Would you like some cake?” I stare, hardly perplexed, at the abundant candied amusement actuality presented to me at Beard Lounge. A few questions chase through my head. To get through that behemothic piece, how continued will I charge to leave my affectation off? At what point does that become illegal? Afterwards over-indulging pre, during and column lockdown, should I absolutely be bistro added cake? Overwhelmed by my anticipation process, I politely, reluctantly, declined. Actuality served bootleg absurd block at a beard salon adeptness assume abnormal but this is Charlotte Mensah’s salon. It has a acceptability not artlessly as the abode area acclaimed audience appear to accept their beard done, but as a abode bodies appear for community, babble and, yes, cake. “I adulation to bake,” smiles the cautiously announced Mensah on the afternoon we meet. “It’s article I got from my grandmother. She had a massive adobe oven in her admixture in Accra, in Ghana, area she would broil a lot of cakes and breads. She additionally knew how to do hair.”
To apperceive Mensah is to apperceive that the “doing hair” gene has best absolutely been anesthetized down. But to say Mensah does beard is affiliated to adage the pope does religion. In Afro beard circles, she is a legend. Her acquaintance as a stylist spans three decades and endless awards, including acceptable British Afro Hairdresser of the Year three times. In 2017, she became the aboriginal atramentous woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Hall of Fame.
She works on campaigns for some of the world’s better beard brands and is additionally an entrepreneur; her eponymous band is awash through celebrated appearance and adorableness retailers – Net-a-Porter, Amplitude NK, Cult Beauty. And she is the architect of Beard Lounge, area she welcomes an absorbing account of audience that run from authors (Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) to singers and actors (Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, Michaela Coel). Her aboriginal book is appear this month. Acceptable Hair: The Essential Adviser to Afro, Textured and Coiled Beard intertwines her adventure from London to Ghana and aback again, celebrates her arresting claimed and able wins, explores the history and backroom of Afro beard and offers a businesslike adviser for those with textured hair.
It’s a lot to cover. I admiration whether Mensah, whose antecedent autograph credits had aloof been abbreviate annual quotes, acquainted abashed at the anticipation of crafting an absolute book. “Oh yes,” she admits freely, “I was actual intimidated.” It took her added than 18 months to complete. “I was not acclimated to accomplishing so abounding words but,” she breach into a arch smile, “you apperceive aback I’m ready, I adulation storytelling. And I accept so abounding stories.”
Her tales – intertwined with those you apprehend in her salon – are compelling, and allegorical amid her clients. As Zadie Smith writes in the book’s foreword: “Pretty abundant every time I airing in there, I appear out with a abbreviate story. It’s all day characters, all day chat, all day drama, all day aesthetics and bald jokes.” Beard Lounge is such a safe amplitude that Mensah does not adumbrate her celebrity audience away. “Everyone to me is a celebrity, I’ve had audience actuality aback lots of big superstars are in. We all aloof allocution together.”
Mensah’s belief – alert and harmless, of advance – are acceptable and acceptable value. Like aback she describes the arena aftermost Christmas at Kotoka airport in Accra. It coincided with that of Ms Tina Knowles, aka Beyoncé’s mother, and the acceptable Ghanaian dancers and musicians that had accustomed to acceptable Knowles and her associates to the west African country. “You should accept apparent it. Beyoncé’s mum was absolutely dancing,” Mensah laughs, alluringly assuming her moves. “The accomplished affair was mad.”
Some belief acknowledge clandestine moments. Like the 8pm catch-up with accompanist Erykah Badu that should accept lasted an hour but went on until 4am: “People say, ‘Oh she’s weird’ and, yes, she is a actual altered affectionate of woman – she is absolutely aberrant and she is absolutely arbitrary – but I feel I can be attainable with her – added than anyone I know. We allocution about everything. I can’t accept how abutting we’ve become.” Afresh there was the adventure about the shall-remain-nameless high-profile extra who was jaw-droppingly abrupt to Mensah at a affair – akin afresh she tells the adventure afterwards malice. “I absolutely accept no abstraction what her botheration is,” she says, absolution it with a shrug. Of all the stories, however, it is Mensah’s own that is the best compelling.
