Tabatha Coffey Opens Up on Her Mother's Death

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com January 10 2012 8:00 AM ET

 

Tabatha Coffey has shocked and delighted TV viewers since she was voted fan favorite in 2007 on the hairdressing reality series
Shear Genius. After that came her Bravo spin-off,
Tabitha’s Salon Takeover, in which the no-nonsense lesbian entrepreneur helped the owners and staff of failing salons make a turnaround in only a week.

After a grueling year in which
she nursed her mother through cancer and then eventually lost her,
Coffey is back with season 4 of her show, only now it’s retooled and
renamed.
Tabatha Takes Over,
which premieres tonight at 10 on Bravo, finds the blunt but
captivating business owner taking her brutal honesty and tough love
rehab not just to salons but to a variety of
struggling businesses around the country, from a B&B to a frozen
yogurt joint. Two such ventures are sure-to-be-queer California
businesses she makes over: Ripples, an LGBT dance club in Long Beach,
and Barkingham Palace, a West Hollywood doggy day care.

We caught up with Coffey on
the anniversary of her mother’s death to talk about the new season,
losing her hair, and the superwoman myth.

 The Advocate: Tell me about the retooled series.
Tabatha Coffey: We've expanded
Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, so now it's actually going to be called
Tabatha Takes Over, and I'll be taking over not just salons, but other small businesses.

 Is that something you suggested to Bravo? How did that come about?
Honestly, I just had great support from fans out
there, and a lot of the people that watch the show are not hairdressers
and don't have anything to do with the industry. People would stop me
all the time — and I know they would tell the Bravo
people as well— and they’d say, “I wish you took over this and I wish
you took over that.” Bravo decided that it might be fun to start taking
over other businesses, and I was open to the idea.

 What do you like about this new format?
You know, I'm a hairdresser, but part of what I really
love about the show and really love about what I do is to help people,
help them get their businesses back on track and help them look at
things differently. So for me, I'm really excited
about the challenge of going to other businesses. I really do believe
that business is business and the rules apply to a lot of different
businesses out there. 

 One
thing that I love on the show is that you go back and visit six weeks
later to see if they stick with it. But I was reading on your blog, you
have revisited some
of the businesses a year later.

Yeah, you know I really take it seriously. I keep in
contact with a lot of the salon owners and the stylists. I run into them
at hair shows, a lot of them reach out and email me, and we talk and
they tell me what's going on. So I love hearing
how they're doing and I love hearing how they have continued their
success — or even surpassed what they thought they could do to their
business. So it is always so much fun for me. Especially this year
because on tour with the book, I went to one of the cities
that I went to previously and had taken over salons there, and a lot of the
stylists and owners came to my book signings and it was great to see
them and hear their success stories and hear how great they are doing.

 What's surprised you the most about doing the show?
I'm always surprised by the resistance to change. I
think change is really hard for all of us and I think it's something
that we resist. I guess I'm always surprised by the resistance because
obviously things aren't working; by the time you
call me in, it's not
working, and to some people I am their last hope because they don't know
what else to do and they need that fresh set of eyes. So the resistance
is always so surprising, because
if someone can show you a better way to do things or a different way of
doing things, and that's going to have benefits and positive changes,
why wouldn't you do it?

 Do you think there is a great fear of losing control?
A huge
fear of losing control. And I understand that. I think we all can. And
again, I think by the time I'm called in, people really have lost
control and they’ve fallen so out of
control that they really don't know how to get it back — and that's
scary within itself.

 You lost your mother a year ago. Has this been a difficult year for you?
It's been an incredibly difficult year. It's definitely been a journey.

 Can you tell me a little more about that?
Sure. I think it's such an interesting thing. I took
care of my mother because she was ill. She had cancer, and I wanted to
keep her at home and actually take care of her, which was a journey unto
itself.

 Was she able to stay with you the entire time during her illness?
I am very proud to say she was able to stay with me
the entire time. I obviously had hospice come in when the time was
right, I needed them to come in because I needed the help. But I'm
really proud of the fact that I was able to keep her
at home and take care of her and the nurse actually told me what
excellent care she was given, which was really my goal. I wanted her to
be at her own house and surrounded her by her own things. That was
really important to me.

 That’s really lovely.
It's a gift, for sure. It's a gift to be able to give that to someone, especially a parent or a loved one — it's quite amazing.

 How long between when she was diagnosed with cancer until the time she passed away?
We found out through a strange set of circumstances,
as often those things happen; it was around nine months between when we
found out [and her death]. When we found out she already had stage 4
cancer and it had started to spread. So the doctor
recommended doing chemo, if it would work, just to sort of shrink what
they could shrink and give her a better quality of life. But
unfortunately she didn't deal well; she was also 80, so she didn't deal
well with the chemo. It made her incredibly sick and
she had an adverse reaction. I knew that it wasn't going to work, so it
was really just kind of managing and taking care of her the best that
we could.

