Phoning a Curl Guru
It’s 8 in the morning when my cellphone alarm goes off. I roll out of bed in an old baggy t-shirt to talk to Lorraine Massey: author of two books, owner of four New York City salon/spas, a prominent leader in the Curly Girl Revolution. I know our discussion will take place over the phone but I should at least put some pants on.
I wait almost an hour. Sitting on the couch, I glance at the time and pray I don’t sound like a bumbling idiot to this woman. While I wait, I read more about her career. A career that sent her to the far east to style hair. I remember working in Bangkok as an English teacher a few years ago but can’t imagine styling hair there. Hob-nobbing with the fashion elite and being the Michelangelo of their collective tresses. . .
I dial the Skype. The pleasantries ensue. I thank her for speaking to me and ask if she wants me to talk about the blog or if she wants to get right to it. She gets right to it.
Lorraine: I’m glad you’re doing this. This is special. We’re still a grassroots movement. . . But women are getting ready. Little by little. I think if you’ve finished my book and you’re still hesitant, you don’t really want to go there. . . yet. The information is out there, you just have to research. If you’re still complaining in 2011 that ‘my hair is blah blah,’ well then you’ve chosen your path. There’s information out there if you want it.
I like her. A lot. Her frankness is refreshing so early in the morning and sets the tone for the rest if our conversation.
Me: It seems like the Curly Girl’s Revolution is here, like you said, it’s grassroots. People are getting on YouTube or making their own blogs. It’s more democratic now.
“So what do you think took women so long to say: ‘Hey, this is okay, I like this hair?’
Well because there’s more of us! It’s freedom! It raining today and I call it Freedom Rain. I’m not afraid to get my hair yet. I think it’s just an accumulation that started with a few women standing up for themselves. It’s not easy to do, though, standing up for yourself.
Yesterday, I had this gorgeous women come in. She’s a model actress. She had the most intense gorgeous curly hair. And she tells me, ‘You know, they’re telling me that my hair just isn’t good for TV.’ It’s so old! It’s old news already, this hating your hair. I told her, ‘Babe, you’re beautiful. You have to stand up and tell them, this is the way I am.’ I mean, if I straightened that hair, she’d look like she was wearing a helmet! I told her to stand up for her curls. Maybe you’ll lose a few jobs, but with you standing up for yourself, you’re telling more people to respect you for you.
Lorraine goes on to say that women feel depressed about their hair and ask for a quick straightening fix. That “depression,” Lorraine maintains, will stay there with you, waiting for you until the next day, after the straightener has worn off. Hair, she reminds us, is just a symptom of a greater problem.
People don’t like it, but I’m like a Yorkshire Terrier. I will go there. I will tell you how you’re damaging yourself. If you want me to straighten it, you have to go somewhere else. There is no amount of money that will make me feel good about blow frying.
So as a hairdresser, you’ve still got your ethics about you?
[Laughs] There is still a soul! I have a soul and I do keep it authentic. Every single day I get behind that chair I cannot sell out. I would rather you be pissed off at me because I’m not going to do your hair. . . rather me scorch it ‘til it’s parched and crispy.
I have to say that’s more ethics than most doctors offer.
The thing is, it comes at a price. I’m not well liked in the industry. It’s better to have a handful of hardcore curly girls than a bunch of clones. I get women who say, ‘I just want something different.’ I tell them, ‘Trust me, my curls can look five different ways in one day. I’ve never had the same hair day in my life.’ Change for the better, not to look like everyone else. If you’re going to look like everyone else, who’s going to look like you?
Lorraine’s says her “moment of clarity” happen in the middle of working on a client’s hair. She describes it as the catalyst that made her quit the industry.
I quit hairdressing for a while. I quit working by their standards. The blow frying and stuff. I call it glorified laundry. I shampooed hair until it was all stripped and dried out and then I would have to iron it. It’s enough to give you Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
One day, I was blow-frying this woman’s hair until it smoked. I was just taking all the life out of it. I stopped and told her, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be responsible for burning your hair like this. It’s going to take me forty-five minutes to blow-fry it, but it’s going to take two minutes to unravel once you hit the streets.’ Because it was really humid and rainy outside.
So she asked, ‘Well, what about the other side?’ [Laughs] Because I hadn’t finished! So I had someone else take over. I told her that I knew it meant losing her as a client. ‘But do know this, I will be here when you’re ready to really look at what you have.’
I lost quite a few clients but I was ready to. I had to gather the ones that were ready to accept themselves. Instead of hairdressing their hair, I decided it was time for me to undress their hair.
I went out on my own and I opened Devachan, a beautiful tranquil place. Through word of mouth, people were saying things like: “No, she works with what you have. She doesn’t straighten or shampoo.’
It was just a handful that turned into two handfuls and now it’s big. But it took a long time, Babe. It’s been about sixteen years of one curly girl telling another curly girl.
Lorraine’s voice dips to a conspirator’s whisper as she tells me, You should know that I have a bad reputation in the hair world.
