The Instagram issue

With more than 750,000 followers between them, there’s no denying that Sophia Hilton and Larisa Love are kind of a big deal when it comes to Instagram. Each have diligently built their both their online base and client roster with consistent, creative posting, but does the social spotlight come with drawbacks?

LL:  I was really lucky because I became a hairdresser eight years ago, and that’s when Instagram just came out. I was using it for filters for Facebook, you remember that? I utilised Instagram way before pretty much any other hair artist did, because I saw the potential in it.

Instagram is a visual platform and so it’s amazing for us hairdressers – or any artist – to really put yourself out there. You share one photo and the whole world can see it. So I used it to my advantage when I started building my clientele, which I didn’t have much of after leaving my previous salon. I started doing hair for friends and charging prices that were very low just to get people in the door. It meant I could start doing fun things that I wanted to do and then could post that on Instagram. Because whatever you post, that’s the kind of clientele you’re gonna get. For example, I don’t do men’s hair at all, so I don’t post any men’s on my Instagram.

So, with this approach, slowly but surely I built up the type of clientele that I wanted from social media. I wanted people like me – young and fun and edgy with their hair, and that is literally a description of all my clients now. They’re my age, they always want something fun and different. I love coming back after being away from my salon now, whereas before it was like: “Ugh, more highlights and root coverage!” It was just so boring and so not up my alley, at all. And with the money aspect, I would say if you follow your passion then money will follow. If you follow money, passion will not be there, it will not follow.

SH:  I was really late to the game with social media, if I’m honest. I was on MySpace for too long! Facebook I found really boring and with Instagram… well, I felt like I’d only just got my head around Facebook. I was waaay late – I was like the last of my friends to get Instagram. But do you know what’s worse? Around that time I went to an interview about teaching a new set of courses for L’Oréal Professionnel, and the interviewer asked me how many Twitter followers I had…

LL:  Well, I don’t have Twitter! I had it years ago, not anymore.

SH:  I walked out of there thinking ‘I should probably find that out!’, and it was that day that I decided that I would gain control of it properly. And it’s really hard to get Instagram going when you’re in a really classic salon that perhaps has a lot of middle-aged ladies as clients.

LL:  Exactly! Exactly.

SH:  It’s tough if you don’t have that impressive client list coming in for transformations. I’m glad I experienced that because now I can give better advice when I teach social media simply because I learned how to do all that stuff.

I remember my husband, when I was setting up the company, was always like: “What are you reading on your phone again?!” and he’d look over and see that I was on Instagram and say “You’re not even working, you should be doing spreadsheets!” And I was like “I am working!” Then in the back of mind I’d think “Nope, I am literally avoiding doing work and doing what I’m comfortable with!” As our profile gained traction, I started to realise I was doing the right thing, but for a while I was a bit like “Am I just doing what I know and what I feel comfortable with?”


LL:  I would say that social media is why I am where I am now. Mostly because of Instagram. It’s where 99 per cent of my clientele is from, and it’s where brands found me. I don’t think I would be anywhere near the success level I am at now without social media. My clientele grew immensely after I restarted using it, and then I was working from home because I literally left Beverly Hills and was like “Okay, now what do I do?” So I opened up a mini salon in my indoor/outdoor patio area, transformed it, and I worked there for eight months to build my clientele. I was booked out like a week in advance, so I knew I could take the next step and use my own private studio.

But I was s**itting my pants, not knowing if I could afford my rent and a studio rent, y’know? But again, taking risks comes with great reward. Three months into me opening up my studio – because I had better content and a better, more professional work environment – I was booked out three months to two years in advance, thanks to social media. But I’d say: don’t ever do that!

SH:  God, normally you’d be booked up a month! [both laugh]

LL:  It was crazy, because your whole life is laid out for you, for two years in advance. But it was still insane to see how fast you can grow through social media, and it really works if you play your cards right and post great content. I don’t post just everything, I post my best work, you know what I mean?

Creative HEAD:  How do you decide what makes it and what doesn’t? Sophia, you have your transparency initiative, making it clear to clients the hours, the effort and the costs to producing the things that they see…

LL:  First of all, clients have got to understand that if they come in with the photo of a Kim Kardashian with silver hair, number one that is a wig. And two, yeah we can do it… if you want your hair to break off and fall out pretty quickly afterwards! Consultation is completely key, as is being overtly, bluntly honest.

