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Celebrity Hairstylist Mark Townsend Shares His Hair Secrets

How he gets the A-list red-carpet ready, plus his must-have hair products and favourite cut right now.

Mark Townsend at the 2010 Hollywood Style Awards.

Some of you will remember celebrity hairstylist Mark Townsend from the first time I talked about meeting him, way back in 2012. That's when he literally changed my life by telling me about Dove Dry Shampoo (which I've been hooked on ever since), and all the many ways you can use it.

Others may recognize his name because he has styled the hair of just about every A-lister in Hollywood. To name a few: the Olsens, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Halle Berry, Amy Adams, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lawrence, Lea Michele, Diane Kruger, Natalie Portman, Jessica Biel, Rachel McAdams and January Jones. Busy much, Mark?

Lucky for us, he did find time to visit Toronto recently for a media event—yes, Mark is still the resident celebrity hairstylist for Dove. I got to sit down with him to pick his brain on all things hair (and was so excited, I couldn't even take this picture properly...):

Fangirl moment with Mark Townsend and my pal @thechicstorm.

Here's what we talked about!

What products are always in your kit, that you can’t live without?

I cannot go a day without the dry oil. The new Dove Pure Care Dry Oil. It’s like having seven products in one. It’s a conditioner; it’s a dry oil that absorbs immediately. It absorbs SO fast and it gives the hair such amazing shine.

Dove Pure Care Dry Oil

Do you apply it wet or dry?

I work with Ashley and Mary-Kate, and when I’m getting them ready for an event, they’re quite opposite. They fight over who goes to makeup first because they like to look as natural as possible. But Mary-Kate always wins. So I put four or five drops of the oil in her damp hair, and I just rake it through and let it dry while she’s getting her makeup done. 

With Ashley, she usually sits in my chair first, so I put four or five drops in her hair, but I’ll blow-dry it with a round brush. She likes a little more polish. So I blow-dry it and get it super-silky and smooth, and then go back and mess it up a little bit. I'll loosely braid it while she’s having her makeup done, just so she gets a few bends in it, or just twist it into a bun and clip it really quickly for 20, 30 minutes.

Ashley Olsen at the 2014 opening of the Journey of a Dress exhibition.

So is that their favourite product, the dry oil?

Honestly, Dove gave the product to me as a sample about a year and a half ago, maybe? And the first thing I did was give it to them. There were two little glass bottles, and I just said, “This is something coming out soon, I want you to try it, let me know what you think.” 

I’ve worked with them for so long, they’ll take something home and tell me, “Oh this is amazing,” or “This doesn’t work.” I like getting the opinions of women who use it on themselves. This was the first time I heard immediately, “I need more of that oil. What is in that bottle? This is amazing.” And they got curious about it—what is IN it that makes it work like this?

Because of that, I get to go to R&D and talk to them. I understand that macadamia oil, the actual molecule of it, is very, very tiny. It can penetrate into the hair, whereas argan oil can’t. You know, almond oil can penetrate, and coconut oil can get into the hair. 

Because of [the Olsens], I found out so many more uses for it than just putting it in the hair and letting it dry or blow-drying. Mary-Kate will put it in every single day. And then she washes her hair, maybe twice a week? And what she'll do is right before she washes her hair, she'll coat her hair with the dry oil and leave it in for 20 minutes. It's a super-rich treatment that way. Then she lightly rinses it and quickly shampoos because she loves what it does to her hair. She really doesn't like shampooing daily.

Mary-Kate Olsen at the 2013 Met Gala. 

Well, who does?

I know! I think there's a trend that she started as an accident. She was away on vacation for a week. I told her, “Put this in your hair before you go into the ocean. Put it in your hair before you get in the sun. It's going to protect your hair and give you a conditioning treatment at the same time.” 

She came back, I mean, her hair looked like an oil slick. She'd been doing it for seven days in a row, just coating and coating and coating. It was the launch of her fragrance that night, and I'm like, “What am I going to do?” 

