Charlotte Mensah: ‘Hair became a form of healing’ | Women’s hair

Would you want some cake?” I stare, barely perplexed, on the sizeable candy deal with being offered to me at Hair Lounge. A number of questions race by way of my head. To get by way of that mammoth piece, how lengthy will I would like to depart my masks off? At what level does that change into unlawful? After over-indulging pre, throughout and put up lockdown, ought to I actually be consuming extra cake? Overwhelmed by my thought course of, I politely, reluctantly, declined. Being served do-it-yourself nutmeg cake at a hair salon might sound uncommon however that is Charlotte Mensah’s salon. It has a repute not merely because the place the place storied clientele come to have their hair carried out, however as a spot individuals come for neighborhood, dialog and, sure, cake. “I like to bake,” smiles the softly spoken Mensah on the afternoon we meet. “It’s one thing I received from my grandmother. She had an enormous clay oven in her compound in Accra, in Ghana, the place she would bake a variety of truffles and breads. She additionally knew the way to do hair.”

To know Mensah is to know that the “doing hair” gene has most positively been handed down. However to say Mensah does hair is akin to saying the pope does faith. In Afro hair circles, she is a legend. Her expertise as a stylist spans three many years and numerous awards, together with profitable British Afro Hairdresser of the 12 months 3 times. In 2017, she grew to become the primary black lady to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Corridor of Fame.

She works on campaigns for among the world’s greatest hair manufacturers and can also be an entrepreneur; her eponymous line is bought by way of prestigious style and sweetness retailers – Web-a-Porter, House NK, Cult Beauty. And she or he is the founding father of Hair Lounge, the place she welcomes a powerful record of purchasers that run from authors (Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) to singers and actors (Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, Michaela Coel). Her first guide is revealed this month. Good Hair: The Important Information to Afro, Textured and Curly Hair intertwines her journey from London to Ghana and again once more, celebrates her exceptional private {and professional} wins, explores the historical past and politics of Afro hair and gives a realistic information for these with textured hair.

It’s quite a bit to cowl. I wonder if Mensah, whose earlier writing credit had simply been quick journal quotes, felt daunted on the prospect of crafting a complete guide. “Oh sure,” she admits freely, “I used to be very intimidated.” It took her greater than 18 months to finish. “I used to be not used to doing so many phrases however,” she breaks right into a mischievous smile, “you understand once I’m prepared, I really like storytelling. And I’ve so many tales.”

‘Having your hair done helps you mentally, and lifts your spirits’: Charlotte and models at Year of Return in Ghana, a Pan-African cultural festival for the diaspora
‘Having your hair carried out helps you mentally, and lifts your spirits’: Charlotte and fashions at 12 months of Return in Ghana, a Pan-African cultural competition for the diaspora

Her tales – intertwined with these you hear in her salon – are compelling, and legendary amongst her purchasers. As Zadie Smith writes within the guide’s foreword: “Just about each time I stroll in there, I come out with a brief story. It’s all day characters, all day chat, all day drama, all day philosophy and naked jokes.” Hair Lounge is such a protected area that Mensah doesn’t conceal her celeb purchasers away. “Everybody to me is a celeb, I’ve had purchasers right here when a lot of massive superstars are in. All of us simply discuss collectively.”

Mensah’s tales – discreet and innocent, in fact – are beneficiant and good worth. Like when she describes the scene final Christmas at Kotoka airport in Accra. It coincided with that of Ms Tina Knowles, aka Beyoncé’s mom, and the standard Ghanaian dancers and musicians that had arrived to welcome Knowles and her entourage to the west African nation. “You must have seen it. Beyoncé’s mum was actually dancing,” Mensah laughs, elegantly simulating her strikes. “The entire thing was mad.”

Some tales reveal personal moments. Just like the 8pm catch-up with singer Erykah Badu that ought to have lasted an hour however went on till 4am: “Individuals say, ‘Oh she’s bizarre’ and, sure, she is a really completely different form of lady – she is sort of unusual and he or she is sort of quirky – however I really feel I will be open along with her – greater than anybody I do know. We discuss every part. I can’t imagine how shut we’ve change into.” Then there was the story concerning the shall-remain-nameless high-profile actress who was jaw-droppingly impolite to Mensah at a celebration – even then she tells the story with out malice. “I actually do not know what her downside is,” she says, dismissing it with a shrug. Of all of the tales, nevertheless, it’s Mensah’s personal that’s the most compelling.

