Brush in pocket, acclaim in hand for hairstylist Ted Gibson
CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
SUSAN Rocco, 49, an interior designer, has seen the same hairdresser in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, since she was 16. “I felt like I’d be cheating on her to go anywhere else,” she said.
But Ted Gibson – known for his makeovers on TLC’s What Not to Wear – is the kind of celebrity hairdresser that has Rocco, a wife of 30 years, excited to cheat. “I wanted a special experience, because I’m frustrated with my hair at this point in my life,” said Rocco, who has an auburn bob and typically pays $100 for cut and colour. “I want to look my best, short of plastic surgery, and do something to update my look, and have a professional look at my hair with a fresh set of eyes.” Armand Rocco, her husband and an owner of the Kitchenworks, their custom- cabinet business, doesn’t mind paying $950 to have his wife be one of the first shorn by Gibson himself at his new salon in the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale. “I didn’t think about it as $950 for a haircut,” he said. “If you think of it that way, it’s a lot of money, but if you think about it as a very unique gift to give someone, then it’s worth it.” A late bloomer who started in the fashion business at 33 after helping to develop Aveda products, Gibson, 46, is an image-maker, known for styling the tresses of rising-star celebrities like Ashley Greene of Twilight fame, Mila Kunis of Black Swan and Jessica Chastain, recently nominated for best supporting actress for The Help. A calming presence who doles out compliments as he touches his clients’ hair, he has done bodacious looks for more than 15 magazine covers in the past year or so, including Lucky, BlackBook, Essence, Playboy and InStyle Hair.
Gibson, 6-foot-3, built and still applecheeked thanks to well-placed Sculptra injections, has all the trappings of a star hairdresser: a namesake line of shampoos tailored to hair colours like “captivating copper”; backstage gigs coiffing for Lela Rose, among others at New York Fashion Week; and now two luxurious but unpretentious salons, including the Manhattan original. Since August, Gibson – a relentless self-promoter on Facebook and Twitter – has been campaigning on both sites to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award an Oscar for hair, so hairdressers might at last get their due.
His growing profile is all the more remarkable given his roots. “If you think about all the people who wanted to do this before me, they have been straight, white with an accent – Vidal Sassoon, Frederic Fekkai, John Freida and Horst Rechelbacher,” said Gibson, who favours pink shirts and the ubermasculine scent Le Labo Santal 33. “It’s new territory.
It’s scary at one point, and exciting at the other.” That a gay black man is the face of the Ted Gibson brand still surprises some. When he’s part of an entourage, “people think I’m the bodyguard half the time,” he said. “Then they realise, oh, you have a brush in your pocket or you have a can of hairspray.” Those who’ve never met him or seen his picture often make assumptions: “People always think I’m a white Englishman,” he said.
He grew up as an Army brat, he played football and raised cattle. At 15, he came out to his unsuspecting parents.
“I just knew I needed to be who I was,” he said over egg-white omelets on the deck of Steak 954 at the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale. “It was tough.” Gibson’s career trajectory has surprised his mother, Beatrice, 81. “I didn’t think he would get as far as he is now,” she confessed.
“He was so shy.” No more. On a blustery Tuesday evening, inside the cozy New York apartment Gibson shares with Jason Backe, the celebrity colourist with whom he builds his brand and his life, the couple is tussling over who came up with the phrase “mixing up the magic.” It’s become a catchphrase of Gibson’s on What Not to Wear, which they watched that night while eating Middle-Eastern takeout, followed by homemade brownies. But Backe contends he coined it. “I could have invented the light bulb, and no one would believe me!” Backe exclaimed, joking.
Their merry cattiness spilled onto Twitter as they sat, smartphones in hand, in front of the flatscreen above their working fireplace, which Spencer is snoozing next to.
The feisty couple volleys a lot of zingers, as well as praise, back and forth. They have been together 18 years, had a commitment ceremony after 2 years and have co-owned their New York salon for 8 years, with Gibson as the creative force, and Backe, 43, as the pragmatist who makes ideas happen.
At times, their banter might seem worthy of a reality-TV show. Although they did appear on The Real Housewives of DC back when they had a licensed salon in the area, a show isn’t in the works. They remain optimistic, though, and have even alerted their friends near their upstate getaway – they call them their Catskills Queens – that “they will be our second-string cast of characters,” said Backe, adding his own reality check to lower expectations: The networks “are not ready for an interracial gay couple on TV.” In an interview, Beatrice Gibson admitted it took time to become comfortable with her son’s being gay. “You don’t want that to happen, but nowadays you see it all the time, two girls or two boys, and young, too,” she said. She talks to her son daily, and sometimes they pray together. “A lot of parents don’t speak to their kids” after learning they are gay, she said. “I think that’s awful.” On What Not To Wear, Gibson stands out because of his daring choices. He dyed an Asian waif’s rose-highlighted stringy hair fuchsia and gave her blunt bangs, a makeover that brought 2,000 new fans to the show’s Facebook page, said Stephanie Eno, the senior director of production for TLC. “His demeanor brings a calm, and his cachet builds that instant trust,” she added.