Ricky Hodge knows his brand. He’s been creating, growing and developing his eponymous brand since his days at Baldwin Beauty School. Whether he’s attending a swanky party downtown, reaching out with a handwritten note to a potential new client, or working backstage at a fashion show to perfect a model’s look, Hodge is always on.
This up-and-coming hairdresser understands that in our current over- stimulated, electronic-communications environment, connecting on a more personal level is key. Even so, his fast-paced professional growth would not have happened without the help of mentors along the way. The experience he gained at Jose Luis Salon since October of 2008 has launched him into a new, exciting phase of his professional development.
“What I really like about Jose [Buitron] is his business sense,” Hodge said. “Watching someone with such artistic flair who still has the knowledge to run a business–it’s impressive.”
Over coffee on a late summer night, Hodge discussed his professional and personal growth, his goals in the coming years, and his upbringing’s impact on the man he’s become. Light-hearted but deeply focused, he was looking forward to entering a new chapter of his career.
“I think it’s great to share stories,” said Hodge. “I have never really been this open publicly, but I feel I have nothing to hide.”
Hodge, who graduated from Baldwin in 2007, was working at Bob Salon while he was still logging hours at school. He’d gone to Jose Luis Salon as a client and loved the energy of the space. Typically, new stylists will apprentice for a year under Buitron, the lead hairdresser and (with his partner, Bill Pitts) co-owner of Jose Luis Salon. After learning this, Hodge asked if he could apprentice for six months instead. After soaking up as much knowledge from the salon’s master stylist as he could, Hodge ended up working on the floor with more of a built-in clientele than most because of his previous efforts.
“I found my own clients,” said Hodge, noting that he’d been handing out simple business cards, embossed with “I do hair, so come sit in my chair,” while attending Baldwin. “I treated it as a business even when I was in school. People couldn’t make reservations, so the older ladies would come in, sign their names and put my name down.”
One such woman, named Mrs. Bunny, was a faithful visitor when Hodge was working to reach 1,500 credit hours at school. Each time she came to the salon, her husband would drop her off and then return to pick her up. After he finished cutting her hair, Hodge walked Mrs. Bunny to her car. “You have a reputation to build and that’s the best place to start,” he said. “My clients are always surprised when I remember certain things about them. They don’t expect me to be paying attention to them, but it’s just so important.”
In 1989, Hodge moved to Hawaii (where he was born) from the small town of Lampasas, Texas, where he grew up. While living in Hawaii, a time he recalls with fondness, he worked for one and a half years as assistant to Paul Brown, a highly respected hair stylist and educator. However, when his grandparents died, Hodge moved back to Texas to take care of some family property and figure out his next step.
Although Hodge considered pursuing culinary avenues at first, he decided that since he had already worked in a hair salon in the 90s, he should build on that experience. His decision to return to school in his late 30s ultimately paid off; it led to his position at Jose Luis, which launched his career in Austin. “There are a lot of creative minds and a lot of opinions [at Jose Luis],” said Hodge. “I’m just one of many.”
Other than his jet-black pompadour, Hodge’s ink-covered right arm is the first thing you notice when you meet him. Bright and laden with emotional significance and meaning, the images on his right arm tell the story of his life and his work as a hairdresser. In 2007, he got his first tattoo, a large colorful hula girl, in homage to Hawaii. Although he wasn’t expecting it to be so big, he was pleased with the end result. Because Hodge’s father was a boxer in Hawaii, inside his arm is a fighting rooster. There’s a heart punctured by a pair of shears, representing devotion to his craft, a hibiscus on his elbow and “1500,” for the number of hours required to graduate from beauty school.
Ever wonder what the bow tie thing is all about? It anchors Hodge’s image. When he was working for Banana Republic in the late 90s, he started wearing bow ties occasionally to dress up an outfit at work. In January, he began to wear them at Jose Luis on a daily basis, matching various prints, bright colors and paisleys with short-sleeved shirts in different hues. He scores bow ties at Neiman Marcus Last Call, has some custom-made out of old haberdashery shirts that he doesn’t wear, or finds them at other shops around town. The more formal-looking bow ties, combined with his tattooed arm and sleek bouffant hair, are his trademark.
“I’ve gotten to be pretty quick with tying the bow ties, but not all bow ties are created equal, and some are more difficult than others,” said Hodge, noting that he owns between 30 and 40.
Although Hodge is a skilled colorist and will dye his clients’ hair whatever color they choose, he’s developed a big following among young, blonde-haired women in the city. His friend, Jackie Powell, who he said is rather picky, had him color her hair and she loved it. Another friend, Alex Bloodworth, recommended Hodge as a blonde expert to her friends in the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority at UT, including women like Catherine Seegar and Macy Morris. Before he knew it, everyone in the sorority house heard that he was great with blondes. “I was doing so many blondes, and I really was a blonde specialist. I love color, but blondes are attracted to me,” he said. “On top of that, blondes are dedicated because they’re so afraid to try someone else.”
One such blonde-haired woman is Hodge’s good friend, former colleague and social partner-in-crime Martha Lynn Barnes. The pair met in cosmetology school when Hodge was graduating and Barnes was just getting started. Their relationship, which entails a healthy dose of friendly competition mixed with some style collaboration, has grown ever since.
“We clicked right away,” Barnes said, noting that Hodge conducted himself like he was already running a business and that she shares his work ethic. “We went our separate ways but stayed in touch, and he later approached me about coming to work at Jose Luis Salon.”