I laugh, incredulous to what she says. She mentioned it earlier in the interview and I didn’t pick up on it. What? Why?
Her tone is now unapologetic. I go against what the manufacturers tell you to want. Buy the shampoo, buy the heat tools. Everyone is worried I’ll take away their business with my honesty. They’re scared to lose business by teaching a curly girl to love her hair as opposed to the “weekly/weakly” blowouts. There is big money to be had in keeping a curly girl in denial. We keep the hair industry in business.
Hating to beat the “doctor” metaphor horse, I had to tell her, Well now it sounds like you’re the rogue doctor who says, ‘I’m not going to prescribe these pills to you. If you’re sick, you need to diet and exercise.”
Well yeah, and sometimes I have to give a placebo. A client will come in and say, ‘I don’t like this bit right here, can you help?’ So I pretend to cut it off and they’re all: ‘I love it! It beautiful!’ I didn’t do anything but present them with their natural hair and they’re happier with it. As far as doctoring goes, a lot of it is psychology.
Curls Transcend Race
In Lorraine’s book Curly Girl: The Handbook, she covers curls from all over the world. Botticelli Curls to Fractal Curls, your curl type is covered. In the current Natural climate, black women are starting to really finding themselves. They are getting to the “root” of their hair insecurities and accepting themselves. It’s common to believe that a Black curly girl has a vastly different journey than the White or the Latina curly girls. Lorraine illustrates that it’s all the same hurt.
When I sat down to read your book, I was just so surprised how similar your journey was to the average Black woman’s. The whole draping a sweatshirt over your head to mimic long swinging straight hair. . . that’s the childhood desire of many young Black girls.
Exactly. Thank you. But I was met with suspicion when I tried to interview some Black women [for the book]. Some told me ‘You don’t know me or what I’ve gone through.’ I had to tell them, ‘I might have a different curl type then you, but I have the same fears and desires.’ I hated my hair for the same reasons. Feeling not good enough can be a universal feeling.”
More Tips for Curly Girls
You give your clients autonomy over their bodies. You help them and send them out into the world to help themselves. You ever worry about being out of a job eventually?
Lorraine is not worried. A terrible hair cut at the age of fifteen, at the hands of a hairdresser, pushed her to learn how to cut her own hair.
What I do it teach women to take care of themselves when no one else will do it. I’ll always be there teaching the next curly girl.
She has plenty of tips for those willing to put in the time to change their lifestyle to a more holistic one. Since she included so many natural hair and skin remedies in her book Curly Girl: The Handbook, I ask her what her favorite natural ingredient was.
I love ginger. It’s great for everything. You can make a tincture from it for your face, or dab it on a cotton ball for a makeup remover. You can run it through your hair. Plus you can freeze it and bring it back later. It’s a natural thermogenic plant that just warms the body up. People don’t think about it sort of stuff enough. We don’t pamper ourselves with good things nearly enough.
All right, so what’s the biggest mistake a curly girl can make?
Lorraine’s tone is tired.
100% Shampoo. It’s something we’ve been doing since we were kids, every other day or whatever. We have this belief that we must wash ourselves frequently and with these detergents and sulfates. It’s like, no wonder your hair is dry and frizzy. Duh. What have you been dehydrating it in? On top of that, these shampooers want to flat iron it. Obviously, making it even drier.
Some of the ingredients in shampoo can be comparable to stuff that’s under my kitchen sink.
Exactly. You may have paid a lot for your products, maybe that has a nice fragrance, but the ingredients are all the same and your hair really pays the price. It’s the same with relaxers. ‘Oh no, this relaxer is safer and nicer than this one.’ No! It’s all the same junk!
Everyone wants a magic potion, Babe. But I keep telling them YOU’RE the magic potion. We have to make sound decisions for ourselves by doing the research. We have to be our own advocates.
Laughing to Keep from Crying
Lorraine proves not to be such a taskmaster. She’s as lighthearted as she is genuine.
Every once in awhile, you have to be able to laugh about this sort of stuff. The business of hair can be serious enough.
She recalls telling a client, You know, your flat iron is actually a panini press for bread and cheese?!
Lorraine also recounts her worst fears come true with her own daughter. “My daughter doesn’t straighten her hair. She knows that would be almost sacrilegious, right? (her daughter is in the background laughing) But I did find one flatiron in her bedroom.
Yeah, well I called her out of her room later that day and asked: ‘What are this?’ Like I had found drugs in her backpack. Of course, she says, ‘It’s not mine!’
I’m holding on to them for a friend?
Right, right. Her friend actually squealed on her though. ‘Yeah, she uses them.’ But I have to say that she hasn’t done that since. She actually encourages her friends against it and stays true to herself. I mean she and my other kids really live it.
I always joke, after my memorial service, they’ll all decide: ‘Oh, now that mom’s gone, what will we do with our hair first? Blow-fry it or shampoo?’
Over your dead body?