Felicia Leatherwood is the go-to stylist for some of the entertainment industries biggest stars but before her styles graced the red carpet they graced her neighbors and friends. “I was my first client”, she remembers, “me and my Barbie’s”. Since then she’s come a long way from being your local hairdresser, but the effect she’s able to have on women, beautifying them inside out, can be felt around the world. But it’s not just about being beautiful. She’ll be the first to let you know, a head of hair is only as beautiful as its roots are healthy. Translation: You’re only as beautiful on the outside as you are in the deepest parts of you. By Iman Folayan
Iman Folayan: Madame C.J. Walker became a millionaire off of hair care products, more recently the perm kits have seen declining sales begging the question, where did all the perms go? Is natural hair a trend or really here to stay?
Felicia Leatherwood: We have to remember that Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune not only from the relaxer she helped invent. More importantly, the relaxer she sold was not toxic based and full of chemicals. Her relaxer was food based and contrary to popular belief it did not make your hair bone straight like the relaxers do now. It would make your hair wavy. From there she would press it to get that straight look. What she used on women is in no way close to the perms/relaxers used now. Way less harsh.
The natural hair movement is definitely resurging. Everything that’s a fad comes and goes but I see this movement as being more about untapped beauty than simply hair. For so long we didn’t feel like our hair was nice enough. When you feel abnormal you don’t feel completely free. Now we’re free to express our beauty and ourselves in the most natural way possible because natural hair is the norm. I love it! Society and culture are like cousins. Take society away from culture and you’re left with nothing. At the same time, culture influences society. Natural hair was always our culture but society changed that because our culture wasn’t accepted. Now our culture is changing society, and they have no choice but to accept it the more we embrace it.
IF: When did you decide to take it to the next level, from stylist to celebrity stylist?
FL: I never thought to take it to the next level. I’ve always done natural hair so it’s always been a part of me. I was playing with Bantu knots and curl knots in the 90s would see me they were like, “It’s cute on you but I could never rock that”. And that was cool with me. When I started working in this one salon a lot of celebrities would come through and I was the only one who did natural hair.
I honestly believe that the natural hair movement started with men around 2000. That was around the time when men were wearing their hair braided and wearing afros. Remember Cedric the Entertainer in the movie Barbershop; he had that large fro and that was all his hair. Around that time I was doing a lot of football players’ locs. This was before they started making the helmets large enough to even wear them. It was word of mouth that got me working with Jill Scott. And when people saw the styles I was able to do on her, the word kept spreading. So it wasn’t like I wanted to be celebrity stylist, natural hair has just always been my life.
It’s bigger than hair—What’s the real message that you’re giving to people?
The big message is to inspire and show women that natural hair is beautiful. I want to show the world and America that it’s not about our hair. For so long we’ve had to keep our natural beauty in hiding. Our hair was too kinky or too wild. I’m showing white America that our hair is special and appropriate for any occasion. Their problem is with us not our hair. This is my platform to show that our hair is only an extension of our beauty as black women.
What is the number one mistake women make with natural hair?
The number one mistake is a simple one, you need to decide if you are a hair person or not. It’s not that natural hair is any more difficult to deal with, you just have to be patient and willing to take the time to do your hair. And you have to actually like doing hair. Deciding if you’re a hair person is half the battle you embark on. If you’re not a hair person, find someone who is.
Can we expect a hair care product line from you anytime soon?
I get asked that question all the time. My question is , would they buy it? There are already so many hair care product lines so what would make them buy mine? I’m more concerned with providing quality and I’m so focused on integrity that I wouldn’t want to create a product and expect people to buy just because my name is on it.
I do have one hair care product that I feel all women should have. My detangler brush is available on my site and what I love about it is that it’s not like any regular brush. Most brushes are stationary so as you comb through it has so much resistance, often resulting in hair loss and breakage. My brush is unique in that it moves and contours to your hair as you brush. When people see it they think it’s just a regular plastic brush until they use it and see the results.
What’s new and upcoming for Felicia Leatherwood?
I have a reality show Head Cases on Issa Rae’s Youtube Channel that I’m really excited about. We’re four episodes in and so far the response has been great. Each episode I’m helping a woman who’s undergoing some type of hair crisis. What I’ve found is that even though I’m helping them with their hair a lot of their real issues boil down to self-esteem. I’m really able to transform these women’s lives on a deeper level through hair. A lot of times we put it (our problems) on our hair but really it’s in our heart. I get so many women sending submissions so I look forward to continuing these shows. Make sure you keep up with it, there’s definitely more to come.
I also have a few appearances and events lined up this year. I’ll be doing a presentation in Atlanta in a couple weeks called Kinky Hair Unlocked. I’ll be showing some of my favorite styles. If I were around in the 40s I would have had the hottest salon on the block. I love 40s styles because they exuded elegance and glamour. With Jill I get to do more traditional styles so I’m excited to show off some of my more creative styles. I like creating styles that can transition from a day in the office to a night out with your girls. You can have a functional style without it being boring.
For most of May I’ll be in Lagos, Nigeria for a hair expo where I’ll be training other natural stylists. These training expos allow me to share various techniques and styles but more so I’m helping to dispel the myth that natural hair is unruly. I get so many requests to come to Africa so I’m looking forward to doing more visits to places like Kenya and South Africa. I’ll also be in London for Curlvolution, this huge natural hair, beauty, and lifestyle expo. Be sure to catch me if I’m in your city because I’ll be doing a lot of travelling this year.
Interview featured in our April Issue 2015
Miss Iman is a journalist hailing from Houston, TX. She has contributed to a variety of blogs and magazines and includes in her credits copy editor of several book projects. Special Interests: Pop Culture, Health, Tech, and Politics.