During the middle of a workweek, on the seventh floor of a postindustrial building in downtown Manhattan, I meet the most beautiful man I have ever seen in my life. He’s tall, bearded, with clover-colored eyes, and as soon as I lay eyes on him, my heart jumps into my throat to say hello. The broad, square geometry of his jaw matches the broad, square geometry of his shoulders, and the two in concert are breathtaking. Alas, he and I are from different worlds: He is an audience member at Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, and I am an audience member at Watch What Happens Live blessed with backstage access, so we are separated by circumstance. I promise, quietly and to myself, never to forget him.
But I do instantly, because moments later, I meet the most beautiful man I have ever seen in my life, the kind of guy who breaks your heart by looking at you, with skin like terra-cotta and an abdominal wall that is an affront to several national monuments. He is dressed like a gay-porn approximation of a football player — with cropped orange shorts and pecs that, currently, are flexing to the beat of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” A minute later John Legend walks by, and my attention goes with him. Have you ever seen John Legend in person? He is, without a flicker of a doubt, the most beautiful man I have ever seen in my life.
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Then I meet Joel Kinnaman, the star of the Netflix show Altered Carbon and one of today’s guests on Watch What Happens Live. Kinnaman has the build of an action hero and the face of a young Republican (two roles he has played in recent history), with cheekbones you could build a ski resort on. Later in the show, Andy Cohen will toast his naked body, and a buzzed crowd of post-sorority women will unleash a deafening wave of boozy hollers. We have Brazilian jujitsu to thank for his abs.
And we have Kristan Serafino to thank for everything else.
Serafino is Kinnaman’s groomer today. A groomer is a specialized and licensed hairstylist tasked with making male celebrities (and civilians, too) look their most handsome. Her tools typically entail some combination of skin care, hair care, and practical magic. Her counterpart for female celebrities doesn’t exist but would probably look more like a team of people: a facialist, a hairstylist, a makeup artist, perhaps a personal trainer. Here, there’s just Serafino. Her medium is ever changing, but today, it’s Kinnaman. We are very lucky.
Kinnaman is lively and excited, dressed in a slim suit with Christian Louboutin Chelsea boots, while Serafino blots the shine away from his forehead with a Beautyblender dabbed in Peter Thomas Roth’s mattifying lotion. On the vanity in front of her are a handful of products, including more skin care, a little powder, some hair tinctures of various weights and finishes with labels. Due to gender norms I cannot begin to explain, most leading men want to look handsome but not too handsome, polished but not shellacked — which means their maintenance walks a fine line between perfectly natural and naturally perfect. It requires a medium touch, and it is Serafino’s specialty.
She preens Kinnaman and lets him fuss with his hair in the mirror while supervising. Before we take our seats, she coats his hands in a thin layer of CeraVe. “Most guys talk with their hands,” she tells me later, “so I want to make sure they don’t look dry.”
During filming, the set of WWHL is a pantheon of attractive men with Hellenistic features, from Cohen to the audience member I fell in love with 20 minutes earlier to the porny football player who has somehow multiplied into three different porny football players. But all eyes are on Kinnaman. He’s not forcing any attention on himself, but your gaze wanders there anyway because of his remarkable handsomeness. Serafino is watching him, too, on a backstage monitor — watching how he moves, how his hair falls, how the spotlights play off his ski slopes. During the break, she’ll swoop in and make sure he’s still the most handsome man in the room.
Serafino hails from hairdressers but was discouraged from getting into the business herself in favor of a college education. “I remember walking into my bathroom when I was 18 — my mom was putting on mascara — and I said, ‘Mom, I want to go to beauty school,’ ” she says. “And my mom turned to me and said, ‘No, you’ll go to college.’ ” So Serafino went to Boston College, got a communications degree, and moved to New York City to work in the fashion industry. By the time she was 30, she was making a very healthy living but decided to quit to pursue hair. “The day I started beauty school, it was like, Bam! I’ve arrived.”
The transition from a six-figure salary to $12,500 as a shampooer at a Toni & Guy salon on Madison Avenue meant blowing through savings, her 401(k), and her credit cards. But shampoos led to haircuts, which led to photo shoots, which led to getting her first A-list spouse (Camila Alves), which led to her first A-list actor (Matthew McConaughey). Her job description now includes fondling the heads of Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Craig, Michael J. Fox, Shawn Mendes, and many, many others.