 My
mother has actually been sick this year, so I've been doing a lot of
caretaking for her. And I know it’s really difficult to balance your
regular life with caretaking.
Did this have an affect on
your health and well being?

Oh, absolutely. I know this sounds crazy, but my mother
waited for me to come home. I was actually filming season 3 of the
show when she was ill, and you know, she had up and down days, obviously,
and I had people there taking care of her. But she had more good days than bad days, and it was literally the day I
came home from filming that she collapsed, and within 12 hours she went
from being fine and walking around the house and being able to putter
around and being able to make a sandwich for
herself, to 12 hours later I had a hospital bed in the house and she
never really walked again.

So I know she waited for me,
and I'm really happy she waited for me. I think people don't realize
what an incredible toll it takes on you. Because part of my personality
is, well, I like to do things to a certain standard
and a certain level, and it became really my full-time job taking care
of her and making sure she had everything she needed, whatever that
looked like, whatever that was. And it did take a toll on my health. My
hair started to fall out. Which was stress, not
eating properly, not remembering to take care of myself because I was
so focused on taking care of her. And really just exhaustion. I don't
think people realize how much, between the stress and emotion of what
you're going through and also the physicality
of taking care of someone and making those decisions, it really takes a
toll on your well-being as a caretaker.

 It really does become like a second full-time job.
It really does. I would not have changed it for
anything in the world. And as I said, I'm really just so grateful that I
could do it, and I was in a position to step away from my business and
step away from everything and take care of her.
But the physicalness of it and the emotional wear and tear of it is
something that I'm still recovering from, to be honest.

 Well,
for someone who works in the hair industry, losing your hair must have
been really difficult. Is that something common for women during stress,
to lose their
hair?

Oh, yeah, it's really common. It happens with men as
well, but especially with women because we're incredibly hormonal, so it
can happen in a lot of big events in our lives. Stress is a big factor
in it, and a lot of people don't realize what's
going on. I honestly had been so focused on taking care of my mother
that I didn't look in the mirror, so I didn't care what I looked like.
And it wasn't until one day that I literally looked at myself and I
realized I had lost all this hair and it had just
started to fall out. As I started to go through it, I realized the
extent of it and I was freaked out by it. Part of it was that I'm a
hairdresser — I know that appearances are important — and part of it
because I forgot I was a hairdresser for a minute, and
the implications of stress, I was like,
Shit, what am I going to do, what's wrong with me?  

 What did you do?
I went to the doctor and spoke to them just to make
sure and they said it's absolutely stress and you need to start taking
care of yourself. I think that is a very female trait: We try so hard to
take care of other people that sometimes we
forget to take care of ourselves as well.

 

TABITHA COFFEY TALL 390x TALL (COURTESY) ADVOCATE.COM

 Did you learn any stress-relieving techniques? Or did you just hang in there through it all?
You know what? I'm a sort of a hang-in-there kind of
person. For me, things that are relaxing, aren’t. I tried to do what I
could, which ... to sit down with a cup of tea in front of the TV for five
minutes, play with the dog for a couple of minutes
and take your mind off it. To sit down and read a book or magazine for five
minutes if I could was relaxing as well. For me, and I think the
balance that a lot people probably struggle with, is trying to find a
balance that it may
only be five
minutes, but it's important to take five minutes and have a cup of tea if
that's what you enjoy, or sit down and read a magazine and feel OK
about it, that it's OK to stop and do that for
yourself, just to give yourself a little time to be with yourself.

 I
think that it may surprise many of your fans to know that you
experience stress like everyone else. Is there a superwoman myth that
doesn't allow women to acknowledge
all this stress?

Oh, for sure, I think there is. I think the difficult
thing with someone with my personality is that I am strong. I'm a strong
woman — I make no bones about it. I don't suffer or get fooled easily.
All the personality traits you see on the television
show are me, but that is a very different situation because I am in
a business situation, I'm at a work situation, I'm not at home. So
obviously, when you lose your mother or when a friend is sick or whatever
it is, it puts a lot of stress on you, and people are
taken aback that you cry or that you get upset. Well, of course, it was
my mother! I wouldn't be human if I didn't get upset or show emotion.

 You have a partner you've been with for a long time. How supportive was your partner during this time?
Unbelievably supportive. I honestly wouldn't be able
to go through it without her support and the support of my friends that
are close to me. But she was incredibly supportive and incredibly
helpful in helping me get through it. I'm very grateful.

