This Black Hair Stylist Just Made British History

This Black Hair Stylist Just Made British History

Last week, leading celebrity hair stylist Charlotte Mensah became the first Black woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards' Hall of Fame. For beauty industry insiders and talent, this award is like the hair world's version of the Oscars, and it's been around for almost 34 years.

For nearly as long — 32 years and counting — Mensah, a self-made entrepreneur, has been styling natural hair for women and men, whether afro, mixed, or curly textured. She marks big names like Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, Eve, Jada Smith, and many more as regular clients.

Mensah owns a thriving salon in West London's Notting Hill neighborhood, called Hair Lounge, and self-funds and produces her own sustainable and organic haircare line, called Charlotte Mensah's Manketti Oil, which is extracted from mongongo tree nuts, including new products ranging from a moisturizing hair mist to detangling brushes tailored for natural hair textures.

As a leader in the worldwide natural hair movement, the London-based artist has written extensively on the culture and versatility of natural hair styles, and teaches workshops around the world, including through Charlotte Mensah Academy, in her native Ghana. Leading up to her Hall of Fame honor, Mensah notably won Best Afro Hairdresser of the Year in 2013, 2014, and 2017 from the Hairdressers' Journal yearly event.

The Hall of Fame honor is a proud one for Mensah, who grew up in the UK styling her little sister's hair as a way to cope with her mother's death at age 13; for her father, who flew from Ghana to be at his daughter's side for the Hall of Fame honor; and for women and men of color who hope to create hair empires of their own someday.

"It's quite weird how it has taken so long for a Black woman to get into the Hall of Fame for doing hair, because Black women have always done hair. It's part of our culture."

Mensah's success is also a moment to keep history in perspective. "If you really think about it, my parents came to the UK in the '60s," Mensah says. "So if they were to get their hair done, they would've probably gone to someone's house because there wouldn't have been Black owned and operated salons that understood how to work with natural hair. It's quite weird how it has taken so long for a Black woman to get into the Hall of Fame for doing hair, because Black women have always done hair. It's part of our culture."

She continues: "The hotel that I won the award in, when my dad first came to the UK, that's where he worked, so in the '60s, [as a Black man], he wasn't even allowed to serve on the front of the house, he had to always be in the kitchen just washing up. So 50 years later, with both us here, it's all come full circle. When I won the award, he was crying."

PAPER caught up with the trailblazing hair artist to talk lessons learned along the way, staying motivated, cultural appropriation, and more.

How are you feeling about your award? You must be on Cloud Nine.

It's such an honor to be the first Black woman to enter the Hall of fame for British hairdressers. There are quite a lot of Black people in the UK but obviously, not as much as in America, so to be recognized in the UK is huge. Sometimes I think that this should have happened a long time ago, but it's happening now. I've been doing hair for 32 years.

"The experiences of today are what will make your tomorrow."

What do you feel like is one of the greatest things you have learned in all that time?

I have learned that you have to be patient and focused. Although I've been doing hair for 32 years, I have also done a lot of other things, from styling fashion shows to teaching workshops to having my own haircare products. One huge thing that I have learned is that things happen at the right time, and not everything will happen all at once. A lot young people don't have that type of patience anymore because they want instant gratification. I may have this platform now, but many young people forget that you need to put the work in and the experience is actually what makes you. The experiences of today are what will make your tomorrow.

A look from Charlotte Mensah's AFROFUTURE collection.

Did you have mentors in the beginning who encouraged you along?

Hair is something I fell into. My whole hair journey kind of started when I lost my mother at 13. I started out looking over my younger sister's hair and that was something I did at first out of play. I would see a new style in a magazine and practice it on her hair, and she was only three so she literally likes everything. I would finish putting her cornrows in and she would be say that I did good job, so that was encouragement. Because of the trauma of losing my momma at such a young age, I didn't perform that well at my exams in school. So automatically, I was more drawn to hair instead. I trained at the very first Black salon to open in the UK, and I think going in every day really helped me cope and grieve with my mom, because the salon was always a very happy vibe. The vibrations and energy in the salon were always high, so you felt like you had just walked into another home. My first boss, Winston Isaac, always encouraged us to be the best people we could be and to never cut corners. I loved the way that he worked. He was very diligent, and great with people as well. I really admire that about him, and I didn't really ever think that 30 years later, I would be this woman who is in the Hall of Fame.

"I remember people saying that natural hair wasn't going to take off — that it was just a trend. I knew better."

You're someone who has played a pivotal role in the natural hair movement. When did you realize your work could be influential?

In 2005, I started writing a step-by-step hair styling guide in a popular industry magazine and I remember people saying that natural hair wasn't going to take off — that it was just a trend. I knew better. But in every issue, I would conduct three makeovers with a model, then we'd tell readers how to achieve the looks. I got such great feedback from this, and people saw from the makeovers that they really could wear their hair natural and look and feel amazing. Also for visibility, I would do the hair for local fashion shows; I would only use girls with natural hair textures, and that helped natural styles become very popular, because on the runway, the pictures would go everywhere. I started hearing from younger people that seeing themselves in fashion contexts made them feel more comfortable to wear their hair natural, simply because they were seeing a lot more of it around them. That grew and grew. I did Janelle Monàe's first album hair looks, and whenever she came to London she would see me to look after her hair. The most recent celebrity I styled was Erykah Badu, for the British Fashion Awards.