Lisa wears slip dress with lace insert,, and earrings,
Lisa wears slip costume with lace insert,, and earrings, {Photograph}: Lily Bertrand-Webb/The Observer

Born to younger Ghanaian immigrants in London, she was the sixth of eight kids and the primary to be born within the UK. At three months previous, she was taken to Ghana to dwell along with her maternal grandparents. “My grandmother additionally had eight kids, who all had their very own kids, and all of us lived in the identical big compound. There have been 47 of us in whole.” She laughs at my surprised response. “Sure, 47! However I grew to become a bit like a celeb,” she recollects, smiling. “Individuals would say, ‘Oh look, there’s the English child.’”

When she got here again to London at 11, she skilled a blow, not simply her dad and mom’ divorce however a cultural shift for which she was completely unprepared. “Oh my goodness,’ she says, shaking her head. “It was horrible. Actually horrible. I felt like I used to be an alien dwelling on this metropolis with very, very chilly individuals and…” A small, unhappy chuckle peters out. “I had this concept that it was going to be idyllic. I used to learn the Peter and Jane books, I liked the best way they used to play and I at all times thought, ‘Wow, they’ve so many good apples.’” She laughs at her naivety.

What Mensah skilled was much more eliminated and multicultural than something she may have learn within the genteel Ladybird books. “We lived in Wembley. I went to a college the place it was predominantly West Indians, Asians and possibly 15% white. I had at all times been extremely well-liked at my faculty in Ghana and swiftly I grew to become an outsider. My hair was threaded [an archetypal African hairstyle] and everybody laughed at it. My accent grew to become a supply of mockery. Even whenever you stated one thing they’d say, ‘Say that once more,’ simply so they may chuckle. I used to return residence crying every single day. My mom would say, ‘Simply stand as much as them!’ But it surely’s very troublesome when you’ve gotten 20 individuals in opposition to you and it’s simply you. It took for me to have a struggle at college earlier than the bullying eased.”

‘I had a lot of help myself from the Prince’s Trust – that is how I set up my first salon at age 28’: with Jazmin Lee and Prince Charles a Prince’s Trust reception in June 2019.
‘I had a variety of assist myself from the Prince’s Belief, that’s how I arrange my first salon on the age of 28’: with Jazmin Lee and Prince Charles at a Prince’s Belief reception in June 2019. {Photograph}: Rex/Shutterstock

Mensah’s life modified irrevocably when, days earlier than her 13th birthday, her mom died of a mind haemorrhage. This, nevertheless, roused her curiosity in hair. “I had fond recollections of my mom doing my and my little sister’s hair. When she died, my youthful sister was solely three, so I took on that position.” Mensah left faculty with below-par grades. “With every part that occurred, I used to be so traumatised I couldn’t focus,” she says. “Hair grew to become a type of therapeutic.”

A hair appointment with Mensah is, says a devoted follower, one thing of a “non secular expertise”. There are parallels along with her maternal grandmother, a lady Mensah describes as “a fantastic lady of religion who commonly evangelised and ultimately constructed a church in her neighborhood”.

With no trace of conceit, Mensah agrees her styling ethos is sacred. Her eyes mild up: ‘‘Sure [the process] is non secular. Give it some thought, you meet somebody for the primary time and you might be touching them. You’re laying your palms on their crown. You are attempting to reassure them that every part will likely be superb, and they’re placing a variety of belief in you. It’s nearly like somebody is bare and exhibiting you themselves and you might be having to make them really feel stunning.” She pauses… “That may be a highly effective factor.”

As I sit ready for my color to take, classic R’n’B taking part in within the background, it’s troublesome to disclaim that Mensah’s area feels extra sanctuary than salon. It’s unhurried (this isn’t the place to clock-watch; as Smith fairly rightly notes, “Afro hair requires endurance”), protected, a paean to black hair. “Coming in to have their hair washed and oiled and combed, it’s like remedy for thus lots of my purchasers,” Mensah says. However then lockdown hit. “They have been fully misplaced. My inbox, my DMs, my voicemails, my texts have been so full with messages. I couldn’t imagine it. It was loopy. I additionally bought extra merchandise than I ever did. It reminds you that having your hair carried out is such a constructing block of your wellbeing. It helps you mentally and lifts your spirit.”

