Interview: Tabatha Coffey on fame, hair and same-sex marriage in New Jersey

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

In 2007 she was voted Fan Favourite on the first season of Bravo’s hair-styling reality TV series, Shear Genius. Since then she’s starred in three series of the hit show, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover. She returns today with a new series, Tabatha Takes Over, in which she takes over and turns around a variety of small businesses. Laurence Watts chats to Tabatha Coffey.

For four years Tabatha Coffey has been travelling across America, rescuing failing hair salons. She told owners what they were doing wrong, shook up and trained complacent staff and refurbished each salon, all in the space of one week. Her show is back, but with a name change: Tabatha’s Salon Takeover is now Tabatha Takes Over. I ask her what’s different about the renamed show.

“This season I’m taking over non-salon businesses,” Tabatha tells me. “We decided to change the format because of the number of people who reached out to me via email, or through social media, or by writing to Bravo, saying how much they needed some no-nonsense business advice, but who weren’t hairdressers. They said a lot of the things that I talked about applied equally to their business.”

“I’ve been a hairdresser for 30 years, but I’ve also been a business owner for 12 of those years. Lots of small businesses have problems with staff, having a good product and all the other aspects you need to control to keep a business afloat. Hairdressing is my skill and craft, but common-sense is relevant to any business.”

It was Tabatha’s skill as a hair stylist that took her away from her native Australia to London, and the likes of Vidal Sassoon and Toni and Guy, at a relatively young age. When did she know she wanted to be a hairdresser?

“I can honestly never remember a time not doing hair,” she says. “I was the quintessential kid, playing with and chopping off dolls’ hair. I would play with the hair of anyone who would let me. My parents ran transsexual strip clubs in Australia, and I spent a lot of time in the back with the girls when they were getting ready. At a young age they put me to work setting their wigs for them, which I loved.”

“I learned not only how to set wigs, but also how hair could transform someone. I would sit there and watch the drag queens get dressed and the last thing they did was put their wig on. They’d put on their make-up and costume, but it was only when they put on their wig that everything came together. That’s how I fell in love with hairdressing.”

When London’s economy eventually stalled, Tabatha set off for America to be closer to her mother, who by that time had moved to New Jersey. Tabatha arrived with nothing more than a suitcase and the notion that she might see a bit of the country. She ended up staying. By the time she entered Bravo’s reality TV show, Shear Genius, she’d been running her own hair salon for more than seven years. Though she didn’t win the TV contest, she ended up being named Fan Favourite, which was enough to prompt Bravo to offer Tabatha her own TV series.

“It was totally out of the blue,” she tells me. “They asked me to come into the office a few months after the series had finished. I honestly thought they did it with everyone. Sort of: “It was very nice to meet you. Thank you for taking part, now off you go and have a lovely life.” That’s what I thought the conversation would be. When they said they’d like to work with me on a show and discuss what it might look like, it took me less than a second to say yes. I already trusted them and I knew they had great programming. It was a real no-brainer.”

The show they devised became Tabatha’s Salon Takeover and made Tabatha a household name. She says she entered Shear Genius because of her competitive nature. Was fame something she ever coveted?

“For me it’s not about fame, it’s about pushing myself,” she says. “Fame for me is when I walk down the street and people know my name. That’s nice and I’ve had some incredible support from fans of the show, but that’s not why I do it. It does however give me a platform that enables me to do some good. Firstly, I get to help salons or small businesses stay in business, which means owners and their staff keep getting a paycheck. Secondly, I now have a voice to talk about issues I think are important and deserve people’s attention.”

Until recently Tabatha pursued her burgeoning TV career while concurrently running her salon in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Recently she decided to sell up and concentrate on her TV work and new opportunities.

“I’m very much a practice-what-I-preach kind of woman. I was always able to manage the salon and my TV work. It was exhausting, but even when I was on the road I was still very hands-on with the business. But as my schedule increased it got harder and harder to be there as much as I wanted. I felt like I was letting my staff and my clients down. I felt like I was letting myself down as well. So I made a decision in everyone’s best interests and sold the salon to one of my girls. It feels like it’s still in the family, which is nice.”

Tabatha’s success came while being completely open about her sexuality: she’s been in a long-term relationship with another woman for more than ten years. While her visibility alone has helped America’s LGBT community, Tabatha has supplemented it in tangible ways: she lent her support to Adam Bouska’s NOH8 Campaign in 2010 and in 2012 will appear as a presenter at the 23rd GLAAD Media Awards. Does she think being out has impacted her career positively or negatively?

“I’ve never thought about it, to be honest. I’ve always been out. The only people I truly cared about when I came out were my family and close friends. Having said that, I find that there’s is a time and a place for everything. I don’t feel the need to walk up to a client and say: “Hi, I’m Tabatha, I’m a lesbian and I’m going to be doing your hair today.” It’s not relevant. For me, being gay is a part of who I am, but it’s not my most defining feature. It’s the same as having blonde hair or blue eyes.”

As a New Jersey resident, I tell Tabatha that on the day of our interview the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly announced in a joint news conference that they will introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. What does she make of the ongoing debate around same-sex marriage in her adopted home state?

“People shouldn’t even be questioning whether it should be legalized,” she answers. “I find it amazing we’re still debating it. It’s bloody ridiculous that gay men and women don’t have the option to marry their partners in this day and age. Of course, when the bill is passed, and it will eventually be passed, not everyone will take advantage of it, but we should still have that option. It needs to be passed for so many reasons: not least so that when the person you love passes away you’re actually recognized at their spouse or; if they were to fall sick you have visitation rights and can make any decisions that need to be made for them.”

New Jersey’s Republican Governor, Chris Christie, is on record as opposing gay marriage. I ask Tabatha if she has a message for Governor Christie should a bill make it to his desk to be either passed or vetoed.

“Pass it!” she says calmly and firmly. “And if he doesn’t, maybe I’ll have to do a takeover of the Governor’s Office on the next season of Tabatha Takes Over. Who knows, maybe I’ll even run for Governor myself.”

Tabatha’s no-nonsense approach has won her countless fans. It was not always so, however. As a child she struggled with her weight and was an easy target for bullies. Where did the determination to be and stand up for herself come from?

“It came from having an incredibly strong mother,” she says. “Her favourite line was: ‘Don’t let the turkeys get you down.’ You know: ignore them; they’re stupid; don’t worry about it. Growing up in the strip clubs meant I grew up around transgendered people and drag queens. They were being picked on and they were very open about it. I would hear stories about gay bashing and their families turning their backs on them and I watched them get through it. My mother helped them get through it. She was an incredibly strong woman and that’s really where my personality comes from.”

Tabatha Takes Over premieres on Tuesday 10th January 2012 on Bravo at 10/9c