Clayton Hawkins: From Theater Kid to Celebrity Hairstylist

Courtesy of Clayton Hawkins and Photo Illustration: Michelle Alfonso
Courtesy of Clayton Hawkins and Photo Illustration: Michelle Alfonso
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Welcome to Big Break, where some of the most influential figures in the beauty industry reflect on the moments that made them — from the good to the bad and everything in between. Here, Clayton Hawkins shares his journey from working in an extensions shop to hairstyling stars like Olivia Rodrigo and Dove Cameron.

Clayton Hawkins's love for hair runs deep. The youngest of four, Hawkins grew up in Los Angeles and made his passions clear with his family early on. "I would get wigs from Santa for Christmas every year," Hawkins tells POPSUGAR. "There are pictures of me at 5 years old with my little-boy bangs and then a clip-on fall — and b*tch, it was blended."

Hawkins remembers rewatching the 1990 "Dick Tracy" movie over and over, simply to catch a glimpse of Madonna's hair ("I was just in awe"). Then, in high school, after spending years play-styling wigs and his own hair, he turned it into an unofficial side hustle. "I bought my first car from doing all the senior girls' [hair] for prom," he says, adding that he'd often buy extensions and approach classmates if he thought he could help them with their hair.

While Hawkins was deep into theater — after high school, he was even accepted into NYU Tisch, Collaborative Arts Project 21 (CAP 21), a well-known musical-theater program — hair was his first priority. "Even when I was doing all these plays and musicals, even if I had a big part, I would be like, 'But I also have to do everyone's hair.' So before the shows, I was doing everyone's hair. It's always been a huge thing for me."

His professional training was a little unconventional: Hawkins learned how to apply the extensions he'd purchase by watching the reality TV show "Newlyweds" with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. "Half the show, [Simpson] was with Ken Paves getting extensions put in her hair, so I would record on VHS and rewind and watch." Hawkins tried emulating the process of Paves gluing in Simpson's extensions on his classmates. "I butchered a lot of girls, but we got there eventually," he says.

Courtesy of Clayton Hawkins

Instead of going to CAP 21, Hawkins decided to enroll in beauty school. Then came a chance encounter with celebrity hairstylist Mark Townsend, whom he met through his close friend Elizabeth Olsen. "My best friend Lizzie is an actress who I've known since I was a baby — she's like my sister," Hawkins says. "I was attending her first Vanity Fair event with her and I was watching her hairstylist Mark do her hair, asking him a million questions."

As Olsen got ready, Clayton seized his opportunity. "I started handing him pins and irons, and he was just like, 'Are you a hairstylist? What's going on?' And I was like, 'I love hair.'" Then, Townsend promised Hawkins an assistant job if he got into beauty school.

"I started beauty school that Monday," he says. Once he graduated, he took a job at a hair-extensions shop and messaged Townsend twice a week every week for six to eight months. Finally, he got a response: "OK, my assistant just left. I need someone, let's have a meeting."

"Most assistants are told to be quiet and not talk, but for some reason, Mark just let me be me."

Hawkins started assisting Townsend full-time four or five days a week and traveling with him, which was ultimately Hawkins's ticket to the glamorous world of celebrity hair. "I was like a sidekick — he taught me so much," Hawkins says. "Most assistants are told to be quiet and not talk, but for some reason, Mark just let me be me."

When Townsend would find himself double-booked, rather than rescheduling, he sent Hawkins in his place. Slowly, he started building up his celebrity clientele. After four or five years — and countless gigs assisting other big names like Chris Appleton and Adir Abergel — it was time to venture out on his own. He just had one request for his agent: "Say yes to everything. That's how I'm going to meet people."

Despite being a self-proclaimed "small-town girl" — "my small town is just LA," he says — Hawkins now works with some of the biggest up-and-coming celebrities in the game, like Olivia Rodrigo, Dove Cameron, and Maddie Ziegler.

He usually knows within five minutes of meeting if there's a connection. "Time is so precious — I'm going to give so much of myself that we have to mutually vibe," he says. "Dove, Olivia . . . Melissa Barrera: many of my girls that I work with regularly, I met them on a random shoot a few years ago, and within the day, I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is my girl. We're friends.'"

Forming loyal, lasting relationships with his clients is important because Hawkins's first instinct is always to put work first. "I work 29 days out of the month, by choice," Hawkins says. "You build relationships with your girls, and you want to be there for them — you can't just leave them hanging."

Saying "yes" to all opportunities has traveled him all around the world, including to the White House alongside Rodrigo. "It was such a moment in time," he says. "Trying to get people to take vaccines in this moment in history where you have the biggest pop star of that year going to the White House to meet the president — that is a moment of history."

Regardless of what's going on in Hawkins's life, his main focus always goes back to one thing. "I'm thinking about the hair I'm going to do tomorrow, the hair I'm going to do on Sunday, the hair I did yesterday," he says. "The passion is there. This is my life. I live, breathe, and die hair."