Episode 99: Eloise Cheung, Editorial and Celebrity Hairstylist

Sometimes a career finds you and not the other way around. That’s what happened for Eloise Cheung, a hairstylist who has clocked in over two decades of editorial, advertising, and red carpet jobs. In college, she majored in engineering for a year before dropping out; that move led to a series of fortuitous breaks which would eventually cumulate into the job she loves now.

Hear how she went from Chinatown shampoo girl to apprentice at John Freida to a sought-after freelance stylist, along with advice on managing a freelance career and how to break into the world of hair circa 2019.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey, everybody. Welcome back to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®. I am sitting with, I'm so happy to be sitting with Eloise Cheung, hair stylist. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Eloise CheungHi. How are you?
Jodi KatzIt's great to see you again.
Eloise CheungYou too.
Jodi KatzWe worked together many times.
Eloise CheungYes.
Jodi KatzYou're very talented.
Eloise CheungThank you.
Jodi KatzI'm super excited to be able to share your story on our pod today. I'm trying to think back if we've actually had any hair stylist. We've only had, I think, one other hair stylist on our show so far.
Eloise CheungOh wow.
Jodi Katz... in our two years.
Eloise CheungExciting.
Jodi KatzYeah, so thank you for being number two.
Eloise CheungThanks.
Jodi KatzHow will you be spending your day today?
Eloise CheungToday? I was just doing emails and things this morning. The usual. Nothing crazy exciting. It's a Monday after all.
Jodi KatzYou don't have a lot of work usually on Mondays?
Eloise CheungSometimes, but today, I'm not shooting, so it's mainly organizational things.
Jodi KatzRight.
Eloise CheungSo, yeah.
Jodi KatzSo, we're going to talk a lot about the life of a freelancer in this business.
Eloise CheungRight.
Jodi KatzIt is exciting, but it is also growing, but before we do that, I'd like to go backwards. Back in time.
Eloise CheungOkay.
Jodi KatzSo, you grew up in London?
Eloise CheungI did. I grew up in London.
Jodi KatzAnd your parents wanted you to have a stable career like being an engineer.
Eloise CheungOh yeah. Classic like of Chinese upbringing. It was something. My eldest brother went into Finance and my middle brother became a lawyer and then for me, they wanted something that was more stable. You know one of those kind of classic doctor type things, but that wasn't the case.
Jodi KatzSo, you went to school actually to be an engineer?
Eloise CheungI did actually. Yeah, I studied engineering for a year at University and then figured that I wasn't brainy enough for that and it wasn't my forte.
Jodi KatzSo, what happened next?
Eloise CheungSo, I met some people in the summer who were studying at Vidal Sassoon and doing a course there and it was really interesting. We had like a really fun summer together and I was actually just working at a Chinatown salon by chance by doing sort of the Saturday girl job doing shampooing and getting shouted at a lot. Getting only paid 10 pounds a day. I hung out with these guys from how did Sassoon's course and it was super fun and creative and interesting and they gave me the classic sort of graduated Sassoon's bob and it was like okay. This is kind of cool, but then I went back to sort of my studying and training to be an engineer and everything.

But, then I dropped out. So, then it was like, well do I go from here? Then, obviously my mom was like, "We really want you ... You should learn about computer science. How about another degree?" And I was like, I'm just really over studying and being poor and not having money and it's like there's gotta be something else. Maybe I'm just not designed for kind of classical education. So, then I looked around. I had a really wonderful hairdresser at the time locally to me who shot the hair dresser's journal. It just seemed wow. You really do that kind of thing? You need hair on a photo shoot? It was just really interesting.

So, she put me in the direction of John Frieda and Nikki Clark, Trevor Sorbie. Was like, "Well, if you're going to do it, don't do a Sassoon's course because you'll do a three month course, a six month course you're paying a lot of money for and at the end of it, you're still going to have to do some sort of training and apprenticeship at the salon. So, best thing is just to get in with the salon and you're going to be networking. Going to be meeting those clients face to face and they'll be getting used to you, so that when you do go on the floor and have your own column, they'll be used to you and know you. So, I was, "All right. This is great."

Also, they were the brilliant people at the time. They had these fancy Mayfair salons with all the celebrities. We've got all the movie stars and the royalty and socialites, everything. So, it was like, okay. Great. Okay. So, I went in. Didn't have a clue about the whole business.
