The Producer: Hi Eric, what would you consider your title? Are you a hair stylist?
Eric R. Williams: I say I’m a hairstylist. I really don’t put the extra stuff behind it. I don’t put “celebrity” I just enjoy the art of it.
TP: We met while working on a photo shoot for The Chicago Tribune Magazine with Harrison Hillman and I was so impressed by the fact that you actually made the wigs we photographed the girls in!
ERW: Oh, thank you!
TP: It was an editorial with a super low budget and you still took the time and effort to make something custom that was really labor-intensive. To be honest, I really have never seen a handmade wig before. I didn’t know the difference! How did you get started?
ERW: I actually got my start in Baltimore. I’m originally from Florida, but I moved up to Maryland to be with family and before I started with hair, I was a nurse’s assistant. I worked in a nursing home and ended up styling the nursing home patients [laughs]! I would have to get them up in the morning and sometimes dress them and I ended up doing their hair. I’ve always been intrigued by hair. I come from a family of hairstylists, my mom did hair, my step mom, my cousin - everybody did hair.
TP: It's in your blood!
ERW: I believe it is, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it at first [laughs]. I was literally running away from it. I knew mentally I could do it without physically doing it at first. Eventually, I ended up going to hair school and I found myself working in a salon, but I always had a bigger dream. I just didn’t know how to pursue it.
TP: A salon can be a very limited space. You’re bound to a particular location and certain clientele.
ERW: Yes, it was very limited. And it was in Baltimore! I knew that if I stayed, that I would never reach the platform I truly wanted. The hardest thing was figuring out how. I was starting to become so frustrated. I even remember Googling, “How to become a celebrity hair stylist?” How do you evolve out of the salon experience? I ran across this workshop by a lady named Crystal Wright. Her workshop was the avenue that took me to the next level. It’s a very informative workshop and I highly recommend anyone new to the business in order to learn how to maneuver their way through.
TP: Was that workshop here in New York?
ERW: Yes, it was here in New York in 2007. It’s called Packing Your Portfolio. Crystal is from LA and she had an agency, but she closed it in order to start doing seminars. She’s very well-known for them, but this seminar gave me the information to start a freelance career for myself. At that point, I was commuting between Maryland and New York for 5 years ... on the bus! Once, I arrived in New York, only to find out that they had canceled the shoot and I had to get right back on the bus. Needless to say, it was a very intense 5 years.
TP: Wow, you were really driven! Obviously, you were really focused on making that happen, because you sacrificed a lot to do that.
ERW: A voice inside me said, “Keep going.” Even in moments where I felt I didn’t want to do it anymore, something said, “Keep going.” One opportunity led to the next and I think that’s what it’s about here. It’s about making connections - really holding and honoring the relationship that you have with people and working it from there.
TP: I would say that goes for the working relationships you have, not just with your subjects and models, but with the individuals that you’re working with on a greater scale - the photographers, the directors, producers.
ERW: Very imperative. When you’re working with photographers, you must be able to communicate and understand what's required of you. You have moments where you might not connect, but back there and say, “You know what? Look, I know we didn’t hit it off at the right place-“ and try to figure out a balance.
TP: Those are learning opportunities too. You hone your craft a little more, you hone your communication skills. We’ve all had those tricky situations on productions where you think you understood a certain direction or creative concept, but no.
ERW: Sometimes it’s just a miscommunication. Sometimes with hair, when someone who is not a hair stylist is trying to explain hair they use terminology that, in my mind, indicates something different. Or you show me an image, but it's not in line with you verbal direction - so sometimes you have to find that balance so you can all come to one place.
TP: There are moments in photo production where I realize that styling hair is incredibly difficult - it’s like creating a sculpture. Often times clients or even photographers will have an idea and choose a swipe image of a style they like, but they won’t take into account the talent that they’ve actually booked for the job, who might have a different head shape or hair texture. That’s tricky because they get locked into a certain vision and it may not actually be achievable and you’re put in a position where you are expected to create that.
ERW: That is true. At the end of the day, as a hair stylist it's your job to create anything and everything that your client is asking for. With the photographer, there is always going to be high expectations and the bigger the photographer is, the more pressure there is to execute. If it isn’t met, they won’t hire you again. If you have to have 100 wigs in different colors, layers, and different lengths - it’s just your job, so there’s really no excuse.
TP: I love how you say that too because you have such a calm presence on set. Even right now, you’re so even-keeled and calm to be around and I love how matter of fact you are. It’s not personal, it’s just the job. This is your calling, something that you love to and I really appreciate that approach. That’s why I love to have you on my crew so much. If I could have you more often I would! How did you start making wigs?