A look from Charlotte Mensah's AFROFUTURE collection.

Do you remember one of the first fashion shows you did that was seen by a lot of people?

Yeah, it was Ghana Fashion Week. This was before any fashion week began in Africa. We were one of the first people to take [natural hair] to Ghana Fashion Week, we started around 2014. We used all braided textures, on girls with dark skin. And everybody was in awe, thinking, Wow, how did you create these styles? But also, when I started doing the British Hairdressing Awards, I would only work with natural textures — never long, relaxed hair. It was always curls, coils, short afros, cropped looks, and different threading techniques. And everyone really loved it, because they've not seen that in years. If they've seen a model, either they've got a wig on, which is really straight and long, but it's never really a texture.

"For your hair to grow and be amazing, it's not about what you put on to treat it, it's about maintaining your spirit."

What do you think people still get wrong about natural hair that you wish they understood?

People need to embrace what they have, and practice acceptance as well. Within our Black communities, we tend to judge people too much, and think, Oh, you're hair should be longer. Why is it like that, or why is it like this? Every individual person can remind themselves to love what they have — to remember it's quality versus quantity. And also, for your hair to grow and be amazing, it's not about what you put on to treat it, it's about maintaining your spirit. You have to be spiritually happy, mentally well, and you also have to be emotionally happy with yourself. Because all of those three things, if it's not in line, your hair won't grow, because the hair actually comes from the blood. So you have to be more aligned with your spirit. Of course, it's important to maintain the hair and care for it, but if you're not looking out for yourself spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, it will show in your hair, too.

A look from Charlotte Mensah's AFROFUTURE collection.

Do you think learning about a more holistic way of caring for one's hair should start early?

I think it's important that parents, when they have children, really nurture them from a young age by letting them appreciate what they have. Because I do often see, even when I'm in Africa, little kids, and they've got long, blonde braids or something, which is so unnecessary, because it's a child. Even if they've got no hair, that's fine, just leave it at the ears, that's all. Parents put pressure on the children, so the children then grow up with a stigma of like, Oh, my hair needs to be long. So it has to start from the birth. It's quite deep, I think.

"It has to start from the birth. It's quite deep, I think."

There's still this prevailing colonial idea of "white is right," whether it's hair or skin.

I had an opportunity to go to Tanzania a few years ago, and I was in tears because I was working out there teaching them the basics, like how to care for natural hair, and I couldn't believe the horror of seeing — like, two-year-olds with relaxer, babies who can barely walk with straightened hair and lost edges. What the hell is going on?

A look from Charlotte Mensah's AFROFUTURE collection.

What do you feel like has improved over the course of your career, and in terms of how people think about natural hair?

There's so many beautiful images of beautiful, successful Black women everywhere with their natural hair now, from the Solanges of the world to people like Lupita Nyong'o. I mean, just seeing the film Black Panther has made such a difference, because all of the sudden, people are more happy and feel affirmed to wear their hair natural and do whatever they want. And I think it's a lot more visible — we're seeing a lot more models as well of color, and every magazine you open you'll see more women who look like you, which really helps so much. It's about us really working hard to keep it going forever and ever, not just for it to be a trend and then years later, it's something else.

There is an ongoing debate about white people appropriating Black and African hair styles, and obviously, appropriating darker skin color is a whole other issue. What are your thoughts on this?

I look at hair like it's an extension of yourself. It's a bit of fun, it's an accessory. But at the same time, if you are going to wear any type of braid-in, you should be able to refer it back and say, "Well look, I got this inspiration from Africa," or wherever you got the inspiration from. But don't just wear it like, "Oh, this is Dutch braids," or all these funny names they're giving it. We all know where this all really comes from. For instance, my salon is in Notting Hill, which is in West London, and it's very mixed. So you have loads of Caucasian girls that will come in and have their hair braided, but it isn't because they want to be Black — they're just doing it because it's for a special occasion or something. But it's important to give the credit where it's due. And I mean, who doesn't like to wear their hair differently? But don't pretend that it's like, Oh, I'm oblivious to this certain history, concerning types of natural hair, because there's a lot that goes with that, there's a whole culture behind it.

"You have to believe in yourself. Because if you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you?"

What other advice would you share for aspiring hairdressers?

You have to believe in yourself. Because if you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you? That's a very strong policy for me. And just keep the fire inside you burning. Don't ever let anyone dim that light in you because you are your own power. No one can take that from you. But the moment you let other people take control of that, you've lost. And sometimes, when you're in this type of industry, you have to be a little bit single-minded as well, not to have too many friends or follow too many people. You have to find your own way, and follow your own journey.

A look from Charlotte Mensah's AFROFUTURE collection.

Hair: Charlotte Mensah
Photographer: John Rawson
Makeup: Lan Nguyen-Grealis