Ursula Stephen is a celebrity hairstylist known for working with Rihanna, Serena Williams, Mary J. Blige and many more, but she's a star in her own right.
Stephen, who travels across the globe for appointments but still has a salon in Brooklyn, New York, stopped by TODAY Style to tell us how she got where is in her career, what her hair philosophy is and what she loves most about herself: her confidence.
How did I get started in hair? I started because I didn't know what I wanted to do. And when it was time to go to high school, my friends were all sending their applications for these amazing high schools. But I was so not interested. So I told my mom, "I just want to do hair." And her hairstylist told my mom about this amazing vocational high school in Brooklyn. And I applied. And I got accepted, and the rest is history.
Some of my clients include Rihanna, Queen Latifah, Bebe Rexha. Wow. Gabrielle Union. Rita Ora. So many. Serena Williams. It's crazy, because a lot of the people I cut (hair for) had been on my mental list of who I would want to work with. And I actually did.
Mary J. Blige was one of the artists I always wanted to work with. I remember being in the salon and people would come in and show me pictures of her hair and I had to replicate it behind the chair. I always felt like I couldn't wait for the world to see my work and for someone to bring my work in and have someone else replicate it. So, yes, it's definitely mind boggling that I have these people as my clients. I feel like I spoke it or felt it into existence first. So it's on time.
When I finally got the chance to meet (Mary J. Blige), I walked inside. And, you know, I'm thinking there's going to be all this music playing. There's going to be a whole bunch of people around. It's going to be a whole moment. It was just her in her hotel room. I said, "Hi, I'm Ursula," and shook her hand. She's like, "I know who you are. I've been trying to book you for two years." I was like, "Oh my God! What?!"
"I've never looked at hair as black or white. It's always been about texture."
I definitely feel like one of the reasons my career has really taken off the way it has is because I've never looked at hair as black or white. It's always been about texture. I think it's very important for every stylist to educate themselves on every texture and to have that type of knowledge.
When I hear that women are finally embracing their natural texture, I love it. Because first thing's first, you can't fight Mother Nature. You have what you have. If you have amazing, curly hair and every day you're beating it straight, it will be that way for a while. But then it'll start to break off, become dry. You'll be left with damaged hair. I think it's great that people — as well as brands — are recognizing different textures now.
Do I have a philosophy when it comes to doing hair? I have a few of them. One of them is: Do it before somebody else does it. Any hairstyle that you want to do or you think is amazing, get it out there.
I love my confidence because for a long time, not just me, but a lot of brown girls weren't told that they were beautiful. And for me, I definitely came from a confident, strong family. My mom was very strong. So I never felt like, "Oh, I wish I was light, or my hair was longer, or my hair was straight." I never had those feelings. But I could only imagine women like me who didn't. So I love my confidence.
I might tell my younger self, "Girl, it ain't that serious. Relax." Or I might tell my younger self that, "It's going to be OK. It's actually possible."
As told to Rheana Murray. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.