How SNL Star Heidi Gardner Went From Cutting Hair in L.A. to Cracking Jokes on TV

"As crazy as things get at SNL, I felt ready for it because a Saturday at a busy salon is also complete insanity.”

Heidi Gardner
Photo: Image courtesy Heidi Gardner

My obsession with hair started when I turned 12, right around the time Gwen Stefani dyed hers hot pink. After that, I would try out a new color every month. By the time I got to college, I was cutting hair for all my broke friends. I was a little lost with what I wanted to do with my life, so I thought, “Maybe if I drop out and move to L.A. to do hair, that’ll sound cooler than just dropping out.”

When I got to L.A., I went to cosmetology school and landed a job at a salon in Studio City, which was a bit conservative, but I had a few clients who liked to experiment. I remember sitting on the floor of my apartment, working on hair extensions, and I thought, “I’m making extensions for the stars. Like, maybe Paris Hilton will use these. This is as good as it gets.”

I quickly figured out what makes a good hairstylist. No. 1: They should be well versed in hair and know their shit. No. 2: They should give their honest opinion. And No. 3: They should push you that little bit further to try something you wouldn’t have considered. I’ve always been a bit of a people pleaser, so in terms of that second point, I probably wasn’t as honest as I should’ve been. I can take a risk on my own head, but when someone tells you they want bangs, that can be scary.

As a stylist, you become somewhat of an armchair therapist, and when I was transitioning to comedy, that became really useful. I had a wealth of characters in my face every day, and I’d get ideas for sketches from random things that clients said. It made me a better listener too. The salon is a place of confidentiality. Sometimes you’d have a client crying in your chair, so you learn how to be there for someone.

I’d been at the salon for about five years when my husband [writer Zeb Wells] took me to a Groundlings improv show one night, which was exciting because I was obsessed with SNL and knew that people like Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri had started there. Watching the skits, I was blown away. Melissa McCarthy was still in the Groundlings, and I thought, “Why is she not the biggest star in the world?” Of course, her career took off a few months later.

Heidi Gardner
In SNL’s hair and makeup room with Will Ferrell. Image courtesy Heidi Gardner

After the show, I was just like, “How do I do that?” I called my brother, and he said, “I’ve been waiting for you to say this all our life. I’ll pay for your first Groundlings class.” So he signed me up. At first I was doing it for the bliss. Then I moved up to the Sunday Company, which performs an SNL-style show. You’re writing new material every week, buying your own wigs and costumes. It started to take up all my time, but it was the most fun I’d ever had.

Eventually, I knew I needed to fully commit. I was lucky that the boss at my salon was supportive. My clients, on the other hand, were confused. Their reaction was like, “OK… but are you even funny?” And I said, “Well, I know I’m not a funny hairdresser, but I think I’m sort of funny.”

About a year and a half later, in 2017, [SNL producer] Lindsay Shookus came to the Groundlings to watch a show. And shortly after that, I was asked to audition for SNL. It was a lot of pressure. At the time, the only thing I could compare it to was taking my cosmetology test — which I’d also freaked out about. But it must’ve gone well, because about a week later I got the call from [SNL executive producer] Lorne Michaels bringing me on.

The characters I write now are usually based on someone I’ve seen in the world. I’m always secretly snapping pictures of people on the street. Once your sketch makes it onto the show, you meet with wardrobe and hair, and they usually give you free rein. I’ve loved working on the looks of my characters, like Angel, every boxer’s girlfriend; Goop staffer Baskin Johns; and Bailey, the teen film critic, who has this flat-ironed wig she hides behind.

Heidi Gardner
Backstage at SNL dressed as Angel, aka every boxer’s girlfriend. Image courtesy Heidi Gardner

I have to say the hair and makeup room has become one of my favorite places to hang out at SNL. I’ve joked that I like to go in there just to smell the chemicals of the hairspray, because it’s like home in a weird way. On the day of a show, it’s madness. The stylists are helping us into our wigs, getting notes from producers, and listening to our little meltdowns.

It’s funny, because as crazy as things get at SNL, I felt ready for it because a Saturday at a busy salon is also complete insanity. All the assistants are running around. It’s client after client. And if someone is late or the color doesn’t take, your schedule gets messed up. The chaos is so familiar.

Heidi Gardner
Backstage at SNL dressed as Goop staffer Baskin Johns. Image courtesy Heidi Gardner

Since becoming a cast member, I’ve hung up my hair dryer, so to speak. But sometimes I look at [castmates] Cecily Strong’s and Aidy Bryant’s superlong hair, and I’d love to play with it. In the past year my husband has gotten a couple of haircuts he wasn’t happy with, so I said, “I’m coming out of retirement for you!” Unfortunately, I was a little rusty, and he definitely needed to get it fixed. [laughs]

As told to Jennifer Ferrise.

For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April 17.

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