Tabatha Coffey: Hair Apparent

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com February 09 2011 5:00 AM ET

Tabatha Coffey, like hairstylists all over the world, has become a trusted therapist for clients at her intimate salon, Industrie Hair Gurus in Ridgewood, N.J., listening quietly to their problems and confessions as she trims their bangs or twists a mean chignon. But in Coffey’s new self-help memoir, It’s Not Really About the Hair, it’s her turn to unload.

“I don’t talk about myself at work, so even my clients and staff will be astounded by what they read,” she says. “Writing it was cathartic, but it is weird to put it all out there.”

Winner of the “fan favorite” award as a contestant on the first season of Bravo’s Shear Genius in 2007, Coffey now gives business makeovers to struggling salon owners as host of the network’s Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, currently in its third season. “She’s got a huge personality unlike anyone I’ve ever come across,” says Andy Cohen, Bravo’s executive vice president of original programming and development. “She’s unfiltered, totally disarming, laugh-out-loud funny, and an expert in her field, which makes her a bull’s-eye Bravolebrity.”

Coffey is not, however, forthcoming about her personal life, remarkably so considering she’s on a network celebrated for its table-flipping Housewives franchise. In fact, the 43-year-old lesbian says there have been only a few times she’s referenced her sexual orientation on her show.

“On TV you only see me in work mode, which is only one of my many layers,” Coffey explains. “It’s Not Really About the Hair probably isn’t the book that anyone expected me to write, but I was inspired by the emotional e-mails I get from fans.” The questions Coffey regularly receives are, as her book’s title implies, not really about the hair; viewers mainly inquire about her coming-out story and the root of her brash confidence. “I wanted to share some life lessons, especially in light of the recent bullying and gay teen suicides.”

Coffey’s book details how she was shaped by growing up among transgender performers — her “surrogate aunts”—in the strip clubs that her parents ran in Adelaide, Australia. She also reflects on the early influence of her mother’s hairdresser, a “flaming queen” whom Coffey says she viewed as a rock star. But some of the sharing proved to be a challenge. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’m big on self-evaluation, so when my father walked out on us, I dealt with it, I moved on, I’m over it. My botched boob job? I dealt with it, I moved on, I’m over it. Reflecting on those things [in the book] meant going through that emotional journey all over again.”
Aside from tame tidbits about their relationship, Coffey keeps her partner of 12 years, whom she does not identify in the book, to herself. “I was honest and candid about everything else, but it was a personal choice to draw the line at that,” Coffey explains. “She’s incredibly private. I’ve chosen to put myself out there, and I respect that she doesn’t want to be a part of that. It’s enough, and it says something to everyone — gay and straight — just to be in a long-term relationship that works. When everything else is so public, it’s nice to come home to that haven.”

Coffey does open up about her first “U-Haul” girlfriend and a brief retreat to the closet to appease her disapproving mother, whom she recently lost to cancer. “She was incredibly accepting of everyone in the strip clubs, so I didn’t think it would be an issue,” Coffey says. “I never really knew where that angst came from, and I regret that I couldn’t fully answer that question when I was writing the book. Knowing she was sick, we had that conversation after the book was already written. She had gotten to a place where she was totally accepting of my lifestyle, but she was embarrassed by her initial reaction, and she apologized. Having seen those girls at the clubs ostracized and going through everything from hormone therapies to gay bashings, she just wanted to protect me.”

It’s Not Really About the Hair also explores Coffey’s struggle between protecting her nonconformist lesbian identity and honoring her responsibility to the LGBT community. “I live privately in that my partner and I are private, but I do have a voice as a gay woman in the public eye,” says Coffey, who participated in an early PSA for the NoH8 campaign. “I don’t feel like I have to wave a flag in a parade, but I’m the first person to talk about equality. People with power need to stop hiding in closets. If one person can be comforted or encouraged by the fact that I’m out and successful, then it’s all worth it.”