Jodi KatzDid you know about ways you could cut hair? I mean I like hair, but doesn't mean I know how to cut hair.
Eloise CheungWell, actually, my mom always used to cut my hair for me growing up, so I always had like a little fringe and everything, so I was always had my mom do that and she wasn't a trained hair dresser. However, she was pretty dexterous with her hands and she would do a good job except one time when I went to school and I had this one side of my hair cut was longer than the other and all the kids at school laughed at me.
Jodi KatzAww. You're just ahead of your time.
Eloise CheungI was totally ahead of my time. That asymmetric look was very in, so I was kind of used to people working with hair around me and she'd cut my dad's hair and cuts my brother's hair. It just didn't seem alien to me and also I loved reading Hair Dresser's Journal. The trade magazines even before I was a hairdresser because they have those step by step guides and you'd see, oh you do this and experiment on friends of mine at school.
Jodi KatzSo, this was something ... Like hair didn't come out of left field for you. Like it was kind of always a part of your life.
Eloise CheungI think there was always some sort of stigma attached to it though. It was like sort of the back room massage parlor idea of it and it wasn't very well regarded I guess because there weren't that many celebrity hairdressers around at that time. They were all sort of underground.
Jodi KatzSo, when you told your parents that you're quitting school, you just quit and then told or you told them I'm going to quit school?
Eloise CheungI sort of gave them an inkling that it was going to go in that direction. I wasn't happy at University. Wasn't doing well, so something needed to shift or change and being a private a school as well and then dropping out of University, it was all ... I mean I remember we a careers class at school and everybody went around the room. Oh, so what are you going to ... Oh, I'm going to go to Oxford. I'm going to be a doctor. I'm going to be this. One girl said, "Oh, I don't know. I'm not going to go to University," and everyone was just a gasp. Like shocked that she didn't want to do something that was phenomenal and take over the world.
Jodi KatzRight. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves that we all have to be doing that. Right.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzTaking over the world.
Eloise CheungAbsolutely. We're an all girls school, so it was like women can change the world. Suffragettes. Women's ... Even back then. That was sort of the idea behind our school and it was like incredible professional women.
Jodi KatzRight. But, can't we be incredible doing what we love even if it's not high profile?
Eloise CheungAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzRight.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzBut, I think that's ... That's the train I was on, let's say in high school. I was surrounded by really talented, exceptionally, smart people were doing what you just said. They're going to change the world and I felt like I had to be on that train.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzI didn't know I had a choice.
Eloise CheungThere's just like so many paths towards that. That goal and we don't think about it in that way, so it's just like, this is the tried and tested and this is how we're going to approach it and go about it. There's more than one way to skin a cat, as they say.
Jodi KatzRight. So, this salon, this person who told you that you don't even need to pay to go to school. Just come work in a salon.
Eloise CheungThey would actually pay you as an apprentice. It wasn't very much to it. Like 300 pounds a month, absolutely nothing, but you were getting this incredible education in hair and apprenticeship and you're exposed to all of those people and at the time I joined the salon way back in 1996. We'd carry Juan, who is ... I still believe he is the creative director at John Frieda and he was working on Stanley Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut and working with George Michael on his solo career and all sorts. We had these incredible artist and this house of experts that John called it. It was great.
Jodi KatzRight. These weren't just like neighborhood salons?
Eloise CheungOh, no, no, no.
Jodi KatzThis is like major. Right?
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzSo, how did you ... How does one even get that job at like a really high profile salon as an apprentice?
Eloise CheungI just walked into these places. Went to the front desk and I was like, oh. Hi. I'm interested in training as a hairdresser. How do I go about that? Sort of handed over this CV that I've had doing part time jobs and Harvey Nichols or whatever and salvages at the time and they were like, okay great. So, someone will call you and set up an interview and yeah. Eventually got called back and had a little discussion over the phone as to what I was aiming for and what they needed and then went in for an interview. The head colorist at the time, Susan Baldwin, and they gave me a shot.
Jodi KatzThat was at John Frieda?
Eloise CheungYeah, that was at John Frieda.
Jodi KatzAnd before John Frieda, you were apprenticing at another salon?
Eloise CheungNo, other than the Chinatown Saturday girl job, I'd never done hairdressing before.
Jodi KatzSo, did you realize at the time that this was an exceptional opportunity?
Eloise CheungNope. It was something that was like, I had to do something, so let's just keep moving forward and I knew I didn't want to do another degree.
