Ken Pavés’ love letter to the Philippines and the mother that taught him to see true beauty.
Spend a few moments with Ken Pavés and you can’t leave without feeling good about yourself. One of his many talents is immediately finding beauty in someone. Then, amplifying it.
Understanding the power that appearances held over people came to Pavés early on. He grew up observing his Filipina mother, Helen, while she was getting ready.
Fondly called “Cookie,” it is through her spirit that Ken began to define the meaning of beauty.
He would sit and watch, suggesting to add a little bit of product here and there, then complimenting her. “She was already a superhero to me because she could do anything. But when she looked in the mirror and found herself, when I tell her she’s beautiful, her posture would change,” he recounts.
Growing up in Michigan, Pavés remembers hearing painful comments about how his mother, with her deep skin color, was a rarity in their place. “It’s about the tone and how it was said. I know it made her feel bad, but she just carried on,” he says.
Pavés loved his mother’s skin tone. In his eyes, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Cookie’s confidence was also infectious. The young Ken imagined other people that felt the same discrimination and this understanding galvanized him to want to change that. “My mom looking different and me thinking that was beautiful, made me want to celebrate what was different about everybody,” he says. “Your superpower is what’s different—the more extreme, the more powerful that it is.”
“I grew up insecure,” Pavés admits to Vogue. He just finished a photo shoot and was still wearing a modern barong with an embroidered carabao. “I’m short, not the most masculine-looking guy,” he says. “I was always confused for a girl while growing up, which I didn’t mind, but it made me very shy.”
Pavés admits, however, that confidence is always a work in progress. For Pavés, it helps ground him. It pushes him to do better. “I came from a small town where haircuts are five and eight dollars,” he says. “When I got my first job in a big hair salon, I was told I was from the wrong side of town and I was called East Side Rat Boy.”
“I don’t think I know everything, nor do I think I’m the best hairdresser in the world,” he says. “When I sit down to get somebody ready, I feel like I have even more to prove and to show that I’m worthy of being here.”
In his opinion, as a stylist, his job is always to deliver what the client wants. He defies the rules of face shapes that have often governed the way people get hair cuts. “I’ve always said they’re so barbaric and antiquated,” he opines. “I’ve worked with Victoria Beckham and Celine Dion both from short hair to long hair, Jennifer Lopez with blonde hair—I’ve done everything. It’s my job to make it work for you. Every tone and length will work for you if it’s made for you. How hugely violating is it to tell someone they can’t have bangs because they don’t have the right face shape? That’s so offensive to me,” Pavés says.
Ultimately, it is about how people feel when they sit on his chair. “My drive is to make you feel your best with what you already have.” His clients are testament to that philosophy. From regular appearances in The Oprah Winfrey Show, he now counts the likes of Victoria Beckham and Eva Longoria as friends and clients. He has his own hair care line and has traveled the world for a TV show that discussed beauty in different cultures.
He feels great pride being in the service industry where his role is to empower. “Everybody in the world serves somebody,” he says. “The biggest superstar on stage is serving the audience, presidents of every country serve the people. Just like a server in a restaurant, I serve the person who sits in my chair. We all serve each other and the moment we realize that, the better. We can all become a little bit more humble and kinder to people.”
After the death of a nephew due to several birth defects, including a cleft lip and palate, Pavés became active in charities like Operation Smile and Bright Faces. Sitting on the board of the latter, he asked for the Philippines to be his territory, once raising $50,000 in one night for the cause. “What’s next in my career is to completely walk my talk and to thread together my passion and love of hair, art, and beauty with my absolute drive for philanthropy,” he says
Pavés recalls how his family received grace from strangers and medical professionals when needed. Similar care is what he hopes to bring to people, particularly Filipinos. He is currently in talks with a hospital in Zambales, his grandfather’s hometown, to provide cleft lip and palate surgeries. This holiday season, Ken partnered with Beauty Scout and curated a keepsake box filled with brands he has fallen in love with including a celebrity beauty line that will finally reach our shores. “I’m bringing Victoria Beckham to the Philippines, first through philanthropy,” he shares. Proceeds for the beauty bag will go to fighting human trafficking and breast cancer, providing education for young women, and operations for cleft lips and palates.
This is on top of all his many projects, as he remains busy with his styling. “I went straight from the Philippines and landed in LA and went straight to a shoot with Eva Longoria the next day, I shot with Barbie Ferreira for a magazine cover and YSL Beauty. The next day, I flew to Miami to work with Victoria Beckham. I flew back to LA for product and campaign shoots with Eva Longoria and Barbie again and then to Paris to work with Victoria Beckham where she showed her S/S 2023 collection to rave reviews. I then flew to New York with Victoria for a week of press and just returned from London from shooting Victoria Beckham Beauty videos and images with her,” Pavés shares. “Luckily, people are still interested in working with me, but what’s next for me is to [come] full circle, really embark on this journey in the Philippines with my heritage, my career, and what I think is my purpose.”
Early this year, Pavés lost his beloved mother, Cookie, to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that left her paralyzed toward the end of her life. He counts his most fulfilling accomplishment was being able to take care of her, especially in her final years. Tearing up, his only regret was not being able to bring her to the Philippines.
On his recent visit in August, he went on a five-hour trip to Zambales to share his mom’s ashes with the place their family comes from. Stepping into the river in San Marcelino, Pavés closed his eyes and let some of her ashes go—a part of Cookie is finally home.
“I honestly don’t think that I would be as successful in my career if my mother wasn’t Filipino. If she didn’t look different,” he says. “She gave me a different lens to see beauty. If my mom didn’t look different, if people didn’t say things to my mom, I might not look at beauty the way I do. I may not be able to do African American or Latina hair. I may not be able to do anyone that sits in front of me and make them feel like the best version of themself if I didn’t have that lens to see through.”
Pavés proudly wears his love for Cookie and his heritage on his sleeve. This is something he has always done and will continue to do so. By the end of the interview, he apologizes that his story isn’t as glitzy as others may expect for someone in the beauty industry. Despite being surrounded by all the glamour, he says: “My heart is just what my heart is.”
A version of this article appeared in Vogue Philippines’ December-January 2023 Issue, available for purchase now.