Born to adolescent Ghanaian immigrants in London, she was the sixth of eight accouchement and the aboriginal to be built-in in the UK. At three months old, she was taken to Ghana to alive with her affectionate grandparents. “My grandmother additionally had eight children, who all had their own children, and we all lived in the aforementioned huge compound. There were 47 of us in total.” She action at my abashed reaction. “Yes, 47! But I became a bit like a celebrity,” she recalls, smiling. “People would say, ‘Oh look, there’s the English baby.’”
When she came aback to London at 11, she accomplished a blow, not aloof her parents’ annulment but a cultural about-face for which she was absolutely unprepared. “Oh my goodness,’ she says, afraid her head. “It was terrible. Absolutely terrible. I acquainted like I was an conflicting active in this burghal with very, actual algid bodies and…” A small, sad beam peters out. “I had this abstraction that it was activity to be idyllic. I acclimated to apprehend the Peter and Jane books, I admired the way they acclimated to comedy and I consistently thought, ‘Wow, they accept so abounding nice apples.’” She action at her naivety.
What Mensah accomplished was far added removed and multicultural than annihilation she could accept apprehend in the genteel Ladybird books. “We lived in Wembley. I went to a academy area it was predominantly West Indians, Asians and maybe 15% white. I had consistently been abundantly accepted at my academy in Ghana and all of a abrupt I became an outsider. My beard was threaded [an archetypal African hairstyle] and anybody laughed at it. My emphasis became a antecedent of mockery. Akin aback you said article they would say, ‘Say that again,’ aloof so they could laugh. I acclimated to appear home arrant every day. My mother would say, ‘Just angle up to them!’ But it’s actual difficult aback you accept 20 bodies adjoin you and it’s aloof you. It took for me to accept a action at academy afore the blowing eased.”
Mensah’s activity afflicted assuredly when, canicule afore her 13th birthday, her mother died of a academician haemorrhage. This, however, alive her absorption in hair. “I had addicted memories of my mother accomplishing my and my little sister’s hair. Aback she died, my adolescent sister was alone three, so I took on that role.” Mensah larboard academy with below-par grades. “With aggregate that happened, I was so traumatised I couldn’t concentrate,” she says. “Hair became a anatomy of healing.”
A beard arrangement with Mensah is, says a affectionate follower, article of a “spiritual experience”. There are parallels with her affectionate grandmother, a woman Mensah describes as “a abundant woman of acceptance who consistently evangelised and eventually congenital a abbey in her community”.
Without a adumbration of conceit, Mensah agrees her administration appearance is sacred. Her eyes ablaze up: ‘‘Yes [the process] is spiritual. Anticipate about it, you accommodated addition for the aboriginal time and you are affecting them. You are laying your easily on their crown. You are aggravating to assure them that aggregate will be fine, and they are putting a lot of assurance in you. It’s about like addition is naked and assuming you themselves and you are accepting to accomplish them feel beautiful.” She pauses… “That is a able thing.”
As I sit cat-and-mouse for my colour to take, best R’n’B arena in the background, it is difficult to abjure that Mensah’s amplitude feels added altar than salon. It’s backward (this is not the abode to clock-watch; as Smith absolutely accurately notes, “Afro beard requires patience”), safe, a canticle to atramentous hair. “Coming in to accept their beard done and bashed and combed, it’s like analysis for so abounding of my clients,” Mensah says. But afresh lockdown hit. “They were absolutely lost. My inbox, my DMs, my voicemails, my texts were so abounding with messages. I couldn’t accept it. It was crazy. I additionally awash added articles than I anytime did. It reminds you that accepting your beard done is such a architecture block of your wellbeing. It helps you mentally and lifts your spirit.”
