12 The Craft of Jess Rona

It all started with a Pekingese named Noodle. Well, Jess Rona’s career as a dog groomer began long before Noodle, but her public ascent can be traced back to one fluffy, blow-dried, wind-swept moment, captured in a slow-mo Instagram video. Since then, she’s used the platform to elevate her impeccable skill and magnetic energy, casting new light on grooming and the skill required. “I want to be one of the pioneers that shows the world what dog grooming can be,” she tells Angela Jones.

Jess Rona began her career as an actress, comedian and writer, honing her technique with classes at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade and performing countless improv shows. On the side, she groomed dogs. A trade she developed over years of varied experiences and kept on the backburner. That is, until she realized that her passion was purely split down the middle—one part improv comedy, one part dog grooming—and refocused on getting really good at both.

Since that moment over 10 years ago, Jess has not slowed. She’s watched, learned, practiced, competed, created and grown—ever on the quest to perfect her crafts. When she stumbled into Instagram fame with her iconic slow-mo doggie blow-dry videos and filled her roster with celeb pups (although it’s not clear which came first), her worlds continued to collide. From acting opportunities (like appearing on TV shows New Girl and One Mississippi), to directing gigs (like her stint behind the camera of Tegan and Sara’s “100x” music video), to writing a book (for which she learned photography and shot everything herself). Jess has continued to focus on elevating her craft, in whatever expression it assumes in the moment.

Now, fronting her own successful grooming business in her home’s wood-paneled garage, Jess is exploring the reaches of her creativity. We chatted with Jess about shaping her creative style, the importance of being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, producing videos for Instagram, and her plans for bringing her unique grooming vision to the masses.

You started your career focused on comedy and acting. How did you end up grooming dogs?
Well I kind of fell into dog grooming. My mom used to take me to PetSmart to buy this specific food for her cats. I needed to get a job, and they were hiring. The application listed different jobs you could do, like work with the aquatics section or work as a cashier, and then they had this other box you could check for a dog bather. And I was just like, dog bather… this is the least nine-to-five job ever, and I want to try to do it. So I just checked that box, and I started bathing dogs—knowing nothing about dogs. We had cats growing up. I remember one time the manager said to me, can you go put this lead on the lab back there and take her out? And I was like, I’m sorry, what’s a lead and what’s a lab? That’s where I was at. That’s how little I knew.

So I was just bathing for a while, probably not awesome at it, and over the years I started learning how to clip nails and trim pads, what’s a Schnauzer cut and that kind of thing. I just slowly started picking up more and more information. And so, over the years I was just lucky enough to have mentors that would teach me little things.

At the same time, I was also pursuing comedy and acting. So I was in acting school and waitressing. My goal was to wait tables at night and audition during the day. But what happened in reality was, I was waiting tables and hostessing at night and then grooming dogs during the day. I was kind of having two lives and two jobs. So I ended up moving to New York, studying comedy, doing all that stuff. I stopped grooming for a while. Then I reached a threshold where I was like, you know what? I’m going to dive back into grooming really hard-core. That was about 10 years into being a dog groomer. I was dabbling a lot and was wishy-washy for a long time.

About 10 years ago, I moved back to LA from New York and I really wanted to get good at dog grooming and improv. Those are my two loves. So I would do tons of improv shows constantly, and I also started sending grooming photos to fancy groomers that I would meet at the trade shows. “Meet,” meaning like, fan-girl-ing out and saying, “oh my god, I’m such a fan, you’re such an amazing groomer. Can I have your email? Let me send you photos.” This was before Instagram and before everything, so I couldn’t just text photos, I had to do it a little old school. So I would email photos and get critiques and I started competing in grooming competitions. I was like, if this is going to be a thing, I need to get really good at it. So I really started studying AKC [American Kennel Club] breed standards, I started learning about balance and structure, and I started harassing every groomer I could for feedback. Competing helped get me really good. And then Instagram came out in 2015 and everything changed.

You mentioned that there are breed standards for cuts. How do you balance your fun, creative grooming style with those standards?
The AKC and breed clubs create standards for each breed for purebreds—meaning like, the point of the shoulder should be at this angle, and this is the exact measurement that is acceptable for this specific breed. However there’s also a wave of new fun, funky grooming happening everywhere. Which is how Instagram has helped me so much, because I would follow all these random groomers from Japan, Korea, Poland… everywhere, and I would see all these cool haircuts and I would just copy them.

So what I started doing was taking my knowledge of breed standards and balance and structure, and I would kind of mix it with this fun, funky flair that was more low-maintenance than a breed standard, fully fluffed-out dog.