One of many first purchasers to go to the salon put up lockdown was a seven-year-old mixed-race woman. On the day I spent with Mensah on the salon, she acquired a letter from the woman thanking her for serving to to unseat her long-held, deeply rooted terror of getting her hair touched – a concern that had left her hair tangled and matted. It took Mensah a number of hours to brush out and detangle. As a choked-up Mensah shares this along with her workforce and an equally emotional clientele, anybody strolling in would have mistaken it for a household gathering discussing somebody all of them knew and liked. There may be, as Smith writes, “a sisterhood” (she additionally mentions the cake). It’s a sentiment echoed by author Afua Hirsch, creator of Brit(ish) and longtime good friend and shopper of Mensah. “Regardless that I’ve spent a variety of time dwelling and dealing overseas, I really feel a day spent in her salon is like grounding myself again in black London. Though she has risen to change into a significant energy within the magnificence world, her salon nonetheless looks like residence.”

The creation of this familial social area was not unintended. After spending years transferring round and staying with numerous relations, – “I did transfer in with my dad however my stepmother didn’t deal with me effectively” – Mensah ended up dwelling in a hostel at 17. It was round this time she began her apprenticeship at Splinters (a groundbreaking, now defunct, black hair salon in Mayfair). “The place was pleased, the music was on, the individuals got here and shared tales. It was social, it was a neighborhood. I made mates who grew to become like household. I used to be at all times searching for that as a result of the household I had was damaged. I felt like…” her voice breaks briefly. “I felt like I discovered a house. Going to Splinters saved me.”

It was there that she noticed what she describes as “black excellence”. “These big-time attorneys, newsreaders like Trevor McDonald, Bob Marley’s children. Diana Ross… I keep in mind considering, ‘I need to be on that degree. I need to be the most effective at this.’ I didn’t need to endure like my mom. She would rise up at 5am, go to a cleansing job, work for British Rail, she was an Avon girl. It was quite a bit. I didn’t need that. I at all times had the concept that I used to be going to have one thing actually superb.”

At present, Mensah lives in west London along with her husband and two kids. “Rising up I used to be at all times dwelling out of a suitcase, I by no means had a correct handle, so once I had my children, I stated to myself I by no means need to transfer round.” They’ve lived in the identical place for 27 years.

At the studio to shoot the pictures for this interview, an understated Mensah types the fashions’ hair, and continues to be to be dressed or made up herself. It’s as if she’s in denial that she is the star of the day. Her achievements are indeniable, however as a black lady working in an trade dominated by white males, she may be very a lot an anomaly. These males are often those referred to as on for the actually plum jobs, working with influential style homes on catwalk exhibits and profitable promoting campaigns. But most are unskilled in Afro hair. Mensah, however, is expert in all hair sorts. Certainly this galls? Her response is gracious however trustworthy: “Alternatives have been restricted on the style and runway facet of hairdressing. As a black lady, I’ve traditionally felt that there have been gatekeepers who made it troublesome for me to interrupt in and lead. The place I’ve seen alternatives extra just lately is being referred to as in to be a specialist the place black fashions are getting used. I’m grateful for these alternatives, however I do marvel what it’ll take to steer a complete present. Black fashions are very a lot ‘in’, however my expertise shouldn’t be restricted to engaged on simply black artists.” Nonetheless, she is optimistic, and vows to maintain pushing the boundaries. “I’m certain I’ll get my alternative to steer the hair for a style runway present quickly.”

The killing of George Floyd and the protests it galvanised internationally – “I’ve by no means seen such darkish days,” Mensah says quietly – highlighted not simply problems with police brutality however structural racism and inequalities throughout society. The hairdressing trade has not been exempt. “I began having all these European hair stylists who had by no means carried out Afro hair out of the blue begging me to show them,” she says. “‘I really feel dangerous, I had no concept,’ they stated. It was nearly like they needed to repent. I additionally had all these massive manufacturers ringing me saying: ‘We have to do extra training on textured hair.’”

