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Hairstylist Frederic Aspiras on His Historic Oscar Nomination, Lady Gaga and Claiming His Seat in Hollywood

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk to Frederic Aspiras, the Vietnamese-Filipino-American hairstylist, Joico celebrity artist and recent Oscar nominee for his work on House of Gucci. (ICYMI: The film stars Lady Gaga, with whom he’s worked with for over a decade.)

As we begin talking on Zoom about what the experience of being only the second Asian to be nominated in the hair and makeup category has been like for him, Frederic’s kind (and yes, impeccably groomed) face appears pensive. He takes a beat before sharing, “Going through this awards season has been such a period of growth for me—both as an artist and personally—as I’ve been discovering more about my heritage and how much of it has impacted my work leading up to this point.”

Let’s start at the beginning, Frederic. I’d love to hear about your childhood.

I grew up in the Bay Area. My mother was a refugee from Vietnam and my father was a Filipino G.I. They met during the war and the two of them became refugees together, here in the United States. My parents went through a lot during this time—losing their country, their financial stability, being mistreated by many people, so many different things—and they wanted to protect me from all of that, which might not have always been done in the most sensitive ways, but it was the only ways they knew how.

Growing up Asian is hard in the sense that there’s a lot of pressure that’s put upon you. There’s a lot of fear that’s put upon you. And that fear and that pressure is not because of you, but it’s because of what your parents went through. It’s an inherited trauma.

Had I not gone against everything my family wanted for me—which was to be safe by all measures—I wouldn’t have become a hairstylist. At the same time, my mother was a hairdresser with her own business, and she saw that I had a talent for this at an early age, so I spent a lot of time with her at the salon helping out and learning techniques from her. For a long time, I was ashamed of this because of the stigma attached to hairdressing and being gay, but my mom was proud of my talents even before I was. She was my biggest influence.

When people ask me “tell me about your childhood,” it’s very complex. I don’t always know where to begin because there was a lot of shame involved in my self-discovery. I’ve had to take many steps to get to where I am now, talking about everything more freely.

You mentioned that your mom was Vietnamese, and your father was Filipino. What was it like navigating the two cultures growing up?

What I learned about the two cultures and what they share is that they’re both made up of the most hardworking and passionate people. Knowing how many cards they have been dealt throughout history, the adversities, the wars they’ve had to go through...I think that’s why I’ve been able to persevere. Because it’s part of my DNA.

There was a long time when I didn’t feel like I fit into any box. I wasn’t fully Filipino or fully Vietnamese. So, what did I do? I learned about both cultures, and by doing so, I learned that I could actually fit in everywhere.

How Did You Get Started As A Hairstylist?

I grew up in the Bay Area and moved to Los Angeles at a ripe young age, back in 2004. Before that, I was doing a lot of commercial hair and makeup work in San Francisco and was about to become a global trainer for NARS Cosmetics. I gave that up to come to L.A. with just a thousand dollars in my pocket. I lived in a hotel downtown for 90 dollars a week, which is something I hid at the time because I was embarrassed.

I needed to survive, so I took a job at a retail store and started all over again. I was at the top of my game when I left San Francisco, and here in L.A., I was at ground zero.

Three or four years later, I was still doing odd end jobs, and a lot of them were for free because I had to get my name out there. One day my agent, Kent Belden, who’s still my agent now called and said, “we’re looking for someone to do hair and makeup for Paris Hilton.” And the rest is history.

I quit my freelancing jobs and four days later, I was working with Paris. That one-off gig became a three-and-a-half-year job, touring around the world with her. After working nonstop for several years, I decided to take a break and that’s when I was approached to work with a new artist at the time named Lady Gaga. She was getting ready to embark on a two-month theater tour and needed someone who was familiar with wigs and extensions to do her hair. Two months turned into almost 15 years together.

To have this sort of lasting relationship with someone, I think it needs to go beyond just the work. When Gaga and I come together for a project, we’re both looking for meaning in whatever it is we’re doing. We’re always thinking about how we can bring joy into people’s lives and in doing that, it also makes us happy.

What Mark Do You Hope To Leave On The Industry?

I hope to leave the impression of kindness, as somebody who has preserved through a lot. As a young kid, I’ve always wanted to see someone who looked like me, talked like me, came from a place like me, who was a hairdresser but also a makeup artist, who was into movies and fashion, who was from parents of refugees, who was gay, who was so much of everything that they might not have felt like they belonged anywhere.

And here I am now, with a seat at the table. I’m sitting here next to these big-name actors and directors and producers at the Oscars, realizing that I belong here.

Talking about all of this is still so new to me, and I’m learning as I go, but I often think to myself: What are you going to do with everything that you’ve been given? I decided that I want to use this platform to tell my story and hopefully inspire others to push past those internal demons that keep them from stepping into their power.

I want people to find courage in their own lives, to feel like they can belong wherever they are, and if I can help with that journey at all, it’s my honor. It’s my turn to shine a light on other people, particularly other Asian Americans because our stories and these conversations matter.

Who are some AAPI creatives you’d like to shine a light on?

Tym Buacharern, who works in TV and film as a makeup artist. A long time ago, when I first started doing this, he was the one person who always told me, “I’m so proud of you. And I understand what it’s like to be on tour and I just want to let you know that I’m here for you.”

Throughout my career, he’s always popped up with words of encouragement, and when I was nominated for the Oscar, he told me, “That’s right. That’s where you belong. You are going to take this to the next level for all of us.”

For him to say that meant a lot and it reminded me of why I still do this work. After my mom passed away, I felt like I had lost my purpose, but now I’m slowly realizing that I do this work for the younger generations, for the aspiring hairstylists and creatives, the Asians and queer folks out there who dream of making their mark on culture.