8 Celebrity Hairstylists Share the Hair Heroes They Look Up To
From Madam C.J. Walker to Janet Zeitoun.
Celebrity hairstylists are responsible for the looks we see on the red carpet, as well as on the covers of magazines, albums, and in many cases Instagrams that are made to look DIY — the same looks that we all take to our salons when we're ready to update our hair.
But while many have reached star status themselves, stylists often come from humble beginnings. And they've never forgotten the people who either inspired them to get into the hair business, or gave them their first real shot.
We spoke with eight esteemed celebrity hairstyles to take a look back on their careers and flipped the script by asking them to talk about their own hair heroes.
All of their inspiring stories, ahead.
While celebrity ambassador for Goody, Nikki Nelms, may be best known as one of the go-to hairstylists for stars like Zoe Kravitz, KeKe Palmer, and Janelle Monáe, when it comes to picking her own hair hero, she goes back to her childhood roots.
"My hair hero was my older cousin Rhoda K. Johnson," Nelms shares with InStyle. "[One day] she had given herself a very professional looking hairstyle that was so beautifully done. I thought she had gone to a hair salon. I was obsessed with it and questioned her all day for details so that I could do it on myself."
Although creating a bomb style at home may not seem like a huge feat for some, for Nelms, it gave her the push she needed to recognize that her wildest dreams could come true.
"Realizing that a regular person could create such a professional look helped me to see myself as possibly being a hairstylist at a very young age," the pro stylist says.
And now that's she's got her skills down pat, the only thing Nelms needs when she's working are the right hair tools to bring her creative visions to life. "I work with so many different hair textures," she explains. "It's important to have great tools like Goody Hair to help me create and execute every style I'm inspired to create."
"Growing up I had so many hair heroes, there were so many women, from Tracee Ellis Ross to Aaliyah to Monica," celebrity hairstylist and the creator of The Monae Life Academy for hairstylists Monae Everett shares. "But the woman who had the biggest impact on my life was Tina Campbell of gospel duo Mary Mary. I loved her different bright hues of red and various creative hairstyles with her natural hair."
Everett's first memory of Campbell's hair was when the video for the hit song "Shackles" premiered.
"Tina's beautiful red hair was in a short, natural style and I had not seen very many women rocking their natural, non-relaxed, hair before this time," the hairstylist remembers. "Since Tina, a gospel singer, colored her hair red, I was able to show my mother her coif and convince her to allow me to color my hair red, too. I have not had my natural hair color since that day when I was 14-years-old."
Dyeing her own hair Tina Campbell-red piqued Everett's curiosity in hairstyling, which eventually blossomed into a full-blown career. But while she was mesmerized by color, the hair expert's ultimate goal was to never compromise the hair in the process.
"I enrolled in cosmetology school my senior year of high school after this," Everett shares. "My focus is and has always been how to create beautiful looks and keep the hair healthy."
"When I was a teenager, Janet Zeitoun was my very first hair hero," says Ouidad brand ambassador Chuck Amos, who is currently working with the brand for its Coil Infusion line, made specifically for 4A to 4C curls. "She was Janet Jackson's hairstylist, like forever. When I first saw Janet's hair on Soul Train, performing "What Have You Done For Me Lately" during the summer of '86, I was blown outta my mind. I thought it was Janet's real hair! It was big, soft, and moving around effortlessly and her curls were light and floaty. It was impeccable. I recorded it on VHS and replayed it all the time."
While wigs and weaves have come a long way, and most can barely tell when a celebrity is wearing extensions today, Amos remembers a time when they were stiff, clumped, and the texture didn't mimic that of natural hair, which made Zeitoun's work all the more impressive.
"During the release of her last single and music video on the "Control" album, Janet Zeitoun took Janet Jackson's signature curly hair weave and straightened it [for "The Pleasure Principle"], causing a world frenzy," Amos recalls. "My mom and I called her salon at that moment and were told that Zeitoun had ironed Janet's weave with an actual clothing iron, like in the '60s. In 1987, there were only 'curly' weaves on the market but after that video, straight textured hair became the new beauty-store demand."
The stylist later learned that Zeitoun used an interlock technique, otherwise known as French lace, where small hair plugs were tied at the roots to create a flowy finish that wasn't really seen before in the Black community.
"You have no idea how excited I was to do hair extensions and weaves back then, I was only 14-years-old and we started buying hair and doing my cousins', aunties', and my mom's hair that way," he exclaims. "It was a magical time for me. I was so young and super inspired. I wanted to be a hairstylist immediately!"
And even to this day, it's Zeitoun's work that keeps Amos inspired.
"Her craft with Janet Jackson's hair influenced me to make Black women feel the 'lightness' and 'flow' of their natural hair to inspire them like I was inspired during the '80s," he shares. "Those images were what made my career so enriched — giving me a name in this industry, and I never looked back."
VIDEO: Janet Jackson's Red Carpet Evolution
Much like the other stylists, iconic celebrity hair expert Charlotte Mensah's hair hero is someone who motivated her to reach new heights during her early days in the biz.
"My hair hero has to be the late Winston Isaacs, he was the founder of the first Black salon to open in the U.K." she shares with InStyle. "I worked under him in the late '80s, early '90s at a salon in Mayfair called Splinters. It was quite literally the 'mecca for black hair,' housing stars from this side and the other side of the world, an example being Diana Ross. He invested a lot of time and effort into me at the beginning of my career, helping me to not only hone my craft, but also instilled a dedication to discipline and doing things the right way. He was also an amazing stylist. I have nothing but admiration, respect, and love for him."
