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.
Nai'vasha Johnson's career is having a moment. The celebrity hairstylist's work has made a series of noteworthy appearances in recent months, including throughout Janelle Monáe's many Paris Fashion Week looks, Yara Shahidi's Hunger magazine cover and — rather impressively — on Logan Browning, Thandie Newton, Amirah Vann and Melanie Liburd for the 2019 NAACP Image Awards.
Johnson has built a name for herself as a go-to hairstylist for so many stars in entertainment (and sports — see: Serena Williams's ponytail at the 2019 Oscars). Shortly before hopping on a plane to travel with one such client, she spoke with Fashionista from her home in New York City about how she went from working in real estate to becoming a highly sought-after celebrity hairstylist. She also shared her thoughts about the growing movement around hair-texture inclusivity on the red carpet, being pigeonholed in her career and where she finds inspiration. Read on for the highlights.
How Patrik Sandberg Went from Amateur Music Blogger to Creative Director of CR Studio
How Lacy Redway Is Using Her Hairstyling Career to Inspire Others
See What the Best-Dressed Stars Wore to the NAACP Image Awards
How did you get your start in hair?
When I was in middle and high school, I was the girl in the neighborhood and at school who was doing everyone's hair. I started wearing really cool hairstyles, creating these ponytails [with hair bundles] I'd put in the microwave with orange rollers. Once [the hair] was set, then I'd take the rollers out and brush it out and create a really big, curly ponytail [to clip in].
Once I graduated, I started cosmetology school in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, but I wasn't inspired. Where I'm from, the beauty industry was not celebrated the way it is now. [After cosmetology school], I would've been a beautician in a beauty shop on my feet all day long, with swollen ankles and eating food at my station — just all the things that I really didn't envision for myself.
I went to college and started doing real estate. Once the real estate market crashed, I just went back to what felt good, what I knew. I went to Paul Mitchell [cosmetology school] in Atlanta, Georgia, and got my license. I then started test shooting every single week — maybe four test shoots per week. That's when I first saw the celebrity hairdresser and editorial hairdresser and runway hairdresser — I didn't even know that industry existed.
Who was your first big client?
Wanda Sykes. Another hairdresser called me and said, 'Hey Nai'vasha, how's your natural hair game?' And that's when she introduced me to Wanda. I went in, and I set her hair and colored it — and I've been working with her ever since.
How was your natural hair game at the time?
I was working on a variety [of hair textures]. At first, my focus was cut, color and wigs. I think my big break moment in the industry was when I entered the North American Hairstyling Awards and was nominated for Newcomer of the Year. In my collection for that, none of the hair was textured. It was all cut and color.
It wasn't until a few years ago that my focus [on natural textures] became a little bit more defined.
What made you focus a bit more on natural hair?
Actually, it just kind of fell in my lap. I'm a natural girl, and I have two daughters who are natural also. I just saw that there were not a whole lot of refined curly moments on the red carpet and in editorials. I wanted to be part of that movement.
I feel like every black girl, myself included, had a complex relationship with our hair growing up, and a lot of the decisions for our hair weren't always made by us — they were often made by our parents. What was your relationship with your hair growing up?
My mom did not allow me to get a relaxer in my hair until my 11th grade year of high school. She was not having it, so I was working on my own hair, my own curls. But because I was practicing and playing around in hair, I just kind of knew what to do. One of the ways I was able to control my curls was with color. I used to wear my hair in blue and black all the time. What I would do is I'd put the blue and black color on my hair and intensely comb it through, and that would give me a looser curl. I was able to control my hairstyles a little bit better that way. [I also used to] sit under the dryer, smooth it down — all those types of things to give it that sleek look that everybody else had with the relaxer.
Brands in drugstores that specialized in relaxers when I was growing up now have products for natural hair, and I see a shift in the industry toward focusing more heavily on natural hair. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it's overdue. I feel like who we are has been ignored for so long. I think it started with what people think defined 'beauty' and what the world has trained us to believe is the pinnacle of beauty. Being able to embrace our natural curls and who we are, authentically, is way overdue. So to see all of these curly products, all of these bigger brands, all of these major entities being part of what should've already been out there is past due.
A lot of your work seems to disprove the stereotype that natural hair is limiting or not versatile. What's your process for making your clients' options with natural hair so eclectic?