So I was like, “Let's just go with it.” And she doesn't like her hair up. So I just took dry shampoo to all of her ends, and just kept brushing it and brushing it and brushing it, but leaving all of that oil on top. 

I think it became such a huge trend, the slicked-back hair in the front and dry texture going down. I had so many magazine editors bring that picture of Mary-Kate to me, like, “This is what we want to shoot.” I'm like, “Oh, I did that. Great. I know exactly how to get that look.”

Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen at the 2014 launch of Elizabeth and James Nirvana.

How long ago was this?

Maybe a year ago now? I think they launched last February. The very next season, we saw five or six runway shows with slicked-back hair. We're already seeing such a huge return to the '90s. But this way, it's not heroin chic. The only thing I can think of is “gym chic”. 

It's literally looking like you just left the gym, with your sweaty roots and dry ends, and it became such a trend. I just did a shoot with Karolina Kurkova and they asked for that same look. It's kind of flat on top, almost like a modern mullet. Business in the front and party in the back.

Is that your favourite hair trend right now?

Mixing textures is such a huge trend we're seeing now. Especially with dark hair. The top knot has been around forever, but now it's moved back into a ballerina bun. You want the juxtaposition. Either having a lot of texture and flyaways all around the hairline and then a super-clean bun. Or the opposite—pull it back super-tight into a sleek ponytail and then braid the ponytail and loop it around. So it's not a perfect ballerina bun; you have to have a lot of texture in there.

Kerry Washington at a 2015 event for The Limited Collection.

What is the one hair product no woman should do without?

Dry shampoo. I am a connoisseur of dry shampoo. I've tried them all. I can tell you the pros and cons of every one. The Dove is my favourite dry shampoo. 

It's starch instead of powder. It's an incredible volumizer. I spray my hair pins with dry shampoo before I do an updo. I spray it in the hair non-stop. I spray it on a flat brush and brush it through the hair all the time. You know, we're seeing these bends in the hair coming out now instead of those perfect big barrel curls. By brushing out those curls, it turns it more into waves, and keeps them from clumping together. It's an amazing product.

Dove Dry Shampoo

What's the easiest special occasion hairstyle for a woman to do at home?

Braids are such a trend that we're seeing everywhere, and they're such an easy way to dress up a super-simple hairstyle. It's as simple as a ponytail. 

Take a whole front section of the hair—and it doesn't have to be a fancy French braid, it's not really about that—and just braid the hair. Then use that braid to wrap around the base of your ponytail. It makes it look like you spent hours on your hair. 

Another great one, if you're not doing a ponytail, is to do a bun.

Amy Adams at the 2011 Met Gala.

How do brunettes work in the braid look, because it's not as noticeable?

Not at all. It's true with any kind of hairstyle with dark hair. You have to overdo the texture just for a tiny bit of it to show up. 

I like to take a one-inch curling iron, and just grab huge chunks of hair and wrap them around it in different directions. So then, even when you braid it, it's not going to be a flat braid—it's going to be quite bumpy in texture, which is amazing. 

And again the dry shampoo. Tons of it. I love to layer dry shampoo and dry oil because it creates that second-day beachy look. But real beachy, not a fake, over-product look.

Lea Michele at the 2013 L'Oréal Women of Worth event.

What's the one thing women should stop doing with their hair?

It's shocking to me how many women skip conditioner because they're afraid it's going to weight their hair down. I found that with my own clients. I'll feel how dry their hair is. I'm like, “What's going on?” And they'll say, “Oh I've never used conditioner.” 

You can skip shampoo, but you can never skip conditioner. If you wet your hair, you have to use conditioner. The joy of the Oxygen Moisture line that just came out is that it gives women that moisture. They even have a treatment now that you can use. 

When you're applying your conditioner, the same way you would apply a dry oil, start on your ends and work your way up. Because you need it there the most. Women who skip conditioner, and then complain about how dry their hair feels or how damaged it looks—they can never get it looking shiny. That's because shine comes from a reflection. If you don't have a nice, smooth, sealed cuticle that conditioner gives you, then you're not going to have any shine in your hair. 

