Ursula Stephen’s name probably won’t ring a bell with most people in SA, but you’ll know her by her clients – R&B artist Rihanna, songstress Keyshia Cole, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and Mary J Blige.
Stephen is the celebrity hairstylist and image consultant to many celebrities. She is also Unilever’s Motions global brand ambassador. Her knowledge of hair products and styling has often seen her being solicited to offer styling tips for publications such as Glamour, Elle, Essence, InStyle and People.
But it was in 2008 that Stephen, who hails from Brooklyn in New York City, garnered attention. She was responsible for chopping off Rihanna’s demure, shiny long tresses and giving her an edgy, punk-rock bob.
The look, dubbed “The Rihanna Cut” – People magazine named it “The Most Coveted Haircut of The Year” – launched the artist as a style icon and had legions of women rushing to their hairdressers demanding a similar cut. Since then, every eye-popping hairstyle that Rihanna has sported has been closely followed and carefully scrutinised by her fans, fashionistas and media.
Recently, Stephen was in the Joburg CBD hosting a workshop at the Motions Academy where she shared her trade secrets. Her workshop briefly delved into hair trends for spring/summer 2012. She also directed some of the hairstyles showcased at SA Fashion Week’s spring/summer collections.
Sporting mid-length hair with a fringe, Stephen warmly greeted everyone before getting down to the crux of current hair trends. To illustrate her presentation, four models sauntered down the aisle wearing different hairstyles.
Versatile short haircuts or pixie cuts are on trend at the moment, Stephen explained, particularly when tapered short on the sides and longer on top. “That’s funky and clean, and it’s sexy and sweet.”
Because of its versatility, the longer fringe can be worn swept up after using hot rollers, or tied at night with a silk scarf for a sleeker fringe that frames the face.
Mid-length hair, much like the style worn by British supermodel Kate Moss, should be worn past the shoulders. “It should be easy and light to handle. And hair should move.”
The Afro-chic look is also in, she added, pointing to one of the models wearing braids knotted in a high bun. The latest colour trend is called “the ombre”, in which the roots of the hair are kept dark while the ends are coloured in red, blonde or whatever colour a person chooses, said Stephen.
“But the main thing is that the look right now focuses on effortless, free, fun and easy-going hair.”
Stephen said she wanted to show local stylists and South African women how to have fun with their hair. “I want to break the rules when it comes to styling, break the boundaries from the old, classic styles.”
She’s delighted that more and more women with ethnic hair are embracing their natural locks.
“Going for natural hair is quite a recent thing, but it’s amazing. I guess after enduring all those years of abuse on one’s hair, there is no other place to go but natural. You are forced to love your hair, so embrace and showcase its naturalness.”
The benefit of wearing natural hair, said Stephen, is that it offers women more options for styling.
“It’s not a big deal if you do have weaves. But you shouldn’t be doing it for the sake of it. And don’t wear extensions because you have to, but because you want to.”
Her main advice to women was to treat their hair with kindness, to show it some love and, more important, to continually moisturise it.
“African hair naturally is dry hair so it’s important to moisturise to make hair soft and supple. Moisturising also cuts down on your styling time.”
She said she feels that many hairstylists tend to overprocess black hair, making it dry and brittle.
She suggested using a good relaxer and to follow the instructions carefully. For those wanting to relax their hair after it’s been coloured, her advice is to give their tresses a lengthy period of rest before relaxing it in order to curb the damage to their hair .
“Chemicals will change the texture of your hair, so prep it first by giving it a conditioning treatment so that it’s softer.” She recommended the Deep Penetrating Mask Treatment from the Motions product range.
She admitted that she wears extensions on her own locks. Underneath the extensions, Stephen has a short hip cut which she hasn’t relaxed in about a year.
“I can’t wait for it to be free of the weave,” she moaned.
From her interactions with SA women and stylists, Stephen said she was shocked at the lack of knowledge of their own hair. “It’s sad, that’s why I’m so happy to be here to teach them. They have amazing hair, it’s so versatile and I really want them to gain knowledge of their own hair.”
Has she ever had a bad hairstyling experience?
“Yes, it was a collaborative incident with an assistant. She had shampooed a client roughly and the weave was a mess. I had to give the client a free new weave.”
The mistake occurred much earlier in her career. After being in the business for 20 years, she has learnt through trial and error what works best for her clients.
“Now when I do hair, I just feel it and I know what’s the problem and what will work,” she said. “It’s become intuitive.”
Which Rihanna hairstyle has been her favourite?
Stephen pondered on this for a bit. “I don’t really have a favourite. I’ve loved all of them, from the choppy bob to the blonde when it was wild and crazy. And I’ve loved RiRi’s red locks when they were full and thick. I also love the blonde with dark roots.”
Her relationships with her celebrity clients have been generally great and easy. But what’s it like to work with Rihanna, I asked?
“Well, Rihanna did tell me that if people asked about her, ‘I hope you tell them the truth.’ So yeah, she is the worst and easiest of my clients.
“She’s my worst because she can’t sit still and she always wants to do something. But I appreciate her. And we have a great relationship.”
Rihanna doesn’t doubt her work. Rihanna draws on her creativity and “pulls it out of me”.
“She’s like my canvas, I have that freedom to do whatever I want. She just tells me in her Barbadian accent: ‘I got to let you do your thing, and make me look good.’ “
And when her clients look good, Stephens feels great. “The look on their faces when they see how they look, it’s beautiful and priceless. I love it.”
Even after five years of styling Rihanna’s hair, it still gives Stephen immense pleasure when her client tells her that she loves it.
It doesn’t unnerve Stephen when she has to create a new look for Rihanna, particularly knowing that “everybody is watching what her new hairstyle is going to be”. “I just focus on her and that she is happy.”
Stephen’s coy when asked what Rihanna’s next look will be. “I can’t tell you that,” she said with a cheeky smile, “her hair is a secret.”