Issa Rae's Stylist On Showcasing The Versatility Of Natural Hair With Tighter Coils

Taryn Finley
Felicia Leatherwood is the mastermind behind Issa Rae's creative natural hair styles. (Getty Images/HuffPost)

Anyone who’s an avid viewer of “Insecure” has probably noticed that even though the main character, played by creator Issa Rae, is a hot mess trying to figure life out, her hair always slays.

That’s thanks to celebrity natural hair stylist Felicia Leatherwood. Whether it’s on the show or on the red carpet, Leatherwood makes sure Rae is rocking creative styles that compliment her wardrobe and work with her type 4 hair.

Women with tight coils and kinks are often treated negatively or ignored in the beauty world, even in the natural hair community. But Leatherwood, a stylist with more than 26 years, makes uplifting these women and their hair types a priority. Leatherwood ― who’s also styled Jill Scott, Yara Shahidi, Skai Jackson, Teyonna Parris, Yvonne Orji and more ― talked to HuffPost about her work with Rae and the importance of showing the versatility of natural hair with tighter coils on screen.  

How did you get into the hair business?

I feel like most women learn how to do hair by doing their own hair, so I got started because my mom did not know how to do my hair. My dad and my grandma were the ones doing my hair, but of course that was torture. So I took matters into my own hands at a very young age ― I was 9 years old ― and started doing my hair. But what I realized was that my texture was different than all the girls that I saw in school and in my neighborhood. It was tight, it was dry all the time, my scalp would hurt. So I just felt like I needed to pay attention because I have a unique texture of hair and I need to treat it different.

What do you love most about your job?

Oh my God. These conversations that I’m having with you right now. I really like to be able to inspire a lot of the women by doing actresses’ hair and they hit the red carpet and they’re natural and they’re able to inspire a lot of women to try the styles and to go natural and that’s what I love most, the inspirational part of it. 

How empowering do you consider your work to be as a natural hair stylist for your clients?

It’s very empowering. We’re kind of in a state of emergency with who we are now. It’s a lot of racial tension. I think it’s more attention being paid to black women not being beautiful. And because that became a thing, it’s made us say, “No, that’s not true and let me show you why.” So we’ve been more confident being natural. And that’s very important that we recognize who we are as women, as black women, as people of color and to not allow people on the outside to basically alter conversation. And before, it was all about having your hair straight. There was a lot of conversation around “oh, if your hair is natural, then that’s nappy, that’s not kept well.” And now women are embracing natural hair. They’re seeing that there are a lot of beautiful hairstyles. Also, if you’re natural, it keeps you having your own unique look so you’re able to stand out in the crowd with your natural hair.

Week after week, we see your natural styles on Issa’s type 4 hair. We don’t see the versatility of tighter hair types displayed in the way that you’ve showcased them through Issa. How important do you think this is? 

I’m 4c and no one understood my hair. The only thing they could do was braid and bead it. So what that prompted me to do was to take care of my hair, showcase my texture, that made me feel good. I couldn’t do relaxers. Relaxers broke my scalp out. Weave didn’t feel good to me. So for me, the only thing left was for me to rock my own hair. So I look after texture 4s first. I take care of everybody, but for me, texture 4 struggles the most with trying to understand their hair and no two texture 4s are the same. They’re all different, they all require something a little bit different. But I’ll make it my specialty to make sure that I can match product with texture type hair.

I make it my business to understand texture 4s more and take care of 4s more than anything just because a lot of women come sit in my chair and they tell me really bad horror stories of growing up and how people treated them bad, how they treated them wrong or different and in a negative way because of their skin color being too brown or because of the texture of their hair. And mostly because of texture because I have some women who are light skin who have texture 4 and they still got treated negatively because of their texture. They went to school and people still talked about them because of the texture of their hair or because their parents said negative things when it was time to do their hair. So I am team texture 4 all day. But like I said, I love all the textures, but something about texture 4, I feel like you guys need more love. You need to understand your hair more, you need to appreciate it more. You need to understand what shrinkage is. You need to know that, you know, with texture 4, your hair may not grow out and down towards the middle of your back but yet you have the ability to shrink it and stretch it. And to me that’s beautiful that you can be able to do both those things with the same head of hair.

Do you the lack of representation of tighter coils into consideration when you create these natural styles?

I get asked a lot about texture 4s. What I can tell you is I don’t keep myself out of the community of natural hair. Just because I work among celebrities, I still consider myself a part of the community of natural hair. Everything that I do when it comes to hair is about keeping the natural hair community uplifted. I want us to always have a good representation of how we are with our textured hair. So every style I create is, how can I make the natural hair community proud of this? How can I impress a woman to want to try this hairstyle? I’m doing stuff that you can look at and say, “You know what I feel like I can wear that. I wanna try that.” I want you to feel motivated and inspired to do your hair so that’s what I think about when I’m creating these hairstyles. Will people recognized the texture of 4 and the texture of just being natural? And that we’re just like everybody else, we’re just a little more special because we’re wearing our texture hair. So that’s all I think about.

