With a tongue every bit as sharp as her scissors, Tabatha Coffey is on a mission to save America's failing salons from themselves — one hapless hairdresser at a time. (Season 3 of Tabatha's Salon Takeover concludes on February 21.) We sat down with the feisty Aussie import over drinks at NYC's Beauty Bar for a peek at her — yep — many layers.
TV Guide Magazine: First off, why hairdressing?
Coffey: I always knew. My parents owned transsexual strip clubs when I was growing up — I would sit backstage with the girls, setting their wigs.
TV Guide Magazine: You've come a long way since.
Coffey: When I was 14, I started working at a salon after school for free. I'd do any and everything: clean, sweep, shampoo. I eventually went on to get formal training — in Australia it takes four years — and then I moved to London.
TV Guide Magazine: After stints at fancy-pants U.K. salons Vidal Sassoon and Toni & Guy, you set off to conquer... New Jersey?
Coffey: The economy had tanked in London. My mom had remarried and lived in New Jersey, so it seemed like a great time to move to America.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you well received?
Coffey: Not so much. I was odd-looking to the people there; at the time I had a shaved head and Doc Martens and this really heavy accent. I applied for a job at a salon... They took a leap of faith hiring me. I went on to become their education director, and eventually I opened my own place [Industrie Hair Gurus in Ridgewood, New Jersey].
TV Guide Magazine: Six years later, reality TV came calling with Shear Genius...
Coffey: I turned up at the casting in New York and there was a line down the street. I thought, "I'll give myself one hour." Luckily, one of the casting guys picked me off the street. It's corny, but you have to believe in kismet.
TV Guide Magazine: Reality-show contestants always say how hard the experience is.
Coffey: For me, the most difficult part was living with everyone. The housing was horrible — six people in each room and bunk beds, which I refused to sleep on. I was like, "You can go f--- yourselves. I'm way too old for this."
TV Guide Magazine: You didn't win, but you were voted "fan favorite."
Coffey: I was totally gobsmacked. I had made the mistake of reading the blogs and I thought people really did not care for me.
TV Guide Magazine: What happened next?
Coffey: Bravo called me in. I honestly thought that they were going to rip up my contract and say buh-bye. Instead, they asked if I would like to do a show for them.
TV Guide Magazine: Most Bravo series document their stars' entire lives, but yours is very professionally focused.
Coffey: It was a gamble, but I knew I wanted to do something where I could touch hairdressers; the show wasn't "Come home with me." Plus, in my case, honestly, it would be "Come home with me and watch me feed my dog and fall into bed."
TV Guide Magazine: You've made a point of keeping your longtime partner out of the public eye, no?
Coffey: That part of my life is cherished, and I don't want it exploited. All of this is my choice, not hers. I am so appreciative of my fans — I make an effort to answer every single Facebook post and Tweet — but my private life is mine, and I think that's OK.
TV Guide Magazine: You have three seasons of Takeover under your belt — what's it been like?
Coffey: Really emotional. Every salon I go into I want to help. Sometimes they have training manuals this big and I sit in my hotel room all night reading them.
TV Guide Magazine: I have to say, you're much nicer in person than I was expecting.
Coffey: I'm not a bitch. People don't know what to call really strong women, and that's the word they come up with. One day I decided I'd had enough, and I came up with a new acronym: brave, intelligent, tenacious, creative and honest. And it's true.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there any pressure to dial up your behavior for the cameras?
Coffey: TV Tabatha is totally me. My staff would tell you, "When she reams your arse out, she reams your arse out. And when she compliments you, it truly means something." They've said some of the staff meetings on the show are way nicer than our real ones.
TV Guide Magazine: You just released a book, It's Not Really About the Hair, that gets into some pretty personal territory. Any regrets?
Coffey: Ask me in a week! It was hard, but incredibly cathartic. I talk about my father leaving, being an obese child, coming out when I was 15, getting a disastrous boob job that I nearly died from. The message is: When this happens, how do you survive?
TV Guide Magazine: In a perfect scenario, what's next for you?
Coffey: I would love to keep helping people through this medium. It's gone way beyond hairdressers. Yesterday this guy came up to me and said, "Watching your show helped me turn my business around." I was like, "What do you do?" and he said, "I have an auto body shop." It's amazing!
TV Guide Magazine: Finally, I gotta ask. What's with all the black clothing?
Coffey: It's always been my hairdresser's uniform — so you're a blank canvas and don't clash with the client. Then it just became easier to always wear black. Except for my pj's — I'll be in my pink ones in about an hour, Tweeting!