As you might imagine, I’m a sucker for a good story. Brett Tennyson, master hair stylist and colorist, is full of them.
It’s a Sunday morning and I’m relaxing into his shampoo bowl for a wash and cut. He’s joking about a purple mohawk (sadly, my punk kid days are over) when I ask him how he got started doing hair. He tells me it’s a long story. Thankfully, I have more hair than is normal for most humans, which means I’m a captive audience.
To begin Brett’s story, we have to go to Florida. I know, you’re probably thinking beaches, bronzed women in bikinis and rollerblades, but that’s not it. We’re going to the swamp. Think gators. Poisonous snakes out to ruin your day. Brett’s dad, Jonathan Tennyson, built the family a pyramid 20 feet over the Suwanee River in the Okefenokee Swamp. One of Brett’s earliest memories is paddling a canoe with this brother through the swamp by moonlight to pick up the midwife who would help deliver his little sister. He was 5 years old. His dad was devoted to the simple life, which is something he had in common with his best friend Paul Mitchell. Yes, that Paul Mitchell.
In the early 1980s, Mitchell bought 20 acres of land in Paauilo mauka, on the rural Hamakua Coast of the Big Island. He invited the Tennyson family to come live off the land and help run the Awapuhi farm — a key ingredient in his shampoo line that would soon take the salon industry by storm. Brett recalls being vegan, home schooled, and living in tents with no electricity or running water on the farm in the early days. They washed their dishes in the gulch and used candles at night. He also remembers the random celebrities that would visit the farm with Mitchell as the brand gained international popularity. Michelle Phillips of the Mommas and the Papas attempted to cure his chronic childhood migraines with crystals. Henry Fonda and Cheech Marin also stopped by.
Paul Mitchell passed away on April 21, 1989 at 52 years old. Eight years later, or April 21, 1997, Brett’s dad passed away at 52. This tragic, yet serendipitous series of events led Brett to his career path. Soon after his dad’s passing, the late Paul’s son Angus Mitchell invited Brett to come live with him in Los Angeles. He would pay his way to attend the Vidal Sassoon school of hairdressing. At 19, Brett touched down in LA with hair down to his butt, a salt-crusted surfer with an attitude to match. He was the only straight guy in his beauty school class, which he says wasn’t a bad thing.
His first job after graduating from Vidal’s and earning his license in 1999 was at the iconic Beverly Hills salon Bruno &Soonie, known for their celebrity clientele. For the next 15 years, Brett worked as a stylist to the stars and toured around the United States with Angus Mitchell performing at beauty industry trade shows. At these events he’d often be up on stage doing hair in front of thousands of people.
Then one day he woke up in a pair of leather pants and Gucci glasses and was hit by a wave of nostalgia for the simple life. He moved back to the Big Island in 2008 and settled in Kona. He worked as a stylist at the Paul Brown Salon at the Hapuna Prince Hotel for several years. When the salon shut down, he decided to try his hand at construction. He promptly fell off a ladder and broke both of his arms. He took this as a potent sign from the universe to stick with hair.
In 2015, he founded Tennyson Hair Designs LLC. Based in Kona, his approach is “hair that fits your lifestyle.” This means he’s not going to give you a purple mohawk if you are a low-maintenance kind of girl like me. He’s an expert at precision cutting and color, especially for those who are young at heart and want to camouflage their gray. He carries a curated selection of quality products that are kind to your hair. After my cut, he sprayed me down with a shining mist that smells exactly like cotton candy. If you see me chewing on my hair, I have a legitimate reason, OK?
Brett will make you laugh and help you develop a loving relationship with that pesky stuff growing out of your head. Find him at 75-5995 Kuakini Highway, Pottery Terrace Suite 512 in Kailua-Kona. Visit him online at www.tennysonhairdesigns.com. He’s on the lookout for a space to open up his own salon —tips are welcomed.
Emily Gleason is a member of Business Network International (BNI) Kona Connections Chapter in Kailua-Kona and helps business owners reach their dream clients at www.mthewriter.com. She contributes a monthly business feature to West Hawaii Today.