ERW: While working in a primarily African American salon, I essentially was specializing in ethnic hair. African American women tend to process their hair with so many chemicals, you deal with a lot of breakage. Alopecia, and a lot of different issues as far as diseases of the scalp, hair breakage from overheating, chemicals, so I found myself in situations having to place additional hair in certain areas, for example in front after breakage. I ended up getting a job at the Hair Club for Men and Women and this is where I learned how to customize for any thinning or balding spots. I could take a hairpiece and fill up any spot quickly by making a custom unit. That’s where I got my start and when I first really became interested in wigs. From this foundation, I’ve since learned how to create it on my own but in faster ways. In the hair show world - like in Atlanta - they call it “quick weaving.” Pretty much what you do is take a wig block and stocking cap, like a wig cap, two of them, double it up to create volume (because it’s only going to be temporary) and you take hair and bond it to create a pattern, flow, and rhythm. Knowing how to close the unit then makes it look flawless. From there, you just kind of shape it. I can do it, but it’s also better when it’s done with lace wigs which are different than cap wigs.
TP: When I worked with you, you created a wig. Was it a lace wig? What is the difference?
ERW: I created a few cap wigs for that shoot. A lace wig would take so much time because with a lace wig you have to ventilate and literally place hair in strand by strand which can take 6-8 weeks for some people. If you’re doing it by hand it could take 3-4 months - for some people unless they are fast and have a team of people working with them, but it is a very long process to create a flawless lace wig.
TP: I would love to see you creating the cap wig.
ERW: Maybe one day I’ll show you!
TP: Just quickly back to the Hair Club, they have an office here in New York? Are they not just on TV?
ERW: They operate in the United States and I believe Canada. They’re very well-known because we’re living in a world where people are losing hair.
TP: And it’s a sign of youthfulness.
ERW: I think beauty has evolved over the years. Certainly women and men want to look beautiful. It’s attractive to have a head full of hair and people are willing to do whatever they have to do to get it. I always love it when people embrace who they really are, because throughout the process - sometimes it can be a good process for people, but it can be a bad process for others. It all depends on who’s doing your hair.
TP: So you evolved from working in a salon to the big move to New York. When did you make the move and how was that transition for you?
ERW: The first time - it was two attempts - was 2008 and I moved to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and I stayed for 90 days. Things did not work out. I had a great roommate, but she ended up deciding to move in with a friend and I was stuck in a position where I was like, “Ok what do I do? Do I find another apartment?” I ended up going back home and stayed for five years. I moved back to New York City in 2012 and I’ve been here since. It’s been three years now, it’s the best thing I could have ever done. I look around every day and I’m so amazed.
TP: What made you attempt the move again? Were your clients here?
ERW: I never stopped. The dream never stopped. When you have a passion for something, you have to live it, you have to find a way to make it work. I always tell my friends, “Life is going to happen no matter what. You still have to find a way to keep going.” If you don’t, you don’t find your happiness. I felt like if I stayed in Maryland I would have been unhappy. And I know that living in New York City was my key to happiness and doing what I want to do in my career. When you have passion you don’t stop. You figure out a way to make it work and you keep going.
TP: And you have. You have some really exciting projects under your belt now, can you tell me some of your favorites?
ERW: Since I moved to New York? Let me tell you how I ended up with Beyoncé. In 2012, I ended up meeting with an agency here in New York City, a small boutique agency, and it was three months before I moved. I moved here in June and I got put on hold. The guy that I was working with, my agent, had a connection with one of Beyoncé’s makeup artists. Beyoncé was doing her Back to Business tour. I got put on hold to do her backup dancers and the production for the show. I wasn’t sure, but I had already planned on moving to New York and the show was over Memorial Day weekend. A week before I was moving to New York, everything I had to do was the day I was going to Atlantic City [for the show]. I confirmed the job, in other words, and the day of, I secured an apartment in New York and I went down to Parkwood headquarters and they took us in a van to Atlantic City.
TP: So things just lined up for you.
ERW: They just lined up, they really did. Mind you, I had been the biggest Beyoncé fan since she came out. I bought every album. I remember living in Maryland I used to have posters of Destiny’s Child on my wall. So I ended up booking the tour and we went in a week early. I remember getting to Atlantic City - it’s a moment when something is happening that you really speak to the universe and you’re so grateful, but you’re still in awe. “Am I about to meet Beyoncé?” I was nervous and excited and it’s so funny how things work. So when we get to Atlantic City, we started trying out different ideas - at this time I didn’t meet her I was just talking to other producers and things like that. I remember going to sit in on rehearsals. It was just the dancers and we were going to see how the hair moved on stage because doing hair on stage is different than doing hair on a photo shoot. There’s movement, you're under intense light. You have to use products that are going to hold throughout because these girls are dancing for two to three hours and it’s very hot on stage. So hair and makeup has to be right. I was sitting in the audience watching the dancers do rehearsals when all the sudden I felt a commotion and someone said, “Turn to your right.” And I turned. And Beyoncé walked in.