‘We need to keep on fighting until we win’: with Adwoa Aboah in 2018.
‘We have to carry on preventing till we win’: with Adwoa Aboah in 2018. {Photograph}: Nick Harvey/Rex/Shutterstock

At this level she is incredulous, her voice barely raised, highlighting her irritation. “I’ve been telling them these items for years and no one took discover. I had no energy. And now everyone seems to be saying, ‘Sure, sure, sure.’ I really feel like George Floyd’s dying was a non secular awakening, however it’s horrible that’s what needed to occur for individuals to get up.”

She believes there may be nonetheless a lot to do. “We have to get extra inclusive boards of administrators in corporations. If we don’t get into these areas, I’m unsure we’re going to make it, as a result of that’s the place selections are being made. It’s unhappy that now we have to maintain on preventing, however we have to carry on preventing till we win.”

Levelling the taking part in area by way of training is considered one of Mensah’s passions – which is one cause she arrange the charity LOVE (Women of Visionary Empowerment). “I had a variety of assist from the Prince’s Belief – that’s how I arrange my first salon at age 28,” she explains, including that an expertise when she was educating in Tanzania is what actually sealed her want to assist others. “One younger woman walked 4 hours to return to the course, as a result of she didn’t have any cash to take the bus. That broke my coronary heart. The place she had walked for miles and miles within the crimson soil, all of her garments, her face, her hair have been all crimson. Truthfully, I couldn’t cease crying. At that time I assumed: ‘I don’t have some huge cash, however I’ve to do one thing.’” Mensah now teaches styling abilities to younger individuals to allow them to assist themselves and their households.

Training is a giant cause why she wrote her guide. Its title is intriguing as a result of whereas superficially “good hair” is just fascinating hair (subjective in and of itself), the deeper interpretation is far more odious. Within the black neighborhood, the concept of “good hair” is steeped within the historic act of esteeming one hair sort – that which is closest to whiteness – as extra worthwhile than one in its pure Afro state. Chris Rock’s seminal, if now barely outdated, award-winning documentary of the identical identify, gives a lot perception into the convoluted relationship black ladies have with their hair.

It’s a dialogue that Mensah nonetheless finds exasperating. “For therefore lengthy, there have been all these European requirements and stereotypical photographs of what black hair regarded like and what it meant. However for me, all hair is nice hair, whether or not it’s coily, straight, 10in or all the way down to your waist,” she says. “Now we have been conditioned into considering ‘good hair’ is lengthy and comfortable. I as soon as mentored at a college and all of the black women had straight wigs on. A few of them have been as younger as 10! Truthfully I used to be traumatised. And heartbroken. I actually hope this guide encourages individuals to fall in love with our God-given texture.”

For all of the illustrious names in Mensah’s orbit of purchasers and mates, together with Vogue editor Edward Enninful (“I’ve recognized Edward and his household for some time; I like how he’s caught his neck out to make sure black expertise will get the prominence it deserves”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (“She makes me chuckle so a lot”), there may be nonetheless one identify on her want record: Michelle Obama. “I’d like to have her in my area, simply kicking it, talking what’s on our thoughts and, in fact, having tea and cake.”

Ruby wears black dress,
Ruby wears black costume, {Photograph}: Lily Bertrand-Webb/The Observer

‘I’ve discovered a lot’

In an extract from her guide, Good Hair, Charlotte Mensah displays on the significance of hair

Afro hair has come a great distance since I began my profession. Within the 80s, I reduce my enamel on the job whereas working on the first Afro-Caribbean salon within the UK underneath the tutelage of Winston Isaac, the godfather of British Afro hairdressing. On the time, the concept of pure hairstyles on the catwalk, or anti-discrimination legal guidelines to guard Afro hairstyles, was unthinkable; what’s extra, few hairdressers have been skilled to take care of our hair.

In 2018, after 30 years of service to the trade, I grew to become the primary black lady to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards Corridor of Fame. In the identical yr, the British media was speaking about faculty expulsions for pupils with black hairstyles and Lupita Nyong’o, a dark-skinned black actress, was on the duvet of shiny magazines, her pure, tightly coiled 4c hair reaching as much as the heavens.

At present, my record of purchasers contains trailblazing ladies like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu. I’ve flown the world over and have had ladies come from Berlin, Brasilia and Brooklyn alike to revive themselves at my west London salon, Hair Lounge. I’ve written options and been interviewed by Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Stylist, the Pool, Grazia and extra. However right here’s the reality: I by no means supposed to work within the magnificence trade. As a teen, I had set my thoughts on working in finance. However typically your path merely doesn’t run in a straight line.

