Modern Original People: Tracey Hughes

The Aussie hairdressing icon Tracey Hughes was an influencer long before social media existed. Her striking photographic images have been published in magazines worldwide; she’s an inspirational keynote speaker whose infectious energy captivates audiences; and she’s been a role model who has empowered female entrepreneurs. Her working philosophy? Begin, believe, become.

Two years ago Hughes moved to the United States where she met hundreds of female beauty professionals, who were selflessly giving back to their industry but weren’t getting the recognition she felt they deserved, so she put together a star-studded panel of legendary female leaders she called Leading Ladies to share a raw and honest look at the beauty industry.

“I approached a few people with my idea, and they all loved it,” she says. Asking Sam Villa to moderate the panel was a no-brainer. “He’s created a movement of artists supporting artists, and he has always given back to the industry. Besides, everybody loves Sam.”

Because Hughes was thinking big, she approached Howard Britt, owner of the Premiere Show Group, to see if he’d hold the event on Main Stage at Premiere Orlando 2017, which wasn’t an easy sell. The auditorium seats 2,500 people, most of whom come to see a hair show onstage. Would they actually sit still while five women shared their personal stories?

As it turns out, they would and did. Hughes decided early on that she wanted to feature five distinctively different women. “I didn’t want them all giving the same advice,” says Hughes, who came up with five categories and found just the right women to represent them: Eden Sassoon, the Icon; Candy Shaw, the Entrepreneur; Sonia Dove, the Artist; Hughes herself, the Educator; and blogger Jenny Strebe, the Influencer. “A lot of these iconic names have been road warriors. They’ve traveled hundreds of thousands of mile getting their message out, but these influencers can get the word out instantly. I thought it was important to bring us all together as one in a deep, meaningful and heartfelt way.”

Hughes wanted to create a set with a bit of a Hollywood theme so she rented director’s chairs with the names of all five panelists on them. An actual red carpet with lights generated pre-show excitement. “Women comprise 85 percent of our industry, and most of them are not in it for the glory,” Hughes says. “My idea was to show them that it doesn’t matter if you’re a high-profile stylist or not. We all face the same challenges, we all juggle career and family.”

Ultimately, what made Leading Ladies a success was the emotional connection the women onstage felt with the audience. “We spent two hours taking photos with these women, all of whom were crying and hugging us,” says Hughes, who is also quick to point out that Leading Ladies isn’t about girl power. “We want everyone to realize that they can develop their leadership skills no matter what their personal goals are.”

As it turns out, Leading Ladies had legs. Following the unprecedented success of that first panel, Hughes was contacted by ISSE Long Beach, which wanted to present Leading Ladies with the same lineup at the January, 2018 show. Buoyed by the response, Hughes approached all the other trade shows about hosting Leading Ladies. New panelists were added, including recognized icons like Vivienne Mackinder, Kris Sorbie, Ruth Roche and Deborah Penzone, and social media mavens like Larisa Love, Nahah Aziz and Cassandra McLaughlin. Then in September, 2018, Sola Sessions hosted Leading Ladies in Chicago.

“We have seven bookings already for 2019,” says Hughes, who has expanded the panels to include NAHA 2018 Hairdresser of the Year Danielle Keasling and award-winning Canadian hairdresser Michelle Pargee. An independent event in Europe is already in the works. As might be expected, Hughes has been approached by major manufacturers who want to sponsor Leading Ladies, but she insists that in order to retain its authenticity, Leading Ladies must remain brand-neutral. “Our entire focus is on giving back,” says Hughes, who allows that everyone’s costs are covered entirely by the hosts. “This is not about money. It’s about creating a community and network of support.”