What's shocking to me is that 50 percent of women don't use conditioner, but they'll go and get all these crazy chemical treatments done to their hair and not think about how damaging they are. Moisture is something everybody needs.

What's your favourite cut now?

It's been around for a while, but I really love that hitting the collarbone [length]. And shagging out the ends just a tiny bit. You know, not like that one-length lob. It's a little bit of a shag on the ends. 

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

But I'm also obsessed with the chin-length bob. Jennifer Lawrence...

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2014 ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards.

The wob!

Wavy bob. That's a good title. I just saw her recently at the ‘Hunger Games’ press junket. I haven't worked with her since she cut her hair short.

You're just the long hair guy.

I'm really happy that she's got hair again. And what it has done to her face. What a game-changer. 

It literally was like Reese Witherspoon, when I cut those bangs on her. It really was kind of a game-changer. No one ever told her, “You've got a heart-shaped face, you'd look great with a fringe.” She's been able to incorporate it into every one of her looks. As an actress, she has to change her look all the time, but she keeps that nice long fringe going because it works so well for her.

Reese Witherspoon at the 2007 Golden Globe Awards.

What is your crowning achievement in celebrity haircuts?

Those bangs were pretty good. I gotta say, when I cut Jen's hair into that shag, right at the shoulders, I thought it was so beautiful and sexy on her. I like that kind of hair. 

But my relationship with Ashley and Mary-Kate, we've been working together for 14 years. Ashley hasn't let anybody cut her hair for 14 years. Mary-Kate gets a little more adventurous. But she recently found out, like, “Okay, I'll never do that again.”

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2013 GLAAD Media Awards.

She cheated on you?

It's not that she cheated. She stopped cutting her hair completely. With my relationship with Ashley, I would be blow-drying her hair and I just snip off those little pieces that need to go. But Mary-Kate would literally check my pockets before I would blow-dry her hair, like, “Don't cut, don't cut.” Because she wanted long hair. 

But if you don't get regular trims... her hair started shrinking. It split all the way up. We had to cut it all the way up to her shoulders to get rid of all that damage. Actually not damage, just lack of trimming. It's important.

Did you ever do Ashley's hair and say, “Can you talk to your sister for me?"

All the time! It was an ongoing joke for years. When they get ready for events, we're usually sitting around a dining table in either Ashley's apartment or Mary-Kate's apartment. And even their manager comes over, she'll be like, “Come on. Get the scissors out. You've gotta cut Mary-Kate's hair.” I'm like, “I'm not going to hold her down. Let her learn.”

How often should people get trims?

I'm not an every six to eight weeks guy. I think two or three times a year. Because I have short hair, I cut my hair every five or six weeks. But unless you have a really strict cut that you're maintaining, I don't think there's any need for that. Plus, most hairdressers like to cut a little more. So it's better to go in with a little extra length.

Do you do colour at all?

I don't. But my assistant Katie [Neutz] is the greatest colourist in the world. She's my little ingenue. She does Kate Bosworth's colour. She's incredible.

Kate Bosworth at a 2015 screening of ‘Still Alice’.

Do you direct the colour with your clients, according to what you're styling?

Yes. Especially with dark hair. Because when you're doing pictures for red carpet or a photo shoot, it's so hard to show texture. So I always recommend my clients get just the tiniest bit of highlights. Even if it's just like a light brown. You don't have to go with super-light highlights. It just gives a little bit of definition. 

I learned that when I worked on a film. I would have so much trouble getting Penélope Cruz's hair to look shiny and beautiful and really show texture in it. I recommended she get highlights. They were so subtle, but it changed everything on camera.

Penélope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in 2001.

Which movie was it?

‘Vanilla Sky’. 

Goin' back!

I'm old! I'm a lot older than you think! That was my second movie but my first big one. My last one was right here in Toronto. ‘New York Minute’ with Ashley and Mary-Kate. It was the best job of my life. I'll never do another movie.

