Paul Cucinello

In many ways, hairstyling is in Paul Cucinello’s genes. His parents worked as stylists in a salon attached to their home throughout his childhood in Port Jefferson, NY. “I literally grew up in the salon!” Cucinello says. That early exposure certainly paid off. Today, Cucinello styles models on Project Runway, coordinates shoots with Lucky Magazine and Teen Vogue and has established a reputation as a go-to expert on hair for many of today’s preeminent magazines. He's also the creative director at New York City's popular Chris Chase Salon. We asked the master stylist about his best coiffure advice, the chaos of working on reality TV and why he still views the industry with a sense of awe.

How did you get into the beauty industry?

I grew up watching my parents transform people right in front of my eyes and, from a young child’s perspective, I believed it was magic. I used to study every technique they used. When I was 12 my sister was starting cosmetology school, and I was obsessed with her mannequin. My parents saw this ability in me at a very young age and bought me my own styling kit.

Later, while studying fine arts at Parsons School of Design, I was doing hair on the side to make some extra money. I realized that the beauty industry was the perfect place for me to grow, so I left Parsons for cosmetology school. I remember sitting in the admissions office saying to the woman who was enrolling me, “If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this in a BIG way.”

How did your parents affect your decision to go into the industry?

At first they were a bit hesitant to fully encourage me to make a career out of it. At the time, they had just retired from the beauty industry and were a bit burnt out. But after they saw how much passion I had, they were immediately behind me.

How do they inspire your work today?

My father was a very meticulous stylist with a borderline OCD attention to detail. There is not a single thing that he wouldn’t notice, from a woman’s quirks, to her strongest features, to the direction of hair growth. He also knew exactly what he needed to do in order to make that person shine. My mother had incredible technical skills as well, and she really knew how to translate who someone was inside to her outside appearance. She loved to do big transformations and had no fear when it came to hair.

How did you make the break into celebrity styling?

I was working at a salon on Long Island called T. Carlton, where I quickly advanced from assistant to creative director, head colorist, head stylist and makeup artist. I was later offered a position at Antonio Prieto Salon as a colorist. It was an opportunity to move back to New York City, but I would be starting out with no clients and would have to build my entire clientele from the ground up. I took the challenge.

One day a woman sat in my chair and I suggested we turn her into a really believable redhead. A week later, I was asked to do a phone interview for New York magazine. When the magazine came out my mother called me screaming: “Paul...they named you Best Colorist in the Best of New York issue!” My entire career changed overnight.

What has surprised you most about the world of celebrity styling?

I’d say that most celebrities are pretty down to earth. They are just very busy and have a lot of people pulling them in a million different directions. They also tend to either have a very specific signature look that you have to execute flawlessly, or they will learn to trust you and eventually you can help shape their image.

How does working on a shoot compare to working on a TV show?

When you’re on set for a photo shoot, you do all of your prep work off camera. When you work on a TV show, sometimes all of your work is on camera. Most editorial shoots use a ton of post-production, so things wind up appearing quite differently than they really looked on set. Most reality shows want to show the grit, so you see every detail of the process. They are two completely different worlds.

You’ve worked on some of the most popular reality shows, including Project Runway. What was that experience like?

That experience was a lot of fun! Reality shows are pure chaos because there are cameras everywhere and everyone is mic’d. It sets up a dynamic that creates drama one way or another. The models were all really cool, and we worked on them for every segment. We had between 15 and 25 minutes per girl. The fast pace really kept it exciting. It’s incredible to see how much work these designers really do that you don’t see when you watch the show.

What advice would you give aspiring celebrity stylists?

An opportunity is only what you make of it, so take every opportunity you are given. Move things around. Don’t get stuck in too rigid of a schedule. Talk genuinely to every person you meet, and let them know what you do. Brand yourself. Always carry business cards. This is a relationship-based industry. People want to work with the people they like.

What’s your best piece of coloring advice for women?

If you have naturally dark hair, don’t do tons of highlights to make your hair blonde. It looks terrible. Highlights should enhance an already beautiful color, so first change the shade overall, and then build upon it with accent highlights.

What’s your best piece of coloring advice for men?

Never dye your hair a warm shade. Men look best in cooler tones. Also, unless you are going for a blatantly cosmetic look, stick with your natural color. If you have gray, by all means cover it up until you’re ready for people to know your real age. I’m not into the double standard where “men look sophisticated with grey hair.” That might be true – but they still look older.
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