She once glued googly-eyes to Janelle Monáe's hair, but you'll want to try her tips and tricks on your everyday looks too.

By Angelique Serrano
Updated Feb 27, 2020 @ 8:00 am
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Nikki Nelms
Credit: Getty Images

Whether she's styling Solange for a video shoot or pinning googly-eye accessories into Janelle Monáe’s updo, hairstylist Nikki Nelms’s approach is anything but ordinary. “When I’m doing hair, I love to use the things around me, to let the moment tell me what to do,” she says. “That’s why I’m not a big prep person. If everything in my kit doesn’t work, it’s fine. I get an adrenaline rush, and I’m forced to figure it out.” Case in point: When stumped for ideas at a photo shoot, Nelms wandered over to the nail technician’s table. “She had white strips of paper that she probably used to take off acrylics. I cut them into little triangles and glued them into the hair. It was perfect, and I couldn’t have planned it.”

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., Nelms graduated from practicing on her Cabbage Patch doll to working on her fellow high schoolers and even the staff. “My mother would ask me, ‘Why is your Spanish teacher coming to the house to get her hair done?'" Later, when Nelms found herself prioritizing her friends’ trims over her college classes, she decided to leave school and eventually took beauty-academy courses and entered hair-show competitions. As she made new contacts, Nelms worked at a salon and then began doing hair for music videos. As always, giving every client a fresh take is key. She’ll work with Monáe one day, then Zoë Kravitz the next. “It’s instinctive,” she says. “Everything I do with each person is custom.” Just don’t expect it to be organized. “My station looks like a flea market, a garage sale, or an auto body shop, it’s so messy,” she says. “I used to be embarrassed when I’d work around strangers and see how neat they were, with cute little bags and every size iron. Now I’ve embraced it. This is how my art happens.” And if she struggles while making each new masterpiece, so much the better. “I believe the process is sometimes way more beautiful than the outcome, you know?”

Nikki Nelms
Credit: Courtesy

Get Her Essentials

With this brushable hairspray, Nelms can create structured looks that transition easily into soft styles. The Maui Moisture brand ambassador also likes this “weightless” moisturizing oil.

Nikki Nelms
Credit: Courtesy

Sebastian Professional Shaper Plus, $20; Maui Moisture Nourish & Moisture + Coconut Milk Weightless Oil Mist, $9;

“I love a really good blow-dryer, like from GHD, plus a rattail comb and an Afro pick, which is great for detangling any texture,” Nelms says.

Nikki Nelms
Credit: Courtesy

GHD Helios Professional Hair Dryer, $249;

Anyone can pack a dryer sheet to tame flyaways and static, she says. The hot glue gun comes in handy if you want to get crafty: Nelms used one to attach doll eyes to hairpins before adorning Monáe’s hair for a press event.

Nikki Nelms
Credit: Alamy, Andrey Nikitin/Getty Images

Downy April Fresh Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, $5/105 sheets;

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle available now on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download.