Carolyn Price: A conversation with Rihanna’s hairstylist Ursula Stephen

 Rihanna is known to have dynamic, edgy and trend setting hairstyles. I recently read an article on Huffington Post on Rihanna’s hairstylist Ursula Stephen, which I found very interesting, mostly on what she said about hair practices in South Africa. Zimbabweans I feel, are very similar to South Africans, due to some shared cultures and languages. I also think the way she viewed South African women and their hair would be very similar if she visited Zimbabwe.

 So here are some excerpts from the article: 

“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 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: 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)

Image

Read the full article here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robyn-carolyn-price/ursula-stephen-rihanna_b_2202156.html

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