A Conversation With Rihanna's Hair Stylist Ursula Stephen

As she ran her fingers through the hair of women who knew virtually nothing about how to care for theirhair, she understood that their dry, brittle strands were vestiges of their apartheid past.
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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 08: Ursula Stephens attends her birthdy party at Boudoir on November 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Motions Haircare)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 08: Ursula Stephens attends her birthdy party at Boudoir on November 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Motions Haircare)

"Hair brings one's self image into focus; it is vanity's proving ground. Hair is terribly personal, a tangle of mysterious prejudices." -- Shana Alexander, American journalist

Celebrity hairstylist Ursula Stephen cried as we talked about... hair. It caught me off guard as I hadn't considered the possibility of tears during an interview about celebrity cuts and color. What I discovered however, was that Ursula was a woman who was not only well-versed in the mechanics of her craft, but acutely aware its profound social, cultural and political significance. Barely speaking through her tears, we talked about her trip to South Africa where she worked with women of color whose natural hair texture was almost unrecognizable -- marred by years of improper relaxers, no conditioner and an incessant desire to manipulate their hair into straight, Anglo-inspired styles. As she ran her fingers through the hair of women who knew virtually nothing about how to care for their own hair, she understood that their dry, brittle strands were vestiges of their apartheid past. Their hair whispered stories of their history; and Ursula was moved to tears by what she heard.

Despite the fact that Elle magazine has lauded her as "hair royalty," Ursula Stephen remains remarkably humble and painstakingly human. She's yet to allow herself to become jaded or disconnected from the essence of her craft in a haze of global jet setting with one of the biggest popstars on the planet. Her two Vogue covers with Rihanna haven't rendered all else unimportant. She remains firmly grounded -- using her talent as a conduit to help women feel beautiful, empowered and recognize better versions of themselves. From those uncovering their identity soaked in layers of racial injustice, to a pop-princess asserting her power as an icon, Ursula remains equally inspired.

Below are excerpts from my conversation with Ursula Stephen, who proves that in her industry, style does not always trump substance.

Robyn: What are your thoughts on the increasing number of women of color who are choosing to wear their hair in more natural styles? Bloggers like Taryn Guy, Chescaleigh, Urban Bush Babes, Curly Nikki and Hey Fran Hey, have become Internet celebrities and gained huge followings, essentially by sharing their natural hair journey and styling tips.

Ursula: I think the movement that's happening right now is really great. Women are gaining a certain sense of self confidence. For a long time, if you wore your hair natural, people didn't associate you with being pretty, stylish or sexy. And now, with so many different styling options and different products available, it just makes it so much the better for the natural girl to really show her beautiful self.

I'm a hairstylist and I'm down for whatever -- weaves, braids, bald heads, short hair, etc. I appreciate styles for what they are. I think everything is beautiful. Every image. Every picture. Every person. But the fact is that so many women are losing themselves behind weaves and extensions. So I'm happy that women can feel and be beautiful with natural hair because they were losing that sense of themselves for a long time. That's why they were losing their edges and hair because they were becoming essentially dependent on these extensions. They forgot about their own natural hair and how beautiful and how healthy it could be.

At the end of the day, a healthy head of hair is the foundation for a great hairstyle. So they sacrifice their own hair because they want to wear these expensive weaves and braids... but then the weaves and braids start looking crazy because they don't have any hair. It was like a bad cycle that we were going through. I think this movement is helping women to get back to who they are and really appreciate themselves. Women are learning that weaves and braids are just accessories to be worn for a certain amount of time, and to be taken out for a certain amount of time.

Robyn: You cut Rihanna's hair into the infamous bob -- a haircut which many people credit with helping to catapult her career into superstardom. Tell me a bit about the thought process that went into going short. Because prior to the cut, her long hair, flowing tresses mirrored her popstar counterparts. You guys were taking a bit of a risk because the long weave seemed to be an essential part of the popstar formula.