But it’s more than that, too, because being a groomer (as Serafino is known professionally) involves more than haircuts. “You’re cutting hair one day, and then suddenly you have to work on the skin, too,” she says. “It was a natural progression.” Now instead of being somebody’s hairstylist, she’s their image caretaker — whether it’s hair or skin or cuticles or, when applicable, somebody’s entire body. The goal is to make a man look like himself, but camera-ready and confident. It’s the kind of confidence you have when you know you look perfect because a professional is making sure of it. (If you need a visual, Google image search Ryan Reynolds. It’s likely that in more than half of the photos you’ll see, Serafino worked on him.)
Watching Serafino work is like watching somebody coax a show pony out of a stallion. Most of it is her technique, which involves a facial massage that’s part lymphatic drainage and part aggressive lymphatic drainage. (Kinnaman calls this “magical.”) A small part of it is education, too — most of Serafino’s clients are not learned in the ways of cosmetic care, so she’s developed ways to subconsciously teach them grooming basics. A popular Serafino-ism is likening toner, which she uses before skin care and makeup, to paint primer. “Have you ever painted a wall without primer?” she’ll ask her client, and suddenly the light goes on and they understand the meaning of capital-B Beauty.
During our time together, Serafino makes affectionate reference to “her guys,” by which she means the group of men she is hired to make beautiful. This affection bleeds into total devotion at several points, especially when it comes to access, which, if you are a journalist looking to observe a celebrity having his hair cut, does not come easily. Intimacy, Serafino declaims, is the lifeblood of her work. These dudes trust her with everything — acne advice, photo shoot guidance, general secret-keeping. In return, she’s invited into their inner circle (and brought back again and again to work with them). This is one of the key tenets of Serafino’s appeal: She is the opposite of radically transparent. She would make an incredible CIA agent if it weren’t an utter waste of her skill set.
For a month, I try desperately to gain an audience with one of Serafino’s biggest clients, award-winning pop star and Tiger Beat composite image Shawn Mendes, and I just as desperately fail. The cause is a blend of failing journalistic tenacity on the part of me and intense client loyalty on the part of Serafino. Having a writer in the same room as the most famous 19-year-old on the planet has its risks. And Serafino’s duty lies with her “guy.” Mendes later tells me, over email, that he loves working with Serafino because of how comfortable she makes him feel. “She’s just such a loving person,” he types to me, a small love letter to his on-demand hairstylist and facialist. This is the kind of note that would delight Serafino to no end — trust is a currency she values more than American dollars, and one in which she is incredibly wealthy.
On a luckier day, Serafino and I are on set with celebrity trainer Don Saladino, the newly minted cover boy for Muscle & Fitness magazine, in his Astroturf-paved SoHo gym. They met through Reynolds, whom Saladino trains in addition to a host of other celebrities. (While I’m there, Jake Gyllenhaal pushes a cart of weights past me.) She is Saladino’s groomer for the day, responsible for making him look his most muscle-y. He is the male body ideal minus 3 percent body fat. I am a stick figure with a notepad, crouched in the corner, trying not to attract attention.
Saladino will be more than half naked for most of this shoot. Serafino briefs me on her process: imagining the human body as a series of hills and valleys (an apt metaphor, considering the scale and magnificence of her subject) and lighting and shading them as such. The first step is lathering every inch of him with Kiehl’s Creme de Corps, mixing in a few drops of M.A.C. Studio Face and Body Foundation on his chest, shoulders, and the organized mountain range we’ll call his abs, sculpting him like Rodin. Later, she’ll buff a M.A.C. powder bronzer into his muscle ridges to make them stand out. For 30 minutes the artist is at work, transforming an Italian guy from Long Island into a boy god from Olympus.
Serafino, eye level with his belly button, points just to the left of his abdomen: “Can you give me this?” Saladino looks to where she’s referring, furrows his brow, and as if by magic, a muscle seen only in biology textbooks rises from his abdomen, which Serafino etches out with bronzer. Then our boy god goes before the camera, muscles out, and the shoot really begins. “Kristan!” The photographer chirps. “Can we add shine?”
Serafino dives into her kit and pulls out a bag of Prtty Peaushun, which she adds to Saladino, turning his skin from limestone to glazed porcelain. She also works a fine amount of hair paste into the front of his hair for added luminosity. The camera snaps; the flash ripples up from his belly button to above his hairline like lightning across the Serengeti; the crew is pleased. It’s what they’ve wanted all along, which Serafino knew. “I had to start matte, because I knew it would make Don comfortable,” she tells me. “I always start with what my client will be most comfortable with, and then I dial it up from there.”
We look over at Saladino, posing with a kettlebell and mugging for the camera with an athlete’s focus. Part of a fitness photo shoot, apparently, is contracting every muscle in your body at once and staying completely still. Every few minutes he relaxes, a short reprieve before he hardens his body all over again. His job seems like a pain.
Hers, I think, is not so bad.
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