It Ain't Easy Being Queen

Tim Gunn is trying to keep his cool. He’s sitting on a faded loveseat in a stifling apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, his white-gray hair shellacked into a helmet of efficient sophistication. Best known as Heidi Klum’s academic majordomo on Project Runway, Gunn recently graduated to his own show, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, which is taping in the unit next door. You could say he’s arrived, Hollywood-style—his mannered voice and "Make it work" catch phrase have earned him cavalcades of devotees—and you could assume that amid the sweaty hive of stylists, publicists, and producers, Gunn is the brightest star in this room. (It is, after all, his show.)

He is not.

That spotlight belongs to Gretchen Monahan, an elfin brunette in a green Theory dress. As Gunn’s new onscreen partner, she is the antifreeze to icy season-one cohost Veronica Webb, who paralyzed makeover candidates with her supermodel hauteur. By contrast, Monahan exudes nothing but perky accessibility. She’s come a long way to sit in hair and makeup in this prewar apartment; it wasn’t so long ago that the college dropout was standing on the other side of the chair, coiffing and coloring well-to-do ladies in her Wellesley salon, Grettacole. Yet as she’s cooed-over here, a team of image-makers brushing and blushing and powdering her face, she seems entirely at home. "I have no days off now, no breaks," she says between fake-eyelash applications. The grin she wears is the giveaway that it’s not a complaint.

Over the course of her career, Monahan has frequently reinvented herself: as hairdresser, retailer, designer, Dove spokeswoman, would-be author, talk-show extra, and celebrity stylist. Still, it’s as the Gretta behind Boston-based Gretta Enterprises, which pulls in what Monahan says is upward of $10 million a year, that she’s mostly been known. To the casual observer or salon client, Monahan has it all—a quick mind, a pretty face, a successful company. To those who know her better, there’s also the way she seems unhampered by her own flaws. "That girl could fall in a mud puddle," says Grettacole lead colorist Julie Deane, "and come out with a clean white dress on."

But as Monahan debuts alongside Gunn this month, her 13-year-old business is at a critical juncture, where the traits she’s used to fuel its rise—charm, chutzpah, superhuman determination—have become the ones that could lead to its demise. Her jet-setting lifestyle leaves scant time to supervise her salons, let alone stop in to beguile clients. Her staff is split between those loyal to a fault and those resentful of her rise. And, as always, competitors are circling, eager to fill her niche should she, as rumored, leave Boston for good. "She’s at the point where she’s trying to grow a brand," says one former employee. "But that brand was founded on her person. What will happen when she’s not around?"

It would be easy to dismiss Monahan as just another Kelly Ripa, petite and bubbly with "sidekick" practically stamped on her forehead. But unlike Ripa, who traded on her soap-star role to get ahead, Monahan overcame a Lifetime special of a childhood. She bounced among relatives’ homes (her mother, a schizophrenic, was hospitalized when Gretchen was four; her father left not long after) before finding permanent refuge at age 13 with her aunt and uncle, Kathy and Eddie Priest, a receptionist and barber, in Waltham.

Money was tight in the Priest household. While the rest of her friends at Waltham High spent their weekends cheering for the football team, Monahan was sweeping floors at bridal emporium Yolanda’s, where she was first seduced by the glamour of the fashion industry. "Even after work, I used to press my nose up against the glass for hours," she says. "For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be part of that world."

After graduation, Monahan enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. She lasted less than a year. "I was thoroughly embarrassed and disappointed and depressed," Monahan says. "I thought I had talent." The shame of this failure seems to haunt her even now, pushing her to work longer, do more. And so she went from standing on the threshold of the glossy world of high style to selling cosmetics at the Watertown Mall. "I knew I wasn’t going to work in that mall forever," she says. "There had to be a better fucking way." (It’s always startling to hear raunchy language emanate from someone as button-cute as Monahan—but swear she does, regularly and with gusto.) Frustrated, she signed up for classes at the Nocera Group School of Hair Design. There, she learned she did have talent, albeit in another medium. The beauty industry is based on the selling of self-esteem, and Monahan discovered she had an uncanny gift for it.

By the time she founded Grettacole in Wellesley in 1995, Monahan, then just 24, had transformed herself into a hardened businesswoman. "I went to work with her and thought, This was not the same shy, cute Gretchen we used to know," says Lisa Hanson, her cousin and bookkeeper. Boss Monahan was ballsy, ribald, and demanding. She could also be generous and charming and instantly convincing. Most of all, she was magnetic. "She’ll stroke the ego of the person she’s talking to, whether it’s a flower seller or a high-powered executive," says a former employee. And while the services were good—Grettacole was one of the first local salons to split stylists into specialties—it was the Monahan charm that clients came back for. They’d line up for chair time, then put up with her chronic tardiness. (Which persists: In the course of my reporting this story, Monahan missed three interviews, was late for several others, and arrived at her cover shoot nearly an hour behind schedule—then proceeded to somehow earn the instant forgiveness of everyone on set.) She has that rare knack for laying it on thick without crossing the line into smarminess: When she heaps praise on your $30 H & M dress, you find yourself believing her.

