In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Nikki Nelms is a self-described "Hair MacGyver" — it's right there in her Instagram bio. And a quick scroll through her feed will reveal why: She can transform any seemingly mundane, inanimate object into an inventive, refreshingly unique hair accessory. And more than that, she can fashion hair itself into the most stunning and unexpected sculptures you've seen this side of the Met. To refer to Nelms as a hairstylist seems an almost comical understatement. A hair artist? Maybe, but it's more than that. A hair visionary? That last one seems right. MacGyver works, too.
Nelms has styled the hair of just about every former member of Destiny's Child and can casually mention having worked with Beyoncé as a parenthetical aside. Vogue recently credited her with "changing the black hair conversation." She styled Solange's hair for her wedding, where she was also a guest; Solange also relied on her to create the video looks for her heavily hair-centric latest album, "A Seat at the Table." And she's also one of the reasons the entire Fashionista staff is clamoring to see what Janelle Monáe will wear on the 2017 Oscars red carpet (Nelms has been behind the jaw-dropping, creative hairstyles the actress and musician has been wearing throughout awards season). And her journey to success — which involved a lucky breaks with Lil Wayne and Kanye West — is just as fascinating as the styles she creates. Nelms generously took some time from her whirlwind awards season schedule to chat with Fashionista about how it all went down.
Tell me about your background. Did you always know you wanted to be a hairstylist?
I'm from St. Petersburg, Florida. I always had an interest in hair — my first client was my Cabbage Patch doll — and I've always been able to do hair easily, but I didn't even think about the fact that it could be a career. When I was growing up, so many people around me were able to do hair easily. It wasn't like I was raised with a family full of hairdressers, but I believe that every black girl can do hair. My little cousin can braid so well, I've asked her to braid some of my clients before. It was just a thing that we were blessed with. I did go to FSU, but I dropped out because I chose to do hair instead of go to class. I dropped out and enrolled in a cosmetology school in St. Petersburg. I did hair all through high school, I worked in a salon in the 9th grade, used to do all of my teachers' hair.
In sixth and seventh grade, my aunt would help book me to do a full wedding party. I didn't think there was anything weird, but now that I look back at it, it's like these adults really had me doing their hair for a huge moment for their life? [Laughs]
So how did you really decide this was something you wanted to turn into a career?
[At cosmetology school,] I'd be there when they opened and until they closed. I was like, You know what? I'm going to work in the middle of the night when the school is closed. I never factored in sleep. I'd sleep for the hour break that the school was closed. So I got a job in an after-hours call center for doctors' offices at night. I did it for as long as I could until I got fired because I kept going to sleep on the job. So I just kind of had to ease back on the hours and get another job, a telemarketing job. It worked out, I still graduated like way earlier than everyone else, like in a year.
I used to compete in those [hair] competitions, so I was really happy to win because sometimes the entry fees were all I had in my account.
What was your first official professional salon job?
The first salon I worked at was in the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area, which is like four hours away from where I'm from. I met the owner's daughter in a class when I was at FSU. I packed up and moved to Ft. Lauderdale and started working in the salon and that kind of took my career to another level because in Miami they're doing more production things. After I was published in a hair magazine, I was like, oh that was easy, that was nothing. So then I started doing music videos.
And so from there you decided to stick with music videos?
I stayed in the salon at first, but eventually I had to decide [between the two]. I got my first personal client: Lil Wayne. I met him in New Orleans in a club, and everyone I knew loved Lil Wayne; it was the year "Tha Carter 1" came out, so that may have been a few years before Katrina. It was at a club called 360 that was this rotating club, it spins around. I don't know why, but that night I just snapped into work mode and I walked up to him at the bar and was like, "Hey!" It sounds crazy, but I felt like I knew him because of his lyrics. He'd rapped about his mom, and I felt like I knew her. I asked him 'How's your mom?' and he was like "...She's good." And I asked when he was shooting his next music video, and he was like, "Tomorrow, actually." I said to let me know if he needed his hair done. I was standing there, telling him my resumé, and I gave him my number, but we left it at that. And he called the next day for me to come do his hair! I was on vacation, so I didn't have my kit with me, I had to run around town to try to find something [to style his hair with]. I was able to go and do his hair, and we started working together. I was doing his album packaging and music videos and commercials and whatever else he had. He honestly is the reason why I was able to just pull away from the salon. Because of him, I had the income to be able to travel. And now I had more things to add to my resumé.
How did your career transform from that point on?
I met a lot of clients [through Lil Wayne]. It was really hard for me; I'm a female hairstylist, I wasn't a groomer. But he had hair, so he did it. But then it was hard selling myself to females when he was the biggest thing on my resumé. I got more clients and still worked on other music videos and rounded out my resume. I did all of the female hair on Kanye West's "Gold Digger" video. And then I started working with Solange.
Your work has become so associated with Solange in the last few years. Can you tell me about your relationship and how that came to be?
We met through mutual friends. We were hanging out and were going to go out, but then she caught pink eye, but at that time we didn't really know each other. My friend suggested I fix her hair to try to camouflage it. She was like, "No, I'm fine." We'd never worked together and I understand hair is a big deal, you don't just trust anyone with it. Finally she was like, alright, and I gave her a haircut so it kind of covered her eye, we call it "Shareefa bangs," it's a rapper from back in the day, and she wore her hair slanted over her eye. From then it was like we bonded, and then she kept calling.
At what point did you really feel like you'd officially made it as a hairstylist?