TP: And the angels started singing [laughs].
ERW: You don’t want to stare too hard because you’re at work and you’re trying to not act like a fan, but deep down inside I’m going crazy. We didn’t communicate, we had just seen each other. But then after the first show, I was going back to my room with one of the makeup artists who I was sharing with - he’s actually my best friend today, Rashad Taylor, we met on the Beyoncé tour - and we were on our way to go out for the night. It was so funny because at that point I did not meet Beyoncé. All I did was see her. In my mind, I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to meet her before I leave.” We were taking the back elevators and the universe just had a moment. I was going through the double doors with my friend and as we were going in… Beyoncé and Jay-Z were coming through. It was just the four of us in this small room together. No security, nothing. They were walking backstage and we’re in this enclosed space between two hallways just stuck. She was like, “Hey, did you get a chance to see the show?” We were like, “No, we were actually backstage working.” She was like, “Oh, you know you all did such an amazing job. Thank you so much.” I remember her bowing down and saying, “Thank you, thank you.” At that moment, I was like… I swear my heart stopped. It was something that was so humbled for someone to bow out at you that’s a sign of the spirit. So we exchanged words and we ended up going and I called my other friend and I literally broke down in tears because it was really a dream come true. From there I’ve done multiple projects with Beyoncé a lot of her music videos, done the tour, did a lot of work on this last album that she had. So it’s been a great run.
TP: Has that opened a lot of doors for you as well? Or is it its own little bubble?
ERW: It is its own little bubble. I feel like I have recognition from working with her. It is a level of respect, but at the same time it’s still its own little bubble.
TP: And do you still work with that agency?
ERW: No I don’t, I ended up leaving that agency.
TP: Do you have an agent now?
ERW: No I’m actually on my own.
TP: How does that work for you, do you prefer to work independently or to have an agent?
ERW: I did prefer to have an agent, but the thing is, you want the right agent. I think that sometimes we’re living in an industry where a lot of freelance people feel they want an agent, they need an agent and I had that same feeling for years, like “Oh I need an agent, what am I going to do? I need an agent!” But I realized that if you make great connections, you can work this business without one. I feel like it’s almost better to wait to find that great agent, because you don’t want to jump around too much.
TP: Well it’s a relationship that you’re entering into, whether you see it as a business relationship, or it can also be very personal, either way it can greatly affect so many aspects of your life. That’s smart. You just focus on your sincere relationships and connections with existing clients and future clients-
ERW: And they refer you. I think if you have a great attitude and you bring the right energy, people will respect you, people will love you. I always try to be a team player and have a great attitude on set. At times, it’s hard but I have to realize that people are always watching. You’ve got to be mindful of every little thing you do, the things you say.
TP: That’s so wise of you, many people don’t see their profession that way. Many people just focus on their craft and not about the world around them.
ERW: There’s a bigger picture, I’m just one part of production. It takes so many people and sometimes we lose sight of so many people in the process of creating. Even with working with Beyoncé, there’s so much that goes into it. Sometimes you might think that it’s just the main hair stylist or makeup artist, but in truth there are so many people lower on the totem pole who play an important big role, who are sometimes not credited. It’s all about the team.
TP: You’ve been doing a lot of fashion shows as well. How has that come about?
ERW: I think just working in fashion. I’ve always been more connected to fashion than celebrity styling. I tried for seven years to do shows and every season I would maybe book one show, at most. I’m at a place right now where I realize it's about timing. Now after seven years, I finally made it into the Guido Palau team, which has been a highlight of my life. It’s been the most amazing journey. He is such an amazing hair stylist. I have the ultimate respect for Guido, he is just brilliant and when I’m on set I just like to sit back sometimes and watch him and learn. Just the way he looks and thinks, it’s so interesting to see how he comes up with ideas. He’s been one of my biggest inspirations.
TP: It’s beautiful when you’re working with somebody who inspires you and teaches as well.
ERW: He does teach and he shows me a different way of looking at hair. Sometimes when you’re a hairstylist and you’re coming in, you think too much about it. You could sometimes overload a hair style with product because you’re trying to figure out your way of doing it. When you’re working with somebody who has mastered this, you realize that you could be overthinking it. Literally it's not about the body of hair. Sometimes its a flip of the wrist or to move the hair this way to get the image. When they’re shooting, it’s easy to just flip the hair a certain way. I’m learning a lot, it’s been a great journey so far.
TP: Do you work with assistants of your own? What kind of characteristics or traits do you look for in an assistant?
