When it comes to creating beautiful hair, Kathleen Bray is world class! Having already forged a reputation for excellence with her editorial work for Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire, Kathleen now specialises in advertising work, covering major hair and beauty brands, such as Max Factor, Olay, and Garnier. However, it is the iconic images that she helped create with Mel & Kim that brought Kathleen to our attention. Kathleen created the hair aesthetic for many of the girls' photo sessions and she worked closely with the sisters through good times and bad. Here she shares with us some of her funny, insightful and, at times, poignant memories.
Kathleen, you have crafted an incredibly successful career. How did you start out working in editorial hair styling and how did this lead to you working with Mel & Kim?
I really am a lucky girl; I have always had great jobs (laughs). I only worked in one salon - Smile', in Knightsbridge - which was viewed as a very trendy salon, and so I started doing shoots and had an agent, pretty early in my career. After about eight years, I went freelance and I started working with the photographer Brian Aris, and it was on the shoots with Brian that I came to work with Mel & Kim.
The sisters are known (almost) as much for their head wear and their use of hair extensions as they are for their music, and they often referred to struggling with their natural hair. Was this something you discussed when deciding on the 'look' for each shoot?
(Laughs) Yes, they had both had difficulties with their hair and had struggled with what they could do with it - which was where the hats came in... but look at the difference in the effect of the image once the hair was introduced. I remember, Mel used to laugh about her own hair, because there just wasn't a lot there - just this sticky out mop - but she looks unbelievable on the 'F.L.M.' album cover. She looks fantastic, and a lot of that is all that hair framing her face. As far as deciding on a 'look', Brian's shoots were always a bit of a journey. It wasn't just, 'let's do something' and 'oh, that's it, we've got it'! With Brian, it was a super-serious business and we were always searching and finding.
Mel & Kim's image and, in particular, their hair quickly evolved following the Cosmopolitan shoot, and the comparison between those shots and the F.L.M. sleeve image, is remarkable.
Yes. When I first met the girls (for the Cosmopolitan magazine shoot), they had already released their first single and there was the look with the hats, but with no hair on show, so we were the beginning of finding some hair to form a look. Of course, it's one thing to create a shape with the hair, but then the ends have also got to be gorgeous, which wasn't quite the case on the Cosmopolitan shoot, but that shoot led into all the rest. For the 'F.L.M.' shoot, the real hair extensions were razor cut and far better quality.
(Shots from the Cosmopolitan shoot were also used for the 19 magazine cover feature, amongst others - see the Press Archives for both articles).
How did you find working with the extensions?
Oh my God, it was fantastic! I was so excited as, at that time, hair was a medium for me to create shapes. So, to suddenly have all this hair to bundle around was just wonderful. When the girls had their extensions fitted, the world was suddenly my oyster and my happiness was their happiness; they also really liked them. There was the, 'oh my God we are in there forever' [having the extensions fitted)], but it was big happiness all round. They was fantastic!
Did the hair extensions need to be replaced regularly?
Yes, I remember the girls had them done twice, as they only lasted a short while. They had them done at the Antenna salon (Kensington, London), which was the only salon that did them in those days, and it used to take hours and hours and hours. In those days, the extensions were made up of tiny pieces of real hair that were glued in and attached to tiny pieces of your own hair, with this little ball of glue. Of course, we are constantly shedding hair, so what would happen was, when the hair would fall out naturally, it couldn't release itself, because of this little glue attachment (laughs) and I remember, at a later shoot, the girls were laughing because they had all these little bits of hair sticking up with the little hair/glue bulb attached. So, it was, 'oh God, we need to get them done again! Look at these pieces sticking out on the top!' They were laughing about it, but it was all just fun and you never saw it in the pictures.
Cosmopolitan magazine shoot, by Brian Aris
"It's one thing to create a shape but then the ends have got to be gorgeous, which wasn't the case on the Cosmopolitan magazine shoot, [although that] was the shoot that led into all the rest! Later, the extensions were razor cut, which was fantastic!”
Both sisters laughed as they recalled Mel washing her head of extensions, only for them to become badly matted. Did the girls mention this to you at all?
(Laughs) yes, they did, though this had happened at the beginning of their career, before their first single was released, and before I met them. Mel had washed them and it had all gone wrong, so they stuffed their hats on, as they were off to an event. As I said, when I first met them, they had already been shot in hats but not with their hair styled. The record company had not known how to style them and then, when they saw the girls with the hats, it was a case of 'that's the look'. The girls did their own thing style-wise. They were 'Mel and Kim', the image you saw was completely them.
Did Mel & Kim seem comfortable posing in front of the camera and what was the atmosphere like on set?