Mensah shares that on top of styling techniques, Isaacs taught her the importance of being punctual at all times, and even advised her to avoid chewing gum while working on clients.
"Definitely something I've taken with me and educate my own staff about these things," she shares. "I always get a sense of deja vu when I think about chewing gum."
Beyond Isaacs' hard, but fair and helpful rules, Mensah also credits him with helping her to realize that not even the sky was the limit when it came to her career as a hairstylist, and now haircare brand founder.
"In many ways, entering Splinters was the first day of the rest of my life," Mensah says. "I got to see Black excellence live in the flesh; in hair, in customers, in colleagues, and of course, customer service. The experience has become part of my DNA, it built and shaped everything you see me do today. My experience with Winston also made me want to align myself with people and brands that uplift and elevate the Black community, hence me partnering with Thirteen Lune as my U.S. based retailer."
"I am thrilled [about] our inclusion of Charlotte Mensah on Thirteen Lune," says co-founder Nyakio Grieco. "In addition to this collection being a staple in my personal hair care regimen, I am excited to share this product with the world. Catering and uplifting Black beauty founders has always been a goal with Thirteen Lune. Being able to showcase this U.K. brand stateside has been a teller of why the site is necessary for the overall beauty community."
Annagjid "Kee" Taylor
Hairstylist Annagjid "Kee" Taylor may have worked with major stars like Tiffany Haddish and Keke Palmer, but she'll never forget who gave her her first shot.
"Chuck Amos was the first person who gave me a chance in the industry with my first paid gig," she remembers. "I assisted him on a photoshoot in New York for celebrity party planner Colin Cowie. It was our first time ever meeting and he was so inviting and amazing. We spent so much time together that day I felt like it was divine intervention, definitely meant to be."
From that meeting, Taylor says Amos taught her how to style a variety of hair types (which isn't a part of the regular curriculum at most cosmetology schools) and learned how to switch up her technique for editorial shoots.
"[These are] tricks I didn't know coming from being behind the chair in a salon for five years," she shares. "With me having the dream of becoming a celebrity stylist, learning that from him meant a lot to me and I still use those tricks to this day."
Aside from that, Amos also encouraged Taylor to let go of others' judgement, and trust her creative instinct.
"Sometimes with social media, you get a little weary to share your art with the world," she says. "Chuck definitely inspired me to just put myself out there and be proud of what I've created."
When it comes to hair heroes for hairstylist Kim Kimble, who has worked with superstars like Brandy and Tia Mowry, she can't pick just one.
"There are so many amazing artists that have inspired me throughout my career," she tells InStyle. "But my biggest inspirations have been Madam C.J. Walker and Vidal Sassoon. I had always heard about Madam C.J. Walker and what an amazing entrepreneur she was, so many other stylists have looked up to her."
As for Sassoon, she credits him for taking her skills to the next level.
"[He] really shaped me as a hairstylist," Kimble says. "I never really could grasp the concept of cutting hair artfully until I attended his academy. He helped me become the hair cutter that I am today."
Kimble, who has gone from working on TV and movie sets to now having her own haircare line at Sally Beauty, drew inspiration from Walker when it came to crafting her formulas.
"Madam C.J. Walker inspired me to create solution-based products," she shares. "She had a problem that she needed to fix so she went out and developed her own products to fix it. As a result, she helped countless women for years."
Now, Kimble is doing the same.
Ona Diaz-Santin has worked with icons like Gayle King and Dionne Warwick, but she'll never forget who first introduced her to the wonderful world of hair.
"My momma is my hair hero and my first mentor," Diaz-Santin exclaims. "I was about 3-years-old and remember sitting in the salon watching her chat and laugh with her clients while doing their hair, she always made it look like fun."
The stylist's mother, who owned a whopping four salons herself, taught her daughter all about work ethic and encouraged her to do what she loved and was truly passionate about.
"She did it day in and day out with a smile on her face," Diaz-Santin remembers. "Her salons focused mainly on blow-drying curly hair straight. This made me aware of what I wanted to stand for in an industry I shared with my mother. Taking the natural approach to hairstyling is something that is near and dear to my heart, and what makes me smile from ear to ear day in and day out."
Much like Diaz-Santin, one of Oribe brand ambassador Stacey Ciceron's hair heroes is her beloved mother, who influenced her to start styling her own, and other people's hair.
"My mom and aunts would do each other's hair and try the latest trends on their own," Ciceron shares. "At a very young age, I started playing around with my own hair, and those of my neighbors and family, and quickly found joy and passion in perfecting whatever style I was working on."
But it wasn't just the at-home styling experience that drew her to love haircare.
"My mom loved visiting the salon, and would often let me tag along," she recalls. "I loved everything about the salon experience — from the aroma, to the chatter, to watching the technicians work with various hair types and create different hairstyles. Later in my teenage years, I met an incredible salon owner named Lesline Powe-Barton. She also became my hair hero — she had it going on and still does!"
Ciceron describes Powe-Barton's personality as "bright, fiery, and magnetic," which would explain why everyone wanted to be around her.
"She owned one of the hottest salons in Queens, with a line of customers waiting to be seen before the doors opened," the Oribe stylist remembers. "All of her accomplishments and photos of her celebrity clients displayed on the wall."
"It was my experience at Lesline's salon that opened my eyes to the potential of a career in cosmetology," she continues. "I had never seen such a phenomenon as Lesline, and after seeing her success, I knew what was possible for my future."
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