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Beautipreneur Ambika Pillai Shares What Made Her Bounce Back To ‘Good Hair Days’ After Business Betrayal

  • IWB Post
  •  November 2, 2018

“I have hit rock bottom many times in my life which have been devastating. But I have always believed in climbing up.”

Ambika Pillai’s life has been a roller-coaster with ups and downs, success and deceit. She believes in wearing a dazzling smile and receiving success with humility and failure with the determination of rising up again.

The celebrity hairstylist in her career of 30 years has seen a lot, learnt a great deal and faced every punch of life with a brave heart.

The big start was laid with a course in Delhi. Do you remember your first day?

The initial few days were difficult for me because I wasn’t so fluent in Hindi and everything was taught in Hindi. I used to raise hands to ask what the sentences meant. My plan was to finish the course and go back to Kerala to open a hairdressing salon. I was certain that I wouldn’t get into regular parlour things like waxing, manicure, and pedicure.

You’ve had a long journey with Aishwarya Rai. Share your bond and memories with the diva.


My first interaction with Aishwarya was when I did her make up for a fashion show. She was one of the models. Since then, we’ve worked together for a lot of advertisements, fashion shows, shoots and movies. She has in fact inaugurated two of my salons in Delhi and Kochi, respectively.


You went to Delhi with a hope to start your life from scratch after your failed marriage. And then you had to go through the pain of divorce for the second time. What kept you strong during those phases?

All I ever wanted was to be happily married with kids and a well-settled life which unfortunately didn’t happen. I got married at 17 and divorced at 23 with a baby in my arms. I was in Kerala, looking for something to work on and make money when I found the hairstyling course in Delhi. Years later, I found somebody I thought I would be happy with. But when my second marriage failed, it was very disturbing. I have always been the one who believes in climbing up. Kavi, my daughter, is grown up now, and we’re really happy.

I do have somebody in my life right now who is the sweetest person I have met in my life. But I don’t want to rush into it anymore.

Do you have any regrets in your life?

I have hit rock bottom many times in my life which have been devastating. But I have always believed in rising from ashes. After 2 failed marriages, I had a cheating business partner too. I have not been good at choosing partners, be it business or marriage. (laughs)

When our salons picked up and we had a lot of clients walking in, we were growing immensely. My daughter wanted to go to Parsons School of Design and looking at the growth graph, I thought I had enough money to send her abroad. We had almost 400 brides walking in every day, during the season. But when I checked papers, I was shaken to see a record of 4 brides. I had been cheated by my business partner. Even after working for so many years, my daughter had to study on loan.

How did your self-love and self-confidence evolve with your growing clients’ list?

Every single thing in my life has started with my clients. They make me feel treasured, respected and valuable. They helped me gain self-belief. Also, with awards and celebrity makeup like of Aishwarya’s, it gave me immediate recognition.

I have never let people walk over me or my daughter.


After finding out about your dyslexia, how did you learn to live with it?

Initially, it was very difficult. It was so difficult to understand that besides me always being very street smart, why I was struggling so much in school. I was also voted for the head girl but not elected as I wasn’t great at studies. This happened 50 years ago when nobody knew about dyslexia. I always had problems in giving directions.

We found out about it when my daughter’s school committee called me to tell about her struggle with writing words. She wrote alphabets in opposite directions. When they mentioned it to me, I replied, “It’s ok, I have been doing that all my life.” That’s when they told me to check for dyslexia.

Then my daughter and I went to a dyslexia school, together.

What lies in the foundation of a successful chain of salons?

I’ve cut down on the number of salons now. As of now, I have 4 salons overall. I am back to my roots in Kerala and open salons here.

Brand building is an exercise which requires concentrating rigorously on maintaining quality. Every staff of our salon is trained excessively. The idea is to maintain the brand integrity with quality. When the benchmark level starts to drop, it’s a signal to worry.


How do you deal with being salon-shamed that is so common in salon culture?

This happens mainly because they want to sell sponsored or commission-based products. In my career of 30 years, I have constantly said no to the commission. I have always trained my staff to not shame or make clients feel small. They are trained in recognising the needs of clients.

Has any story of your client helped you to reconnect with self?

I connect well with people who are diagnosed with Cancer and going through chemotherapy. I tell clients about various ways of growing back hair and console them. In my family, my dad and my brother have gone through it and I can understand the pain. I went bald when my father had been going through chemo to let him know he was not alone.