Is that how you started, in film?

No, I actually was in fashion. I was living in New York and I assisted Danilo for two and a half years. He is a mad genius. I don't even think he's a hairdresser. He's an artist, and hair is the medium he works in. The things I saw him do... he created a working chandelier out of hair. He created the Absolut Vodka bottle out of hair. It wasn't Photoshopped; that model was walking around the studio with that on her head. It was incredible.

Then I went to work with Sally Hershberger for three years. It was like going to graduate school, kind of. Sally was so technical, almost clinical with how perfect it had to be before she could then mess it up and make it un-perfect. I was doing a lot of fashion back then. I was doing all the shows. Then Sally recommended me to work with Tom Cruise on ‘Vanilla Sky’ and then I ended up taking over the whole movie. I did Tom, Penélope and Cameron [Diaz]. And then Tom asked me to do another movie and that took me to LA. I got an apartment and fell in love with it. And that's how I kind of moved into celebrity.

And now, celebrities are very involved in fashion campaigns, they're on all the magazine covers. I just fell into doing a lot of celebrities.

Do you do any regular people still?

Oh yeah. I try to work out of the salon one day a month in New York. I work out of Sally Hershberger still. The best part of my job is that it's different every single day. What killed me about movies is that once you establish a look, you have to recreate it. Every single day. The word continuity haunted me for months because it was so creatively stunting. So now I work really closely with a few directors, where they'll send me a script and we'll have conversations and I'll develop a character with them. That, I love to do. But then somebody else has to do the same look every single day.

I'm doing a Harper's Bazaar cover on Thursday. I have appearances with Kerry Washington on Monday. It's so different all the time. I'm working with Terry Richardson and a model on Thursday. Then I have celebrity appearances to do. I love mixing it up all the time.

What's the most challenging thing about working with celebrities?

Oh gosh. Egos! The challenge of working with celebrities honestly is you build a relationship with them and sometimes you're not always available. Sometimes you have to make some really difficult decisions. 

Like, I've got awards season coming up. It used to be my favourite time of year. It's turned into my least favourite because you have to make some really difficult decisions, and it's not like the old days when you could do three girls in a day. 

The last time that I did the Oscars for three girls, it was Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon all in one day, with the help of three assistants. I had a relationship with all of those girls. They knew, like, “I'm going to give you a hairstyle that's going to last, that's not going to fall. And then I'll be there right before you hit the carpet.” It's changed a lot now.

Natalie Portman at the 2012 Oscars.

Do you confer with them ahead of time?

With all my clients, every woman is different. Sometimes clients will email me pictures of the dress. I'll even talk to their stylist, I'll talk to their makeup artist. We'll really collaborate about it because some women want to know exactly what they're going to look like. Back in the day, we used to do rehearsals. We used to literally go on Saturday before the Oscars to do a whole trial run. “How long is it going to take? Is it going to work with the dress?” It's so visual that you get to see it. 

But everything moves so fast now. So many women now, they show up, they show you the dress, they say “I want it up” or down. You know, if you've got a great relationship with them, you kind of know what they like and don't like. 

I have like a shorthand with Ashley and Mary-Kate. Cate Blanchett was that way. She'd just say, “I'm not feeling an updo.” I'd be like, “Okay!” I know that she likes her hair not to look too done. She told me her dream was to look like she'd spent the day on the beach with her family and then just threw on a frock and went to the awards. It was like music to my ears. “That's my dream hair too. We are gonna be good together.”

Cate Blanchett at the 2008 SAG Awards.

Would you say that's your hair philosophy?

I like hair to be soft and romantic. There's nothing I dislike more than hair that's not touchable. When it's too stiff and too firm, you know?

Is there one celebrity that you're dying to work with?

You know what? I've had the same agent for 15 years, which is kinda rare in my business. When we first started working together, we would go through lists, like who do I want to work with and who's my dream. We checked every single name off that list except for one. And that's Faith Hill. I'm dying to get my hands on Faith Hill! 

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