Louis Licari: Celebrity Colorist and ‘Ambush Makeover’ Star Has a Pop-up Salon in Water Mill

Louis Licari and Isabella
Louis Licari and Isabella Courtesy Louis Licari

When world-famous hair colorist Louis Licari plucks a deserving woman from the TODAY show plaza for an “Ambush Makeover,” he and his team of beauty experts literally make dreams come true.

“We take these ladies who have no access to the whole idea of coming to a New York hairdresser or colorist and have (their hair) and their makeup done,” says Licari. “They are just so excited to get the makeover—it’s really a thrill,” adds Licari, who along with his ambush team (Licari on color, Gad Cohen the hairstylist and Enid O’ the makeup artist) complete the transformation. “I’m not being corny here—they get so juiced—it’s really a great thing,” says Licari.

The “Queen for a Day” makeover moment never leaves a dry eye, and Ambush Makeover—which has had to take a break from the in-person makeover due to COVID and no audience allowed at the NBC plaza (something that Licari says will hopefully change in September)—has been a wildly popular segment on the 10 a.m. hour of the TODAY show for over 13 years.

Licari admits he gets “more than a little buzz about being on the show” and has been a recurring guest and contributor on the TODAY show “for at least 25 years,” he estimates.

Katie Couric brought me in,” Licari says. “I would do her color and we had (and have) a relationship … she said ‘Do you want to do a segment?’ That’s how it all started.”

Dubbed “The King of Color” by The New York Times, Licari’s career has spanned over 30 years of servicing clients on two coasts, owning major salons on Fifth Avenue in New York and Beverly Hills in California, traveling the world for clients and product development and working on movie sets doing special effects for hair. He also has a Louis Licari product line that is set to launch in Asia.

Louis Licari and Sofia Coppola
Licari and Sofia Coppola, Courtesy Louis Licari

These days Licari—whose celebrity clientele includes Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Robert De Niro, Sofia Coppola and Al Pacino—is working weekdays with clients in New York at Mizu Louis Licari (on Park Avenue and 59th Street), and on Fridays and Saturdays he drives out east to work with clients in the Hamptons at a pop-up salon in Water Mill.

Licari has been working at the pop-up salon, “near the windmill in Water Mill” since the winter—an opportunity that literally popped up after so many of his clients who had come out to the Hamptons during the height of COVID had asked him to come out to their homes to color their hair—something Licari says he doesn’t like to do, “It’s just too messy to be in a private home.” A chance encounter with a blast from Licari’s past made the pop-up possible:

“I ran into a fellow on the street—one of the guys I used to shampoo for (when Licari was just starting out) and I was talking to him and he said, ‘Louis, I have a salon out there, and I don’t even use it. Would you like to use it? You can have it on weekends.’ And I said, ‘That’s sounds like a plan … ’”

We caught up with Louis Licari to talk about his experience working out east, his career path and, of course, to ask for some hair tips and trends.

How is it going at the Water Mill pop-up salon?

It has been doing extremely well. It’s an intimate, beachy salon, a totally different vibe than New York. … It’s a small operation but it’s booked solid more than a couple of weeks in advance, so it’s really golden.

How did you get your start—did you envision being a hair colorist?

I went to art school at Syracuse University. I came to New York to make it as a struggling painter—it never really worked, and I went into this as a way to hold things over for a while.

I never even knew there was a “hair colorist.” My first job was as a shampoo boy. I realized when I was at Pierre Michel, “Oh, there’s a hair colorist,” and said, “Oh, I can do that.”

Where did you grow up—and how did you end up working in the salon scene?

I grew up in Upstate New York, in a small town outside Syracuse, Fairmont Hill.

I was biting at the bit since I was a kid to go to New York. Where else would a painter go? There’s nothing worse than feeling like the square peg in the round hole, and in New York I could find my place.

After two or three years of painting, I saw all my friends with more traditional careers were moving up the ladder, and I was struggling as a waiter, losing my mind. I just had to do something. I couldn’t serve one more hamburger or one more veal piccata. … I went to beauty school during the week, worked on the weekends as a waiter, and that’s how it all started.

Louis Licari with Susan Sarandon
Licari with Susan Sarandon, Courtesy Louis Licari

How did you break through to become a celebrity colorist?

Things really took off when I worked at Le Coupe, which was on Madison Avenue. By the time I was probably 30 years old I opened my own place on Madison and 67th called the Louis Licari Color Group.

I did every single model in New York, and because I did Eileen Ford and from doing the girls, all of a sudden one day Robert De Niro called me up and he said, “I need you to make my hair gray for a movie.” After him I started doing everybody—when you got him it was like the ace card and the rest of the deck followed.

What is so important about hair color?

Hair color is your most important fashion accessory. It is the easiest way to look more vital, beautiful, fashionable and younger. The best part of hair color is it usually takes less than an hour and doesn’t wash off.

What hair color techniques do you use or recommend?

There is a hair color technique for everyone. An overall color change requires a single process. This is best if you want to make your hair lighter, darker, warmer or more ash.

Highlights are my favorite and most natural way to lighten and brighten hair. Highlights have changed over the years. Today’s highlights are a mix of thin and thick strokes of color. They are more subtle at the root and become brighter at the ends of the hair. The best part of today’s highlights? They grow out incredibly gracefully and only need to be touched up every three to four months.

Glazes have become increasingly popular this year. They do not contain peroxide and actually condition the shine. This is the easiest way to add a pinch of color and a whole lot of shine.

What is the biggest mistake people make in terms of their hair?

Trying to do something extreme at home … it almost never works. If you are doing it at home, you’ve got to keep it very simple. The color you are born with usually works best with your skin color so you should stay close to it.

Do you believe in keratin treatments?

Keratin saves a lot of ladies … I don’t do them myself … it certainly makes life a lot easier. The mistake with keratin is overuse. I know people that do it every two months when it should be done every five to seven months.

How does it feel to be out east?

I was never really a “Hamptons guy”… it’s different when you have a place there. … I took a guesthouse on Halsey, I’m right behind the Windmill. I walk to work a block north—the other way it’s two blocks to Mecox Bay. I go paddle boarding almost every day I’m out there—that’s my new thing, and I love it to death. … The house is beautiful, my little puppy Isabella is with me all the time. … I live on the quieter side … and I’m enjoying this part of my life. … It’s a pretty sweet life.

Any quick hair tips for summer?

The sun can be your friend if you use it in moderation—just remember that what works in the summer when your skin has that golden brown tan might not work in the winter, so it’s best to be aware of what the sun is doing—and if it does get too brassy—we’re ready, by the way. It can all be repaired in the fall.

The bigger concern is that you should always keep your hair properly conditioned so that it can take the color—hair in bad condition doesn’t color as well as hair in good condition.

What’s your favorite part of your day?

At this point I’ve been in the business so long it’s like seeing your friends—it’s like I have house guests every day. … I get excited about certain colors I do. I have to get creative with the color. But day to day—being with people, seeing them—that’s my favorite part.

The Louis Licari Salon is located at 670 Montauk Highway, Water Mill (open Fridays and Saturdays); for appointments call or text 917-331-0020. Mizu Louis Licari is located at 505 Park Avenue, NYC; visit mizuforhair.com for more info.

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