What I would say is to always over-deliver and under-promise. Even if you think you can do it, don’t tell them – ‘it’ll probably take more than one session’ is always safer, even if you think you can do it in one. Because if you over-deliver then they’re going to be happy, but if you over-promise and don’t get the job to where you want it, then they’re not going to be happy. If you lower their expectations and then do a better job, then they’ll love you and want to keep coming back to you.

SH:  I’ve actually been developing a course for a year with a psychologist who is a cognitive behaviour therapist, to try and understand psychologically what happens to a client when you say “no”.  I think most hairdressers have forgotten what it’s like to be a client – I mean, I’ve never been an actual client because I’d sit in my mum’s chair!

LL:  You know what, me neither now I think about it.

SH:  I’ve never experienced what that feels like. Sometimes you forget the whole process. Imagine this client: her boyfriend’s just left her, and she’s feeling sh*t about herself, she actually wants to lose weight, she wants a different job and blah blah blah, all these real life things going on. And there’s all these Pinterest boards she’s made, all these hours she’s spent getting excited about her new hair… like, that was a lot of work and we shrug it off like “Ugh, not another Pinterest board.” But actually that’s really rude. She might have spent a long time on that board, has invested emotionally and then you come in and quickly just go: “Yeah yeah, that’s never gonna happen.”

And at that moment, what we’ve discovered, is that she stops listening to you. As soon as you’ve said no, anything you’re about to say in the next few minutes, she’s still going to be caught up on ‘What do you mean I can’t have it? WHY can’t I have it? I’ve told all my friends I’m gonna have it!’ There’s this huge internal dialogue that’s going on, so while you’ve obviously moved on to talking about “Well, we could do this instead”, she has zoned out.

So I became really interested in how we can change our language  and how we can look after the client  in that moment. It’s all very well for us to say “This is your journey” but… I dunno, I feel sorry for clients sometimes. It’s not their fault they don’t have a clue what’s going on on the hair side of things. I think we’ve forgotten that – we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know.

LL:  That’s why it’s so important for us to educate them. Like you said, educate them but in a way where you don’t hurt their feelings. To try and understand where they’re coming from – I like that. So what did you conclude we should say?

SH:  Well, we’ve been doing it together, this psychologist and me. You see, I thought I was suffering from depression since having my baby. I was just having a really rough time about it, if I’m honest. I went back to work after two weeks – I felt like I had 17 babies over here in the salon and a brand new one over there at home. It was very overwhelming. And I did a post on Instagram about being a mother, and how I was feeling. I got about 200 comments underneath of people sharing their stories.

LL:  Because it’s a real thing!


SH:  People were even saying things like “It got so bad I tried to kill myself”, and then I had another maybe 200 messages in my inbox of even longer stories. It was really sweet, but at the time I was feeling really overwhelmed from having so much to do. And especially with stories like that, you can’t just go “Aww, (heart emoji). Thanks (thumbs up emoji)” Y’know? I have to reply!

So then I spent weeks replying to all of these messages and there was one lady in particular, I don’t know why, but I just felt like there was nothing I could write. I had to talk to her. So I messaged her back and I asked for her number.

Her story was that she had a salon, but it wasn’t hers – it was her husband’s salon – but he’d become long-term ill so he wasn’t really able to stand or get out of bed. She’d taken over looking after the salon, but she also had a three month old baby. She was managing all this stuff, while he couldn’t even hold the baby – she was like Wonder Woman. So you see why I had to call her!

What we’d do, when it was like 2am and we were both breastfeeding, is that we’d voice-note each other. I’d never even seen her face, but we’d just voice-note about the salon, problems with motherhood – and then randomly, she goes: “Oh, I didn’t tell you what my original job was. I was a cognitive behavioural therapist.” Now, I’d been doing as much research as I could up til now with psychologists who were like old men that just didn’t get it. And every time we tried to have these meetings… they’d never experienced a salon environment so I was hitting a brick wall. I just needed that last piece of the puzzle. And here I’d come across someone in the field who also understands hair, who understands salons. So I asked her if she wanted to help me finish the reports, and she said absolutely.