Now a mom of two, I inform my kids how humorous it’s to consider the issues that you simply don’t know whenever you’re younger. In hindsight, it’s clear {that a} profession in hairstyling was my true calling. As a baby, my dada used to take me to his boardroom conferences, instilling in me the constructing blocks of enterprise. And following the premature passing of my mom, once I was 13 years previous, I took a eager curiosity in styling whereas caring for my child sister’s hair, and by no means actually stopped. I went from apprentice to entrepreneur and enterprise proprietor, just lately launching my very own vary of hair merchandise.

Taking care of a whole lot of girls through the years has taught me quite a bit. About hair, in fact: the scientific composition, one of the best ways to are inclined to it and the other ways through which to current it. However my journey has additionally schooled me about enterprise, household and what it takes to succeed: the losses, the positive factors and the life classes that include each. I strongly imagine that having your hair carried out is a type of remedy. It’s a time to loosen up and to speak, if that you must, and to be, in a approach, with household. It’s also about empowerment and what it means to take possession of your locks.

Afro hair begins in Africa, the place the textures discovered on the continent are huge, from kinky to curly to straight, relying on the local weather and the area. For no less than 6,000 years – way back to specialists have managed to hint African combs – the methods through which black individuals fashion their hair have been a logo of wealth and sophistication, in addition to career and availability for marriage.

Over time, the range of types has elevated all over the world. Many ladies in tribes all through West Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria, shave their heads after their husbands have handed away as an indication of respect. The Mende tribe of Sierra Leone took delight in ladies with hair that was lengthy and thick, as a result of it signified their well being, femininity and talent to procreate.

The Igbo and plenty of different tribes carved combs manufactured from wooden for grooming, and these have been made with lengthy enamel with a purpose to detangle the hair with out ache. On the Hair Lounge, my salon on Portobello Street, I’ve many picket combs from Ghana, proudly displayed in a glass case. They’re a logo of my heritage and a reminder of our wealthy ancestral historical past.

Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, summarise it finest once they say that hair for African communities acted as a gateway to the spirit world, as a result of it was the best and most accessible a part of the human physique. In Ghana, I grew up listening to that hair was non secular. You needed to be cautious what energies you have been placing into it and belief the palms that have been coping with it.

Hairdressing on the continent was (and nonetheless is) a severe enterprise as Afro hair lends itself to experimentation and sculpting practices that take time and artistry. Many types nonetheless worn right this moment, comparable to cornrowing, originated in Africa. Some types – hair threading, as an illustration – are dying out. Each cornrowing and threading contain the etching of shapes and patterns into the scalp by way of the sectioning of hair, and these elaborate types have been used for essential occasions or just for aesthetics. The time ladies spent styling one another’s hair was a time to share tales, chuckle, and are available collectively as one, very like within the salon of right this moment. Belief, love and companionship have been exchanged within the doing of hair, which required lengthy hours and endurance. The Mende believed that the success of a coiffure additionally had a lot to do with the power of an area, which wanted to be ‘cleared of animosities and be full of excellent will and concord’.

Byrd and Tharps state that the ‘hairdresser was usually thought-about essentially the most reliable particular person in society’. The authors clarify that the Yoruba of Nigeria skilled all ladies to braid hair, however any younger one that confirmed promise was made a ‘grasp’, liable for the entire village’s hair. When the ‘grasp’ died, her instruments got to whoever got here after her, throughout a particular ceremony.

Hairstyling is an artwork – whenever you see a hairstylist at work, each single motion is exact and speedy. hairdo provides a component of glamour to what, for many individuals, is usually a lifetime of hardship. Afro hair, in brief, has at all times been sacred, a technique to talk with the divine, set up bonds between ladies and to interact in artistic and therapeutic pursuits.

Good Hair: The Important Information to Afro, Textured and Curly Hair by Charlotte Mensah (Penguin Life, £14.99) is revealed on 29 October. Order a duplicate for £13.04 at

Photographer’s assistant Zeinab Batchelor; make-up by Claire De-Graft at Mojo Administration utilizing Tom Ford Magnificence; hair by Charlotte Mensah and Charlotte’s workforce utilizing Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil; style assistant Peter Bevan; fashions Lisa at Storm, Ruby at Elite, Zainab at Wild

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