 She probably felt some of the stress too.
Oh, yeah, I think the thing that people don't realize
until you actually go through it — and I think it's such a terrible
thing to say — but I really feel like it's a club, and it's a club that
no one should have go through, or no one should
have to get membership to. But I really feel like it's a club because
when you've been through it and you start to talk to friends that have
lost a parent, and especially when you've had to take care of them and
it's a prolonged experience, this kind of knowing
look that they're like, Oh, yeah, we've been through it, we know it, and we sympathize.
So it's stressful to everyone ... it’s even stressful to friends who share
your experience, because they can only
imagine what you're going through and they can hear it in your voice.
There were days that I would sit and cry on the phone because I didn't
want to cry in front of my mother and worry her or make her feel badly.
And I had also chosen to not disclose my mother
to how ill she was, because I wanted her to wake up every day with hope
and optimism. I didn't want her to wake up thinking,
Will today be the last day? Will it be a week from now?
I didn't want those questions asked, and I think for any age but
especially when you get to the age that she was, that you want to wake
up optimistic and hopeful and happy every day and not wondering,
When is this going to happen to me? I never wanted her to feel that way.

 You probably went through a grieving process when she passed away.
I feel like I'm going through more of a grieving
process right now, to be honest with you. I think I was so numb when it
first happened, and I had the first Thanksgiving, and that kind of went
by in a blur, then the first Christmas and that
went by in a blur, and her birthday — it really wasn't until the first
anniversary of her death that I felt like I had this momentous kind of
grieving process that happened. There’s enough [distance] that the
numbness is gone, but you actually start to think
of the memories and think of the person, and really miss them.

 What do you do to combat that?
For me, I kind of just go through it. I just
feel it. I'm a big believer in feeling it. I have really crappy
days. and if in one of those crappy days I for no reason start crying,
you know it's because I'm thinking of her. For me, I just feel that
process and go through it. I try and celebrate
her as much as I can. We all say that our parents were great, and it's
true; my mother was such a strong woman and such a driving force in my
life. I can hear her in my head sometimes when I have bad days, telling
me to get over it and go and do what I have
to do, she's fine, and I did a good job. And that always makes me smile
and get over it. And I talk about it. I think it's quite cathartic to
have a good friend or family member or a partner, whoever it is, to be
able to talk about the good times and really
celebrate that person. Even if there are tears, just be able to talk
about the funny moments you had and the silly moments — I think that's
such a great celebration for people.

 I
love that your parents owned strip clubs when you were a kid. And you
kind of got your start doing hair for the transgender dancers there. Did
you get your tough- love approach from your mom?

I did get that from my mom. My mother, being a
businesswoman, did have a tough-love approach with people in her
business and, although she was incredibly compassionate and caring, she
was really strong. She was one of the strongest people
I've ever come across. It was just get up and get on with it — it was a
very tough-love approach, pretty much like I am, actually. I guess we
all become our mothers at some point. People look and see the strong
exterior and strong businesswoman and sometimes
think there's not a softer side, but there's also that soft,
compassionate side as well. Especially in her clubs, she took care of so
many of the girls at work — when they were going through operations, she
lent them money to be able to have their surgeries,
she would take care of them when their families didn't understand and
kick them out. So even though she was a tough boss, she was also
compassionate and caring with them, and she passed those things on to me
as well.

 We hear so much talk about the difficulties balancing work and life. Do you struggle with that?
Of course I do; I think we all do. Look, I think
everyone now works so hard, it's just our society, we are constantly on
the go, constantly busy, constantly trying to overachieve and do better
for ourselves all the time. And those are all
really great things, but it's so easy to get caught up in everything
that's going on — and information comes at us at the speed of light —
that we forget sometimes to take a step back and take five minutes for
ourselves and smell the roses, or stop and pat ourselves
on the back for a minute, or even cut ourselves a break. I know I am
very guilty of that. I'm harder on myself than anyone can ever be. So
it's important to remember to cut yourself a little slack.

 And remember the love portion of that tough love.
I like that! I'll be stealing that from you, Diane —
it's very true. I think especially for someone like me, because my
mother was a very grounding force for me. She was the person that — and I
don't mean physically — could just slap me upside
the head and tell me to calm down and get over things. Or to just treat
yourself and take a rest. So she was very good at grounding me, whether
it be making sure that I take care of myself or making sure that I
treat myself or making sure that sometimes
I pull my head out of my own behind. And that was a good thing. So not
having her around, it becomes even harder. And for anyone that doesn't
have that person, it becomes even more relevant to to remind yourself
all the time to be able to do those things to
take care of yourself, because you really can't be your best to anyone
else, if you're not your best for yourself.