We’d write back and forth with information, and she’d watch conversations in the salon and report. A lot of what we’ve come up with is what we call ‘guided discovery’ – allowing clients to make the decision rather than you making the decision for them. So a lot of what we do is say: “Well, I would recommend this” as opposed to saying “Okay, well if you do want to go grey today then I’m going to need you in here every two weeks because of the products we’ll have to buy, and bearing in mind that the yellow will also come through at this point…”

It’s all about emphasising “This is your decision,” but also being realistic and respectful: “This is how much it will cost. However, if you want to consider rose gold I can do that today, for about a third of the cost,  and it’s easier to maintain – but it’s up to you.” You have to guide them into the decision so they don’t feel bullied, so the pressure is eased. And then they feel like it’s their choice, because honestly, nobody really wants what’s presented as the second option. Nobody wants to go into a shop, find the dress of their dreams, discover they don’t have it in their size, and then have to buy a different one. And sometimes, when we give clients the second option, that’s exactly what it is. It’s the dress you buy when you can’t have the dress you want.

Creative HEAD: When they walked in, in their head there wasn’t a second option.

SH:  I know! But they think “Fine, okay. I’m here, I’ve booked it” and continue on. I’ve had a really good journey, developing this strand of education, even if it’s pretty basic really. I’ve got two different versions of it – one which I’ve been teaching at Not Another Academy and another one I’m about to start for L’Oréal Professionnel. Particularly for hairdressers who are not on Instagram, explaining how to work with it rather than against it. To be fair, they see accounts like ours as ‘the enemy’ – they might be inspired or excited but they also hate us!

LL: I know a few older stylists that literally hate the new era of hairdressers. It’s because we’re all on social media and she thinks we’re all her competition. In reality, we’re not if we all work together. She is in a position where she could come and collaborate with a younger generation and get back to where she was at the peak of her career rather than feeling defensive and threatened.

For example, look at Robert Cromeans – he’s amazing because he’s been in the industry forever but he works and collaborates with all of us newer creatives. He has relationships and connections with us and that helps him stay relevant, whereas a lot of these other hairdressers are seeing their careers dying out because they’re not trying to flow with us. They put all this energy into going against us, or talking crap about us, which I’ve also heard. It’s a shame.

SH:  I don’t think I’ve had any direct negativity thrown my way in that respect, but obviously there is a divide. I have a theory on this as well… [laughs]

LL:  Let’s hear it!

SH:  So one of the things some hairdressers don’t like about people on Instagram is that it is being used by some young people to become famous early on in their career. And maybe they haven’t paid their dues, but they get to rise to the top fast.

LL:  Yeah, that is exactly what they said :“I’ve been an educator for 20 years. It’s taken me this amount of time to get to where you now get in only one or two years.” It’s not our fault we’re around when social media is in existence. But I’d always say don’t immediately go against it, and remember it’s a totally different lifetime and timeline.

SH:  Well the traditional methods – at least in the UK, I don’t know if you find this as well, Larisa – feature one hairstyle, on one day which is pre-prepared up on stage or at a photoshoot. Over here, that’s the main way to get a lot of traction in the industry. I mean, I’d much rather a young person be given credit for or judged on the work they do every single day and happen to post on Instagram. You have to churn it out in this profession, and I want them to say “This is what I’m capable of, every day.” Otherwise it’s like accepting an over-retouched image from one angle is going to determine if someone’s a good hairdresser, over that kid who has been producing great work every single day.

LL: Exactly! I completely agree with that way of thinking of it.

SH:  And I say to naysayers: “You tell me these older systems are better? I don’t think so. I know what that kid can do, on real people with real work.”

LL:  That’s why I like posting videos on social media showing before and after, so you can see the full transformation. Images can just be photoshopped and you would never know. Videos are my thing.

SH:  Do you do photoshoots a lot?

LL:  No, I don’t do many photoshoots at all. I barely have time to live! I’m really busy so it’s difficult for me to do shoot, set up the model, get a studio and a photographer. And with videos, I get way more engagement on social media too. People love to see it all, so I show the before, the process and then the after because it’s so much more dramatic (and realistic) than just showing the after.

Creative HEAD:  How do you handle the negativity that you mentioned about social media?

LL:  Lets be real; the more followers you have the more haters you’re gonna have and that’s something I’ve gotten used to. When I first started getting haters, I was very much like “You don’t even know me!” and it would hurt my feelings. But now I’m more likely to come back with something, y’know? Now I feel more sorry for them, because they’re that unhappy deep down that they’re posting mean things on my social media without even knowing who I am. And I always respond with love, and they’re always kind of shocked because they’re not expecting it. This happened a week ago; a girl wrote something and I replied “So sorry you feel like that, all the best, hope you work on it… blah blah”, and she deleted her comment because she had no response to that.

SH:  It still gets to me now sometimes. You’ll have hundreds of nice comments and then get a really sh*tty one which makes you go “ARGGGH!”