In the 10 years after she launched Grettacole, Monahan went on to open two more Boston-area salons, the beauty shop G Spa, and two Gretta Luxe fashion boutiques, where she sold $3,000 handbags and designer dresses with her now-signature ease. Expanding into retail was always part of the plan—flourish as a hairstylist, then use that to take another crack at fashion—but there was another motivation, too. More than anything, Monahan seems driven by a need to prove she can make it on her own—and make it more than once. "[Success is] making people proud of you and being independent," she says. "I look at my mother, who couldn’t help being dependent, and I say, How dare people who have choices not regroup and go back smarter, tougher?

  • Marla

    Your article on Gretchen was one of the best articles I have read in a long time. Your take on the interviews were accurate yet not cruel.
    Good Job.

  • Anna

    How dare you write such an article. Such lies and horrible contradictions like when you said she missed various interviews with you and arrived late, I guess you failed to read over your own writing when you later mention that she workd countless 14 hour days on her new show with Timm Gunn and then is the first one to arrive at 5am the next morning. You should be more careful when you write something so incorrect about Boston's most successful people, and one of the nicest and most down to earth people I have ever met. You give journalism a bad name. I wopuld call for your resignation.

  • SOSOS

    i agree with commenter #1…the article wreaks of sour grapes. clearly sacsha has a vendetta of some sort. jealous much?

  • Ray

    in response to this…

    "Sascha
    Posted by Anonymous | Oct. 1, 2008 at 3:57 PM

    COMMENT:
    Your article on Gretchen was one of the best articles I have read in a long time. Your take on the interviews were accurate yet not cruel. Good Job. "

    I wonder who at Boston Magazine wrote this comment…

  • Emily

    I am a former employee of Grettacole and have had the opportunity to work with gretchen in the past. i think the article was honest and maybe a little forgiving in painting a portrait of who Gretchen is. it was nice to see an article that wasn't all about putting her up on a pedistle. She doesn't deserve to be there in my opinion.

  • RR

    pedistle?? — you should learn how to spell before you leave comments hun

  • jamie

    You should check your facts! The article was not based on a sole individual who was fired but past employees who left on their own, robbed by Gretchen. She has the nact for making you feel important and special yet it is only herself she cares for. Your so nieve in your 2 years just wait…

  • Brianne

    Why is it that when someone is successful people feel the need to tear them down? Gretta has worked hard for her success and deserves where she is and what she has because SHE WORKED FOR IT

  • K

    Anyone who can refer to someone else’s difficult and real-life childhood as a "lifetime special,” a description synonymous with fictional TV melodramas, has the empathetic capacity of a self-absorbed teenager. Furthermore, the word “schizophrenic” is rarely used as a noun when referring to someone who suffers from the mental disorder as it comes in various forms and with differing degrees of severity. Maybe we can find an actual lifetime special about disorder for the writer to watch to educate her on understanding other’s suffering? (Hopefully afterward, she wouldn’t be as insensitive in her writing as to parenthesize those sentences that might specifically describe how someone else grew up without their biological parents.) I would hope boston magazine might edit with a more careful perspective, but both magazine and writer are to blame here. Poorly done.

  • Judy

    Apparently you did not check your facts. I know the employee and she stole, how low can you get. I think the naive one is you and I really feel sorry for you and I do not have to wait for after 2 years to find out what Gretta is all about, she is nothing but genuine. I am a mother of six and had one child almost die so believe me there is nothing naive about me or my thoughts about Gretchen Monahan, however my greatest reservations lie with this writer (if you could call her that) and people like you. By the way if you feel so strongly why did you not display your name, funny how moral convictions become abscent when you want to insult someone who is clearly very successful and always will be!

  • Marla

    All you supposed friends of "Gretta" get a clue and life. The facts are the facts and the quotes are the quotes reported very professionaly and accurately by Sascha, who did her homework. I am an ex employee of the Gretta world and every thing written is true. You negative so called friends (not) need to
    realize there is a war going on, national debt crisis, etc. Move on, it is what she is!

  • David

    Making the cover of Boston Magazine for a second time is no easy task. Keep up the good work and look us up next time your in town.

  • Melanie

    I also worked for Gretchen. While there is some truth to the comments of the former workers in the article, I had a very fortunate learning experience. I now own my own business, and draw upon what I learned from her every day.

  • Lisa

    I know Greta as Grethen since she's been a kid. I haven't stayed in touch with her over the years because life gets in the way. Gretchen has always appeared sweet on the outside, but determined on the inside. Everything that was written in the article was absolutely true!! Gretchen has worked very har for what she has accomplished and sometimes you do have to be a hard ass to get to the top. People with their nasty comments are just jealous of her accomplishments. Leave her alone. By the way, I have some great photos of her when she was about 10,11 yrs old up at our summer home in Massachusetts. Her style then was very apparent. If interested, you 've got my e-mal. Gretchen will know who I am. I took care of her during the summers of her youth. I'm proud of you Gretchen, where ever you are!!! Keep going, don't stop!!! I'll be seeing you arond the tabloids and such!!! Lisa………………

  • R

    funny, how the first comment to this article got pulled.. along with commenter #3 I agreed with commenter #1, but it mysteriously disapeared…i agree with commenter #1… i agree with commenter #3 that "the article wreaks of sour grapes" I could liken it to the catty gossip and jealousy of 9th graders