Ursula Stephen is a celebrity hairstylist best known for her decade of work on Rihanna’s locks. (Remember the blunt bob on the cover of Good Girl Gone Bad? And the twisted box braids of i-D? Both Stephen.) These days, when she’s not running her salon in Brooklyn, she’s working with even more A-list clients, including Ciara, Bebe Rexha, and Zendaya. And now she’s making her mark at New York Fashion Week, bringing her special brand of diversity to the runways.
The longtime TreSemmé stylist brought her talents to both the Harlem Fashion Row and Cushnie shows this season, after a bit of a break from the NYFW scene.
“I hardly work backstage during fashion week. I haven’t done a show in a long time. But I think it was a perfect match for us,” Stephen tells Yahoo Lifestyle of her partnership with the hair brand. “I’m a TreSemmé stylist because fashion is my inspiration, especially when I started working outside of the salon.”
Stephen, knowing the influence that runways have on beauty trends, hopes that diversity will make its mark in the beauty world.
“We need more diversity — especially because natural hair is embraced. But you need stylists that understand it,” she says. While she believes positive things are happening, she thinks more black stylists should learn the business to help get their foot in the door.
“I think we’re on the right track, it’s happening, but it’s not just about putting pressure on designers or other stylists,” the hair guru explains. “Black stylists need to step up and know they belong here and be willing to come in and learn. Because you can be a great salon stylist, but doing hair backstage and doing hair for editorials are very different, and it’s important to come in and learn that.” To that end, Stephen offers this advice to young stylists: “Take classes and assist editorial stylists in between seasons, because that segues into what we do backstage.”
Stephen’s passion for hair earned her a cosmetology license while she attended Brooklyn’s Sarah J. Hale High School. From a young age, she was determined to learn every aspect of the beauty business, and that ambition led to the success that’s continued to skyrocket since her teenage years. “My beauty school was a high school, and I worked on the weekends and after school,” she says. “When I was 18, I already had a large clientele. And since then, I was always adamant about learning new things and got the chance to do hair outside of a salon.”
That experience — along with doing on-set hair for magazine covers and videos, particularly with celebrities — changed her life, Stephen says. “I continued to feed that part of it while I worked at a salon,” she says of her dedication to maintaining a strong work ethic. “I didn’t want to go on set and feel like I couldn’t achieve a look.” Stephen’s range of experience is part of what makes her a strong stylist today, allowing her to adapt to any situation. “People are shocked at how fast I can work, and it’s because I have to have a game plan when I’m doing hair. When I’m at the salon, there could be 10 people staring at me, waiting to get in the chair, and you don’t want to piss them off.”
Still, despite her many years in the business, Stephen says she still has a lot to learn and more career goals to chase.
“I’m still nosy. I’m still naive, and I still want to know. When you’re still hungry to learn, you can never get bored,” she explains. “I’ve only done one movie, and I love learning new things.”
Finally, while she draws inspiration every day from all of her clients, Stephen admits there is one particular muse she would love to work with. “Erykah Badu has always inspired me,” she says. “I haven’t worked with her — yet! But she’s not afraid and doesn’t take herself too seriously, and I love anyone who is willing to push the bar.”
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