s hair for the film, too. When I came to LA, it's kind of like I found home again; I got used to the lifestyle here.
My first carpet in LA was for the Oscars so I did Tom and Penelope Cruz. [Right after,] I did 'Minority Report,' which was directed by Steven Spielberg. I waited six or seven years for my 'overnight success' but it really was Tom, because he and Penelope then took me on the press tour.
What are the most challenging parts of your job?
Sometimes it's really frustrating. I have 2 million miles on American Airlines. It sounds like fun but it can be really lonely. I miss my dog, my friends, my family when I'm traveling, but the feeling that I get from hair is totally worth it.
There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen now: Getting someone ready for something like the Oscars, you're talking to not just the makeup artist, the stylist and the manicurist anymore. The publicist has an opinion and sometimes you get word directly from the designer how they think the hair and makeup should be and I'll take all those calls and I'll have all those conversations, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is how the client wants to look. I always want my clients to look like they're wearing the clothes and the clothes are not wearing them so I don't always want to copy a look from a runway. Dakota looks amazing with bangs because she has that face shape. When my client says, 'I feel great, I feel beautiful,' thats the most important thing for me. That's a much bigger compliment than even a magazine or somebody saying it was their favorite look.
How are you usually connected with a new client?
The client finds me on Instagram and then their publicist will reach out to my agent. Certain publicists always call for me. There's so many talented hairdressers out here working now, you gravitate to the kind of hair that you do. I have several clients that I share with other hairdressers and when they want a certain look they call me and when they want a different look they call somebody else. Chris McMillan gave me such good advice when I first moved to LA. He went and did a movie with Jennifer Aniston so he was gone for three months, I mean Chris McMillan was out of commission in LA and I met a lot of clients that way. I actually said to him, 'I hope Jennifer books you on another movie soon so I can go back to working all the time.' He just said, 'this is LA, there's plenty of work for all of us' and there really is.
I met a lot of them on photoshoots, I met Ashley and Mary-Kate on a photoshoot. I actually met Dakota [Johnson] for a red carpet event, and I think she had just been cast in "50 Shades". She was going to the LACMA event that Gucci has in LA every year and we had a great conversation just right away because she said things to me like, 'It's a lot of dress, so maybe the hair should be a little more simple,' and immediately I was like, 'oh we're gonna be friends.' I got a call that she was going to another event a week later and we’re still going.
You've worked with Ashley and Mary-Kate for 17 years — did that relationship get off to a similar start?
They were 15 when I met them. They know that I don't share Met Ball [with any other clients]; I'm their number-one for Met and for CFDA, but in the same way, they understand if they're going to the Oscar parties that I'm going to be with Gal [Gadot] or I'm going to be with Dakota, so we are able to balance that out.
I met them for their very first issue of Teen Vogue. They were doing a young Hollywood portfolio. On the photoshoot, they were very, very quiet. I was nervous that they didn't like me, but then came to find out they were actually whispering about me behind my back, asking my agent if I would go and work on a film with them. A week after that photoshoot, I was in Toronto setting up the hair trailer for what proved to be their last film ["New York Minute"] and it was my last film I did all the way through.
My favorite moment ever, I think, was I showed up at Ashley's apartment in New York thinking she just wanted a hair trim or something, and when I showed up, she answered the door and it looked like she was in army fatigues almost. She was covered in green — her hands, it was everywhere. Her whole kitchen and dining room was covered in swatches she had said, 'No one can find the right shade of mint so I'm going to make it.' That's so both of them, if it's not there, they're going to make it.
How did you end up working with Dove as an ambassador?
I actually was introduced to Dove hair products by Lea Michele. I was hired to style her hair for a Dove commercial and while I was on set I met with several of the executives at Unilever. I started using their products that day and I fell in love with them, so when they came to me and asked if i wanted to work with them and possibly develop with them, I jumped at the opportunity. Eight years later we're still going strong.
I'm obsessed with the dry shampoo, there hasn't been a hairstyle I've done in 10 years that didn't start or finish with that dry shampoo. My role as their spokesperson is to get the word out there. I get to take these scientific findings and put it into my words.
What's your next big step? Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?
Nothing about my job is predictable, I don't where I'll be in six months. So it's hard to think five or 10 years [out], but I know that for me one thing that's personally missing is I want to have my own little salon. I love doing hair so I'm not looking for any kind of exit strategy. I've been approached and had several opportunities but because of my schedule I just haven't been able to commit to it.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a professional hairstylist?
The thing about being a professional hairstylist is you have to get your license; you're going to be in school for one-to-two years. Educating yourself constantly is the biggest advice: I look at other hairstylists' Instagrams, I look at their how-tos, I constantly read about it. There's something new to learn every single day as a hairdresser so never for a second think you know it all and always be open to the education. That's another reason I want to get back in the salon, I miss the camaraderie. There really is a community in the hairdressing field. I love that part.
This interview has been edited for clarity.