I too cut my hair short when my brother was battling cancer.

Wow! It’s an act of courage!

What is the most effective and right way of using hair oils?

Applying just one oil is generally never enough. Always mix oils to gain more benefits. Also, cover your head after application of oil. There is no point in keeping it overnight or for hours if your head is not covered because then it catches dust.

You can try making your own oil gel. 

1 cup of virgin coconut oil + sesame oil + almond oil + cut amla  + curry leaves + aloe vera gel. Boil them in warm water and strain the liquid. Apply on scalp and massage. This pack opens pores and makes your hair soft.

Follow with a hot towel treatment. Take a thin towel and dip in warm water. Cover your hair with it and repeat this 3 times. You can then rinse your hair.

One look that is trending?

Abandon straight hair and add lots of texture to your tresses. Crimp, curl or waves would jazz up your ethnic look. Go for minimal makeup with heavy smoky eyes.

What was the boldest look that you have done on a bride?

The bridal look is something that should not be played with. And a wedding is a time when everybody opts to go traditional and this is constant. The bridal look is always preferred to be conventionally traditional with beautiful lehenga colors and muted makeup. Also, a bride’s look should never be over the top. Muted colors work the best or maybe smoked out eyes. We tried this recently for a Sabyasachi shoot and it looked beautifully strong.

The wedding season is knocking on our doors. Suggest different looks for brides for different functions.

For the bridal look, opt for muted makeup as jewelry and lehenga are already very heavy. Maybe strong bold kohl eyes would do wonders.

Cocktail party look is the best time to experiment where you can play up with your eyes and makeup. Play up with highlighters to shine while you dance!

For Mehendi function, try thick black liner topped with blue or green or any other color liner to highlight your look.

Put colorful mascara extensions for functions besides the wedding. Lipsticks for all these functions should be given maximum attention to. Put on bold and pop colors like orange, red, pink hues.

Tell us the secret behind your radiant skin.

I make my own Vitamin C serum and apply every morning. Earlier I used to buy it which charged me around 5k which was draining my pocket and making it by meself charges me about Rs 500. 

I love homemade remedies and products, and hence have launched my own brand of herbal hair and skin care products – Kaytra. It’s my way of giving back to everyone who has been with me for 30 years.

And, where do you get the raw products from?

It’s not a secret. I order it from Mr. Sandhu (you can also contact him: 7087937205) laughs

Psst! Learn how to make your own serum in the video below.

There’s a famous Coco Chanel quote that says, “A woman who cuts her hair short is about to change her life.” Do you agree with it?

Haha. Mostly when women come to me who suddenly decide to chop their tresses, it is because they are upset. When they walk in and tell me this is what they want, my reply is “Hey! Let’s Talk.”

How is your professional relationship with your daughter Kavitha like? Do you both borrow styles from each other?

Kavitha is the brand’s GM now. She wasn’t very keen on joining me though. This is not something she wanted to do, she is more of a person of instincts and likes to stay connected with nature. I always wanted her to step in. Now she is doing a brilliant job. Although she had taken a course at Tony and Guy, London, she learnt from me again. (laughs)


On the professional front, she likes to do what I do, takes my cues and uses the same techniques. She is already a pro at it and handles fashion weeks mostly. One thing I probably pray every day is, “Oh God! I wish I look like her.” She is beautiful, she is a diva!


It’s very common for girls to be under pressure of the conventional beauty expectations. How did you make sure your daughter is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t need validation?

One thing I fail to understand in India is everybody’s phobia of dark skin. I really want people to rejoice in their own skin. When Kavi was young, all I told her was to look after her skin.

You need to be yourself and not follow trends blindly. Also, you need to know how to highlight the features that you have.


Ambika Pillai is a hairstylist and makeup artist in the fashion industry from Kollam, Kerala, India. Her work regularly appears in advertising campaigns, fashion shows, Bollywood and editorials. In her career span of 30 years, she has done hair and make up for hundreds of brides, models and Bollywood actresses like Aishwarya Rai, Sonam Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, Katrina Kaif and many more.

She won her first award, IAAFA Award for Best Make-up Artist in the year 1996 and since then was no looking back. She then continued to triumph the industry and till date has won 7 awards.

 You can check out her Instagram page here to know more about hair and skincare tips.

This article was first published on November 16, 2017.

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