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“We’re not all, ‘Oh, look, it’s me, we do celebrities, we do Kim Kardashian!’ I don’t care about that stuff,” says Guy Tang on a call. “Doing hair is about having a purpose.”
Tang, 35, calls himself a “hair activist” without a trace of irony. He believes that hairdressers are artists and that “helping a client find a new identity can also help us find ours.” But he also just loves to make rainbow hair. His Instagram account features image after image of long, cascading waves of hair dyed in the softest shades of pastel that Mother Nature never intended to be on a human head. I look at it just to relax and calm down at the end of the day.
With 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube and almost two million on Instagram, Tang is one of the few hairstylists with this kind of following on social media. (Jen Atkin, who, yes, counts the Kardashians as her clients, is another one.) He calls his followers his #hairbesties, and his YouTube tutorials are generally meant for professional hair colorists, though millions of civilians watch them for hair color inspiration. His designs often take upwards of 12 hours to create, can cost over $1,000, and use a mixture of 10 to 14 different colors. They are decidedly not DIY.
Even if you know nothing about toning and lifting, Tang is entertaining to watch. He gets serious and emotional at times, but he’s generally pretty goofy, and he has that intangible authenticity that’s so important on social media. He often throws a wig and dress on himself to demo a color or technique. He calls roots “rootage” (pronounced like “montage”), but is deadly serious about being a perfectionist. He’ll pull one small strand out of the foil if he thinks the design will look more seamless. Watching paint dry — on hair, anyway — is pretty fun with Guy Tang.
While his designs are definitely complex, Tang got his start doing DIY hair. He lived in Oklahoma until he was 27 and studied photography for several years. “All I ever did was take pictures of women and their hair,” he says. “It tells a story, the way the hair moves. It creates impact. Every curl, every highlight, every strand, it does something.” Take that mindset and add a kaleidoscope of colors to it, and you can see why his work is so compelling to look at.
It took a few years before he learned how to do hair. “I was confused about my own sexuality and I had a girlfriend in my early 20s. I always took pictures of her and I was always fixing her hair,” he explains. He ordered hair coloring DVDs and bootleg professional hair dye from eBay and used her as a guinea pig. And yes, he caused some damage to her hair, so off to beauty school he went.
During beauty school, Tang also waited tables and took clients on the side. On the weekends, he put his photography skills to use in a makeshift studio in his house, shooting his clients as models. He’d post the pictures to MySpace, then Facebook when that came along. “It wasn’t until I started taking younger clients whose moms brought them in that they would tell me, ‘Facebook is for old people!’ They taught me how to use Instagram,” he says. “Then we had iPhones with good cameras and all of a sudden I was booked for three years.”
Tang moved to LA when he was 27, and said he gained a reputation for safely giving dark-haired women “beachy blonde ombré,” a tricky feat. “It’s hard to turn blonde because it will turn orange. All the Asian girls were coming to me from everywhere,” he says.
He got sick of doing blonde hair all the time, so he started incorporating color, like lavender, into the ombré. That led to the color experimentation you see on his page now. Though I can’t corroborate this definitively, he claims to have invented the rose gold trend, which reads as a pinky/orange/blonde. It definitely became his signature color.
Tang doesn’t even take clients much anymore. Now he travels the world doing seminars and teaching other hair colorists to do the complex designs that he made millions of people desire. He also just launched a line of hair color products called #mydentity that only licensed professionals can purchase. So if you want, say, his “silver smoke” look, your colorist needs to purchase it for you. (They can also watch tutorials on the site.)
Tang says that creating a rose gold shade used to require him to use three to four formulas, and within each formula there were three to four colors incorporated. With his new line, that alchemy isn’t necessary. He sells a few different shades of rose gold (there are 24 colors total) and takes all the complicated mixing out of the equation for colorists.
If you’re interested in non-natural color trends, he says that something called “prismetallic” is a thing now — essentially silvery gray shot through with pastels. On Instagram, he also just showcased hair that changes color in the sun, but has so far remained mum on whether that’s a new innovation he’s worked out for his line.
Just please don’t call Guy Tang a celebrity hairstylist. “For years, it’s always been about celebrities and what celebrities are wearing. Nobody cares!” he says. “People want to relate to real people. A lot of times, celebrities don’t even really have the best hair. Hairstylists deserve a lot more respect. We need to be acknowledged as life-changers and taken more seriously as artists.”