First, I look at what the client is wearing. I assess the event because I feel like a red carpet event, like the SAG Awards, deserves something different from what the Kids' Choice Awards deserves.
I also assess the client's mood. She may not feel like having her hair all snatched up. She may feel free and liberated today and say, 'Hey, I just want my curls to blow in the wind. I don't want to be confined to this. I don't want all these pins in my hair. I just want to let it loose, let it be big, let it be free.'
Those are all things I take into account. And everything is always collaborative because how the client feels matters so much. Otherwise, she's not going to be able to hop on the red carpet and feel good about that moment.
Where do you find inspiration?
I love researching time periods, like the '60s and '70s — the era of Diana Ross. I'm always inspired by Diana Ross. She had everything from short to straight to super curly to super kinky to long to the triangle shape. I also love looking at Iman.
But every single [time period] has something to add. It may be a hairline — not even the rest of the hair, just the hairline. Or the shape [of the hair] that was worn during this time, or the texture.
I also get inspiration from flowers and galleries. For me, flowers are the epitome of beauty because I get fragrance from it, I get shape from it, I get texture from it, I get elegance from it, I get decadence from it. In terms of galleries, [I get] color schemes, shapes, even some edge from galleries.
What does the typical workday before a major event look like for you?
The event days are not necessarily the same, but they're really close in terms of the flow of things. The first thing that I do when I wake up, aside from praying, is shower and use eucalyptus on my face, which makes it easier to take [the day] all in. And then I literally write down the plan of the day, and I go by my mood boards and checklist the entire day — I do not stray.
I can imagine event prep gets hectic and doesn't always go as planned. Do you have any advice on troubleshooting while maintaining professionalism?
Take a deep breath and smile about everything because, literally, it's just hair, and there's no need to make it fussy. If you keep everything super simple, nothing has to be fussy, and there's not a hurdle you can't get over.
If you don't incorporate panic, it'll go smoothly, regardless of how many changes you have to make. For Yara at the SAG Awards, we completely changed the beauty look the day of, right as she was getting dressed. This was after creating beauty and style mood boards, storyboards, everything. We just changed it right then, and no one panicked.
Aside from being nominated for Newcomer of the Year at the North American Hairstyling Awards, what are some of the highlights of your career?
I think one of the other biggest moments for me was going to Nigeria to teach a master class on curls. Another one, I would say, was my first Paris Fashion Week, which was huge for me. It was so magical for me because you don't see a lot of brown people there — especially in beauty.
What was one of the most difficult things to learn in your career?
Understanding all the different textures and how to manipulate them, because it's not easy. You can't use every product for everybody. Sometimes, it's a little bit of experimentation. I still get nervous. Even with my regular clients, I still get a little anxious.
Because you have so much visibility with your work in the natural hair space, I'd imagine that you have to remind people you do more than just natural hair. Do you feel sometimes that you're pigeonholed when people discuss your work?
Yeah, and that's just me being brutally honest. It's so easy to get pigeonholed — and I say that respectfully and humbly. Though curls are my focus and I enjoy and love it, and that's just the nature of my client base, I can do an incredible haircut. I can do beautiful hair color. From the most amazing round brush to a full head of highlights to extensions to wigs to barbering, you name it, I know how to do it. I've worked in some of the top hair salons in the country. So the reach is there, and the diversity is there. But what has been celebrated is the curls.
What advice do you have for aspiring hairstylists?
Always practice, stay learning — never, ever, ever stop learning. Even now, I still take continuing education courses. I still go to YouTube and still do a little bit of practicing. I still pick up my mannequin and practice on her.
I would also advise networking and nurturing all relationships. Most of those relationships are important because, to be honest with you, it's really not about how amazing you are — it's about how you make people feel. It is great to be amazing — don't get me wrong. It's great to do beautiful hair and to slay a [red] carpet and do all those things, but it's about how you made that woman feel.
As a mother of five, what advice do you have for balancing home life with a busy career that requires a lot of time away from home?
It's a major balancing act. It takes so much prayer, meditation, patience, organization and support.
What goals do you still have?
I just want to do my thing — just watch my business flourish and leave it for my babies. And sit back, look at the water, let my feet dangle in the water, go plant flowers in my garden, put beautiful art on my wall, and work when my clients want me to work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.