Ursula: That was one of the reasons why we did it -- because she was tired of looking like everybody else. Plus, I was tired of doing the same old thing for her and for everybody else. And we just went for it. But we never thought that it was going to be talked about to the extent that it was. That wasn't the aim. It was really just a matter of being tired of looking like that... like everybody else. It's something that we just did. We never knew that it would be this world-renowned haircut. So I wasn't nervous when I cut her hair, because we had no idea it would be so big.

I think I realized that the cut was a big deal when I started seeing everybody, not only in New York, with the haircut. It had even gone overseas. No matter where I would go -- New York, L.A., London, Paris, Germany -- somebody was taking some piece of what she had done to her hair. It was everywhere. It was crazy.

Robyn: What has been your experience in the entertainment industry as it relates to standards of beauty... particularly black beauty?

Ursula: I think there is a little prejudice towards it, but it's unsaid. No one speaks about it. You know, you have other artists that are darker skinned and they just don't really go that far. There are a few exceptions. But the percentage is so small. No one really speaks about it.

I don't think anyone has ever come to me and said, "Oh she's too dark, so we wont show her or we wont put her in front." Nothing like that. It's just something that silently happens. There are all of the artists out front -- the light-skinned girls with long hair and all of that. But that's what I liked about the whole movement with Rihanna. She did cut her hair and she did shave her hair. She was this super pretty girl that was so rebellious with her hair that it was an oxymoron. So it messed everybody up. It let people actually see that you could be gorgeous, successful, and make it in this industry and not have long hair down to your knee caps or boobs up to your chin. It's possible. So it is possible to change these standards. And I think it is happening now. Now people are embracing it more because you have the rule breakers like Rihanna who have shown that.

It's funny because every time I have creative meetings with an A&R executive, or whoever is in charge of how they want an artist to look... it's usually men. And that's what men want. They want to see the light-skin-and-long-hair girl because that's their fantasy. Before you would go into a creative meeting and people would give you references of all these long-hair artists... you know, the Mariahs, the Beyonces, and all that type of thing. But now that Rihanna has come along, she's changed the game. Now I go into creative meetings and they give me references of my own work... of funky, short hair cuts. And now that's in the limelight. That's what's beautiful. So it's changing. It's definitely changing. It's absolutely changing.

Robyn: How does it feel to know that your work has made a cultural impact?

Ursula: That part makes me feel great. It makes me feel happy and proud. Because I am that young girl who was different than other young girls growing up. Who didn't really know exactly what I wanted to do. Even with my hair and my identity... I went through that too. So the fact that I can give that confidence to to other girls, that's the best part of the whole deal.

But I don't want people to minimize it either, and think that you can just cut your hair in a bob or shave your hair on one side and you're going to be a popstar. It's not just a cookie cutter method. And so my point in saying that is we did it because it was real. We weren't in a lab saying, "Oh, this is going to make them go crazy." We did it because it was real. It was a real feeling. It was a real movement. It was a real team behind it. The team worked together from hair to makeup to wardrobe, to everything. And that's important when you are an artist. You have to have a great team. And you have to work well together.

Robyn: When you were in South Africa with Motions, Rihanna tweeted the following: "*Meanwhile on set* Being able to do hair and being able to do black hair are 2 different things! #magazines please pay attention." What were your thoughts when you saw that statement?"

Ursula: (laughs) I actually never saw that tweet from her, so I can't confirm whether she said that or not. And since I did not see it and have not spoken to her about it, I cannot confirm exactly why she said that. I was in South Africa under contract with Motions, so there were a few projects I was not there for.

But if she did send that tweet, it sounds like she was on set and they must have hired whoever they wanted to hire for her hair and it didn't come out well. That is a thing that happens in this industry big time. It is really hard for the brown girls to get on certain sets. Very hard for the brown girl. And I've been doing Rihanna's hair since 2007... through every look that everybody loved, hated, maybe liked, maybe disliked... but still talked about it regardless. And there are editorials that will come up, and those people who are the decision makers will say that they don't want me. They want to use their own people. So how can you want this artist to be in your magazine because of the way she looks which I had something to do with, but now you don't want to use me for your magazine cover? So now they bring anybody in, who, chances are, it's somebody who is not brown and has no knowledge of black hair. And black hair needs to be understood to be done well and properly. And so you brought this person in because they must have a big name or whatever political reason they have, and then the artist is not happy because her hair looks like shit. It's a crazy thing. As a black stylist, I've always been able to go on the set and do black, white, Asian, and all types of hair. But we can't get the job. They wont give us the job.

