There are hair stylists, and there are artists.
“I was the kid (who) always used to chase my sisters around to do their hair,” Dennis Stokely said. “I’ve always had a knack for hair. I’ve always loved beautiful women.”
The art and passion for his profession can’t be taught, said Stokely, who styled Paula Abdul’s hair for her final two years on “American Idol.” However, proper skills and technique can.
The 49-year-old celebrity hairstylist showed off his skills and techniques at the Oakwood and Dawson campuses of Lanier Technical College last week. The Oakwood campus meeting was packed with students not only in the cosmetology department but from across campus, all eager to learn the tricks of the trade. And, of course, to hear a little bit of gossip on the side about the many celebrities Stokely has worked with, including Abdul, Carmen Electra and CNN’s Brooke Anderson.
Listening to his life story, it initially seems as if Stokely just fell into his career by working with master stylists since the beginning. But through it all, the South Georgia native maintains hard work and a pleasant personality is what opens doors.
Stokely fell in love with the entertainment industry after a brief stint in modeling in New York City in the mid-1980s. He went to “hair school” in his hometown of Savannah. After graduating, he immediately moved back to New York and landed an interview with one of the most famous hair stylists in the industry.
“His name was Kenneth, and he was my favorite hair dresser of all time,” Stokely said.
Kenneth Battelle was famous for styling Jacqueline Kennedy’s hair during her time as first lady. He also styled notable celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Stokely interviewed with Battelle at his salon in the Waldorf Astoria New York Hotel.
“I thought that I had a license and I was going to work in this fancy salon doing hair,” he said, recalling the memory. “Kenneth basically said, ‘You’re too young, you’re too inexperienced to do hair for me. You can answer the phones.’”
While he wasn’t near hair, it was his first big break. But after a few months, Stokely left when he learned Battelle was not interested in training a new assistant. He garnered a position blow-drying hair at the salon of Frederic Fekkai, the man behind the self-named hair product line found in drug and retail stores.
After two weeks as a junior assistant, Stokely arrived at work one morning and got his second break. He was going to assist Fekkai, who charged $290 per cut at the time.
Stokely also learned his first major lesson of the industry: Not to let ego get in the way of allowing other masters to do their job.
“Frederic was a master cutter,” the Georgia native said. “Frederic didn’t like doing color. Frederic didn’t like to style. But he picked great stylists to style for him and he picked great colorists to do the color. He was a genius at knowing what he didn’t like to do, and he would get great people to do those things.”
After his stint with Fekkai, Stokely moved to Florida for family reasons. He landed a style consultant position for the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL cheerleading squad.
“I was the only guy with an NFL clearance to be in their locker room,” he said with a laugh.
A few years later, Stokely decided to freelance as a hair stylist in Los Angeles. Then he got his third break in the industry.
By chance, he walked into a new salon and left his name and number. The salon belonged to Ken Paves, a celebrity stylist best known for his work with singer and fashion designer Jessica Simpson. Paves called Stokely for an interview and hired him.
“So I was assisting him on all of these (celebrity) shoots,” Stokely said. “And he came to me and said ‘Dennis, I’m going to do the ALMA Awards,’ which is like the Oscars in the Latin world.”
Stokely’s work on model Carmen Electra was featured on the red carpet.
A short time later, he was booked for a wedding, resulting in big break No. 4. He met make-up artist Alexis Vogel who’s worked on celebrities like Pamela Anderson.
“After the wedding was over I turned to Alexis and I thanked her,” he said. “She stopped and she turned to me and she said, ‘Wow. Really? Nobody ever thanks me.’
Stokely told the audience, the ability to be kind and show genuine interest in clients and colleagues is the most important aspect of the career and can lead to connections.
Vogel asked for his name and number, and called him a week later with a job opportunity to work with Paula Abdul on a magazine shoot.
“It was my kindness that really opened the door,” Stokely said. “You have to develop the skill. You need to be a good stylist. You need to know how to cut. But beyond that, be kind. It’s going to open more doors for you than you will ever imagine.”
The rest can be considered history, as after this initial photo shoot Abdul requested him to be her stylist for several red carpet events and photo shoots, as well as for her position on “American Idol.” Stokely quit his job and was with Abdul every single day for two years. His tenure with her ended when she left the show.
“Things have calmed down a bit since Abdul left “American Idol.” Stokely has moved back to Savannah to be closer to his mother; at this point in his freelance career, he’s working to develop a line of hair care products. He also speaks at colleges and cosmetology schools, sharing his insight into the industry as he did with Lanier Technical College students last week.
He also conducted several live demonstrations with students, mostly focusing on styles but also cutting one student’s long hair into layers around the face.
“How cool is that?” he asked. “A kid from Ocilla, Ga., from a broken home with no father ... my mom worked hard to raise us, we moved to Savannah and I just loved pretty women and beautiful hair.”