The South Carolina Lowcountry is a celebrity magnet known for attracting long-time residents like musician John Cougar Mellencamp, legendary tennis pro Stan Smith, and actor/producer Ron Howard. In our Summer issue, we introduced you to celebrity hairstylist DENNIS STOKELY, who left the big city life and came to the Lowcountry to be close to his mother. We featured an article written by Dennis as a tribute to his mom, who is living with Alzheimer’s. We were thrilled when he recently allowed us the opportunity to sit down and talk about HIS story – why he loves it here, why he decided to stay, how his good manners landed a gig with Paula Abdul and of course, we were eager to check up on his mom and see how she’s doing.
What inspired you to go into your profession?
Dennis Stokely: I have been mesmerized by fabulous hairstyles since childhood and always had a knack for hair, but it was Farrah Fawcett, famous for her starring role in the television show Charlie’s Angels and that poster with her in the red, one-piece swimsuit with the biggest sexiest hair ever that first caught my eye. At the University of Georgia, I carried hot-rollers in my backpack. I charged $5 for hairdos. I dropped out of UGA in my sophomore year and moved to Manhattan. I fell in love with New York. I was a mildly successful model and then turned my attention back to hair.
How did you get your “hand” in the door of celebrity hairstyling? Sorry, can’t resist the play on words.
DS: My first big break in the celebrity world of hairstyling was as a receptionist at Kenneth Salon inside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Kenneth was famous as the hairstylist to Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Vanderbilt. He is my favorite stylist and the biggest influence of my career. Later, I was hired into the assistant’s program at the Frederic Fekkai Salon, but Farrah’s gorgeous hairstyle still inspires me.
Years later, I met Farrah at the Polo Lounge inside the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was towards the end of her battle with cancer and she was having lunch with friends. We spoke briefly as she was leaving. She was so kind to me and her eyes sparkled. It gives me chills thinking about it.
Is this what you wanted to be when you grew up?
DS: Not really. As a kid, I never thought too much about what I wanted to be as an adult. I was born in south Georgia and was raised by a hardworking single Mom. I just always wanted to be loved and accepted. I never thought I would become an artist. I was a geeky, bookworm kid – spelling bee champ, honor student, voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in High School. It wasn’t until I moved to New York and was so blown away by the fashion scene and all those incredible supermodels that I realized I had found my tribe.
I know that you were recently named the Artistic Director at the Salon Montage inside the newly opened Montage Inn Palmetto Bluff. How is it going?
DS: Awesome! I feel like I am working in New York or Los Angeles. The salon is drop-dead gorgeous and business is booming.
What set of circumstances launched your career as a stylist to the stars?
DS: Many wonderful opportunities lined up to launch my career. My years in NYC were the catalyst, styling hair for NFL cheerleaders was a highlight, and once I landed in Hollywood, my southern kindness nabbed me a booking with Paula Abdul. In Los Angeles, I worked with the legendary make-up artist, Alexis Vogel, on a high-profile wedding. Afterwards, I thanked her. She stopped and said, “Wow, who are you? Nobody ever thanks me!” She asked for my number and shortly after she booked me to style Paula’s hair for a photo shoot featured in OK! Magazine. That day was the beginning of the gig-of-a-lifetime.
Tell us a little about working for Paula Abdul.
DS: Paula is my all-time favorite client. I met her right before the finale of Season 6 of AMERICAN IDOL, the year Jordan Sparks won. After the finale, I was invited to travel to London with Paula to create hairstyles for a week of press appearances. While we were there, Paula was photographed for the London Daily Mail. The fashion designer, Elizabeth Emanuel, famous for designing Princess Diana’s wedding gown, dressed Paula for the shoot. I was awestruck. After London, we stopped in New York for Paula to make a guest appearance on the David Letterman Show. Paula and I clicked and when we returned to LA I left my salon job at Prive’ in Beverly Hills and continued working with Paula until she left the show after the end of Season 8. I miss Paula and all the excitement of AMERICAN IDOL.
