Nicole Venables is in the transformation business. As Sylvester Stallone’s stylist for 12 years, the Los Angeles-based hairdresser to the stars has morphed the iconic actor from a shaggy haired Rambo to a freshly shorn hitman in 2012’s Bullet to the Head. When she’s not coiffing Sly or highlighting American Idol hopefuls, Nicole tackles professional reinvention: She’s in the throes of writing a book, just landed a gig penning a beauty column for the Huffington Post and intends to ramp up her charity efforts.
We touched base with the Arizona native – who is on location in New Orleans through August shooting Stallone’s newest film – to find out what looks are in store for the actor, where she finds her style muses, and what we can expect next from the master multi-tasker.
You have a pretty glamorous gig. How did you get into celebrity hairstyling?
I went to beauty school right out of high school, and I landed a job with Hiroshi Kitamura at 19. Hiroshi was determined that everyone in his salon be schooled in coloring and styling. Once he felt you had met his standards, he was hell-bent on you learning the business side. I swept floors and studied and toiled for two years. Then I managed his place for about eight years. He wouldn’t settle for less than the best. He was hardcore.
How did that help you get into celebrity styling?
I had a great base from Hiroshi. Then, when the first 90210 came out, my roommate, Janine Rath Thompson, went to work on the show as a hairdresser. Any time she could get me jobs on the set, she would. She taught me the behind-the-scenes etiquette and schooled me in the nuances of styling for Hollywood.
Sylvester Stallone has been one of your most loyal clients, and one of your most high-profile ones. How did you start working for him?
Again, Janine was instrumental. She was on a Sylvester Stallone movie and needed help. Of course I was on it. A couple of months later, she had another movie scheduled with Sly, and she wasn’t able to go. She offered me up for the job; after about six weeks, Sly said that I needed to stay because we had already developed the character. [It’s] 12 years later, and he’s been a very loyal client.
What’s his look for this new film?
This time, he has a buzz cut. He’s had some short haircuts in his career, but this is the shortest I’ve ever seen it, so that’s bold. He definitely went out of his comfort zone. As I was shaving it, I was like, “OK, are you ready?” We did it in stages, and he just kept saying, “More, more, more.”
What’s Sly’s favorite Oribe product?
The one he loves most is Crème for Style. He also uses Rock Hard Gel, but Crème for Style is a staple.
What other major stars have you worked with?
The biggest highlight was working with Bob Dylan. A year and a half ago, he made his only holiday music video, “Santa's Coming to Town.” My friend, another celebrity makeup artist, Bruce Grayson, and I are still wowed by our day with Bob Dylan. He’s an amazing artist to collaborate with. We shot the video in an old house in the L.A. hood. It was wild and crazy...I transformed his hair from the Bob Dylan traditional curl cut into a sleek, blunt salt-and-pepper bob.
How would you describe your style?
That’s a hard question. I’m such a technical person. I love to do transformations. I like to take the girl on the street and say, “What don’t you like about your style?” and then help her fix it. That’s what does it for me; I love the challenge of masterminding.
What’s the craziest transformation you’ve ever done?
Creating the last Rambo look for Sly. It was probably my greatest feat ever because it was all hair extensions – hundreds of handmade, individual extensions to complement the glory of the headband. Plus, we had to endure the sweat and blood of a super hands-on, ultra physical combat action film in the jungles of Thailand.
Do you transform your own look frequently, or do you have a style you fall back on?
It’s funny - it’s a cliché, right? The hairdresser changing looks all the time. In my younger years, I can say I had the bleached blonde hair, that kind of thing. Now, I have long, subtly highlighted brown hair, very simple and not too funky. But the other day I looked in the mirror and thought, “Who am I going to be next?” I’ve kept it simple the past couple of years, but I think I need a new ‘do.
You also worked on American Idol during the 2008-2009 season. What was that like? Were you a fan of the show before working on set?
I wasn’t a huge fan at first, but I became so emotionally plugged in when I worked on the show - I would cry. In hair and makeup, we get to watch the inner and outer transformations of these kids who come from around the states to perform. That’s a challenge, too. You can’t go in and say, “Hey, change your look!” It’s about what they’re comfortable with. I had to check my ego and wait for the invitation. Then, I could gently add the highlights, gently add the hair extensions.
You juggle plenty of projects. Anything else we should know about?
What I’d really like to focus on is giving back more. Through my hair-extension line, I run a program called Wonderlocks, which deals with people who need hair due to illnesses, like cancer. We have some wonderful children who are clients. There’s one 13-year-old girl who really wanted a lot of options for her hairstyle. The day she received her Wonderlocks in the mail, she took a picture of the styles and sent it to her aunt. For a 13-year-old, she was just the coolest kid; she has such a passion for life on top of overcoming cancer.
On top of all that, I landed my first blogging and writing gig with the Huffington Post. I feel like I’m in a transformation. We’re all transforming all the time.