LL: I know, right? And that’s the only one that stands out.

SH:  And it’s the only one you remember! And it’s the one you go to bed thinking about. I got the odd bit of flak for being a new mum, which was a bit crap. But then that just made me push back and want to continue on.

LL:  We’re human, it’s gonna bother us.

SH:  Last time, I was about to write a reply until I remembered I have no reason to need to justify myself to a stranger.

LL:  Exactly! And if you don’t understand, then don’t respond.

SH:  What do you think of that new post doing the rounds, the one on the black background? “If your job is a hairdresser then don’t concern yourself with people whose job is Instagram.” The whole Instagram-hairdresser thing is much more American than it is British. We don’t have anywhere near the same amount of followers as some of the American hairdressers. It’s really, really different.

Creative HEAD:  I wouldn’t say there’s a real ‘Instagram personality’ over here.

SH: No, it’s not like that. And Larisa, your following, for example, doesn’t exist like… at all. In fact a lot of your colleagues with high followings, equivalents just don’t exist in the UK. I don’t know if it’s the density of the population or just the way things work over there?

LL:  I don’t think a lot of people use social media as much – or as intensely – as we do in the US. People will go places just for an Instagram photo, that’s how serious they take it.  We have teenage girls who are not offering anything, they’re just ‘personalities’, but they have millions of followers. People just wanna watch their lives.

When I did Millie Bobby Brown’s hair for Coachella, she was with her friend and she was telling me about this rent-your-own-jet company which offered her – because she has millions of followers – to go on a jet just to take a photo. She literally flew around and then back down… just for a photo.

SH:  I’m really worried about what [that post’s message] might do to people who are thinking of building up their social media profile. They might start resisting – sort of like what’s happening in your country, where there’s this resistance of like: “Well, I’m not going to do social media” and it’s just not going to help them!

CHM:  Like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

SH: Yeah, it is a bit. And some of it is like “Well, now I’m that far behind, I’m not even gonna try!” and I think that’s going to set those people behind. Cos I’ve got some hairdressers at the moment wanting to go on my social media courses who are now second-guessing themselves: “Oh, I don’t know if I should. Is it really right for me?” I mean, Larisa, you’ve been on Instagram for a very long time and built up a great following over that time, so the longer people stay off it the further behind they are going to get.

LL: It’s true. I also get tonnes of people contacting me on Instagram who are like: “I’m losing passion because I hate the place that I work,” or “I can’t do the right jobs.”

SH:  That’s really sad.

LL:  And it’s like… you just have to find the right place, you have to find the right mentor, and you have to find what your true passion is. I’m a colourist, and just because you see me and my success on Instagram doesn’t mean you’re gonna be successful at colour. Maybe you’re gonna be successful at updos, or braiding, or whatever it is that you do. You just have to find your niche and pursue that.

SH:  I call it death by money. As soon as people get on a high commission, they’re churning out the same boring clients for 20 years and not pushing themselves. And then they become the only people that the young people can look up to in the salon. And the truth is, the money makers are not inspiring. They’re good for the salon financially, but then what happens is that they get so stuck on money that they then don’t come out of their comfort zone. They get very nervous, and they stop going on education courses because they’re nervous about what everyone’s going to think.

If something new comes in they think: “Should I try it? Oh no, I won’t actually because people younger than me in the team might see me balls it up! I don’t want them to see that.” And then they’re stuck! They’re the people I’m feeling really sorry for at the moment because they’ve trapped themselves. I get salon owners saying to me “Oh no, I wouldn’t try balayage because what if I screw it up?”

LL: That’s crazy! Especially because balayage is so hot, and it’s been hot for years now.

SH:  But where’s the need when they have high-paying clients back-to-back, who just want highlights, who don’t complain and are easy?

LL: But why do something you‘re so over? I dunno.

SH:  It’s the fear, isn’t it? They’re not confident. And Instagram adds to that. I’m pretty confident. I’ll take a risk and if I balls it up then I don’t care.

LL: I always say that whatever you’re afraid of, do it. For me, when I first started my salon out in Beverly Hills, I was making great money – but I was doing the same thing. Grey coverage and highlights, grey coverage and highlights. So after a year I thought “Okay, I’m gonna take a huge risk and just move the salon, not tell my clients that I’m leaving, because I don’t want them to follow me.” And I completely rebuilt my clientele – like I said – thanks to Instagram.

Part four: Sharing some advice… >