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Working lunch with Tracey Hughes

Working lunch with Tracey Hughes

The Tracey Hughes story begins like many others. A young hairdresser from the north of England who dons a backpack and heads to Australia to explore her dreams for independence and sunshine, then falls in love with the country and never returns to her homeland. But what makes Tracey’s journey different to most is her relentless drive and determination, traits that have spearheaded the petite powerhouse into hairdressing’s elite. It’s a ride that’s been littered with challenges, personal hardship and health issues, but that hasn’t stopped this talented educator who, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, is today reaping the rewards of her hard work and carving out a career on the international stage – as an independent artist who writes her own rules. By Jenny Burns

Becoming a hairdresser was never something that Tracey Hughes aspired to. Unlike many tales of other prolific stylists when quizzed about their early ambitions, she had neither a family member in the business nor a terribly creative streak that was searching for an outlet to be expressed. Instead, with a high IQ and top of the class grades, Tracey was destined to tackle the high-flying world of law.

“Because of my good marks at school, the teachers really encouraged me to go to university. I decided I was going to be a barrister, doing a degree majoring in law with a minor in politics. I was quite opinionated back then, I still am!” she laughs. “So that was what I had planned. But one day I woke up – and I literally don’t know 26 years later what made me decide this – but I woke up and realised that I didn’t really want to spend the next ten years of my life studying. Out of the blue I decided that I wanted to be a hairdresser. I’d never had any aspirations to be a hairdresser prior to that, none whatsoever. But I have always been very much a person who follows my instincts. I spoke to my mum and told her that I wanted to leave school and she said ‘whatever you want to do, you’ve got my full support because I know you’ll do it with the best of your ability’.”

A pretty cool response from mum, Tracey agrees. Most parents wouldn’t be too happy when a child blessed with intellect and drive who was destined for great things chooses hairdressing over law. “I went and saw the headmaster and the career teachers and told them that I’d changed my mind and everyone was so negative towards me wanting to do hairdressing,” Tracey recalls. “Being young and very determined, I didn’t listen to any of them; I instead went out and got an apprenticeship. The day I started, I just knew that this was what I was meant to do and I’ve never questioned it since.”

Tracey began her foray into the industry at Christopher Boyton, one of Liverpool’s most high profile salons, which she describes as “the most amazing apprenticeship anyone could ever have. Their whole philosophy was very Sassoon based, very much about technical, precision cutting, and the training I received was outstanding. They employed a lot of apprentices because it was 1:1, the same amount of seniors to juniors so the amount of attention you got was incredible. As an apprentice you were allocated a senior to work underneath for six months, then you’d move to another one for six months, so you got to be mentored by one person all day. It was a unique situation and one that really ingrained in me over the years just how supported young people need to be in the early years of their career and how crucial that time is to your future in hairdressing. I guess that’s why education has always been my core focus.”

As a shining young star at the progressive salon, Tracey was literally thrown into her first education gig when she was a mere 19 years old. “They told me I was going to present this haircut in front of an audience,” she recalls, “and of course I was an absolute nervous wreck! No one actually coached me or taught me how to present. I told them not to ask me any questions so I could focus on the haircut, but of course they came over with a microphone and asked me what I was doing. Well, I grabbed that microphone and took over the whole stage! I think I figured out really early that I was comfortable with public speaking…”

Having such brazen confidence is a positive attribute, but Tracey says that at times others in the industry have perceived it as a negative trait. “I have to say there have been comments that people have said about me over the years that have really hurt,” she admits. “Things like ‘oh you’re so driven by ego’, for example. But I really believe there’s a massive difference between being confident and being egotistical. I will never ever be embarrassed about the fact that I’m confident. It’s a great skill to have; it’s actually a gift. I don’t think I have an ego in the slightest because I spend 90% of my life travelling, away from my family and my home, giving to people through my work. I believe as an educator, that’s a selfless act. It’s a real privilege to be part of someone else’s journey, helping them grow and having an impact on them.

“I get really sick of people saying that platform artists are big egotistical wannabe superstars. Yes, sure, there are a lot of them in the market place, way too many of them to be honest, and they need to let go of their ego and realise that it’s never about them, it’s about the people they are teaching. Those who are not born with natural confidence can gain that it through knowledge; the more you increase your skill, the more confident you’re going to feel. So I think if I’ve got that confidence naturally  and I can help bring that out in other people through mentoring them and supporting them, then what’s egotistical about that?”

