Celebrity hairstylist Sean James on his life and career

By Kamala Kirk

Celebrity hairstylist Sean James at Matthew Preece Salon in Santa Monica.
Photos by LUIS CHAVEZ

When Sean James came to the United States in 1989, he had $500 in his pocket. A native of Queensland, Australia, he moved halfway across the world after Oscar Cullinan, a renowned celebrity hairdresser, recommended that James move to Los Angeles to pursue his career as a hairstylist.

“Oscar was my mentor and he knew me better than I knew myself,” James says. “He said that LA was the place for me, so after I completed my apprenticeship at a salon, I bought a one-way ticket here.”

James moved to Santa Monica, where he shared an apartment with a friend on Virginia Avenue for three years. In 1992 he headed to London, where he cut hair and did some modeling work. He worked evenings at a nightclub, and while there he hung out with Kate Moss and befriended the Vivienne Westwood team—experiences that developed his sense of style and love for fashion.

Two years later, James returned to his old apartment in Santa Monica where he lived for a year before moving to Venice. His best friend at the time was Jennifer Nicholson, Jack Nicholson’s daughter, who threw regular parties that attracted some of LA’s most talented and up-and-coming artists, musicians and actors, including Alison Van Pelt, Chris Stills, Teddy Thompson, Rufus Wainwright and Chris Hardwick, many of whom became James’ longtime friends and clients.

In 1994, James was working as a receptionist at Hair at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, where he encountered celebrities on a regular basis. He also signed with his first agent, Keith Zenobia, who booked him regular work on runway shows for Fashion Week, which gave James the opportunity to work on supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Beverly Johnson. But working behind the counter at Fred Segal instead of behind the chair made James realize that he wasn’t fully pursuing his dream of being a hairstylist.

“I remember Meryl Streep came in and said she needed someone to cut her daughter’s hair, and I knew I could do it but I wasn’t able to because I was the receptionist, so I watched her go off and have her hair done by someone else,” James shares. “That was the moment when I realized that I needed to follow my dream because I was watching other people’s dreams come to life, so I put in my resignation.”

In response, the owner of Hair at Fred Segal offered to sponsor James’ green card so that he could stay and work at the salon. James ended up working as a hairstylist there for 25 years, eventually becoming the creative director for education, teaching hair and organizing fashion shows at Fred Segal Beauty. He began to rack up a long list of credits working in film, television and runway, along with an expanding celebrity client roster that included Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox and Jason Bateman.

In 1995 while he was still at Fred Segal, James met actress Jamie Lee Curtis when he was doing her daughter Annie’s hair. One day, Curtis asked James what he would do with her hair, and in response, he chopped it all off.

“I’m a forward person, it’s the Australian in me, and I told her to just let me do it,” James laughs. “I cut it all off and she nearly had a heart attack, but she loved it.”

25 years later, James and Curtis are as close as ever. Throughout the years, James has created different hairstyle adaptations for her onscreen roles and traveled with her to press events and premieres.

“Jamie is always so generous about including me in whatever movie she is doing and we discuss her character looks together,” he shares. “It’s an incredible friendship. She and I are like brother and sister. She has been there through thick and thin for me, and I would do anything for her.”

Comedian and TV host Chris Hardwick has been another close friend and longtime client since the ‘90s. James has worked with him on more than 600 TV episodes, which include
“@midnight” on Comedy Central and AMC’s “Talking Dead.”

“Most people don’t realize what 600 episodes of TV is like, but that’s the same amount of ‘The Simpsons’ episodes that exist,” James points out. “Chris and I have done so much together, we’ve traveled all over America. He and his wife Lydia are family to me.”

Over the years, James has managed the manes of Marilyn Manson, Jaime Pressly, Paris Hilton, Chris Evans, Jennifer Love Hewitt, the Kardashians, and others. His regular clientele includes Eugene Levy, Courtney Love, Christopher Guest, Phil Keoghan and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and he has created iconic looks for Cole and Dylan Sprouse for “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and “Riverdale.”

“Cole and Dylan are my buddies, I’ve known them since they were 8 years old,” James says. “I have a really great friendship with both of them and I cut their dad’s hair, too.”

In 2016, James became the artistic director for FHI Heat, where he forayed into the world of product development. When COVID-19 hit back in March, James was furloughed from his job, and the beauty and entertainment industries had shut down entirely. During that time, he decided to pursue his own adventure in the world of personal care and was hard at work on his new product line, Beach Blvd, which launched a week ago. The line is inspired by James’ life at the beach and his career in Hollywood.

“I love the palm trees, ocean and sand here on the Westside,” James says. “I’ve lived most of my life at the beach, it’s a part of me and I can’t be away from it longer than a few days. Beach Blvd is where Hollywood Boulevard meets the beach. I’d been wanting to create a product line for years. I spent six months doing research and designed the labels myself. The products are formulated in El Segundo.”

Originally, James had planned to debut his first hairstyling product months ago, but when the pandemic occurred, he switched gears and started working on hand sanitizer.

“It just seemed so out of touch to release a hair product at the time,” James explains. “I decided to release something that would help people take care of themselves while providing them with a sense of luxury. I’ve received lots of positive feedback about the hand sanitizer. People love how good it smells and feels, and it doesn’t have any toxic ingredients.”

His first product, The Shore Thing, contains 70% ethyl alcohol and a signature blend of organic lavender, lemon and bergamot essential oils. Next, he plans to release another hand sanitizer, Coast Is Clear, which features caramel and orchid notes. In the coming months, Beach Blvd will launch several hairstyling products as well. The line is available online and at Matthew Preece Salon in Santa Monica, where James has worked for the past four years.

Although the salon has reopened at limited capacity and the entertainment industry is slowly getting back to where it was, James remains passionate about his career. He thrives on the connection that being a hairstylist provides—both to his late mother, who passed away when he was 11, and to those who sit in his chair.

“I love to interact with people and bring light into their lives,” James says. “My past achievements in film, television and the salon have been an incredible adventure and an opportunity to be of service. Through the closure and reorganization of our city and how we are functioning through adversity, I see a bright future for what is happening in the world of hair and makeup, and I have a rejuvenated love and respect for my profession as I advance into what I feel is a fresh beginning.”

For more information, visit beachblvd.co and follow James on Instagram: @seanjameshair

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