That’s super cool how you can take those two styling extremes to make more of an everyday look.
You know how sometimes you see groomers that shave a dog but then leave the head really big? That is an imbalanced dog and it looks funny, you know? So what you want to do is look at the dog as a whole—that’s what I mean when I say balance. You also want to shorten the body and do some tricks to make the dog look more compact and balanced naturally, sculpting the hair in a certain way. So when I learned all those concepts, I was able to apply that to everyday pet grooming.

I’m sure not all of your clients let you have free rein to do funky cuts on their dogs. So how do you approach those guardrails of a very specific ask, while still giving the dog something that’s fun and fulfilling to you as a groomer?
I love clients that let me do whatever I want, but yes, there are some that are like, you have to do this specific thing. Sometimes it’s really not cute. I actually just had to deal with this, where someone wanted a lion cut on like a Cockapoo, and I had such a response to it. I felt bad, because inside, I could feel my face getting hot… I was like, this is not going to look good. I don’t know what to do. Also, I’m the most opinionated dog groomer that’s ever been. I’m very honest, and also very loving. So I will sweetly say, “I can totally do that,” but then I will give them a new suggestion. So instead of a lion cut, I ended up doing a Clydesdale-inspired cut with a mane and boots, instead of a big huge lion mane. Which, on a Pomeranian or a Chow Chow would look awesome, but on a little teddy bear, floppy-looking Cockapoo, it just wouldn’t look right. You’ll end up looking like a Portuguese Water Dog who had a bad hair day. The owner ended up being totally happy with it, they loved it.

That’s awesome!
Yeah! I have some other clients who send me pictures of ugly work and say, can you do something like this? I end up doing my version of it, and they’re happy. I hate doing haircuts that are ugly though, it sucks. I try not to. But I also don’t want to crush the dreams of my clients.

Of course, if they have a vision in mind, hopefully you can give them a version of it that’s better than what they had imagined.

As a creative person, you often need to take risks in order to grow in your craft. But with dogs, it’s a pretty high-stakes medium. How do you still find ways to take those risks?
Oh my god, I’ve made so many mistakes, but I am so good at fixing them. In fact I just had this girl come all the way from Dublin to train with me for the day yesterday, and I made a tiny little mistake. But as a teacher, what I want to tell all these groomers is that patience is so important with grooming. Everybody makes mistakes all the time, and over time you get really good at fixing them. That’s why they made thinning shears, to blend the mistakes away, you know? So there aren’t as many risks now because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it’s just sort of second nature to me, but I have had some fails.

One time, it was the first time this dog came over and I was like, “He’s going to look so cute with short ears,” so I took all the length off his ears. He looked really cute, but the owners hated it. So we had to just grow in the ears again, and it was not a big deal. But after knowing the dog a lot longer, I realized that they were right. I should have left those ears long. That’s not a huge mistake but, yeah.

You have a bit of a reputation of being a dog whisperer. What’s your big trick to managing dogs?
Having a ton of experience helps, but also, since dogs are energy readers, I’ve learned to have a calm, confident energy with dogs. Those are the key emotions, I guess, to have with dogs. Calm and confident.

I look at dog grooming from the dog’s perspective as if they’re going to the dentist. You know when you go to the dentist, it’s not really fun. It kind of sucks. It’s kind of painful sometimes. But you just go through it. If you have a calm and confident dentist that’s like, I got you, you’re fine, this will be over quickly… who’s kind and grateful you’re there and sees you, then you’re going to be way calmer than if a dentist is jumpy or unsure or talking a lot to someone else or not focused. That feeling of being in someone’s hands, you just want to be able to know you can trust them. So when I have a calm and confident energy, the dogs trust me and I’m able to get them to be calm.

It probably also helps you focus and get in the zone as you’re grooming too, if you have that energy exuding from you and being mirrored back.
Yeah, and also I pop in my headphones all day long and I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts or things that are just inspiring… audiobooks, that kind of thing, so that also calms me. The dogs can get calm because I am calm.

What kind of audiobooks have you listened to recently?
I’m obsessed with Jen Sincero. She wrote “You Are A Badass At Making Money” and “You Are A Badass.” I love her so much. I listen to that book a lot, and a lot of other self-help stuff. Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is” was really good. Those are my top two. I listen to “You Are A Badass At Making Money” over and over and over. I listen to it a little bit every day as like my prayers to the universe.