After five years at Christopher Boyton, Tracey decided she wanted to see the world, choosing Australia as the destination for her big adventure. “I didn’t know anything about Australia, maybe Home & Away and Crocodile Dundee, but that’s all really, except it was far away and they spoke English,” Tracey continues. “So I did the typical backpacking thing and got a 12 month holiday visa. The first place I landed was Brisbane because we had family friends there, but at the time I found it a little too slow. Through talking to people that I’d met, they convinced me I was more suited to fashionable Melbourne. Coming from Liverpool, I was pretty trendy with my image anyway, so that seemed like the right choice.”

With her technical ability and excellent training, Tracey was being offered jobs left, right and centre, not only as a stylist but also as a trainer of staff. “After that first education gig at Christopher Boyton, I wanted to learn how to teach and to develop my skills further. I realised that if you want to teach other people, you have to be able to answer any question, so I took every opportunity to watch and learn and be mentored by other people. By the time I’d come to Australia when I was 21 Ihad already been part of a junior artistic team, so I’d been teaching for a while anyway. It was just a natural progression for me.”

After a stint in Sydney under the then current Hair Expo Australian Hairdresser of the Year Antony Whitaker, Tracey eventually returned to Melbourne and fell onto her feet at salon group Biba under the expertise of Paul Divitaris. Here she set up the group’s academy, working in the school all week then in the salon on Saturday doing clients. This period of her life Tracey says reaffirmed her quest to pursue her love of education. It also led her to make the decision to open her own business.

“I’d already decided that I wasn’t going back to England,” she quips, “because I’d fallen in love with Australia – it offered great opportunities and a wonderful lifestyle. So I got my residency and then applied for citizenship. During this time I decided to open Mieka. I was 27 at the time, so still pretty young, and I didn’t have any finance behind me. Like most new businesses, those early days were a struggle; I remember not being able to pay myself wages and being so worried about how I was going to pay rent and how I was going to feed myself each week. I never really wanted my own business to be honest. But I did want to create a particular culture that was based on quality work and education.”

The Mieka brand is a true reflection of Tracey’s philosophy on hairdressing and her own handwriting – precision mixed with an aesthetic of beauty. “My own style of work always has technical strength as well as its own distinctive feel. It’s a little bit edgier, a little bit cooler; it’s not mainstream or commercial. But it is still very wearable and has to have that essence of classic beauty. I really emphasise to our team that it doesn’t matter how good your cut is or your colour or your styling, if it does not suit the particular client you’re working on, it’s going to look wrong. A lot of people forget that. Remember that suitability complements your art. It makes your work look beautiful.”

Soon after opening her Collingwood salon, Tracey became a guest educator for Goldwell, one of the few females in the company’s platform artist lineup. She was given many opportunities over the next 10 years and embraced them all, climbing through the ranks of national education to do international gigs across the globe. As her name and profile grew, other companies stood up and took notice, and she was eventually approached by Redken to join the brand as Artistic Director. “It was a huge opportunity for me to grow further,” Tracey offers, “and part of the deal was that I actually got to receive coaching in New York. For so many years I’d been the person who trained everyone else, so to get that opportunity to be coached myself was amazing.”

Things seemed to be going great guns for Tracey – the salon was pumping, she was being mentored by some of the industry’s finest and her reputation as a top class stylist and teacher was growing daily. She’d also met the love of her life Simon, a former chef who gave up his career to support hers and who she eventually married at the age of 35. Life was rosy, but not for long. Tracey was about to face a series of challenges that threatened to destroy her business as well as life as she knew it.

On the up side, Tracey’s career was in a northern-bound trajectory. However as she grew professionally, her life became increasingly hectic. A relentless travel schedule educating for Redken as well as her own fledgling Tracey Hughes Education business alongside managing and nurturing the Mieka salon and its team members was taking a toll on Tracey’s health. Her stress levels were spiraling and the epilepsy she had lived with since a child was becoming increasingly debilitating, with many more seizures occurring than she was normally accustomed to.

In the midst of the mayhem came Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, one of the worst bushfire tragedies in Australia’s history. Tracey and Simon had moved to a property on the outskirts of Melbourne a few years prior for a more peaceful lifestyle, and on that fateful day their home was suddenly under threat, as well as their lives.

“Simon sent me to bed on that day and I never knew what happened,” Tracey recalls. “He stood on our balcony where we lived and you could see the ranges aglow. He didn’t go to bed, he stood there all night with the car keys in one hand and the dog leads in the other, ready to get me out of bed, get the dogs in the car and get us out of there if we were forced to evacuate, which fortunately we weren’t, but it was frighteningly close. When he was a child, Simon lived through Ash Wednesday, so he had survived two of the most major bushfires in Australia’s history. After that scare, we said we didn’t want to live there anymore.”

