Highlights are Back: Celeb Stylist Tracey Cunningham Shares Her Color Hair Tips

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Lily Aldridge, with hair color by colorist Tracey Cunningham. (Photo: Instagram)

I haven’t highlighted my hair since high school—that was the last time my normally dark brown hair was a golden blonde. In the years that followed I stuck to dark all-over dyes (usually from a box), experimented once with one at-home ombré kit (looking back, I don’t recommend it), and stayed pretty far away from the word ‘highlight.’ But when I heard Tracey Cunningham, the LA based Redken Celebrity Colorist and co-owner of Mèche Salon who works with celebs like Lily Aldridge, Chrissy Teigen and Emma Stone, would be in New York City, I took it as a sign.

I’ve been thinking about going lighter every since Kim Kardashian debuted that golden post-baby blonde in 2013 and haven’t stopped lusting after the hair of Jessica Biel, Drew Barrymore and of course, Aldridge. After recently chopping my hair into a lob, I was really ready to complete my hair transformation—and I’m not alone. “People are going lighter all year,” says Cunningham. “It’s changed from just going lighter in the summer.” Of course, before I took a seat in Cunningham’s chair at the Cutler Salon in Manhattan, I got all of her tips for going lighter:

Always bring in a photo. The last thing you want to do is sit down in front of your colorist and just say, “Do whatever you think is best!” When it comes to hair color, it has to be something that you like, so make sure you bring in a photo. (After hearing this, I immediately created a hair color inspiration Pinterest board.) Bring in a photo of something you like and something that you don’t—this will help ensure you’re getting the tone you want with your color.  

Be honest. If you’ve colored your hair recently, fess up. Cunningham says many clients aren’t truthful about the last time they’ve colored their hair because they don’t want to be told no. If you’ve colored your hair in the past year, be honest about when and what you did so your colorist can be sure the right formula is applied to your hair.

Embrace highlights. Most brunettes don’t like to hear the word highlight, but they do want to lighten and brighten their hair. Highlights are the low-maintenance way to lighten your hair because you don’t have to commit to a base color or lift your roots. Cunningham especially loves babylights, a tight, fine highlight that mimics the sun-kissed tones you had as a child. “It’s all about the frame of the hair around your face,” says Cunningham. “It’s not about the roots—your base color keeps you grounded.”

Plan multiple appointments. If you’re looking to make a drastic change, don’t expect to get it all done in one visit. It took Cunningham three appointments to create Khloe Kardashian’s golden blonde. “You want to take out more of the dark [color] at each appointment,” says Cunningham. “You have to be consistent.”

Take care. “You wouldn’t go to Bergdorf, buy a Céline sweater and just throw it in the wash,” says Cunningham, talking about the importance of blonde specific hair care products. Redken’s Blonde Idol line includes shampoo, a hair mask, two custom tone conditioners and a BBB spray that works to balance and brighten blonde hair. Since I’ve gone lighter, I’ve been using the Blonde Idol Custom Tone Violet Conditioner ($32), which deposits a dose of color to neutralize brassiness. Cunningham also recommends a color conditioner for keeping your color looking fresh between appointments—especially if you have to go a littler longer than anticipated between visits.

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