Yes, totally comfortable. Both were naturals, but it wasn't like they arrived and then they were on camera 10 minutes later. Before they ever got in front of the camera there was a hell of a lot of work that went on, but it was always fun! The girls would arrive and it would always be great to see them. Typically, they would both be saying to me, 'oh my God, Kath - look at the state of my hair' , and laughing, but it was all in great fun. There was a small annex-type room without a door, which was the 'dressing room', and you would have hair and makeup working side by side on each of the girls, then swapping over... but, these girls are sisters so there was never any big tension. It was friendly and it was chatty. It was business, but it wasn't difficult. It was social, you know? There was a lot of giggling and chatting as we were working, and the conversation was always real, totally down to earth and just normal. They were both normal, hardworking, excited, fun girls, and everyone was always very at ease. Then, once they got onto the set, it was a happy environment, though very concentrated, because Brian would take the girls through things detail by detail.
So, once the girls where on set with Brian, where you able to relax?
No! (laughs). As Brian shot the girls, I was watching every second and every bit of hair, because we didn't have the retouching in those days. There wasn't Photoshop, so everything had to happen on camera. Every one of those spikes, sticking out, look like they are just random but, if one was not working, I would be in there correcting it. When you shoot anybody, you want to get the best out of them but, when there are two people in the picture, you need to get them working well individually, and together, so it is twice the work. That meant that, on set, we would need to be very attentive, but everybody was incredibly patient. Brian would be really working the girls but they were at ease, because they had had a really social time with us getting ready... and they are sisters, they wanted to do it and they loved doing it. It was serious business in front of that camera, and everything was very directed and they really delivered when they got on set but, up to that point it was fun and excitement. They were the most fun-loving people! Nobody got bored and nobody was saying 'OK I want to stop now'. It was the pursuit of something great, and it was exciting.
F.L.M. Album sleeve shoot, by Brian Aris.
“Mel looks unbelievable on the 'F.L.M.' album cover - she looks fantastic - and a lot of that is all that hair framing her face. Had they not had their extensions fitted that day then the look for the album cover would have been something different.”
Was there a clear brief for the hair, prior to the F.L.M. album shoot, or did you have free reign to experiment?
No, I don't think there was actually, though the extensions led me to that look. Nobody told me what to do with the hair, although obviously the girls had to like it but, had they not had their extensions fitted that day then the look for the album cover would have been something different. It was perfect timing because it would have been awful if they had had the album cover and then this look came along afterwards.
Despite the style of the girls' hair being very similar, you also managed to maintain their individuality, with some subtle differences...
That's right. I wanted to keep their hair in a similar vibe but I didn't want them to look the same, so on the 'F.L.M.' album sleeve, I styled Mel's hair to be more all up and Kim's hair was, sort of up, but down as well - half and half. With the extensions, the girls didn't have much of a fringe but for some of the other shoots - like the David Anthony session - I used to fold the extensions over and shove a bit forward to create one. I think both of their faces work with those kinds of fringes.
Did Mel & Kim have a large entourage of stylists and assistants around them during the shoots?
Actually no! I don't remember there being anybody else there other than us and the girls. What's funny is that the jobs I do now are hair advertising jobs and there are 50 million agencies and clients and whatever, and if it's a celebrity, then they've also got their own team - they have got the works - but, with Mel & Kim, there was no entourage whatsoever! They had no airs, no graces. I mean, it just didn't come into it, no diva's, no riders, they didn't come with an entourage and they certainly didn't come with any brief. I think Mel & Kim's image was completely natural and it just evolved and happened. There was not any planning. It was like water finding its levels. There was no like 'who are we?', 'who are we going to be?', 'who do we not want to be like?' conversations going on. But the 80s were like that. I mean, if you were involved in something like this now, then there would be meetings upon meetings upon meetings.
Were the girls specific about their 'look' and what they would and wouldn't wear for a shoot?
My feeling is that if there were choices to be made, it wouldn't be a negative reaction to the ones that they didn't like. It would be excitement and positivity towards the clothes they did, so that's how it would evolve. It wouldn't be, like, 'oh no, take that away'. It was, like, 'oh wow, this is great! But, on set, they were incredibly hard working and they knew who they were! I mean,, none of these things [the published photographs] came... how can I put it?... for free! I mean, the attention to detail was very, very intense, but they knew who they were, and they knew their look. It sounds awful to say but they didn't take their look too seriously. It just happened naturally, it was what it was, and they weren't precious about it, ever. It was just there and great and they were excited that it looked great. It was never unpleasant. There was never any bickering. There was never anybody not wanting to look this way or not wanting to work hard. Like I say, it was natural.
So, Mel & Kim really created their own public image?
Yes. I mean, when they first came out and they had the hats with the shirts and the high waisted trousers... I would say that came from them, as they knew who they were! It wasn't like X Factor people, who have to go through a make-over and they have an image put onto them, or anything like that. They were young girls who were into clothes so it would have been a positive choice by them. I don't feel any looks were stamped on them by the record company or management team, and they didn't have a stylist. The fashion editor would have brought along loads of clothes and the girls would have looked through them. She couldn't have told them what to put on. They would only have worn what they loved. Fundamentally it all worked because they were themselves and because they were sisters, which was the thread all the way through. Everything else just fell into place.