ERW: I have had assistants of my own. Number one, I want you to be hard working. I don’t want you to talk a lot. You have to know when and where. Nobody wants a chatty Kathy. Be quiet, do your job, speak when you’re spoken to - still be you, but be there for them. You can’t be distracted. You’ve got to always keep your eyes on who you’re assisting. So when I look for an assistant I’m looking for somebody that’s hard-working, willing and able to really help me. That is key. I’ve had a lot of assistants that haven’t been able to. I think people want the art - they have the idea of assisting but a lot of people don’t know how to. We all come from a place where we have to learn, which can be frustrating because when you’re on set, you don’t have time to teach a person how to assist you. You are just asking for combs, the blow dryer -
TP: It’s almost like a surgeon and a nurse, “Scalpel!”
ERW: It has to be. So to be a great assistant you have to think like the hairstylist. You’ve got to anticipate what they may need next and have it ready in hand. You still have to be a hairstylist. You have to think, “He’s going to need to hair spray in about 3 or 4 minutes, so let me grab that.”
TP: What are some of the tools of the trade you need to do your job?
ERW: A great blow dryer, invest in one. Invest in a great blow dryer even if it's $200-300, it makes a big difference in your world. That's one of the things I’ve learned this year. Sometimes we’re so quick to pick up a flat iron, but it’s all about the blow dryer. Need a Mason Pearson, I’ve always been told you’re not a real hairdresser unless you have a Mason Pearson. Once you buy one, you’ll never buy another one. They last for years. I highly recommend it. They have other brushes out there similar to a Mason Pearson. A great flat iron. I love the Babyliss Nano Titanium, is one of my go-to flat irons. Amazing flat iron. It conducts high heat but because I work with so many textures of hair and ethnicities, I need a flat iron that's able to get as hot as I need it if I’m doing African American hair or if I’m doing even more fine texture hair I need it to still be nice without scorching and damaging the hair. As far as product, my favorite product right now would be the TIGI Queen for a Day. It’s a thickening spray. I realize now that I can’t go on any job without it. It really makes a difference especially if you have the finer quality hair, you’re doing a blowout and you need that thickness without stiffness.
TP: Sometimes hairstylists and makeup artists have relationships with certain brands is that something that you do?
ERW: Right now I’m not under contract with anyone, but I do have relationships from Bumble and bumble to L'Oreal to John Masters Organics, Kérastase. As a hair stylist, you have to open yourself up to these companies because when you give them credit for great results, they in turn will reciprocate with products.
TP: And people don’t understand how expensive it is to build a kit. Products are expensive, tools are expensive…
ERW: Everything is expensive! It’s always great when you've worked hard to get to a certain level and people are sending you things saying, “Oh here, try this.” It is very expensive to have a kit and a lot of hair stylists just starting out really don’t understand that.
TP: I think all the girls are jealous that you've been on the Dior Cruise. Tell me, how did your involvement in the Dior Cruise come about?
ERW: I was on hold and I knew for about two months we were going. When you’re on Will’s team, you’re just going. There are certain shows you just have to do.
TP: Must be tough! [laughs]
ERW: Once we ended up in the south of France for a show and it was simply amazing. I stayed for three days. During that time, I was going to fittings and tests, and it's amazing to see how much work goes on behind the scenes. It takes a lot. That’s why my respect level is super high for these designers, including the hair and makeup teams.
TP: How big was your team?
ERW: Normally it's a team of 19 or 20.
TP: During a photo shoot, we might have two individuals, one lead hair stylist, and one lead makeup artist. And assistants if they’re lucky, but these fashion shows - wow!
ERW: It takes a lot.
TP: Anything exciting in the works?
ERW: I’m going to Tokyo again, which I love. Such an amazing place, and really one of the cleanest cities I’ve been to I must say!
TP: You could eat off the floor of the subway system there. It's impressive!
ERW: [Laughs] I said that to someone the other day, that you could literally eat off the street. It’s amazing. It really makes you feel the respect- when I came back to New York I was like, “How does Tokyo maintain that?” But I think the Japanese have such a high respect for where they live. You don’t find gum on the street, you don’t find trash.
TP: Respect seems to be such an enormous part of the culture on so many different levels in Japan.
ERW: Exactly. You know one thing about it - I didn’t feel different when I was in Japan. Nobody stared at me, they just respect you. I felt at home from the first moment I arrived. It almost felt very laid-back and it is such a beautiful place to be.
TP: Sounds like you have had really lovely experiences in Japan. When do you leave?
ERW: I leave on Saturday, then off to the shows in July for couture. I’m excited, I love being able to create and traveling is a wonderful perk. Sometimes I have a little anxiety flying so much, but it's been great.