One of the aboriginal audience to appointment the salon column lockdown was a seven-year-old mixed-race girl. On the day I spent with Mensah at the salon, she accustomed a letter from the babe thanking her for allowance to bound her long-held, acutely abiding alarm of accepting her beard affected – a abhorrence that had larboard her beard circuitous and matted. It took Mensah several hours to besom out and detangle. As a choked-up Mensah shares this with her aggregation and an appropriately affecting clientele, anyone walking in would accept mistaken it for a ancestors acquisition discussing addition they all knew and loved. There is, as Smith writes, “a sisterhood” (she additionally mentions the cake). It’s a affect echoed by biographer Afua Hirsch, columnist of Brit(ish) and longtime acquaintance and applicant of Mensah. “Even admitting I accept spent a lot of time active and alive abroad, I feel an afternoon spent in her salon is like accomplishments myself aback in atramentous London. Although she has risen to become a above adeptness in the adorableness world, her salon still feels like home.”
The conception of this familial amusing amplitude was not accidental. Afterwards spending years affective about and blockage with assorted relatives, – “I did move in with my dad but my stepmother didn’t amusement me well” – Mensah concluded up active in a auberge at 17. It was about this time she started her apprenticeship at Splinters (a groundbreaking, now defunct, atramentous beard salon in Mayfair). “The abode was happy, the music was on, the bodies came and aggregate stories. It was social, it was a community. I fabricated accompany who became like family. I was consistently attractive for that because the ancestors I had was broken. I acquainted like…” her articulation breach briefly. “I acquainted like I begin a home. Activity to Splinters adored me.”
It was there that she saw what she describes as “black excellence”. “These big-time lawyers, newsreaders like Trevor McDonald, Bob Marley’s kids. Diana Ross… I bethink thinking, ‘I appetite to be on that level. I appetite to be the best at this.’ I didn’t appetite to ache like my mother. She would get up at 5am, go to a charwoman job, assignment for British Rail, she was an Avon lady. It was a lot. I did not appetite that. I consistently had the abstraction that I was activity to accept article absolutely amazing.”
Today, Mensah lives in west London with her bedmate and two children. “Growing up I was consistently active out of a suitcase, I never had a able address, so aback I had my kids, I said to myself I never appetite to move around.” They’ve lived in the aforementioned abode for 27 years.
At the flat to shoot the photos for this interview, an chaste Mensah styles the models’ hair, and is still to be dressed or fabricated up herself. It’s as if she’s in abnegation that she is the brilliant of the day. Her achievements are indisputable, but as a atramentous woman operating in an industry bedeviled by white men, she is actual abundant an anomaly. Those men are usually the ones alleged on for the absolutely asset jobs, alive with affecting appearance houses on balustrade shows and advantageous announcement campaigns. Yet best are unskilled in Afro hair. Mensah, on the added hand, is accomplished in all beard types. Surely this galls? Her acknowledgment is accommodating but honest: “Opportunities accept been bound on the appearance and aerodrome ancillary of hairdressing. As a atramentous woman, I accept historically acquainted that there were gatekeepers who fabricated it difficult for me to breach in and lead. Area I accept apparent opportunities added afresh is actuality alleged in to be a specialist area atramentous models are actuality used. I am beholden for these opportunities, but I do admiration what it will booty to advance an absolute show. Atramentous models are actual abundant ‘in’, but my aptitude is not bound to alive on aloof atramentous artists.” However, she is optimistic, and vows to accumulate blame the boundaries. “I’m abiding I will get my befalling to advance the beard for a appearance aerodrome appearance soon.”
The killing of George Floyd and the protests it galvanised beyond the apple – “I’ve never apparent such aphotic days,” Mensah says agilely – accent not aloof issues of badge atrocity but structural racism and inequalities beyond society. The hairdressing industry has not been exempt. “I started accepting all these European beard stylists who had never done Afro beard aback allurement me to advise them,” she says. “‘I feel bad, I had no idea,’ they said. It was about like they capital to repent. I additionally had all these big brands campanology me saying: ‘We charge to do added apprenticeship on textured hair.’”
At this point she is incredulous, her articulation hardly raised, highlighting her irritation. “I’ve been cogent them this actuality for years and cipher took notice. I had no power. And now anybody is saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I feel like George Floyd’s afterlife was a airy awakening, but it’s abhorrent that is what had to appear for bodies to deathwatch up.”
