Everything Ursula Stephen touches literally turns to gold. That’s how we felt when we walked into her salon in Brooklyn on a rainy afternoon and watched her transform multiple clients into model lookalikes. Outside of her quaint and chic salon, Ursula is a master in the field who has touched the scalps of A-list celebrities including Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Laverne Cox and Kerry Washington to name a few. Her work has also graced the pages of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue for several high fashion editorial spreads and brand campaigns. Ursula, whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Grenada, didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth or immediate access to high-paying clients. With a modest upbringing in Brooklyn, she used her styling abilities and hustler chops to slowly inch her way to the top of the freelancing hair game. In this interview with BAUCE, Ursula tells us how she went from being a college student to becoming one of the most successful hairstylists in the country.
You have expressed that your interests in doing hair began when you were a young child growing up in your mother’s home in Brooklyn. What made you fall in love with hair? How did this become your career?
Ursula: Let me start by saying that when I decided to do hair, I never thought about the word “career”. When it was time for me to go to high school (which was actually a beauty school), I really did not know what I wanted to do. At that time, I only knew what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t academic, I didn’t love math and social studies. Those things didn’t excite me. What excited me was the creative things — art, music, dance. So when it was time for me to start considering school and what I wanted to do with my life, I sort of threw it out there. I don’t know what made me say to my mother that I wanted to do hair but it sort of was my gut reaction to the questions. I just wanted to make people look good and feel good. I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone. I knew I didn’t want to wake up early. I just knew the things I didn’t want — a typical “structured” type of occupation.
Your passion to “do hair” led you to a beauty school where you studied cosmetology in high school. Did you ever find your work challenging?
Ursula: It was really a breeze because at the end of the day, a lot of the techniques you learn in hairstyling came natural to me. Cutting and holding a Marcel iron just came naturally. I would always get in trouble with my teachers though because they would teach something to the class and I’d catch on so quickly that the rest of the students started following me instead of the teacher! My teacher would yell but she knew I had this talent. I remember one of my teachers telling people that my hands would be worth a million dollars one day! [laughs]. I’ve just always felt like a natural.
Wow. She had some great foresight! So you ended up attending Brooklyn College after high school — were you still doing hair while you were a freshman?
Ursula: Oh yeah! I actually had been working in a salon after school and on the weekends since I was in high school so it was an easy transition for me. College just felt like I was “switching” schools but hair was still the focus for me. I was taking courses at Brooklyn College and then I’d rush to work after school. When I was in class I would just watch time pass by because I wasn’t interested in school at that time. I had a growing clientèle at that age because I was one of the youngest stylists at this salon that I worked at called Nubian Profiles. It was a big salon in downtown Brooklyn that was owned by a bunch of guys [laughs]. They ended up moving locations before they closed down but I remember that these guys knew everything about business but absolutely nothing about hair! They would expect me to do 18 heads in one day as a stylist and I would have to tell them, “No, honey! I have to take lunch! That’s not how this works!” So, although I didn’t like school, I ended up leveraging these type of opportunities to become a better stylist.
You ended up leaving college in your sophomore year. How did you transition from working at a salon while attending school to becoming a celebrity hairstylist?
Ursula: Everything happened very simultaneously. I’m working at a salon after school, I’m attending Brooklyn College, and the salon I’m working in had this makeup artist that was a huge party person and well-connected to the celebrity scene. We slowly became friends and she let me do her hair; she would go out to all these parties and people would ask her where she was getting her hair done and she’d refer me. It was like a whole movement was happening behind my back and I wasn’t really aware that people were buzzing about me. We sort of became this team. Whenever she did a test shoot, she’d pull me in to do hair. Whatever she needed, I was there. That’s how my opportunities began to open up in a bigger way: I went from styling behind a chair to traveling with emerging artists and eventually well-known celebrities. That makeup artist taught me what being a freelance stylist meant and that’s how the money started to trickle in.
