The Title of Best Hairstylist in LA Belongs to Jess Rona
No matter their star status, all of Rona’s clients are classified as “cozy bears.”
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You’ve likely seen the videos. The beautifully coiffed dog looks into the camera, the beat drops, the video slows, and the dog’s hair flows around them in slow-motion, like a supermodel on a cover shoot. Los Angeles-based dog groomer and The Wildest Expert Collective member Jess Rona has won more than 200,000 followers and a roster of celebrity dog clientele, including Katy Perry’s dog, Tegan and Sara Quin’s pups, and Orange Is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling’s Frenchie.
Rona has become as famous for her comedic camera work and nostalgic ’70s backdrops as she is for her impossibly cute hand-grooming. As she sculpts each dog’s face, ears, and body into signature rounded shapes, Rona can be heard calling her clients “cozy bear” in multiple videos.
But Rona didn’t set out to be “the Vidal Sassoon of dog grooming,” a title bestowed upon her by Perry. She thought she would be an actress. Grooming was a side hustle she carried over from a high school job at PetSmart. “I hoped it would lead to me just paying my bills so that I could be an actress,” says Rona over the phone on a call from her new home in the Eagle Rock area of L.A.
After many seemingly stagnant years at Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York and a long enough lull in auditions, Rona switched strategies: “Any time anyone has a big change in their life, they have to hit some kind of bottom.” She threw herself into dog grooming, taking classes, attending seminars, and taking part in competitions including SuperZoo in Las Vegas. “I was just so focused on getting good.”
In 2014, Rona posted her first grooming video in her garage. Clients and friends — and soon —actors and comedians began to repost them. The rest is grooming history. Now, Rona runs a booming and expanding business, teaches a self-titled course on grooming, has published a book, Groomed (2018), hosted the HBO Max series Haute Dog (2020), and is racking up credits for acting in major TV shows and directing commercials for massive brands. Long gone are those PetSmart days.
Here, Rona shares what grooming has taught her about being a better dog mom, the secrets to keeping every dog calm, and what you can expect next from the Jess Rona brand.
How did you find your dogs, Chupie and Meemu?
Chupie is a Boston Terrier Pit and something-else mix. Meemu is a Poodle. Chupie is about to turn 10 1/2. We got her in 2012 when my husband, who’s an actor, was in Puerto Rico shooting a movie. Puerto Rico is known for stray dogs called “satos.” He found her there and brought her home. She was probably about five weeks old. She was so little, I thought she was a Chihuahua. But she’s a 40-pound weirdo.
In 2013, we got Meemu. Meemu was from the Mutt Scouts rescue. They’re great. There was a hoarding situation and the whole shelter was completely overcrowded. They needed emergency fosters. We’re foster failures [laughs] and kept him.
Do they come to work with you?
Most of the time, their dad takes care of them during the day, but they come to work with me, especially when we need to get them out of the house or if they need baths. My dogs get bathed by my bathers at work. And they like to hang out at the salon.
What’s your routine together?
We usually go for a long w-a-l-k in the morning. I can’t say the word because I’m sitting right next to them [laughs]. I’m an early riser so we’ll go at 7:30 in the morning and again after work. At home, Chupie is obsessed with tug of war. Meemu cannot handle tug of war because he’s so delicate. He couldn’t possibly play with Chupie. So, usually, I’ll have one hand playing tug of war and one hand playing catch. And we feed them Just Food for Dogs, which is really high-quality food, and my dogs love it.
Did pet grooming make you want your own?
Pet grooming made me want Meemu. I thought I could compete with him, but it turns out I can’t because he didn’t like the attention. He’s shy. And Chupie just sort of came into our lives. But my first dog, Lucky, came to me through a grooming salon where I used to work. Someone just left him there. They moved and never came to pick him up. He was a Spaniel mix with one eye and was in really bad shape. I tried to return him, but he ended up being with me for 10 years. He was my first love. He passed away right when my husband and I started dating. I wish I had him now, rather than before in my life.
Why do you say that?
I’m such a better dog owner now. For example, every dog needs their teeth cleaned. I didn’t prioritize it. By the time he was 14 or 15, his teeth were too far gone. Now with my dogs I’m all over their dental. I’m also more established. I didn’t have a lot of money to take care of Lucky back in the day. But he was my biggest teacher. Now any time I see a one-eyed dog, I think of him. It’s my good luck sign. If I see a one-eyed dog, I know things are going to be OK.
