Tom Zappala Haircutting Insights Collingwood to Hollywood

Hollywood to Collingwood

Once upon a time, I was a muso in Hollywood. Yup, that’s me, circa 1980 something. Back then, I was a drummer. Also, those are 100% my natural curls in that photograph. To style, I would apply Aveda Cherry Almond Bark Conditioner on towel-dried hair, followed by Paul Mitchel Spray Gel and diffuse. Apart from the frequent shampooing, everything else in my ritual back then is what I help clients discover today. Once hair is cut well, moisture with a bit of hold is a simple and easy way to get curly hair to look great. Some may disagree, but the knowledge accrued and practised back then remains equally relevant today.

When I look at that photo, I notice a few things. One, my haircut is not a triangle. Two, it’s not flat on top. The frizz is in check, the curls are defined, the haircut has shape, and it’s flattering. How could that be? Didn’t hairdressers learn how to cut and care for curly hair only after the Curly Girl Method came into existence? Before then, there wasn’t a client or hairdresser anywhere who knew anything about curly hair, correct? Well, I did and can attest that my curly hair journey began long ago.

The notion that no one wore their naturally curly hair in a flattering way before the CGM is ridiculous. The idea that hairdressers knew nothing and always straightened curly hair is patently incorrect. In Hollywood during the 1980s, long curly hair was king. Yes, there were a lot of perms, but there was a lot of naturally curly hair too. The hairdressers I went to knew how to cut and care for it, just as I did. Were some salons unknowledgeable about curly hair and often chose to straighten it? Absolutely. That said, as far as I was concerned, I saw plenty of incredible naturally curly hair in the community back then. So, how did I and others learn to cut and care for curly hair so well?

"I decided to work in a culturally and economically diverse setting. As a result, I was exposed to a multitude of complex textures, from Asian to African."

In the culturally and ethnically diverse area of Los Angeles where my career began, I chose not to work in a high-end salon that serviced wealthier white women with straight, highlighted hair. I knew that working in such a salon environment would significantly hinder the development of my haircutting skills, just as it does today. Those conservative salons, as popular as they were, wouldn’t have appreciated my long curly hair either! Instead, I chose a much different career path. I worked in a salon with clients whose hair types and curl patterns were as diverse as the city I called home. 

As a result, I had the privilege of working with many challenging hair textures, from Asian to African. To succeed, I had to cut hair well for whoever might sit in my chair and needed to do so better than anyone else in the area. It was a case of sink or swim. The competition was high, and the curly hair I worked with was often cut dry. Back then, there was no such thing as a curly hair specialist. There was no need. A skilled and successful professional knew how to cut all hair types equally and exceptionally well. That was a task I took very seriously and still do. Each booking taught me valuable lessons that benefit every client I work with today.

"Back then, there was no such thing as a curly hair specialist. A skilled professional knew how to cut all hair types equally and exceptionally well."

Many decades and a few countries later, a reliable, well-honed multicultural skill set is viewed as unique and highly sought after. I find this strange, but also it makes a lot of sense when considering where my career current resides. While I understand the struggles of those who grew up in a predominately Anglo-Australian suburb or came of age amidst the flat-iron era, I am grateful that professionally I did not. Success seems to indicate that clients appreciate my history too.

Reflecting on my earliest years of cutting curly hair and learning how to manage my own, I am grateful to all those initial clients. They were patient with me and provided essential feedback that helped shape the foundation of this career. They understood that I strived to do my job well and make them happy. That is what it takes to be great: determination, discipline, and professional intentions that place client contentment above all else. Every week in the studio, that focus remains unchanged.

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