Tracey Cunningham, Colorist to J. Lo and Anya Taylor-Joy, Reflects on a Career of Many Shades

The hair guru—who works with Margot Robbie, Dakota Johnson, and more—released her first book True Color this week.

Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Finding the right hair color is a transformative undertaking. After years of trial and error and wearing shades that wash your face out or don’t fit your coloring, discovering your exact hue is like winning a long battle. And such victorious moments can be credited to the talent and expertise of the right colorist. For the past decade, Tracey Cunningham has been just that: the go-to color guru for stars like Jennifer Lopez and Anya Taylor-Joy—and for women who won’t be walking red carpets, too. No matter who they are, Cunningham’s clients will travel across the globe for her talents. The leading colorist—who also happens to be an advisor at Olaplex— released a book this week titled True Color, which reflects on her decades-long career working at the top of the beauty industry. True Color not only gives key hair advice based on the knowledge Cunningham has amassed over the years, but also provides a detailed look at some of her most unforgettable hair looks. Below, the Los Angeles-based colorist shared some insight on a number of the topics explored in her new book—from avoiding dry locks to the effects of mineral buildup on the hair.

Tips on Going Red?

“Going red is challenging because sometimes, the color needs to be layered on to stick to the hair. Once it’s in, it’s the hardest color to get out of the hair as well—so I always tell clients you need to be really sure you want to be a redhead. When a blonde goes red, I add in low-lights because they already have the highlights. Brunettes that want to go red require a full head of highlights; if they are fully committed, they’ll need a base color with a few highlights and then a gloss over it so it doesn’t look too monochromatic.”

Tracey Cunningham

“I recommend visiting your professional hairstylist for a gloss every two weeks to maintain the color. Don’t try to put it into your own hands with products from the grocery store—use a color safe shampoo like Olaplex No 4. Bond Maintenance Shampoo. Hydration is really important to lock in the color, so use a weekly hair mask like Olaplex No. 8 Bond Intense Hair Mask to help impart shine, body, and moisture. The stronger and healthier your hair is, the longer the color molecule will stay inside the hair. Finally, do not use super-hot water when washing hair as it opens up the cuticle.”

How About Going Blonde From Brunette?

“First, I recommend applying Olaplex No. 0 Intensive Bond Building Treatment and Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector the night before your appointment, if you don’t know that your stylist is using Olaplex in the salon. These two products are the dynamic duo to strengthen and repair the hair. A good trick? Make sure to apply it to places that are most damaged.”

“When going from brunette to blonde, it’s important to be realistic. As hair colorists, we are not magicians, and it may take a few times to get it right. Remember, if you had a base color in the past three years, it could still be in the hair. I was just told by a client today who wanted to go blonde from brunette that her hair was virgin. I started coloring her hair and noticed the ends were not lifting. It turns out she forgot that she did a rinse last year and it was still there. This can be a very difficult situation since it’s still not the color that I had originally intended—and I am a perfectionist!”

“Another good tip is to get trimmed first, before color. I recently did a full head of highlights and found out afterwards that she was scheduled for a haircut; all of her color was cut out. Always cut first! Finally, most people don’t need trims all the time. I’d say about every three months—unless you have a certain look or style you are trying to achieve.”

Her Most Unforgettable Hair Moment

“It’s so funny how we think of our jobs as so important. I’m always traveling to meet with clients on set who are on location. For Jennifer Lopez, I once flew to her to do her hair, and when I arrived, she had a wrap on her head. She looked absolutely beautiful—really, there wasn’t much for me to do. I left her with the wrap on her head. I actually really like this story and refer to it in the book because it reminds me to put things in perspective. It was unforgettable for me in a great way, and she looked better than ever—without hair color even playing a part.”

Minerals in Water and Their Effect on Hair Color

“Look, I don’t have a chemistry degree—however, I see the see the damage these minerals cause when you are sitting in my chair. When people have mineral buildup, their hair is not only green but also very damaged. Minerals and chemicals from the hair color are not the best combination. When clients have mineral buildup in their hair, there have been times when I sometimes see a chemical reaction taking place, right before me: the foils are hot to the touch.”

Staying Grateful in a Sometimes-Superficial World

“It’s easy to stay grateful when you are in the service business. But in all honesty, I feel really blessed with what I achieved and have. I’ve always been able to take care of my son—when I first started, I was a single mom, and it was all about hustling and making sure he had everything he needed. Now that he’s older, I don’t think of it the same way.”