Your first job was as a dog washer at PetSmart. What do you wish you knew then that you know now?
I had no idea what I was doing. I would bathe large dogs on the floor. I would work with wet feet all day. I would go back and give myself rubber shoes and self-worth! No, only joking. I had no idea how to handle dogs or how to keep myself calm and control my energy. I didn’t know dogs were energy readers.
How do you control your energy now?
I have so many ways: breathing exercises, mediation, mindset work, mindfulness. I’m constantly monitoring my thoughts and just making sure that they’re gentle. I first started learning about mindset, meditation, and energy about seven years ago. I was working in my garage and thought, I might as well listen to something like a podcast or a book to learn something. I’m obsessed with personal development. Mindfulness and meditation are simple because the concepts are simple. The act of doing it is simple. But the discipline and repetition is not. It’s not so easy to re-wire your brain.
What’s a trick for keeping a dog calm?
I’ve been grooming for so long that I’m able to notice very subtle behavior clues that dogs give me, and it’s the way I can talk and communicate with dogs. For example, if I notice they’re wincing or bracing themselves before I cut their nail, I put the nail clipper down and touch their paw to say “I see you.” I show them through my touch that I understand them and they can trust me. It seems like a small thing, but it’s like I’m basically talking to them.
Throughout the groom, I respond to behavioral clues including avoidance, bracing, and wincing with a gentle or firm touch. Gentle if they’re insecure and don’t trust me, firmer if they’re maybe overconfident or a little bratty. For that, I give bigger energy, and then follow that with a gentle touch. It’s a way of telling them, “I’m in charge, and you can trust me.”
What are some basics for the best grooming experience for everyone involved?
The biggest thing I tell people when they come in is to have “no-big-deal” energy for the drop off and pick up. If people treat their dogs like human children, they can create more anxiety. And then, if you do bring a reference photo, make sure the photo is of the same breed and the same coat type as your dog. Puppies have completely different coats. Sometimes, clients bring me a photo of their own dog as a puppy...the coat tapers at the end so it’s not a blunt cut. You can’t recreate that on an adult dog with a haircut, but you can be inspired by it. Or, they will bring in a show dog or something completely different. “Can you make my bald Maltipoo with no hair look like this show dog who won Westminster?”
What’s your favorite aspect of your job?
I’m such an animal lover. I especially love Poodle mixes and mini Poodles. Their coats are so fun to sculpt. They’re so versatile; I can carve a heart or a bow into them or turn them into a little bear. But my favorite thing to do is fix the face of a dog that really needs grooming. Either if they haven’t had grooming in a while or have gone to a new groomer who maybe doesn’t know so much yet — I love to balance a haircut.
What are your favorite nicknames that you call a dog while you’re grooming?
Oh yeah. I call all the dogs a “nice tiny friend,” a “schmoop,” a “cozy bear.” I have a list of nicknames for my own dogs. Their latest nicknames are Meem and Bop or Meemus and Chupis. Shoozies, Goop, Mumee, Meems. I could go on!
Any dog grooming trends you wouldn’t mind seeing less of?
What might be backfiring is so many people are getting these huge Doodles without realizing they need so much grooming. You’re seeing all of these YouTube videos popping up. I’ve been taught that there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog. Some don’t shed as much, but it’s backfiring because groomers like me aren’t taking up large Doodles because they take up the spot of three to four other dogs. It’s just financially not worth it. They’re just a lot of work if you want them to be groomed beautifully (if you do it the way I do it). Sometimes we do short and simple, but our short and simple is just a little bit different. We don’t do any shave-downs. That’s one of the only trends that I have an opinion on.
Who is inspiring your grooming right now?
I’m obsessed with interior and fashion design and really cool dog grooming from Korea and Japan. My favorite groomer is in Korea; her handle is @Shuandtree. One day I’m going to go visit her.
You have a really specific eye with design and you love accessories— is an accessories line ever on the horizon?
It is something I want to do. I am partnering with a brand for some accessories we will do together for the holidays. It’s not announced yet — but stay tuned! For my own, I’d need help with the creation of and manufacturing of them.
What about a grooming tools and care collection?
I would love to create tools, an at-home grooming kit, a product line. I’m hoping for that to be my next venture. It’s totally in the works but nothing is signed yet.
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Mackenzie Wagoner is a writer and editor. Her work has been featured in Vogue, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, ELLE, Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit, and more. She lives in New York City.