I still don't feel like I've made it. It's crazy. I was featured in Vogue, and my friends were like, "We need to have a party." I mean, it's an amazing accomplishment, but I'm like, "Do you all think that's a little cocky?" I don't know when I will feel like I've made it, I guess it'll be when I can like retire and not even think about paying my rent. I think I'm missing that thing in me that makes me excited about what I should be excited about. I think that's a gift and a curse, kind of. I see a lot of people out there and to me they're annoying because of the way they respond and act. Everyone is an equal, I see every opportunity as equal, I see every client the same; I really love my clients that are school teachers, I love doing their hair just as much as I love doing videos for Beyoncé, (I did her "Yoncé" video).
The stuff that I'm doing now is nothing compared to what was required of me in high school. My clients back then, you could not make a mistake. They wanted the most for their $20. It was crazy training, so in comparison this is like a walk in the park. Sometimes it makes me laugh at how people respond when I do something and I think it's so basic. Sometimes I even force myself to take a longer time with a client, just so they feel like I'm giving them attention, but it really isn't necessary. I really don't have that huge of a kit. My kit, I can really bring everything I need in like an oversize purse. But I don't do it because one time I did and the photographer thought that I didn't know anything and that I wasn't prepared. So I ran to the nearest beauty supply store and bought a bunch of stuff just to calm him down. I don't have a lot of bells and whistles with me. I feel like what you're born with is what will get you where you need to be.
What about all of the accessories you tend to use in your sculptural looks, and especially on Janelle Monáe lately?
I just ran up and down the aisles at Michaels for a minute. I felt like I needed to add something.
How did you decide to do those googly eyes? Our whole editorial staff freaked out over how cool that was.
It was really intuitive. Janelle's whole aesthetic is black and white, and so I just grabbed things that are black and white. I saw the googly eyes, and I was like this will be really cute and fun. I did different sizes and I took a glue gun to hair pins. You can use anything and do anything once you really stop caring about if someone isn't going to like it. That's the benefit of having worked with a client for several red carpet appearances; the trust level rises. It's always a little tricky at first, but if they start accepting your opinion and then get really good reviews because they took your opinion, they'll trust you going forward.
Are there any other hairstylists you look to for inspiration?
I don't really look to anyone else. I learned this from Lil Wayne a long time ago, and it used to confuse me, but when he was on tour or anytime you're around him, he only listens to his own music. I'd be like, "Why? There's so much good stuff on the radio." And he's like "No, I don't really want to be influenced by that, because sometimes you can be influenced negatively because you'll compare yourself to it and you can miss out on you by trying to mimic what you see." So I don't really look around for inspiration, or if I do it's usually like old movies or weird things, like old TV shows. I'm so interested in older things.
How I work is I usually figure it out on-site; a lot of the style comes from the vibe of the moment, the look of the wardrobe, the mood of the client. Sometimes a chill topknot just saves the day.
What are some of your favorite looks you've ever created?
The googly eyes were fun, I'd never really done anything like that. I love Solange's ponytail from the Met Gala couple of years ago and the super-tall topknot that we did on Zoë [Kravitz] one day. That was really cool because it was so clean and simple, and the height of the topknot was the accessory. I also loved the big reveal of Zoë's blonde hair on the cover of Elle. I had a ball doing that. And I still love the Kanye West video, I really do. It was just the way that whole thing worked out for me. Sometimes the story behind the hair is what makes me like the hair more. For that video, I was only supposed to be an assistant, and the key hairstylist quit because the workload was crazy; we were doing all of the girls in the video. We spent like the whole day changing things and getting Kanye's approval. It kept going around and around, and then the key stylist quit. So I started doing all of the work and nobody even knew that the hairstylist quit. This was really early on and I felt so good to see every look on one of the girls and know it was something I'd done. Jamie Foxx was there, it was crazy. Here I am and Kanye's coming up to me like, "I really love this hair." He asked me where the other stylist was and I was like, "Kanye, he quit three days ago, I've been doing all the hair." And he booked me on everything pertaining to Gold Digger after that: the VMAs, a Pepsi Smash performance with Jay Z. He kept calling me, so I thought that was a really big deal.
What does it feel like now to see your work all over the red carpets and in magazines like Elle and Vogue?
I really am happy that everybody appreciates what I see as art and how I deliver it. I remember looking back and wishing I was a part of it. I remember being in Florida buying magazines and trying to figure out how to be in them; it's hilarious now, but I would look at the front of magazines and I would just call magazines and ask, "How can I shoot with you?" They'd say, "We work with an agency!" and hang up [laughs].
And what about being a part of something like Solange's videos, especially when so much of her most recent album was focused on hair?
Being asked to be a part of something that you know means a lot to a client is like the ultimate award to me. It's like you won already before you even perform. It's how they view you, which says a lot about reputation and credibility and how strongly they believe in your skill set.
You also styled Janelle's hair when she met with Barack and Michelle Obama. What did that feel like to see that?
I was actually there, but on the other side of the door. It felt like a parent that always wanted to go to a crazy place or a really expensive place and they couldn't make it, but then their child made it. An extension of me made it — wow, my work got that close to one of the most amazing people of our time, the President of the United States. He hugged her. That felt really, really good. He didn't see me, but he saw my hair.
What advice would you have for young hairstylists aspiring to a career like yours?
I get a lot of questions about how to break in, but the only constant in my opinion and the advice that I gave myself early on that still works is to stick to your style. Whatever makes you different is honestly your ticket in. Style changes. Your turn will come. That's why it's so important to not focus on what everyone else is doing, because if you're focused on other things that are already happening, you're not helping clients become trendsetters because you're following a trend that already exists. Nobody wants a version of somebody else, and especially not influencers. Influencers want to be the first to wear something or to try something. If you're giving them what someone else could give them, why wouldn't they want to hire the other person?
Homepage photo: @nikkinelms/Instagram