She believes there is still abundant to do. “We charge to get added across-the-board boards of admiral in companies. If we don’t get into those spaces, I’m not abiding we are activity to accomplish it, because that is area decisions are actuality made. It’s sad that we accept to accumulate on fighting, but we charge to accumulate on angry until we win.”
Levelling the arena acreage through apprenticeship is one of Mensah’s passions – which is one acumen she set up the alms LOVE (Ladies of Visionary Empowerment). “I had a lot of advice from the Prince’s Assurance – that is how I set up my aboriginal salon at age 28,” she explains, abacus that an acquaintance aback she was teaching in Tanzania is what absolutely closed her admiration to advice others. “One adolescent babe absolved four hours to appear to the course, because she didn’t accept any money to booty the bus. That bankrupt my heart. Area she had absolved for afar and afar in the red soil, all of her clothes, her face, her beard were all red. Honestly, I couldn’t stop crying. At that point I thought: ‘I don’t accept a lot of money, but I accept to do something.’” Mensah now teaches administration abilities to adolescent bodies so they can advice themselves and their families.
Education is a big acumen why she wrote her book. Its appellation is arresting because while apparently “good hair” is artlessly adorable beard (subjective in and of itself), the added estimation is abundant added odious. In the atramentous community, the abstraction of “good hair” is steeped in the actual act of esteeming one beard blazon – that which is abutting to whiteness – as added admired than one in its accustomed Afro state. Chris Rock’s seminal, if now hardly outdated, award-winning documentary of the aforementioned name, provides abundant acumen into the bizarre accord atramentous women accept with their hair.
It is a altercation that Mensah still finds exasperating. “For so long, there were all these European standards and academic images of what atramentous beard looked like and what it meant. But for me, all beard is acceptable hair, whether it is coily, straight, 10in or bottomward to your waist,” she says. “We accept been conditioned into cerebration ‘good hair’ is continued and soft. I already mentored at a academy and all the atramentous girls had beeline wigs on. Some of them were as adolescent as 10! Honestly I was traumatised. And heartbroken. I absolutely achievement this book encourages bodies to abatement in adulation with our God-given texture.”
For all the illustrious names in Mensah’s apogee of audience and friends, including Vogue editor Edward Enninful (“I’ve accepted Edward and his ancestors for a while; I adore how he’s ashore his close out to ensure atramentous aptitude gets the bulge it deserves”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (“She makes me beam so much”), there is still one name on her ambition list: Michelle Obama. “I’d adulation to accept her in my space, aloof blame it, speaking what’s on our apperception and, of course, accepting tea and cake.”
In an abstract from her book, Acceptable Hair, Charlotte Mensah reflects on the accent of hair
Afro beard has appear a continued way aback I started my career. In the 80s, I cut my teeth on the job while alive at the aboriginal Afro-Caribbean salon in the UK beneath the administration of Winston Isaac, the asperse of British Afro hairdressing. At the time, the abstraction of accustomed hairstyles on the catwalk, or anti-discrimination laws to assure Afro hairstyles, was unthinkable; what’s more, few hairdressers were accomplished to affliction for our hair.
In 2018, afterwards 30 years of account to the industry, I became the aboriginal atramentous woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame. In the aforementioned year, the British media was talking about academy expulsions for pupils with atramentous hairstyles and Lupita Nyong’o, a dark-skinned atramentous actress, was on the awning of bright magazines, her natural, deeply coiled 4c beard extensive up to the heavens.
Today, my account of audience includes trailblazing women like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu. I’ve aureate the apple over and accept had women appear from Berlin, Brasilia and Brooklyn akin to restore themselves at my west London salon, Beard Lounge. I’ve accounting appearance and been interviewed by Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Stylist, the Pool, Grazia and more. But here’s the truth: I never advised to assignment in the adorableness industry. As a teen, I had set my apperception on alive in finance. But sometimes your aisle artlessly doesn’t run in a beeline line.
Now a mother of two, I acquaint my accouchement how funny it is to anticipate about the things that you don’t apperceive aback you’re young. In hindsight, it’s bright that a career in hairstyling was my accurate calling. As a child, my dada acclimated to booty me to his boardroom meetings, instilling in me the architecture blocks of business. And afterward the abortive casual of my mother, aback I was 13 years old, I took a agog absorption in administration while caring for my babyish sister’s hair, and never absolutely stopped. I went from amateur to administrator and business owner, afresh ablution my own ambit of beard products.
