Jess Rona’s Journey from PetSmart Employee to Dog Groomer for the Stars
To think all this started for Jess Rona when she was a teenager simply looking for a way to pay for a car.
You may not know her, but she may be your favorite celebrity's personal dog groomer. Have you seen Katy Perry's dog? That's Rona's work—thanks in part to a dog bather job posting that caught her eye and some help from her mom.
"I was like, 'Oh this is cool, fun, and weird, sign me up,'" Rona tells Daily Paws about her first foray into the pet business—at age 18 at a PetSmart in California.
Rona is an actress and comedian—with a New Girl credit to her name—who eventually turned her dog-grooming day job into Jess Rona Grooming in Los Angeles. That's where she's catered to her star clientele and eventually created HBO Max's Haute Dog—a series with over-the-top grooming competitions where there's $10,000 on the line. And her slo-mo videos of dogs blowing in the wind have captured the attention of dog lovers everywhere.
We talked to Rona about her journey to the top of the dog-grooming world, how Instagram helped her take off, and what dog owners can learn from watching Haute Dog.
You can also catch Rona on the Royal Canin Puppy Pre-Show hosted by Wayne Brady on Jan. 12 across Royal Canin's social channels. Ahead of the AKC National Championship, she will help select the finalists for Puppy Best in Show.
It All Started at PetSmart
When Rona was 18, she needed a job to get a car. Her mom regularly drove 20 minutes to a local PetSmart to get cat food, and on one trip she saw they had a "help wanted" sign posted. Being, as Rona described, "a typical Jewish mother," she called over the manager and told them that her daughter needed the job.
"I looked at their application, and this moment changed my life," Rona tells Daily Paws. The PetSmart application required applicants to choose the department they would like to work in. One of the jobs caught her eye, dog bather. Despite knowing nothing about dogs, she thought the job would allow her to be creative and have fun.
"On my first day, my manager was like 'Can you go put the lead on the Lab in the back and bring him out?' and I was like 'What's a lead?' and 'What's a Lab?'" Rona says. Over the years, Rona met generous groomers who were willing to train her. "It took years of trial and error, being terrible, working on patience, and just trying to get good at it," she says.
Eventually, Rona was grooming dogs during the day and waiting tables at night. She moved to New York for a short stint, but after moving back to L.A. she dove into grooming and on-stage improvisation. She started to compete in grooming competitions, and she would bug mentors by emailing Before and After pictures (this was before you could text photos) and asking for critiques.
The advent of Instagram radically changed Rona's grooming. "I was like holy cannoli, I can look at all of these groomers from around the world," she says. By this time she had been grooming for 15 years, but she hadn't perfected the technical side of balancing dogs and bringing out their expressions. She started to copy and learn from groomers on social media. "I was so inspired," she says.
Everything came crashing down when Rona was fired. "Working for a non-groomer who wants you to be really fast, doesn't care about your style, and just wants you to get it done was not a good fit for me," she says. So, she found a house in the Hollywood Hills with a washer-dryer hookup in the garage. "I was like, this is where I'm going to groom dogs so I can pay my bills," she says.
The Magic of Instagram and Slo-Mo Videos
One day, Rona was grooming a Pekingese named Noodle in her garage and listening to music. "Her ears flew up in the air as I was listening to music, and I was like this is a moment," she says. She grabbed her phone and captured what looked like a music video. That video inspired her to create an Instagram account just for grooming photos and videos. She also started sending the hilarious videos of dogs during grooming sessions to their owners.
The responses came flooding in from Rona's online audience. Some thought the videos were Reddit-worthy, but everyone agreed they brought them joy.
In no time, slo-mo post-grooming videos of dogs blowing in the wind became her social media specialty, and that's when the celebrities started calling.
In 2016, she directed a music video for duo Tegan and Sara. Afterwards they introduced her to Katy Perry's assistant. After Rona groomed the assistant's dog, Katy Perry requested that she groom her pup Nugget.
Rona describes Nugget, a teacup poodle, as her "tiny little muse." She always bends her schedule to meet the needs of Perry and Nugget—whether the dog needs to be ready for a music video appearance or magazine photoshoot. Perry's review is prominently featured on Rona's website: "Jess Rona is to dogs as Vidal Sassoon is to the bob cut."
"I started doing one celebrity, and then another celebrity, and the buzz came in," Rona says.
As celebrity clients have raved about Rona's work, her client list has continued to grow. Celeb vet Patrick Mahaney, VMD introduced her to Jane Lynch, one of Rona's comedy idols. She has groomed Maya Rudolph's, Megan Mullally's, and Judy Greer's dogs as well as Popeye the Foodie.
"They are just magical, sparkly humans that I look up to so much, and I'm just blown away that they're in my life and they're all dog lovers," she says. "I attract the most dog-loving dog lovers of all."
"That is what I'm really passionate about, being of service to dogs and being of service to clients," she says. "It feels as though I'm giving gifts to people all day."
After six years grooming in her garage, Rona recently opened a brick-and-mortar Jess Rona Grooming location. She spends each day grooming a few VIP dogs and overseeing the functioning of the shop. Rona, whose two dogs are Chupie and Meemu, has trained her entire staff to work the way she does, focusing on energy and leaving every dog beautifully groomed.
That’s One Haute Dog!
With her new show Haute Dog, Rona's passions for acting, comedy, and dog grooming continue to collide. "This is my dream," she says.
Haute Dog, the grooming competition show Rona created, premiered on Sept. 24, 2020, on HBO Max. She created Haute Dog to show the world what dog groomers do. Because dogs will get distracted if their parent is in the room for their grooming session, pet parents don't usually see groomers at work. "People don't know what happens behind the scenes, which is bananas," she says.
"It's also showing the world what big-hearted, dog-loving, passionate dog groomers do for a living," she says. "They make your dog feel good, they give your dog a ton of love and attention, and they clean your dog to make sure they're ok and healthy.
"We are honoring these dogs, and we're showing the world on this TV show," Rona says.
Rona's favorite grooming look from the show so far was Elizabeth Gibbs' winning look from Episode 2. She brought her own dog, a black standard poodle, and snipped away his fur using only scissors in the short time allotted. "That dog was perfectly sculpted with shears," Rona says. "A lot of groomers go crazy with a ton of bells and whistles, but with what Elizabeth did with shears—she just put a little hat on her dog."
Grooming looks like Gibbs' reveal a groomer's true talent and technique, or as Rona puts it: "Do you have skill, Baby? Do you know this breed's standards?" Her creative insights have brought her from someone who didn't know what a lead was to being a leader in her industry.