Still reeling from the shock of Mother Nature’s fury, Tracey and Simon received more bad news, this time man made. The sideline business that Simon had bought into was hit hard by the GFC and was closed. Then the pair discovered that the accountant that had looked after Mieka since its inception had been ‘cooking the books’ so to speak, leaving the business with a $200,000 debt owing to the Australian Tax Office. The only way they could repay the debt was to sell their house, providing the pair with even more ammunition to move on to greener pastures.

“There were personal reasons as well,” Tracey reveals of the decision to pack up and leave Melbourne. “We had also just gone through IVF and I found out that I couldn’t have children. That was really a very distressing time. I’ve lived with epilepsy my whole life, so all this stress wasn’t helping and I was having way more seizures than I would normally have. It was just a really difficult period in my life; it was a lot all at once. Simon is my rock; but he was carrying the financial stress and I was carrying the emotional stress.”

With the challenges they were faced with, Simon and Tracey made the decision to move. The question was, where? “It was funny I suppose, but we agreed that it didn’t really matter where we lived, as long as it was nearby an airport,” Tracey tells. “And being a silly Pom, I wanted sunshine. So we literally woke up one day and said: let’s move to Queensland!”

In an act of spontaneity, the duo sold their Melbourne house in two days, then jumped on a plane and flew to Queensland. “We didn’t have a clue where we wanted to live,” Tracey grins. “We just knew we wanted to be near an airport because Simon was sick of playing chauffeur and driving me an hour to Melbourne airport every week there and back. We knew we wanted land because we had our dogs and one day would probably have more animals. So we were thinking Gold Coast hinterland, Byron Bay hinterland, Sunshine Coast hinterland, we didn’t mind where we moved to. We basically looked on the internet at all the properties that were for sale and made a big list while we were driving. We drove down Currumbin Creek Road in Currumbin Valley in the Gold Coast hinterland and saw a sign saying Open for Inspection. The property wasn’t on our list, but we drove in there and it felt like we were in Jurassic Park. It had amazing 100-year-old hoop pines and palm trees; it really did have that feeling that you were out in the middle of nowhere, but it was only 10 minutes to the beach and 15 minutes to Coolangatta airport. The house was horrible, it was an ‘80s brick veneer shocker, but the actual location and the land were breathtaking. So we went to the auction and bought it. It was so spontaneous – we sold the house in two days, got on a plane to Queensland and bought the first house we saw. Bang. Our life changed there and then.”

After a time of travelling back and forth to Melbourne to run her salon, the reality of having a business in another state was starting to wear thin. On the positive side, Tracey’s educational bookings locally and overseas were growing rapidly, however this meant that her already hectic schedule was becoming increasingly tight. She contemplated selling her salon, but as fate would have it decided to have a conversation with her long-time employee and salon manager Olivia Zynevych about becoming a partner in the Mieka business. Olivia was looking at taking her career to the next level, hence the timing was perfect. So successful was the new structure that Tracey and Simon purchased a second Mieka salon at Nobby Beach on the Gold Coast, which they own in partnership with their education manager Lucas Dowling. Between the two salons is a staff of 18, with further plans for expansion firmly in place. At time of print Tracey had just put an offer into an art gallery in Collingwood that is planned to become the new flagship salon/educational studio for Mieka Melbourne. She also revealed plans to open a third salon – this time in Singapore.

“This isn’t confirmed as yet but we are looking at expanding Mieka internationally by opening in Singapore,” she says. “I do a lot of work in Asia; Taiwan’s always been one of my busiest countries to do education in. Singapore is definitely the central hub in Asia. There’s also a massive ex-pat population there as well – you don’t see many good blondes in Singapore! So being able to tap into that market would be fantastic. If we decide to proceed, we’ll open a large facility that will combine a salon and training facility as well.”

Two years ago, Tracey made the brave decision to become an independent educator rather than a guest artist for a product company. Following three years with Redken she decided not to renew her contract, instead steering her energy into taking Tracey Hughes Education to the next level.

“It was a hard decision to make, to go independent,” she admits. “I was scared. I wasn’t sure if my own brand was strong enough to stand on its own two feet. Also financially to walk away from that kind of contract and that kind of income was difficult as well, but I’ve never done anything just for the money and I never will. I was just sick of the politics; there were too many rules for me to be honest. I got to the stage where I didn’t want to be ‘told’ how I should teach. Education always has to be about the people you are connecting with. I appreciate that corporate companies supply the industry with product, but it has to be taken back to the hairdresser and it has to be taken back to the client. They are the ones who keep the corporate companies in business as well. When you spend all of your time endorsing a product, then it’s not about the person who is learning. I want education to always be about the people I’m teaching – when politics comes into it, the people who are going to suffer are the students.

