It’s not surprising that Casey James and Gino Melendez would become friends. Like Casey, Gino,who works at the Legacy Salon and Day Spa in Ft. Worth, Texas, is a workaholic who is devoted to his career and is lucky enough to love what he does. But unlike Casey, Gino did not always plan to be doing what he’s doing. Gino started out not in Texas but in California, in the Antelope Valley-based community of Lancaster. He studied business management and accounting at California State University – Northridge and worked in a cubicle in the typical 9-5 job in L.A. But Gino quickly grew tired of the job and the city. He decided to leave not just California but the accounting profession and headed for Ft. Worth where he had some family.
Once in Texas, Gino knew he did not want to go back to working in a cubicle. A friend suggested he might want to go to beauty school and his three sisters reminded him how he was always giving them advice about their hair. The business major realized it was a career where you were your own boss and could make a good living. So, Gino went to school to study cosmetology. Once there, he found out he was a natural and just loved it. Gino was attracted not only to the styling aspect of doing hair but, also the social aspect. And after spending some time talking with this funny, outgoing, warm, and friendly guy, I could see how great he must be with the clients lucky enough to see hi
About four-and-a-half years ago, Gino met a local singer/guitarist through their mutual friends Amy and Mike Macy. Amy and Gino had gone to beauty school together. “One day she came into the salon that I worked in before and she asked if I could do her friend’s hair. She said, ‘I know you do a lot of guy’s hair, I don’t want to do his hair.’ When Casey came into his salon, his hair looked nothing like it does now.
“It was almost a buzz cut, it was pretty short.” Gino had another idea about how Casey should do his hair. “I asked him if he ever considered growing it out some and at first he didn’t know what to do with it. So I suggested, let’s try this. We grew it out a little bit, then I suggested, why don’t we grow it out a little more. Then he had this shag look going on. But I said, look, you’re in a band, why don’t we grow it out some more and see what happens?”
Casey was a bit reluctant at first. “His whole concern was that he didn’t know what to do with it. So I showed him.” As anyone who’s grown their hair out knows, it’s not always a smooth process. “Especially for a guy going from short hair to long hair, it can be difficult. It took some time for Casey to get used to it and learn how to deal with it as it got longer. I told him that if you have the right cut, you shouldn’t have to do much, it should automatically fall into place.”
Casey would invite Gino to come and see him play, but at first Gino turned him down, preferring to wind down at home after a long day on his feet. “But eventually me, Amy, Mike and a few of my clients went to one of his performances. It was an acoustic set he was playing at a restaurant. It was just him, by himself, just him, sitting on a stool, with his guitar and his amp. It was pretty much like the videos of that private show in Malibu. That’s what he would do here, playing some of his songs and some covers.”
Gino was impressed. “From that night I watched him I told him, ‘text me and let me know where you’re playing’ and we’d go watch him play. When I saw him play the first time it gave me goose bumps. I was in awe with his voice and his skills on the guitar.”
Gino has been a fan of American Idol since the show first aired and has watched every episode of its nine-year run. So it was no surprise that he had mentioned to Casey a few times that he should go and audition for the show. But Casey was not interested. “I have told him for years to try out for American Idol. When he said that he didn’t know what the show was, that was the truth. He’d never seen it, but he’d heard about it from me, his mother, and another friend. I would even tell him the dates there were going to be here an everything. He kept blowing it off, you know, I don’t think that’s for me.”
That reluctance changed last year, although Gino didn’t know that at first. “Last year about September, Casey told me, ‘you need to do my hair and you need to do it good — not that you don’t always do it good. But I have a big thing coming up.’ And I was thinking, great, no pressure. So I asked him what it was and he said he couldn’t tell me. But I had a hunch it might be American Idol, I don’t know why.” As Gino later learned, that was for the audition in Denver in front of the judges. “Then he came in again right before Hollywood and I did his hair again.”
I walked Gino through the audition before the judges, noting that despite Gino’s hard work, Casey had put his hair back in a rubber band. Gino said that Casey later told him that had been waiting in line for hours, it was hot, and he just pulled it back without thinking about it. The audition was not going well, Simon was unimpressed even though he admitted that Casey sang well. But, in a moment that has been replayed repeatedly, Casey was asked to take his hair out of the rubber band by guest judge Victoria Beckham and suddenly everything changed for him.
I asked Gino what it felt like as the hair stylist to see that moment when Casey took his hair down and went from about to fail the audition, leaving his dreams in Denver, to making it to Hollywood. I was surprised to discover that Gino had not made the connection — he hadn’t given himself any credit at all for the turnaround. “When I saw that Casey made it, I was thrilled. He’s my friend and I was so happy for him. And when they liked his look, I was flattered. I was kind of on cloud nine for a little bit.” But Gino was insistent that Casey made it because of his talent, not his hair.
I brought it up again later — how Gino’s decision years earlier to grow Casey’s hair out and style it longer ultimately led to Casey getting past the first round and, ultimately, onto American Idol. Gino said, surprisingly, that I was the first person to make that connection. He had never considered that the pivotal moment in the audition was when Victoria Beckham asked Casey what he looked like with his hair down. “I honestly never thought of it that way. That’s pretty neat.”
