Natural hair isn't a trend — it's what's growing out of our heads — but we still can't help but swoon when a stylist is able to push our curls, coils, and kinks to new and unique heights. Celebrity hairstylist Nai'vasha Johnson does that with every red carpeted event or press tour that she's on.
Just look at her roster: Yara Shahidi, Zendaya, Skai Jackson, and John Legend have all been lucky enough to grace her chair. Even though her Rolodex is the ultimate Who's Who, Johnson is still humbled by the love, especially considering her beginnings as a realtor in Tennessee. "Every time I get an opportunity, it blows me away," she tells Refinery29. "I'm constantly getting surprised daily." And so are we: Johnson's natural hairstyles constantly have us screenshotting and pinning, making us wonder what's next. But before we muse about the future, read ahead to see how the budding star got her start.
"I was that girl in high school who did all of her friends' hair. I went to cosmetology school directly after, and then took a break from it. In Memphis, where I'm from, doing hair isn't that glamorous. They don't treat hair as an art form; they treat it as a trade. So I put it on the shelf for a long time and did banking and real estate. Once the market crashed, I reinserted myself and picked up hair from there.
"At that time, we were living in Atlanta because my husband is in the military. That was the first time that I had an opportunity to see the beauty industry being treated as something for celebrities, as opposed to being just a neighborhood beautician. In Atlanta, you were a hairstylist or a hairdresser. You hung out with celebrities, and you had features and editorials. That intrigued me."
"In 2013, I did a reality TV show called Big Rich Atlanta. That was the first time I really had an opportunity to be on the other side of the camera and be behind the scenes in that capacity. I remember being most surprised about the pay, to be honest. I didn’t realize that you could make that type of money being a hairdresser. I only knew about the $25 haircut. In the professional industry, the sky is the limit. My perspective of the beauty industry changed, and once that happened, I didn’t stop.
"I never assisted, either. I was always so afraid that no one would really help me, because it was so competitive. So I studied on my own. I practiced on my own. I did everything on my own because I didn't trust that anyone would say 'hey, Nai'vasha, let me put you under my wing and take you in.' No one ever did that for me, so I did it all for myself."
Her Big Break
"My first big name was a reality star, Ariane Davis of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. I had an opportunity to go with her to her first New York Fashion Week runway show, where she walked for my really good friend Avnah. Everything started happening after that. I surrounded myself with industry people, like designers and fashion stylists. I started contacting photographers and other makeup artists and other wardrobe stylists, and then I started shooting. Once I started shooting all of the time and doing editorials, people started reaching out to me and taking notice of my work.
"Another moment was Zendaya's pixie at the 2015 Grammys. It was the first time she was seen with a big haircut. Her stylist, Law Roach, had it in mind, to create a moment for everyone to think on and talk about. We wanted to show that Zendaya grew up and was coming into her own.
"Yara had that moment, too, at the 2017 Emmys. Her hair wasn’t as big and curly at that moment. She wasn't in kitten heels. She had this ultra-chic wet look that was off her face, with a beautiful custom Prada gown and gorgeous makeup. America's darling had grown up."
Shaking Up The Status Quo
"I went to a beauty school where we didn’t train on textured, Black, or curly hair. All of the training we did was on white hair or Asian hair. It wasn’t until the latter part of my Atlanta experience that I got into natural hair. Even then, I was still pressing it out and making it smooth. Now, I take those beautiful images I love so much — like maybe a Sassoon haircut or an Aveda updo — and turn that into a textured look. I'll put a really clean bob on the kinkiest, curliest hair I can find, or the waviest girl that I can find.
"One of my favorite looks is Uzo Aduba for the Emmys, because that was such a risk. And to see Viola Davis celebrate her big, kinky, textured hair on the carpet for the Globes was so good, and I was so happy about that. Before the Emmys, no one was doing that. I can't remember another moment where someone rocked thick, kinky hair on the red carpet. To see women of color rock the red carpet with all of this texture, it's an awesome day. It's a beautiful day in beauty."
"I'm based in New York, but travel roundtrip a minimum of four times a month. I frequent Los Angeles the most. Life is still so different for me. Now, I don’t have to be quite as in your face and sociable with my clients. I don’t have to see as many people. When you're doing about nine or 10 people per day, that’s a whole lot of socializing, a lot of personalities, and a lot of being on your feet. If I’m with someone like Yara for the day, I’m primarily only with her just for the day and not for the week.
"Because I'm spending so much social time with my clients, it feels like we're hanging out with as sisters or cousins. We're laughing, flipping through books, figuring out our styles. It's relaxed, and totally different — like night and day"
She Still Has #Goals
"My dream is to work with Halle Berry or Iman. When you think of iconic beauties, those are some of the first names that come to mind for women of color and women, period. Their looks stand the test of time, and I would love to have either one of those ladies in my chair on any day of the week. I know the exact style that I want to do on Halle, too. It'd be epic.
"More importantly, I want other aspiring stylists to know that there’s space for all of us. There's enough room for everybody. We've got to keep celebrating ourselves. I don't know if natural hair is necessarily a priority for Hollywood glam squads, but I know that we're embracing it and really loving our authentic selves, which includes our textures."