What specific hair type does Issa have?

Issa is between 4a and 4b. To me, 4a and 4b are close, except you start getting more coil. When you’re 4a you’re going from curl to coil. 4b is coils, kinky. And 4c is kinky. So she’s more coily but I can put products on her hair and it will curl right up. I don’t know that all hair stylists understand what natural hair is. It’s not just styling hair. It’s really knowing how to hydrate the hair. And sometimes I don’t know that that gets conveyed. Without hydration, you lose hair. So I really hope that more hair stylists are looking at the hydration as well as the styling of natural hair because it’s not like everything else, it’s not like straight hair where you can flat iron, oil sheen on it and go, no. It’s not curly texture 2c or 3 where you can put a little Jam on it and go. Texture 4 needs hydration and you can do anything with it but hydration is key.

You’ve talked about how you love doing Issa’s hair because she give you the freedom to use her hair as a canvas. How often do you freestyle when styling her?

All the time (laughs). I freestyle all the time. I think most of the clients I work with now do allow me to do my thing. It’s about trusting a hair stylist and I know for you guys, it’s not always something you’re used to doing. Issa always kind of did her own hair and she’s a minimalist in terms of like, you know, not doing too much. So I really appreciate that cause it gives me an opportunity to show her what her hair could be. And also Skai Jackson is another one. She lets me do whatever and she has amazing texture 4c hair. And a lot of the women I’m working with now, especially a young lady named Angela Lewis, she’s on “Snowfall,” she lets me do my thing. A lot of em do. I’m working with some really great clients.

How do you think the way Issa and your other famous clients embrace their natural hair impacts young black women?

I get a lot of correspondence from women all over the world who have seen Issa, Skai, some of my other clients I’ve worked with. I’ve gotten so many letters and emails from people saying they feel more confident and comfortable wearing their natural hair. At the end of the day, media is everything so if you keep looking at something, it becomes beautiful to you. You start recognize the beauty in it and I think like when they see Issa and Yara and Skai and everybody, Ava DuVernay, Jill Scott, everybody that they’ve seen with natural hair. It’s inspiring to them. Its a big deal for them to be a part of the natural hair community and to be in front of the camera where everybody can see them all over the world.

What are some of your go-to products?

I have a lot of them. I love Eden BodyWorks. Alikay Naturals, she makes an amazing berry gel that I use on Issa on the show that’s really good. A lot of times if you see Issa’s hair and it looks straight, depending on what I’m doing, if I’m braiding her hair, I’ll use the Mane Choice edge control because it supports your edges and a lot of times, people don’t consider when they use edge control which ones will actually be helpful to their edges. Wonder Curl makes the cream that helps me stretch Issa’s hair out and it looks like it’s been flipped up and pressed but it’s not. It’s just a little bit of that Mane Choice edge control and the Wonder Curls buttercream that I use. And then I also have been loving the TGIN honey miracle mask. Sienna naturals makes a vegan shampoo and conditioner thats really incredible. And lately I’ve been working with Form.

Aunt Jackie’s is probably my hands down overall go to. I would say that everything in Aunty Jackie’s line I can use and it works on pretty much every texture of hair. If everything else fails, I can always go to Aunt Jackie’s and get what I need. And lastly, my Felicia Leatherwood detangling brush. idk if you’ve heard about the detangling brush. That detangle brush is everything. People use it to detangle coming out of weaves and braids. people use it to detangle hair on deep conditioning days. Kids love it cause they can detangle their own hair and they’re not running from the brush or the comb. And so that brush is excellent because it opens up and moves with your hair so if it catches a single strand knot or fairy knot, what it does is it will release it to a coil or a curl so it does that. 

What do you hope your clients feel when they leave your chair?

I hope they feel beautiful and I don’t mean just beautiful from me styling their hair but there’s a lot of conversation that happens between the hair stylist and the client and I always try to make sure that the conversations that I have with people are inspiring, they are touching their soul and spirit in a different way. It’s not a salon or atmosphere full of gossip about who and what. It’s more about what makes you feel good, are you living your best life, are you doing the things that you wanna be doing right now. How do you feel when you’re actually styling your hair, Is it something that creates a positive feeling in you because you never wanna do your hair angry, you never wanna do your hair frustrated. Everything holds an energy. So I make sure my clients understand the science and the emotion behind wearing their hair natural so when they leave, they’re educated, they’re empowered about what they have going on on their head.

Leatherwood’s answers have been condensed for length.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.