Tell us about the girls' personalities?
Well... they weren't wall flowers, those girls, were they (laughs)? Let's put it like that! They were both really lively - Mel more so, of course. She was absolutely delightful fun. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't that Kim wasn't fun, but she would fondly be 'the big sister' , and, when we were laughing - a lot - Kim would look at her sister and just say, 'Melanie!' (laughs), which was funny because, of course, to Kim, she was 'Mel'. Then Mel would be, like, 'oh my God', laughing and sort of reeling it in a bit. It wasn't a reprimand. Kim was adorable. She was fun, lovely and natural, but she was aware. She was 'the big sister'. Kim was a bit older and she also had a child. Mel was effervescent and completely natural. I mean, Mel wouldn't be the one saying to Kim 'hey Kim, sit down, she is trying to do your make up', do you know what I mean? She was fun, fun, fun! There was no craziness. There was no drug fueled wildness. She was just very chatty, bubbly and lively. This was not like One Direction [the pop group], who were strangers that were put together. Mel & Kim had grown up together and they loved each other. Mel was no different in that dressing room than she would have been all her life, growing up in their front room at home, so they were completely at ease. As I say, Mel could become unaware and Kim would bring her back to the moment. That was the difference between them. Their sibling relationship went into far more extended and unusual areas than most sibling relationships.
“This was a fashion shoot for the Daily Express. where I folded the extensions over to create a fringe. Because the girls were beautiful and fashionable, it was easy for the papers to use them, rather than two models'".
The impression we have is that Mel & Kim were real girls’ girls and quite self-deprecating. Was the image we see of the girls' personalities true to how they were with you in private?
Yes! They were both such great people! There was always such appreciation for what I did for them and there was a lot of excitement. They were girls' girls and they were friends, you know? I did adore them, and it was lovely to work with them. Like I say, we immediately bonded. It's not that it was easy to forget that you were working, but it was such fun. There was no angst with them and there was no, 'oh I don't like my hair like this', you know? I don't think they came from such great backgrounds. I mean, they didn't grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths. They were real, normal, lively, fun girls who appreciated what you did for them. It was just like working with your best friends and making them look good and creating something great together.
Did Mel & Kim seem motivated and excited by 'success' to you?
No. I don't think the word 'success' was what they were about. it wasn't that cold. It was just the excitement of having a great time. Mel & Kim loved the dressing up and they loved having their pictures taken. They loved their album and they loved the excitement of doing what they wanted to do, but it didn't appear to be a big financial plan. I don't really know how long they had tried to get to that point of success, but they were excited by everything that they were doing and what was happening to them. They certainly weren't girls who were looking for success at any cost. They were just doing their thing. They were doing what they loved and what they were passionate about, and they were doing it together, as sisters. They were hard working, grafting, fun loving girls and what they wanted to achieve was now happening and they were having great fun doing it, but it wasn't like a 'now we are successful, we are on the road to success'. No, definitely not!
When a career in music beckoned, it was Mel who realised the opportunity for herself and her sister Kim. Did you find that Mel was the driving force when it came to the girls' career, or did you feel that their success resulted from the sisters' shared determination?
They were sisters and it was very much the two of them, together, and that really came across strongly and intensified their energy. I didn't feel Mel's energy drove them forward on a shoot. Mel's energy was not necessarily driving force energy. It was very, in the moment/in the room – you know? She wasn't unfocused, as such, but Kim would help to refocus her at times, and my experience of them was that they both worked equally hard and were on board and fully involved. Mel certainly had more energy as a person but it wouldn't necessarily be more conducive to a better result. It was just like more bubbly in the room and if anything, Kim would slightly harness it forward into the job in hand.
“I feel that Kim looks great without a fringe. The extensions gave me all these possibilities, although that stuff in Mel's hair was actually 35ml film. That was a very 'me' thing to do, in those days.”
Many remember the sisters suddenly withdrawing from the public eye, in June, 1987, and the distressing revelations that followed. Mel herself had referenced her pain in interviews, prior to this. Being around the girls, where you aware Mel was unwell?
Well, at the start of their career, Mel was well, and then they, very quickly, became very, very busy and Mel became less well, and there was the question of, 'is it busyness or is there something more wrong that's causing this?' Mel had been ill earlier, before they were known... and I think that was another way in which Kim would be 'the big sister'. Kim had seen her sister go through all that already, so that led to Kim being the one who was protective and seeing what was going on for both of them. Whereas Mel was always this little bouncing ball of energy bouncing off the walls!