Jodi KatzRight.
Eloise CheungAnd this was something that really interested me, so I just sort of went for it and I also interviewed at Trevor Sorbie's and Nikki Clark's, but Nikki Clark's was the salon at the moment, so they were over subscribed anyway. There were a million people who wanted to apprentice at Nikki Clark, so there was no chance I was getting in there. Nikki had actually trained at John Frieda and worked at John Frieda's, so subsequently had opened his own salon. I was like, well, I'll just go to the source. I'll just go to John Frieda and I did sort of a trial day and each salon and I stayed for a training night at each salon too just to compare. John's was by far the most superior training out of all of them, but was the most grueling workday. I was like, "Oh my God. I'm emptying dust bins and I'm like bringing trays of tea to people. This is grueling. I feel like I'm a maid or something."

So, this is surely not the way that you learn how to do hair. That training night was incredible. So, I was like, okay. I can tough this out. It'll be like two years of training and it worked out.
Jodi KatzSo, by day you are the person doing errands and cleaning?
Eloise CheungThere is actually cleaning within the salon, however you know you're picking up towels, you're making sure the hair is all swept up and the clients are greeted when you arrive. You're normally assigned to a stylist for a think a period of three months or something, so you're shadowing one particular person and their client list and then taking care of them. Just making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible and kind of being a personal assistant to that stylist.
Jodi KatzRight, and then at night after the salon closes, was it like once a month you have a big training day?
Eloise CheungSo, it was every Wednesday and Thursday night you'd have a training.
Jodi KatzOh wow.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzThat's a lot of training.
Eloise CheungYeah. It was incredible and I feel like every other week we'd have an art lesson, so you'd have a drawing lesson to understand perspective and depth and John thought that was a really important part of your training to have a great eye and it really did. It really helped.
Jodi KatzSo, they were paying you to get educated.
Eloise CheungYes.
Jodi KatzAnd, is this very common in salons to have this level of education?
Eloise CheungI don't believe it is now. It definitely was at the time, but maybe John's approach was different. I know at Trevor's they also had a couple of nights of training as well and you know you'd get modeling and go for it and you'd have different levels, which it was the same at both places.
Jodi KatzRight. That's an exceptional opportunity that you found yourself in.
Eloise CheungIt was pretty incredible. Looking back on it. At the time, you're like, oh God. I'm not making any money.
Jodi KatzBut, you were just like a young girl like handing out your resume to a bunch of cool salons. If I think about like if somebody did that today, like walked around New York City and Soho and handed out their resume at a bunch of cool salons, nobody would get a phone call.
Eloise CheungRight.
Jodi KatzRight? So, the fact that you got the opportunity to actually check out all the salons. Interview many of them and then make your decision, this is a big deal.
Eloise CheungYeah. It was pretty good.
Jodi KatzSo, now your day's not in the salon, right, as a stylist?
Eloise CheungNo, I'm mostly working on set, on location, commercial jobs, fashion, editorial for magazines.
Jodi KatzRight. So, is the path to doing the editorial and commercial work for stylist always going to be through the salon?
Eloise CheungNot at all. Most people will shadow someone who works editorially or who has an agent and does that more creative work these days. Salon for me was just one route and I had exposure to those incredible stylist at the time, so they just led me that way.
Jodi KatzRight. So, somebody who's listening who actually wants to learn and do what you do, she could actually interview with you to be your assistant and shadow you?
Eloise CheungYeah. As long as they have some sort of basic background in hair. They've been through cosmetology school. That's something we don't have in England. You don't necessarily need a qualification to be a hairdresser. You could just be okay. I'll open the shop right now and I'm a hairdresser and people want to come to you, they come to you. It's an old fashioned apprenticeship. Whereas in America, you need the cosmetology license. You have to execute X amount of hours in each different state, depending on which state it is that you need to finish and complete and do all these different task like being able to do manicures or color hair, apply make up as well as cut and style hair. It's like all encompassing.
Jodi KatzRight. It just seems a little bit strange that that's the license since most people choose one.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzRight? I don't know a lot of people who are colorist and stylist and manicurist and ...
Eloise CheungEverything.
Jodi KatzSo, you get your own chair and you get your own clients and you have the opportunity to do great work at the salon, but then you're joining some of your peers and mentors on set in fashion weeks and things like that.