Looking afterwards hundreds of women over the years has accomplished me a lot. About hair, of course: the accurate composition, the best way to tend to it and the altered agency in which to present it. But my adventure has additionally accomplished me about business, ancestors and what it takes to succeed: the losses, the assets and the activity acquaint that appear with both. I acerb accept that accepting your beard done is a anatomy of therapy. It’s a time to relax and to talk, if you charge to, and to be, in a way, with family. It is additionally about empowerment and what it agency to booty buying of your locks.
Afro beard begins in Africa, area the textures begin on the abstemious are vast, from coiled to coiled to straight, depending on the altitude and the region. For at atomic 6,000 years – as far aback as experts accept managed to trace African combs – the agency in which atramentous bodies appearance their beard accept been a attribute of abundance and class, as able-bodied as profession and availability for marriage.
Over time, the assortment of styles has added about the world. Abounding women in tribes throughout West Africa, abnormally Ghana and Nigeria, barber their active afterwards their husbands accept anesthetized abroad as a assurance of respect. The Mende association of Sierra Leone took pride in women with beard that was continued and thick, because it adumbrated their health, delicacy and adeptness to procreate.
The Igbo and abounding added tribes carved combs fabricated of copse for grooming, and these were fabricated with continued teeth in adjustment to detangle the beard afterwards pain. At the Beard Lounge, my salon on Portobello Road, I accept abounding board combs from Ghana, proudly displayed in a bottle case. They’re a attribute of my ancestry and a admonition of our affluent affiliated history.
Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, authors of Beard Story: Untangling the Roots of Atramentous Beard in America, summarise it best aback they say that beard for African communities acted as a aperture to the spirit world, because it was the accomplished and best attainable allotment of the animal body. In Ghana, I grew up audition that beard was spiritual. You had to be accurate what energies you were putting into it and assurance the easily that were ambidextrous with it.
Hairdressing on the abstemious was (and still is) a austere business as Afro beard lends itself to analysis and abstraction practices that booty time and artistry. Abounding styles still beat today, such as cornrowing, originated in Africa. Some styles – beard threading, for instance – are dying out. Both cornrowing and threading absorb the carving of shapes and patterns into the attic through the sectioning of hair, and these busy styles were acclimated for important contest or artlessly for aesthetics. The time women spent administration anniversary other’s beard was a time to allotment stories, laugh, and appear calm as one, abundant like in the salon of today. Trust, adulation and accompaniment were exchanged in the accomplishing of hair, which appropriate continued hours and patience. The Mende believed that the success of a hairstyle additionally had abundant to do with the activity of a space, which bare to be ‘cleared of animosities and be abounding of acceptable will and harmony’.
Byrd and Tharps accompaniment that the ‘hairdresser was generally advised the best accurate alone in society’. The authors explain that the Yoruba of Nigeria accomplished all women to complect hair, but any adolescent being who showed affiance was fabricated a ‘master’, amenable for the accomplished village’s hair. Aback the ‘master’ died, her accoutrement were accustomed to whoever came afterwards her, during a appropriate ceremony.
Hairstyling is an art – aback you see a hairstylist at work, every distinct movement is absolute and rapid. A acceptable crew adds an aspect of allure to what, for abounding people, can be a activity of hardship. Afro hair, in short, has consistently been sacred, a way to acquaint with the divine, authorize bonds amid women and to appoint in artistic and healing pursuits.
Good Hair: The Essential Adviser to Afro, Textured and Coiled Beard by Charlotte Mensah (Penguin Life, £14.99) is appear on 29 October. Adjustment a archetype for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com
Photographer’s abettor Zeinab Batchelor; architecture by Claire De-Graft at Mojo Management application Tom Ford Beauty; beard by Charlotte Mensah and Charlotte’s aggregation application Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil; appearance abettor Peter Bevan; models Lisa at Storm, Ruby at Elite, Zainab at Wild
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