Robyn: We talked earlier about women of color in the States starting to embracing their natural hair. Tell me a bit about the women you recently worked with in South Africa? Do they have a similar relationship to their hair as the women of color in the States?

Ursula: Oh no. We are miles ahead of them here in the States. They really don't have knowledge of their own hair types. They really don't get it. And I don't want to get too political about it, but just from going back and forth from the States to South Africa, they are really into other people and other cultures there. You know, apartheid really just finished over there. It seems like it was a long time ago, but for them that are living in it, it's still now. So I think that plays into it. (crying) I'm sorry. I think that plays a lot in their views on their hair type. So they don't have the knowledge. They're doing relaxers really wrong. They don't condition it. Not that they want to mimic white people necessarily, but they just think that they want to get their hair to be straight like theirs... so they don't take the time to understand their own.

I speak to all the girls and talk to them because I do classes over there. So I ask them what they think is wrong? And they say that they do not condition their hair. They just relax and that is it. It's never been taught to them. They don't know. And so they have just really dry, dry hair. They've just given up on it and it's just there. And it's so different than the states because in the states your hair is a part of your beauty. So it is a totally different world. It hurt me because, I'm in a class trying to teach or in a workshop, and I'm like "oh my God... I can't believe you guys are doing it that wrong." They have no knowledge of their hair type or how to care for it. Nothing. (crying)

Robyn: What surprises you the most about what you have managed to achieve in your career?

Ursula: Maybe one of the things that actually surprises me most is that I turned the one thing that made me happy and loved to do into a career. Because that bothered me for a long time. I think the view of being a hairstylist has changed now. But when I was trying to do it, it wasn't viewed as a career. It wasn't really respected. But I didn't care. I was young. I loved it. That's all I knew. That's all I wanted to do. Hair, hair, hair all the time. Even for free... I would just do it. But then I got to a point where I was grown and I needed to make sure I created something stable.

And I would fear that because I knew I had my mother to answer to. You know, having to answer questions like, "You didn't finish school, so what are you going to do? You're just going to keep on doing hair?" So I had to really make it solid. And I feel like I'm in the process of doing that. I'm not going to say that I've done it, because I still have a lot of things that I want to do. But I like the path that I'm on in general.

Robyn: Tell me something you've learned on your journey. Was there ever a moment on your path -- prior to your success -- where you considered quitting?

Ursula: I went through a difficult transition time. I was in the salon and just really going through it. I was tired of being behind the chair and I wanted something different. And so I decided that I was going to really start freelancing. And so I started doing it, but it was so hard financially. I almost decided not to freelance anymore. I was talking to my agent Krystal, and would tell her things like, "I'm not doing it anymore." Because when I worked in the salon, I would make cash. And so I always had money and it was easy. My bills were getting paid. But now when you start working freelance, it's like you have to wait, and your tunraround time for checks are very different than the salon. So in that transition period, I didn't make it where it was revolving quickly enough yet. And so it was rough for me. I was losing my clients. I practically lost most of them because I was so in and out of the salon with the freelance thing. So I was totally broke at the time.

But I was like, you know what Urse, just pray and wait. Let's just see. And before I knew it I just started really working and I started making money and it just started coming. And I realized that I had put like 15 years into the salon and saw all the benefits. So I talked to myself a bit... and I said, in order for you to see the benefits with freelance, you've just got to close your eyes and don't look back. You just have to jump in and put your hundred percent and see what comes out of it. It worked. Everything worked out the way it should of.

Follow Ursula Stephen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/UrsulaStephen.

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