So all this is happening while I’m at Brooklyn College and I started thinking about leaving when I got the opportunity to go on tour with Kandi Burruss,which was life-changing. I did the tour and came back to all these clients who wanted me to do their hair too! I had missed so much class that I decided I couldn’t go back to school so I just went back to the only other place I knew — the salon. I kept thinking to myself, now what? I had to explain to my mother that she shouldn’t worry about me leaving school; that I could really make a living off this freelance thing. From that point on I was hungry; I started researching every aspect of the freelance world. I was finally doing it.
Ursula! How did you find new clients? Wasn’t that daunting to start setting out on your own?
Ursula: At that point my name was traveling in the industry. That’s how this business is. Once a publicist knows you and knows you do good work, they’re going to start sharing your name with everybody. That was a really good thing for a long time until I had to learn the business of hair. I didn’t understand what my rates should be. I didn’t understand the invoice process. I didn’t really get how money should flow. I was really trying to make freelance hairstyling work on my own but it wasn’t really booming because I was operating on such a small-scale. When I started working with different artists and they recognized my talent they connected me with an agent (which is super hard to get in this business) and she eventually called me back in 2007 and things started picking up from there. Shortly after I had the opportunity to work with Rihanna and gave her the bob cut that everyone raves about to this day. My work became my business card.
There’s a lot of pressure when you’re styling a celebrity because the whole world is watching this person. It has to be right because the stakes are much higher when you are working on an A-list person that the world constantly sees and judges. As hairstylists, we are part of their social scene. We are the people who build up their confidence and make them feel good so that they can deliver. It’s a different feeling and a huge responsibility to carry.
So, you were killing it on the freelance beauty scene. When did you make the decision to open a physical salon? What have been your challenges running this type of business?
Ursula: I never wanted to own a salon. Ever. People were asking me at the age of 17 when I was going to own a salon and I told them never! [Laughs] Back then all I knew was that I wanted to do hair, sleep late, and hang out with my friends. I didn’t want any real responsibility. But then I grew up and I remember having a party and all these people were asking me where my salon space was? I knew at that point in my career that I sounded stupid for not having one, so a year later my friend that worked in real estate reached out to me about a salon space and I decided to take a look. Where my salon is now is actually in the same spot that an old salon that I used to pass by and gush over used to be. So, I think I sort of mentally put that request into the universe and it came back to me.
The same time that I got the opportunity to open the salon was around the same time Rihanna was going on tour again but I had to decline in order to manage my new business. I spent those 11 months while she was away building up my salon. The biggest challenge running a salon for me is honestly not being able to be there as often as I would like. I am very hands-on and I want to run things the way I see fit but because I’m not physically there I can’t and it drives me crazy! Thankfully I have a really great salon manager and great staff. The thing about salons is that there is always something happening that you don’t foresee. Things will be good one day and then a pipe will burst. Little silly things like that, but it’s all part of the business.
What is your advice for someone who is getting started in the freelance hairstyling business, Ursula? What would you say to someone who admires working with celebrities and wants to be as big as you?
Ursula: Don’t drink your own kool-aid! The job I do looks glamorous but it’s a lot of hard work. I see a lot of young girls start salons too early with hot pink colors and glass chandeliers, not realizing how much work and effort it takes to run a salon and build up a solid roster of clients. If you’re not careful, the obsession with the glitz and glam will make you lose sight of everything. Like I said earlier, people told me at 17 to open a salon, but I knew I wasn’t ready. Take baby steps and do this when you know without a doubt that you’re ready.
Everyone wants to rush life — respect the process. I have had stylists come into my salon and after three months they’re in a corner mad and pouting because they aren’t making what they think they should be making in their head. I tell them, look it takes two solid years to build a clientèle. You got to sit still. If you are trying to zigzag in this business and take shortcuts, it won’t happen for you. The work can be mundane, boring and tedious — it doesn’t matter — sit still, work your butt off and trust in timing — it’s the only way you’re guaranteed to reach the top.