“I know I’m only one little person trying to make a difference and I know I can’t make a massive impact on the industry, but I’m a person who genuinely cares about the people I teach. If they like my work and can learn something from it, then I don’t care what anyone thinks. So if I can make a difference, I’d rather stay true to the person that I am and keep my integrity. That’s something I’m really proud of. People may say that’s opinionated, or again it’s about ego, but I see it rather as doing what I want to do.”

Indeed, the decision to go solo and invest into Tracey Hughes Education certainly seems to have been the right one. Proactive in marketing, online and through social media, Tracey began getting bookings to work in countries she’d never been to before, with places like Russia opening their doors to the petite education powerhouse. She now has agents in the US, Taiwan and Russia to handle her bookings and was personally invited to be the principal headline act for America’s Beauty Show, alongside industry legends such as Mark Hayes and Tabatha Coffey. “It’s just steamrolling,” she enthuses. “I pinched myself when I saw the names of the other headliners; it makes me proud that I can represent Australia amongst such esteemed company.”

The other big news at Camp Hughes is that Tracey has just been appointed the Australia/New Zealand ambassador for myhairdressers.com, a project she’s incredibly excited about. “MHD has been established for five or so years and was originally set up by a bunch of ex-Sassoon guys with an aim to get education accessible to more people. It has a presence globally, with licensees all around the world, and we’ve taken on the license for Australia and New Zealand. The global CEO is Mark Butcher, who wanted a greater presence in this region, so he did his research as to who would be the best ambassador and approached me personally. It was a huge compliment.”

Obviously with education being her passion and with her experience in producing online learning, Tracey is a perfect fit for the brand. “We sat down and worked out what we wanted to produce for Australia and have decided we’ll be launching a Student Pack, which will contain all the curriculum for Certificates 2, 3 and 4 online. This is going to revolutionise the educational

institution system and bridge the gap between education and industry needs. It will work in conjunction with educational institutions and TAFE, which means that when a new student enrolls they will be offered a MHD student pack instead of having to purchase their books. We’ve already launched in the UK with NBQ and it’s been so successful that we’ve got the government support in the UK as well. It’s something so new to Australia and New Zealand. We’ve already got the contract with TAFE and we will be launching it at Hair Expo so that other educational institutions can see what it’s all about.

“Basically every lesson students have to do to meet the current hairdressing curriculum will be available via MHD – all the theory lectures, technical information, videos, pdfs, mannequin heads, diagrams – every single thing a student would need. And the best part is that it is really affordable, much cheaper than what they are spending now on all their books, only about $165 for an annual subscription. A lot of the content we have
on the site at the moment has been filmed by some of the biggest names in the industry – Tim Hartley, Patrick Cameron, Stacey Broughton – and next week we’re launching a new video that I filmed in the UK a few weeks ago, which will be our 300th. It’s a beautiful, mid-length disconnected haircut, very technical in its approach but a very loose commercial shape. Because a lot of the content is British and quite edgy, I want to make sure that we also have really commercial content suitable for our market. But overall, it’s a great resource, particularly for those in regional areas who don’t have the opportunity to go to a formal training facility or can’t afford thousands of dollars to go and do a course.

“Nothing will replace face-to-face education. But there are not enough good quality trainers in hairdressing to support the industry’s needs. So the only way we can truly support everyone in the industry, not just  the people who can afford to do the education or are motivated enough to do it, is to be able to cater to everyone’s needs. MHD is suitable for every single hairdresser in the world, from a newcomer to someone who has been around for 40 years.”

Tracey is infectiously enthusiastic about her life, whether she’s spruiking a new educational line, boasting about the goals her Mieka team members are kicking, or the birth of a new baby donkey on her property back home. “I have energy to burn,” she admits with a grin, “I don’t sleep much, I just go go go. But no one has turned me into a workaholic; it’s my choice. I do it because I love it. I get bored easily, so I love new projects and challenges and anything I can sink my teeth into.

“I feel like I’m in a good place now. A few years back things were pretty dark and troubled. But life has challenges and all you can do is learn from them and say, ‘I’m going to be a better person because of them’. Going through all those trials on a personal level was hard. But what kept me going probably more than anything, apart from Simon and I being strong for each other, was just never losing faith in myself. And I think that’s where my confidence will always shine through. I do doubt myself; I am human! But I came to Australia as a little backpacker with the confidence to do what I do, and I’m still doing what I do and doing it well, because I believe in myself. If you’ve got that along with strong skills and a good education behind you, then that’s the recipe for success.”

The article was taken from Culture magazine www.culturemag.com.au