Eloise CheungI feel like it even began before I qualified and my own column as a hairdresser because, part of your training, we were sponsoring London Fashion Week and people were doing shows out in Paris or they were working with Robbie Williams or Kylie or someone like that, doing their music videos, those artist always needed assistance, so you would go with that person and help them out in the shoot and I remember actually Danilo came over and he was doing Gwen Stefani's first album cover. He didn't have a local assistant in London and he had some connection with John Frieda at that time, so I ended up being put on that job with him.
Jodi KatzOh, my God. No way.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzAnd he's still her stylist.
Eloise CheungYeah. He is. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Jodi KatzSo, you got to work with Gwen Stefani?
Eloise CheungYeah. I got meet Gwen and work with her and it was, yeah.
Jodi KatzBut, you were there for the beginning of their many decades of relationship.
Eloise CheungNot from the beginning. They already had a relationship with No Doubt, and then he continued and continued and still. We're still friends today. He's incredible as an artist, but what a wonderful opportunity to be able to work with him and experience that.
Jodi KatzRight. So, how many years was it into the salon world like that's what the life you wanted be leading? The one that he did and being on set and being at Fashion Week and things like that.
Eloise CheungI was always reluctant to do that. I always imagine my life being in the salon and doing all these society ladies and taking column, but it was actually my teacher's who were, oh you're really good at this stuff and they always needed these magazine things like hair how to's and this is a look for going out or for Christmas parties and things like that and they would let me go on these sort of shoots for smaller magazines. Perhaps not maybe Vogues and things, but I cut my teeth on these sort of editorials and beauty shoots, so I was always kind of reluctant to go out on them. I liked being in the salon and being around my friends and everything.
Jodi KatzRight. Were you paid for those opportunities?
Eloise CheungYes.
Jodi KatzOh, really. Okay.
Eloise CheungNot loads, but yeah. Definitely you got paid something and then they fed you this great lunch and there was this really great, great studio at the time called, I think it was James English studio and they used to cook all of the lunch themselves, so you always smelled baking and they'd be like lunch time everyone. We'll all sit down and have this wonderful lunch and it was just a nice day.
Jodi KatzRight. So, people around you were pushing you into these opportunities, but you really just wanted to hang in the salon.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzSo, what shifted? Because you don't work in those salons anymore.
Eloise CheungI guess fashion shows was the opportunities to work with really people like Kenny Rorke and Cary Warren, Joel Gonzalez on these great shows. So, just having that exposure to fashion and then photography. Just being more creative as well was interesting and just the lights and the glamour and all the models and the hub bub of it all was attractive and then it was like music videos too and TV shows. There was a different type and my dad was a TV director, so I was kind of used to being in a TV studio when I was younger as well and that's why I went into engineering was because I wanted to get into television and follow in my father's footsteps, so this was something like oh wow. This is like something's that's getting really close to what I was aiming for.
Jodi KatzSo, when he was working on a TV show and you were a kid, were you ever going on set with him?
Eloise CheungI did. Actually did some sort of exercise things at the morning shows.
Jodi KatzSo, you were a kid and you got to be on set, so didn't you see the hair and make up room when you were little?
Eloise CheungNot when I was on those things. I think we just came in kind of camera ready. Had my little pigtails and my new outfit that my dad had promised me.
Jodi KatzRight.
Eloise CheungSo, I didn't really see that side of it at all.
Jodi KatzSo, you know I think it's so interesting to listen to your journey because none of it sounds super intentional. Right? You had certainly friends growing up who were like I want to save the world and there was intent there and it seems like things just you were able to go with the flow and find something that you enjoyed.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzBut, there was a point where you shifted from working at a salon completely and now working completely freelance.
Eloise CheungRight.
Jodi KatzSo, what was that moment and how did that shift happen?
Eloise CheungI was working with Claudia Shaffer a lot at the time in the salon and I had just done a cover of Vogue with her for John and Vogue and I just felt like I reach my pinnacle and that time I couldn't advance any more because there was obviously people ahead of me there. Yeah, I just think the next step because of meeting agents as well along the way and seeing how other people in my niche were doing it. I was like okay. The next step is probably to work with an agent and be more exposed to that type of client.
Jodi KatzSo, when you worked with Claudia for the shoot, she asked you to do her hair?
Eloise CheungYeah, I was working with her for a bit at the time and on different projects and I'd go around to her house and do her hair for events and everything as well and then just ended up doing more like L’oréal shoots and all sorts and working with David Bailey and incredible for ... It was a charity shoot. It was so incredible.