How does it feel knowing that a chance conversation years ago about growing out Casey’s hair would ultimately lead to such a life-changing experience? Gino laughed, which, for the record he does often and quite enthusiastically. “I sure didn’t realize at the time it was such a big deal. We’d talked about his hair during the years and Casey even contemplated cutting it short again.” But Gino always said no. “I told him, you’ve trusted me all these years to do your hair. I know how to do it and we’re not cutting your hair off.”
Still, Gino was reluctant to take any credit for his part in helping Casey make it on the show. “I guess I never thought of it that way. I’ve always thought that he’s such a talented musician — I honestly had no doubt that he would make it on the show.”
I asked Gino whether he knew about the infamous shirt doffing at the audition before the episode aired? “When he came back from that Denver audition, he didn’t even tell me any of the details — he said, you’ll just have to watch and see. The night before the show aired, he and I shot pool together and I told him I would be watching the next day but I still didn’t know what I was going to see. Well, after I saw the audition, I texted him ‘OMG’ or something like that.”
This was the first time Gino was watching American Idol having a vested interest in the outcome. I asked him how he felt the first time he saw Casey on TV as part of the Top 24? “Nauseous.” He laughed, then elaborated. “I was a nervous wreck. Teary-eyed, but very proud.” But being not only a friend, but also his stylist, Gino couldn’t help but have a reaction to the changing look that Casey’s hair was given during the run of the show. “Throughout the show, every Tuesday or Wednesday he’d get a text or a phone call from me about what I thought about how they styled his hair.” It was clear that there were some styles, especially during those first few weeks, that Gino was not particularly fond of. But the American Idol stylists let it go more natural as the show went on, and Gino was happier. But what really made Gino happy was when he had the chance to cut Casey’s hair during the show.
Being a starving musician, according to Gino, Casey could not always afford his prices. So Gino would tell him to pay what he could. “But he always said, if I ever make it big, you’ll always do my hair. Before he came back to Texas for homecoming, they wanted him to get his hair done, and he said ‘no, I have a guy back home that does my hair.’ He called me, when he found out he was coming home, and he said I’m flying in tomorrow, can you do my hair?” It’s one thing for people to say something like, “you’ll always do my hair.” But Casey kept his word, and that meant the world to Gino.
“He called me when he got into Dallas and I went to the W Hotel after I got off work and we sat there and I was a nervous wreck. I was shaking, and I’m never that nervous, and he poured me a glass of wine so I’d relax. He didn’t want me touching his head while my hands were shaking,” Gino laughed. “I did his hair and then we just talked, caught up. He was playing and practicing as we were talking; it was terrific.”
I asked Gino if Casey shared his feelings about coming back home as part of the Top 3. Gino said it was obvious that Casey was very overwhelmed about the hometown visit, but he did not specifically recall what, if anything, Casey may have said about it. “Casey is a very private person, very introverted, and he’s still trying to take it all in. This past year has been a whirlwind for him.”
Gino recognizes that he’s gathered a few new clients because of Casey, some maybe going to him in order to get some scoop on Casey, others because they want to go to the same hair stylist as Casey. But, for whatever reason they may have come to Gino, he’s happy with these new clients and hasn’t had any bad experiences.
One trend that Gino has noticed, following the positive reaction Casey’s long hair has drawn, is that more of his male clients are deciding to go longer. “Especially in the Fall, they’re wanting to let their hair grow out. It have been interesting because a lot of these guys are used to having the short hair cut, especially fraternity guys, and now they’re thinking about letting their hair grow out.”
I asked Gino if he ever plays Casey’s music in the salon and he said he had. In fact, last week when Casey was in for a haircut, Gino was going to play some of his music as a joke. He told Casey about his plan and then discovered something interesting. “Casey hasn’t heard all the songs that he’s sang.” Apparently there are a number of his American Idol performances that he still hasn’t heard.
Our conversation returned to American Idol. I asked what turned out to be a silly question — did Gino vote every week? “I would post on my Facebook to vote. My clients knew not to call or text me during the voting time. I would sit there and have a few vodka 7’s after Casey would perform. I just couldn’t relax; I was so nervous every week.” He texted the whole two hours.
Casey, perhaps because Gino was a bit of an American Idol expert, would call Gino after his performances and ask Gino how he thought he did if he thought he might go home. Gino was able to do his best to put Casey’s mind at ease. “I’d say, ‘you’re not going home.’ I promised him that he was fine.” Gino admitted that there was a time, however, that he thought Casey might go home (he thought it might have been the week Casey sang Power of Love) and he thought he was being a good friend by telling him that. Fortunately for Casey, Gino’s prediction was wrong.
I asked Gino what his favorite Casey performance was on American Idol, and he laughed. “Of course, the one where they mentioned his hair.” That was after his performance of the John Lennon song, Jealous Guy, when Simon called Casey ‘Goldilocks.’ “That night I got so many texts and messages because of that. That was probably my proudest moment.”