In March 1988, Mel's illness was exposed in the press and the sisters made their first TV appearance, on Sir Terry Wogan's prime time chat show, to discuss the situation. How did you feel to be asked to be involved with the girls at such a sensitive time?
It was a huge compliment for me to be asked to do that at that point, for her. I realised that at the time, and I appreciated and respected it. I mean, it was a job but it came with so much more than that. I knew Mel had become unwell but I hadn't seen her, as I had been away, having my daughter. Then, I was told that they were going to do Terry's show and I was asked if I could find Mel a wig? It was really wonderful to be given that opportunity because, anyone that you care about... if they are seriously ill or whatever, everybody would want to do something for them when, typically, you can't. It was wonderful to be able to do something for Mel that she wanted and that made her feel better.
The Wogan interview really captured how incredibly brave Mel was - so full of fight, but still with the unfaltering bubbliness and optimism that we loved her for. What are your memories of that day?
Oh, the strength of Mel's spirit was phenomenal! She was so young, and to see her character in such a changed situation was... it was very awe inspiring and incredibly poignant. I remember, I had arrived at the TV studio first, and then Mel came in, in a wheelchair, and... she had no hair... but she was laughing, exactly the same as always. Kim was there, protective and aware of what they were there to do, as always, and... it sounds flippant to say, but Mel seemed comfortable. She was fine, and she was so appreciative of me for finding her the wig and everything, you know? They were both always very, very appreciative. I remember, I was trying to do with the wig what I used to do with her hair, and Mel was laughing about it. She was saying, 'Oh God, look at me!' and laughing at herself, because she was big... and she was shuffling about and couldn't walk and... she was laughing at herself, but in a good way! That's Mel, you know? Maybe she was trying to put everybody else at ease... I don't know. She wasn't nervous. She was fine, she was happy, she was bubbly, she was... probably the bravest person I have ever seen really! Once they were on set, I remember I was off camera, watching them, and I was in tears. Mel was so amazing, and her spirit was exactly the same. She was incredibly brave!
Mel spoke very candidly about the effects of her treatment, during the interview, and seemed to wear her heart on her sleeve.
Yes, there would not have been any secrets with Mel! She would come in and tell everybody everything, and those would be the times that Kim might be laughing and saying 'Melanie', you know? Mel certainly wouldn't hold back! Also, looks-wise, it wouldn't be for vanity that she wore the wig on the show. These were not girls who would have been talking about Botox or anything like that. It was not that way at all. I think Kim was understandably cautious, nervous and protective and all the rest of it that day, but Mel was absolutely fine.
”I wanted to keep their hair in a similar vibe but I didn't want them to look the same so, on the 'F.L.M.' album sleeve, I styled Mel's hair to be more all up and Kim's hair was, sort of up, but down as well".
If Mel & Kim came to you as a new act today, how do you think you would style their hair for a photo shoot?
As the young girls they were or as the women they would be today? Hmmm, I guess that, either way, they would still be the same sharp creative force they were. I would style their hair to follow their wardrobe and image lead, as it is the only way strong hair can be carried off visually! Also, being the girls they were, they would need to feel comfortable and own it. I think we would have enormous fun now,. There would be wigs and pieces to clip on, and I think I would vary that enormously. It has become credible for an artist to have a bob one day and long hair the next, with no questions asked about reality, so we would embrace that and have fun as we always did.
Looking back, why do you think people still remember Mel & Kim with such love?
The 80's were such an exciting time, music-wise, and it was a great time for this country musically! I have two daughters and I find myself questioning if they have the strong musical influences and trends going on that we had back then. When Mel & Kim came out, they came out big and they were everywhere, very quickly! They didn't have a long career, but they made a lot of impact and they had a great sound. It was lively and fun, and they had massive energy, both on and off their records. And it wasn't just the music world that the girls were influencing. They also made such a visual impact with their image, and they influenced the fashion world. But their fashion, the hats, their hair and their look... everything was natural, and it was so strong! Then, on top of all of that, they could also dance! Mel & Kim really did influence many worlds within pop culture! They were both incredible girls and if you heard one of their singles now, you would remember them instantly. They are just unforgettable!
And of course, their 'story' is so rich isn't it?
Yes, it is a terrible and unbelievably tragic story, but it was something I lived through so I suppose I didn't really question it at the time. But now I reflect... if it was a fictional movie, and I watched it, I'd think, blimey, what are the chances of two sisters suddenly becoming massively famous and finding the world is at their feet, and then that happens to one of them? What are the chances? It really is an unbelievable story so to have been a part of that... well, I am super privileged. I remember it all vividly, as if it were yesterday, as they were such amazing girls and amazing times, I couldn't possibly forget them!
Kathleen, thank you so much for talking with us, you have been wonderful!
Thank you! I am happy to help and I feel privileged to have been asked! You guys really are doing an amazing job for them!