Do you have any favorites? And, why?
DS: Of course, Paula, for all the magical moments. Carmen Electra – One of the sweetest and prettiest celebs ever. Jessica Simpson and Eva Longoria – I had a hoot working with them on Jessica’s music video, “A Public Affair.” And, Brooke Anderson – The first celeb I worked with on the Oscars, and later, the Emmys, Grammys and the Golden Globes.
I know you have some funny celeb stories. C’mon do tell.
OK, just one. I was in New York with Paula styling her hair for her appearance on the Martha Stewart TV Show. I hadn’t seen Martha in years. During the commercial break, I went on-set to touch up Paula’s hair and said to Martha, “Hi, Martha, I am not sure if you remember me, but I styled your hair when I worked at Frederic Fekkai.” Martha replied, “Of course I remember you Dennis and you’ve gained 30 pounds!” Paula and the audience laughed hysterically, and I just stood there. And then Martha deadpanned, “That’s okay Dennis I’ve gained 30 pounds too.”
I know you came back to the area to help your mother, but we would love to know more about why you stayed. You could have gone anywhere – back to Los Angeles or New York – but you seem to really feel at home in the Lowcountry.
DS I love it here. I always knew that I would settle back in the South and when I left LA to be with my mom, I realized that slowing down was just what I needed. However, I feel so incredibly lucky that I spent the beginning of my career in Manhattan. I was young, ambitious and very excited to be in the Big Apple, savoring every moment. developed my skill set in top NYC salons, had the time of my life and made lifelong friendships. I may be southern by birth, but New York won my heart. And then, I was fascinated with how wonderful Los Angeles was. After all it has perfect weather, I made brilliant new friends and I was working on the #1 television show in the world. C’mon,
who wouldn’t love that?
I am humbled and excited that my career has come full-circle and I get to work and live here.
I am constantly meeting people from New York, Chicago, LA,a ctually from all over the world. I still travel for special bookings and the Savannah airport is one of the best in the country – small, clean and convenient. The marshes, the live-oaks, the Spanish moss, the surf, the sand and the laid-back sophistication appeal to my southern sensibilities.
The Lowcountry is a big destination for weddings. Do you work with
many brides here?
DS Yes. I always tell people that brides are the “celebrities” of the South! And walking down the aisle to get married here is like walking the red carpet in Hollywood!
I really enjoyed your beautiful tribute to your mother in our Summer issue and I know our readers also want to know how she’s doing, so please give us an update.
DS: Funny story, Mom’s night nurse called me recently and said she was throwing things from her bed
out to the nurse’s station. When they asked her what was going on, she told them that she had won the basketball game! My Mom was a star basketball player in high school and she evidently thought that the nurse’s station was the
hoop! Her battle with Alzheimer’s continues to advance. Shortly after the article came out last Summer, she slipped out of her wheelchair and broke her hip. Her hip replacement surgery went well and she is in no pain. Mom has always been a tough cookie and I craved my whole life to see the softer side of her personality. But, now that she is slowly slipping away it is bittersweet to see her so childlike. On a positive note, she is in great spirits, keeps everyone laughing and it is so much fun visiting her. She was evacuated during Hurricane Matthew and spent five days in rural Georgia surrounded by lots of family. She laughed a lot, ate a lot and when she got back to the nursing home and they asked her where she had been. She said, “I went on the best vacation ever, but I am glad to be back home!”
You seem to always have such a positive attitude about everything. How did you get there and do you want to share a little about your philosophy of life?
By nature, I always see the glass half-full. I think I was born that way. Like most people, I have had triumphs and set-backs in my life. I think God has always turned my heart and soul towards the light. As for any professional success I may have achieved, my mottos are: “Be good at what you do and be nice.” & “Dream big and never
Thank you very much for sharing. I’d like to be the first to wish you a very Happy New Year. Before you go, do you have a New Year’s resolution?
DS:Yes, I want to lose 30 pounds!