Jodi KatzSo, you're very low key and modest when you're talking about these things. That most people would be like screaming and like wearing a t-shirt that said I did Claudia Shaffer's hair for may years. Right? People would be advertising that quite loud. Why are you so quiet about it? And reserved about it?
Eloise CheungI don't know. I just don't view it as anything different. I really just love doing people's hair and really enjoy making them feel good about themselves and that's stemmed even from the salon. I wasn't doing ... It could be misses Jones every day lady's got her kids and housewife or something. It just gave me the same joy as it did with working with celebrities, so I didn't see the, I needed to shout about that.
Jodi KatzRight. Right.
Eloise CheungIt just so happen that that person I was working with at the time was famous. It doesn't mean that they're any better or any worse than anyone else.
Jodi KatzRight. Let's talk about life as a freelancer. Okay, because this is a really different way to not just make an income, but have to plan out your personal time. Maybe because you get paid per job.
Eloise CheungYes.
Jodi KatzIt's not like you sit in an office and get a paycheck every two weeks.
Eloise CheungYeah.
Jodi KatzSo, I have friends in the business whether they're stylist or make up artist and they've said that their personal life suffers because well, how could they not take that next gig. Right, but it might mean missing a baby shower or a wedding shower or girls trip or something like that to accomplish that. How do you organize your time so that you have your work time and make the money you want to make and don't lose relationships, but also protect your personal time?
Eloise CheungYou basically don't. You accept this lifestyle of everything's very last minute. Especially these days. I feel like in the early days, your clients show up at particular times of the year and they gave you a heads up of a month or two. Oh, we just want to block out dates between this day and this day. We're probably going to shoot in New York on those dates. So, you knew. But, nowadays, you can be called up, hey what are you doing in an hour? So and so needs their hair done. They're actually going to attend this award ceremony last minute. Can you go over to their hotel and do their hair and it's kind of a okay. Yeah. Or no. You say no, you lose out on a lot of things, so you have to be ready to go. I got called out to do a video for Pharrell one time and it was Miami. I was on a job that day shooting and I was like, when does he need this done? When are they shooting?

Oh, you need to fly tonight. I was like, okay. Okay. You have an hour to pack everything and then get on the flight and it happened. We were down there for a few days shooting the Hypnotize me video, but it was last minute and it's that whole thing when you get called like that and you're just like, panic, panic, but in a way, you're sort of ready because you know that this might happen and I guess I'd lost out previously on jobs that I couldn't do because I wasn't prepared, so I was like, okay. These incredible opportunities come up and I'm going to be ready this time. My kit's going to be packed. I know what to take with me if that happens again.
Jodi KatzRight, so you plan for it, the fact that everything in your business is completely last minute and you don't have time to get organized, so you have to at least have a fully packed kit?
Eloise CheungYou have to be ready and have all your favorite products with you and just in case you get that call. You'll kick yourself if you miss out on these things and because I'm such a person who just goes with the flow, and doesn't plan anything out, it's just like, oh. This is kind of meant to be and it's exciting.
Jodi KatzRight. That would definitely be a career that fit your personality then. If you were someone who could go with the flow.
Eloise CheungYou have to be easy going and flexible with everything.
Jodi KatzRight.
Eloise CheungAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzBecause if you're a rigid person who required a lot of advanced notice you would not have the type of career that you have.
Eloise CheungI don't think so, no. I feel like you do have to have some give.
Jodi KatzRight. So, the salon side would actually be better for somebody who needs to plan.
Eloise CheungIf you want more ... Yeah, who wants more stability and you know your hours and you know your days, but even within the salon, you can get people who are like oh. I gotta get this flight out really early. Would you mind doing me at seven in the morning? I know this salon doesn't open till nine. There's sort of extra hours that you have to put in and sacrifice too.
Jodi KatzRight.
Eloise CheungIt's what it's worth to you. It's what are you interested in? I'm single. I don't have any children at the moment, so I can go with that, but down the line, things may change.
Jodi KatzRight. Right. So, are you really a one at a time kind of person?
Eloise CheungI think I am pretty much. I like to take it as it comes. I have goals and ambitions and things, however, I can definitely just move with how everything is happening.
Jodi KatzWell, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. It's so nice to have you on the show.
Eloise CheungThank you for having me.
Jodi KatzOf course and for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Eloise. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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