Casey knew that Gino was telling his clients and friends on Facebook to vote for Casey and Casey made sure to tell him to thank them all for their support. Casey supported Gino as well and was happy to see his friend use his new-found celebrity as the hairstylist to an American Idol finalist to boost his visibility and reach potential new clients.
But there was a brief moment when Casey’s celebrity caused Gino some concern — when they both were the subject of a false rumor early on. One tabloid-style article posed the question “Is Casey gay?” after Gino had posted Casey’s picture on his Facebook page. Gino recalled how the rumor was inadvertently ignited when a Facebook friend of his, seeing Gino’s picture with Casey, asked if the man in the picture was his boyfriend. Another person posted right below that, asking if the picture was Casey. Gino replied, to the second person, not the first, “Yes, it’s Casey.” That was all it took for a certain anti-American Idol website to run with the speculation. So how did Gino feel when the rumor first came out? “I freaked out when I saw it. One of my clients had sent me the website and I clicked on it. My Facebook had been set to private at the time, so I don’t know how it got out.”
Gino’s first though was to tell Casey about it. “I texted Casey and said ‘Call me 911.’ I told him about this website and the rumor and he starts laughing. ‘Gino, I’m not worried about it. Don’t worry about it.'” But Gino was worried. Not that anyone would think it was true, but that he would have said anything to hurt his friend. But he needn’t have worried, he told me. Casey understood. “I told him, I’d never say anything like that. and he said, ‘that’s why I’m not worried.'”
Looking back on that experience when he, Casey and BC James had lunch last week, during Casey’s brief respite in Texas, Casey recalled how one of the people from American Idol had put a positive spin on the story. He told Casey, after the website speculation came out, “well, you know you’re making it when gay rumors come out.” Gino said they all laughed thinking back about it.
But at the time, Gino was not laughing. “I had reporters wanting to talk to me about it and have me go on record, and I told Casey about it. And he said you do whatever you need to do. And I said, I didn’t really want to address it.” Gino said that at first he took extreme measures to protect his privacy, deleting any pictures of him and Casey, changing his settings on Facebook, and becoming more private. But he said Casey told him that wasn’t necessary, it would all just blow over. “He said, I’m just feeding into it. So I went back and put the pictures back up and returned to my normal settings.” Casey turned out to be correct and the rumors faded quickly.
The topic of Casey being a bit reserved came up again when I asked Gino if Casey had ever discussed his motorcycle accident with him. He said he had, but not in much detail and not to its true extent. He said he later heard from Amy that the accident “was a lot more serious than what he plays it off to be.” But Gino explained, “that’s how Casey is, he downplays everything, that’s how he’s always been.”
But there was one time when Casey was not guarded and did not downplay his feelings — at the Dallas stop of the American Idol Live Tour. Gino attended the show and said that none of the American Idol hoopla had gone to his head, “He was the same old Casey.” But he could tell that Casey was thrilled to perform in front of the hometown crowd. “When he gets excited or knows he that he does something well, he does this fist pump. When he was walking off the stage in Dallas, I could tell he was extremely excited after the performance was over.”
Gino recalled a very special performance that Casey gave that his fans have not seen. It was for Gino’s 30th birthday party four years ago (please, don’t do the math!) and was held at a friend’s house. There were over a hundred friends and clients of Gino’s attending the party and Casey played his guitar and sang the whole night. While there’s no video of the concert, there is a photo. But one thing that Gino recalled about that night was that there was a guitar there that belonged to the five-year-old daughter of the woman whose house the party was at. Gino said he recently talked with the little girl’s mother who remembered Casey sitting in the living room, tuning her daughter’s little pink guitar.
Two-plus hours into the interview, it was clear that there was no dirt to get on Casey, no dark side, nothing hiding in his closet or under any rug. The biggest surprise was how the funny guy, who talks smack when playing pool and has a boisterous laugh that “you can hear through the walls,” was also such a shy, private person. Gino said that Casey “does truly love to spend time alone, just hanging with two dogs.” But while he may not be a huge extrovert, once he gets to know you “he will open up.” And he does value his friends very much. As Gino told me, if you’re a friend, “he’ll do anything for you.”
While the fans that Casey has attracted through American Idol and the live tour are numerous, Gino said Casey had a taste of popularity as a local musician. As Gino told me, “He had groupies even back then — a group of regulars that would follow Casey wherever he played. Casey thought of them more as acquaintance/friends,” Gino was quick to add. Gino sees Casey as unaffected by his new, increased popularity. As Gino said, “Casey wasn’t going to change who he was just for a television show.”
And, Gino added, he thinks Casey will remain Casey no matter what happens next. “Casey’s not full of himself. He’s going to stay true to who he is. I’d be shocked if he allowed this to change him. He is who he is. He’s so humble and has such a wonderful heart, I don’t think it’s going to change him. He’s got a wonderful soul.”
Gino has a pretty wonderful one, too.