The Surprising Reason Black Hairstylists Are Being Held Back by Hollywood

It's become hard to count the number of Black actors that have revealed via social media or otherwise the heartbreaking experiences they've had on set with hairstylists that have little to no knowledge of how to style Black hair.

Just last month, High School Musical star Monique Coleman revealed in an interview with Insider that her character, Taylor McKessie, frequently wore headbands in the franchise — not by choice, but because the lead stylists hired to do the job didn't know how to do her hair. "The truth is, is that they had done my hair, and they had done it very poorly in the front," Coleman said.

Much like Tati Gabrielle's recent reveal that she styles her own icy-blond fingerwaves as Prudence on Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Coleman's admission sparked a much larger conversation about a problematic reality in Hollywood. Both stories mimic those of dozens of Black actors who have detailed the horrific experiences they've had with inexperienced hairstylists in Hollywood. Community's Yvette Nicole Brown revealed in a viral tweet back in 2019 that she often shows up on set with her hair already done to avoid "[looking] crazy on screen," while Gabourey Sidibe responded to the aforementioned tweet saying that she sometimes requests directors allow her characters to wear protective styles if they don't work experienced Black hairstylists into their budgets.

As the push for on-screen diversity grows, the overall lack of representation of Black beauty professionals in the industry remains. In 2018, for example, Netflix released Nappily Ever After, a hair-centric film that sees a woman, played by Sanaa Lathan, shaving off her hair after a breakup as a lesson to accepting her natural beauty. The film's mission was to explore the complicated relationship that many Black women have with their hair, but as celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims pointed out to POPSUGAR, the film's hair department head was a white woman with little experience working with Black hair.

"It's a tricky thing," he said. "For her to be a department head on a Black film is a little disheartening."

Netflix | Tina Rowden

While it might be easy to question just how hard it is to hire properly trained hairstylists for Black actors in some of the biggest projects in TV and film, the answer is there are a lot of guardrails in Hollywood that make it a lot more complicated to do so.

"There are many different worlds that we're talking about," Sims said. "You're able to see more Black people work on Black talent when it comes down to editorial and red carpet because there are no restrictions and guidelines that you have to jump through hoops for. You call your people when it's just you and them in a house or a hotel room getting you ready versus being on a union job where you have to be accepted into the union."

In order to work on set in Hollywood, everyone involved — hairstylists, makeup artists, actors, the crew — is required to be represented by a union. The official union for hair and makeup artists working in film, TV, broadcast, theatre, or "any place of amusement" in Los Angeles is Local 706, or the Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, while Local 798 is the official union for hairstylists and makeup artists working on these kinds of same projects in 21 areas across the East coast including New York and Washington, DC. Unions support their members by allowing for those working on set to receive health benefits, proper pay, fair treatment, and more.

"There are safety guidelines that they have to follow for your protection," celebrity hairstylist Kim Kimble told POPSUGAR. "They're supposed to fight for you — if you have an issue, you call your union. It's like you're employed and you're being covered and [they] take care of payments and things that you normally might not be able to as a freelance hairstylist or a hairstylist working in a salon."

That said, union protection is not afforded to everybody just because you ask nicely. Kimble has been a union member since 1996, while Sims — despite having a 15-year working relationship with actress Gabrielle Union and two decades-worth of experience with other A-list talent — has yet be accepted into one. This fact, that even the most adept Black hairstylists are not always union-eligible, seems to be the biggest barrier for Black hairstylists hoping to work in TV and film.

One way to be accepted into Local 706 is to work 60 days a year with talent on a TV, film, or theatre gig for three years straight, but as Sims points out, there are issues with being accepted that way.

"Sometimes you'll have a good year where you'll get one year of 60 days, and then you'll have a year where you only got 25 or 30, and then you have to start all over," he said. "And you have to hope that you get three years of these 60 days a year."

Another way to make it in is with star waivers, in which a celebrity can request to hire their own personal hairstylists to work with them on specific union jobs. Stylists must have at least three star waivers to get into the union, and even though Sims has gotten them for commercials he's done with Union in the past, the union will only count the star waivers that come from movies.

A third way to get into a union would be under a special skills waiver, which according to Sims, would typically be given to those who braid or work with natural hair. Given the stories above (and countless others) regarding Hollywood's lack of hairstylists who are equipped to work with natural hair, one would think that these kinds of waivers would be easier to come by — but they're not.

"Beauty professionals have been expressing their frustration — we've been seeing it, but the ones making the decisions about hiring who gets to be on set . . . we're all not speaking together, we're all not in the same room."

"They don't give them out to everybody; they give them to whoever they want whenever they feel like it," Sims said. "It's not a very consistent playing field to determine who gets in — they pick and choose whoever gets the opportunities based on how they feel and based on whoever's already in the union that isn't working."

On top of needing to meet the aforementioned qualifications, union hopefuls are also required to go through a lengthy application process that includes in-person interviews and showing proof of previous employment. Upon acceptance, they're then required to pay an initiation fee, which, according to a document outlining the requirements for joining Local 798, costs around $3,500.

Everett Collection

There are many hoops that Black beauty professionals have to jump through in terms of being accepted in Hollywood, but beauty entrepreneurs Simone Tetteh and Maude Okrah have spent the last few years collaborating on a way to combat the many barriers to entry. Tetteh and Okrah are the founders of Black Beauty Roster, a platform dedicated to increasing visibility and opportunity for BIPOC beauty professionals while also educating non-POC beauty pros on how to work on textured hair and darker skin tones.

"We wanted to create more equity for job opportunities for Black creatives on set for both TV, film, and editorial, but also ensuring that there's a pathway for people to gain education as it relates to working with textured hair, working with darker complexions, and also management classes," Okrah told POPSUGAR.

With Black Beauty Roster's one-day virtual summit happening on Feb. 28, the two founders hope to bring together a number of Black beauty professionals including Sims, Kimble, Sir John, Vernon François, and more to address the lack of representation and opportunities for up-and-coming professionals in the industry.

"We believe that it's really about building community and creating strong mentorship to help people who are an appropriate fit for that part of the industry really gain access and knowledge of it," Tetteh said.

While mentorship plays a huge role in how far some beauty professionals can go in the industry, it's ultimately up to the key gatekeepers to ensure that real change happens. For starters, union stylists and those who are invited to join the union should be properly trained on how to work with all hair types and complexions. On the flip side, there should also be a more streamlined process for veteran stylists and professionals to join the union.

"Beauty professionals have been expressing their frustration — we've been seeing it, but the ones making the decisions about hiring who gets to be on set . . . we're all not speaking together, we're all not in the same room," Okrah said. "So the summit will get all of these people together in the same room to have the discussion and to actually bring about meaningful change, because the ones that have the keys are going to be in the conversation."