Barnes watched Hodge’s clientele explode at Jose Luis and the two became fixtures on Austin’s ever-expanding nightlife and social scene. To call them both social butterflies would be an understatement. “We absolutely love our clients and love meeting new people!” she enthused. “We share ideas and have a friendly competition. He is so supportive and it’s nice to have that support without the tinge of jealousy that you can unfortunately find in our industry.”
Without elaborating, Barnes said, “We have some exciting things in the works both individually and together.”
“I was living in Oahu, I was partying a lot, and I had to leave,” said Hodge, by way of explaining his personal growth over the past 15 years and the fact that it took him a while to settle into a place where he was ready to get serious about his career. He worked at the Original Roy’s in Kai, Hawaii; six months later, he opened their Waikiki location. That restaurant closed and he was offered the chance to move to Maui. He worked at the Roy’s there and was also a part-time sales associate at Banana Republic until they promoted him to management. “I really cleaned up my act and it changed my life completely.” Five years after that, when he’d returned to Texas and his grandparents were ill, Hodge was starting over again as he decided to pursue a hairstyling career full force.
“I had a hard time because I was trying to come out to myself and they were ill,” Hodge said. “But I had to do it. I’m a survivor. You put your priorities in check.”
Hodge knows that his late-blooming professional development has, in at least one way, carried over into his personal life: he hadn’t officially come out to his family during the timing of this interview. A few years ago, his youngest sister Regina Muse asked him point-blank if he was gay; he broke down but never made that Ellen DeGeneres declarative statement. “I didn’t have to,” he said. “This sister will tell my mom and my other sister.”
Either way, Hodge is finally ready to make that leap. “It needs to be sincere. I’m ready to tell them. I think eventually I would have told them, but [the interview] is speeding things up.”
All of his family lives in Lampasas. His sister Muse has two children, Ethan and Klein, and his other sister, Lisa, has a daughter named Morgan, so Hodge is a proud uncle. Although his mother Ruby doesn’t show a lot of emotion, Hodge said he’s hopeful that they can strengthen their relationship as he grows professionally. “I would love to go on trips with my mom, because she has never done that before and I want to take her.”
Hodge, whose parents divorced when he was young, is trying to sell the remaining properties in Lampasas that he inherited from his grandparents so he can focus one hundred percent on his career. He has already sold a motel that his grandmother owned, which enabled him to flourish. Clearly, the hard-driving work ethic runs in the family–and he’s quick to credit his mother and grandmother for setting a good example. “My mom worked three jobs growing up and we saw her busting her ass all the time. My grandmother was like the asian Martha Stewart,” he said, smiling. “She would always be the one to fix the plumbing and mow the lawn. My mom and my grandma were just workers.”
His conservative surroundings impacted his ability to feel comfortable as a gay men. “I dated girls until I was 30, but I always knew I was gay,” he said. “I see people in bars now that come up to me and say, ‘aren’t you from Lampasas?’”
Although he didn’t have experience dating guys until he was 30, Hodge has built up confidence over time and he’s looking forward to being fully open with his family–yet he said it will still be an emotional moment. “It will be interesting to see them react at the release party,” Hodge said, noting that his family hasn’t been around a large number of gay and lesbian people before.
Four years ago, he brought his then-boyfriend as a guest to Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Hodge’s mother bought a gift for his boyfriend’s daughter, and his boyfriend said he thought they knew about Hodge’s sexuality. “My mother will be proud and my sisters will be happy for me,” said Hodge. “Everyone will be fine. I want to be able to tell everyone the way I’m supposed to.”
His New Path
“This event has made my personal growth stronger because I really looked into who I am,” said Hodge, in reference to the experience of being profiled in this magazine. “Everything you do, you consider a learning and growing experience.” Being the beneficiary of so much knowledge has inspired Hodge to give back. He’d like to get involved with a local LGBT nonprofit. “I need to focus myself in that direction,” he said. Hodge has been coming to the capital city regularly for work since 1999, but he made it his permanent home three years ago–and he’s benefited from the depth of professional experience around him.
“I learned that knowledge is key,” said Hodge, who watched and learned from the different styles of his coworkers at Jose Lois. “if you add up all the years that everyone at Jose Luis Salon has worked in the industry, there are over 100 years.”
For the past year, he’s been evaluating where he wants to go with his career and what steps he needs to take to reach his goals. While he’s thrilled with the fact that he’s been able to build a large client base at Jose Luis, he wants the freedom–to build his own schedule, for example–that comes with working at a traditional chair rental salon.
“I love everyone at Jose Luis, I call Jose and Bill the boys, and I hope one day I can have what they have,” Hodge said. “I have learned more from him than anyone else. I’m nervous but I have to make the move.”
In September, Hodge moved to Kemestry Salon in the 2124 Lofts building on east 6th Street. He views his time at Jose Luis, which essentially launched his hairstyling career in Austin, as a wonderful learning experience. “Any life change is nerve wracking, but if you never try it, you’ll never know,” he said. “The transition is scary, but you just take destiny into your own hands. I’m going to be responsible for everything, and I’m ready for that.”
Hodge is focused on the future. Although he sees things falling into place, this workhorse knows that his journey–professionally but perhaps more important, personally–has just begun. “I get the most satisfaction from doing clients every day because the trans- formation is amazing, you really see progress and the big picture,” Hodge said. “I just love cutting hair so much and I want to embrace it.”
The move to Kemestry–which focuses on education and also giving back to east Austin–has been smooth for Hodge so far. “I love the fact that I have the ability to work with my clients and their schedule,” said Hodge. “I am taking what I learned at Jose Luis and tweaking it to fit what I am about.”