Interesting. Is it about building your business or more like life mantras?
It’s both. In fact, it really helps you get out of your comfort zone. She talks a lot about pushing yourself to be really, really uncomfortable and I think that has helped my business so much. And my life. She’s so inspiring, and I just love her message. It’s more like tapping into abundance and that sort of thing.

How have you pushed yourself to be uncomfortable?
I charge more than any other groomer, ever.  And it’s really uncomfortable. Because yes, you can go to PetSmart or anywhere and just get a haircut for your dog. But I offer something totally different and I know that it’s worth what I charge. It’s like, I’m obsessed with these ceramic mugs by this company Kat & Roger. You should check them out, they’re gorgeous. But they’re $90 mugs. And like, they’re not for everybody. Not everybody is going to buy a $90 mug. But some people will, if they appreciate a hand-painted, hand-carved, gorgeous mug. So it really depends on who the clientele is. But there are people who really value what I do, and so I just focus on them, and baby them, and respect them, and love them, and welcome them. Those are my people. And so yeah, I could go to the 99-cent store and get a mug for a dollar, or I could get a Kat & Roger $90 mug, you know? I’m the Kat & Roger of grooming. [Laughs.] It’s like designer clothes, I could buy a sweater at Ross, or I could buy a sweater at Barney’s, you know? It’s a sweater. There are just different levels. So that’s something that Jen Sincero helped me with.

Right, it’s knowing your worth, and knowing that you can demand that price because it’s the value you’re providing to people.
Totally. And you better believe, when I charge a lot, I make sure those haircuts are perfect. From every detail. Everybody gets a spa treatment when they come over.

Wait, they literally get a spa treatment?
Yeah, literally. We do blueberry facials on everybody, we do argan oil facemasks, we condition, we do an argan oil finish, we hand-dry and fluff-out every dog. It’s not just a shampoo and blow-dry. It’s so much. Even when a small dog like a French Bulldog comes in, they’re going to be in the bath for at least 45 minutes just getting their treatments.

Wow, that’s incredible. I’m surprised they can sit still that long with you rubbing all over their faces. But I guess that’s part of your calm, confident energy practice.
Yeah, and they’re so used to it. Most dogs that I groom come once a month.

Your Instagram account is known for its iconic slow-mo videos. How do they come together—does the song come first, or do you see the dog and feel inspired?
It depends, it’s both. Sometimes I’ll be in the grocery store and I’ll hear an old ‘90s Gwen Stefani song and I’ll be like “Oooh, I want to use this,” then I’ll find a video for it. Or I’ll just get a ton of dog footage and get the emotion that the dog is giving me, and I’ll say I need a song that’s going to give me this vibe. The vibe like “I’m going to conquer the world,” or the vibe like “I feel amazing.” Or I’ll just hear a fun song and say, oh that’s going to be a great JRG [@jessronagrooming] song. So it’s kind of both.

Are those perfectly synced moments of the ear-flip or tongue-lick happening right at the key change planned out or just happy accidents?
Oh my god, no girl, those are planned. Please! [Laughs.] Every blink, every wink, every lick, every hair blow. I time it right to the music. I love it, it’s so satisfying.

You’ve gained quite an Instagram following and client roster. But what is next for you?
I’m branching out to TV development. I want to bring dog grooming to the masses, but like, my kind of dog grooming. Elevated dog grooming. To show the world what this art form really is. Back in the ‘70s, you wouldn’t pay $1,000 for a haircut, but there were some pioneers in the [human hair-styling] industry, and I want to be one of those pioneers that shows the world what dog grooming can be and how skilled you have to be. Not only to do a haircut on a moving, breathing animal while holding sharp scissors, but also do something gorgeous. It’s not a person where you’re just working on the top of their head. It’s the entire body of a moving dog that doesn’t speak English. So that’s really the next step for me, I think, is TV development. I’m working on a few different ideas for some shows.

How do you stay inspired with exploring other style of cuts?
There’s a new doc series called Dogs on Netflix, I make a little cameo in one of the episodes, but the Japanese groomers are really doing some cool stuff, and I’m so inspired by them. Like Kenichi Nagase, he’s the main star of this doc series and a friend of mine, and he is my inspiration for the fun and funky.

Who are other groomers or artists that inspire you?
There is one groomer who is a master at confirmation and breed standard, her name is Irina Pinkusevich—everybody calls her Pina. She is one of my favorite groomers. She’s actually a judge for most competitions throughout the world. She’s a speaker, she’s a well-known dog groomer in the grooming world. And I just follow a lot of like random groomers on Instagram, I don’t know if I could even name them, but those two are so great.