Ethel Kennedy could have anyone do her hair, but she chose Cape Cod native Ryan Nickulas for her summer blowouts. Nickulas, who now lives in Bethesda, fondly recounts how Kennedy believed in him when he was experiencing early-career insecurities at the age of 24.
“She summoned me over at a local salon and said, ‘you can really do hair.’ Would you mind coming to my house because I really don’t want to come to the salon? After I did her hair, she insisted that her chef make me breakfast and I would sit at her dining table eating eggs and bacon and orange juice, looking out on the ocean at the Kennedy compound,” he recalls. “She liked me because I was always punctual.”
It was all uphill from there. Kennedy connected Nickulas to her circle and he became “the it boy hairstylist of Cape Cod.” But the Boston-trained stylist had a feeling that, as a young gay man, it would be difficult to find his partner in a small beach town. Cape Cod was home—it was where, as a child of 5 or 6, he reveled in cleaning perm rods and answering phones at his grandmother’s salon—but New York was calling.
In the city, Nickulas’s career exploded, landing him a spot as a cast member on the hit LOGO TV reality show, “The A List: New York” and his own salon in the West Village. His impressive work ethic (he had juggled hair school and college simultaneously while paying for school with a bartending gig) was perfect for the city that never sleeps.
“New York is a gold mine; if you can keep your nose clean and show up on time, you will be a success,” Nickulas says. “The key to success in New York is you can’t say no, ever. If you say no, the next person gets the shot.”
Being kind and resourceful doesn’t hurt either. Nickulas recalls spotting a girl crying in CVS, with boxes of dye in her hands and colorful streaks in her hair. He offered to fix her hair at his apartment around the corner, gave her wine to calm her down, and in 45 minutes her hair was back to normal. She sent Nickulas ten of her friends, who then sent ten of their friends. A good deed for a stranger was all that was needed to generate his clientele.
Another chance encounter in New York introduced Nickulas to Platinum Seamless hair extensions, the line he’s been working with for more than 15 years.
“I met a woman on an elevator in my building with a puggle and we got to chatting,” he recalls. “I mentioned I’m a stylist and she said her mother owns a hair extension company. I looked at her and said, ‘Thank goodness you don’t need them.’ She said, ‘I’m wearing a full head!”
The two became fast friends and Nickulas was invited to join them to do extensions for Miss Teen USA. He’s been part of the company ever since, applying the tape-in extensions and educating stylists on the non-detectable, no damage, demi-permanent system, and training other stylists to do the same. He’s generated more than $1 million in revenue from the product, and now focuses on license distribution and training an education team to ensure that everyone in D.C., Maryland and Virginia can achieve great hair.
Styling in Potomac is not very different from anywhere else, Nickulas insists. “People everywhere want to feel beautiful. We all want the hair that we’re not born with or the hair we used to have.”
When Nickulas moved to Bethesda from New York in 2018 with his husband and two children, he soon settled into an idyllic suburban life. But like many whose lives faced unprecedented changes in 2020, Nickulas saw himself facing his biggest challenges yet– a bad case of Covid at the same time he was going through a devastating divorce from his husband of 14 years.
“We can’t control things like a pandemic or a partner but we can control our own attitude and mindset,” Nickulas said. “I knew that I would not be able to move forward without being kind to myself.” This was something he made a deliberate decision to work on.
“I was in such a negative space because I prided myself on being uber careful, wearing masks and washing my hands that I felt a weird sense of guilt and shame when I caught Covid. I could have put my family at risk, I thought. I could have died and would have never seen my children again.”
On his 40th birthday, after quarantining for three weeks alone (the longest he’d ever been without seeing his children), Nickulas was able to see his seven-year-old twins again. This humbling experience made him see that “without my physical, mental and spiritual health, I have nothing.”
Now, as Nickulas is settling into the co-parenting groove and building up strength after Covid, he wants to give back. Much like Ethel Kennedy did for him, Nickulas is passionate about boosting the careers of up-and-coming artists. “I can’t be a man of privilege without responsibility,” he said. Nickulas purposely sought out independent local designers from the communities he’s always championed, namely the LGBT community and Black and Latino-owned businesses. “I’m finally in a position where I get to help talented underdog stylists get their shine, and I’m so grateful for that.”
“We can’t control things like a pandemic or a partner but we can control our own attitude and mindset.”
“People everywhere want to feel beautiful. We all want the hair we’re not born with or the hair we used to have.”