Overcoming inequality in the styling chair
“YOU WANT TO COME IN AND LOOK GREAT AND DO WELL”
Partway through Jennifer Holness’s Subjects of Desire (2022), a documentary about the representation of Black female beauty in history and culture, an ethics professor makes an intriguing statement. Explaining how she settled on beauty as her academic focus, she says that she “followed the arguments” and realized that beauty “is a justice issue, too.”
For actors of colour in the hair and makeup trailer, beauty has been a justice issue for a long time. Historically, these actors have not received the same time, consideration and expertise that they deserve in the styling chair. But it’s only recently that the rest of the industry — as it belatedly grapples with persistent forms of racial injustice — has begun to appreciate how deep the problem goes.
When it comes to styling textured hair, there is an indisputable knowledge gap. Actors of colour cannot always expect that there will be a stylist on set who is equipped to work with their hair. The actors are left with two unappealing options: style their own hair, or allow their hair to be styled in a way they’re not comfortable with (or that leaves lasting damage). Both options can negatively affect the actor’s ability to get into character and comfortably deliver an effective performance.
It’s a situation Holness understands all too well. “When you’re in front of the camera, you have to give up yourself in a certain way,” she explains. “And you sure as heck should feel confident that you’re presenting what you should be presenting physically.”
Beauty expert and stylist Janet Jackson, who has plenty of experience styling hair for TV, puts it this way: “If an actor’s hair doesn’t feel or look the way that they would like it to, it will definitely affect their work ethic, their job, their character. Everyone can relate to not being happy with how they look. You don’t feel good, you don’t perform as well.” And actors may be wary of vocalizing their concerns “because they’re afraid they might get on some sort of blacklist, or labelled as being difficult,” she adds.
Jackson points out that roles for actors of colour are increasing, which is a very positive development in the industry — but it means that “the need for hairstylists who can work with textured hair has become crazy.”
Actors of colour can run into similar difficulties in the makeup department. According to Vancouver-based film makeup artist and IATSE member Zabrina Matiru, “Sometimes professionals who are not consistently processing darker skin tones may lack the confidence they need,” so actors of colour are told that they look great as they are and don’t need to have makeup applied. This is an issue because the actors “are given no guidance on how their character should actually appear,” Matiru says.
The cumulative effect of being brushed aside in the makeup department is even more troubling, Holness believes: “‘You don’t need makeup’ is a code for ‘You are not valuable enough for me to take care of you in the way that you should be taken care of.’”
Sudz Sutherland, a director and screenwriter (and Holness’s partner), puts it this way: “As a performer, you want to come in and look great and do well. But instead, you come in and get demoralized and told your place in the world as a Black person when you don’t have somebody who knows what to do with your hair and your skin.”
How can the industry overcome this kind of unequal treatment?
“ IF YOU’RE TAUGHT HOW TO DO IT, YOU CAN DO IT”
One of the roots of the problem, says Jackson, is that “the beauty curriculum has not been inclusive.” That is, hairdressing schools across the country do not devote enough — or any — time to teaching how to style Black and textured hair.
Peggy Kyriakidou, formerly a hairstylist for film and TV and currently president of NABET 700-M UNIFOR, a union of film and television technicians in the Greater Toronto Area, also feels that this is where change needs to begin. “We need to change the curriculum, first and foremost,” she says. “There are no textured-hair courses in hair schools here in Toronto, so we are pushing for a class to teach students to do different kinds of texture. If you’re taught how to do it, you can do it.”
There is already some movement in this direction. NABET is supporting a letter sent by Jackson and others to Ontario’s premier, insisting that the hairschool curriculum be made more inclusive. And MPP Jill Andrew (Toronto—St. Paul’s) put forward a motion in the legislature to mandate training for Black, Indigenous and racialized people’s natural and textured hair in Ontario’s Hairstyling Program Standard, which governs hairstyling schools in the province.
The curriculum piece is essential, says Kyriakidou. While plenty of people may know how to style their own or others’ textured hair, stylists for film and TV need the specialized skills they can only learn at school and through on-set experience — including the ability to break down scripts and develop a character. But Kyriakidou says that her union is committed to bringing those two things together: “We’ve opened doors now, and it’s not just a foot in — both feet are in. And we’re making it very understandable to the people who need to hear us say it that we have to be able to bring these things together, in order to find people who will be able to be successful in our industry.”
“WE’LL FIGURE OUT WHAT WE CAN DO TO GET THEM THERE”
According to Holness, the problem could also be mitigated by a greater concentration of BIPOC stylists in the labour unions. Jackson agrees. “BIPOC artists, artists who know how to work with different hair types and textures, are relatively rare in the unions,” she says. “The way that they’ve recruited people in the past needs to change.”
It’s no secret that, regardless of industry, trade unions tend to have a high bar to entry in order to protect their prestige and the livelihoods of their members. This can make it challenging for new people to join — but Kyriakidou insists that this is shifting as well.
NABET counts OYA Emerging Filmmakers (which offers career training for Black graduates of film and TV programs) and Reelworld (which runs a film festival, training programs and a database of BIPOC creatives) among its industry partners. Through these organizations, NABET locates individuals who want to work in the film industry and gives them opportunities there. For example, Kyriakidou says she has used these connections to provide “third bodies” to hair and makeup trailers — Black hair and makeup artists who lend the needed support to productions, are mentored by experienced crew, and “build the membership and add the diversity that we know is required in our union, especially in hair and makeup.”
“We’ve got options now,” says Kyriakidou. “We’re working with many more Black hair and makeup artists. And even if they’re not ready to head departments, we’ll figure out what we can do to get them there.”
Kyriakidou says that her union shares knowledge and resources on this issue with other unions, “because it’s super important that we work together as an industry to facilitate the support required to give these opportunities to people and take down the barriers.” She recognizes that unions can be “scary” to people who are beginning their careers in the industry, because of those high barriers to entry. “But we are looking at eliminating those barriers,” she says. “We are saying, ’Come, and we will help train you.’”
“EVERYONE NEEDS TO NOT STOP LEARNING”
While bolstering union membership with Black hair and makeup artists is a worthy goal, Sutherland points out that it won’t be enough to satisfy the need for stylists who can work with textured hair and global skin tones. “We don’t have the numbers to put a Black hairstylist or a Black makeup artist in every trailer,” he says. “It’s not possible. But we need to make sure that the people who are already in there are trained. Everyone needs to not stop learning.”
It’s a sentiment echoed across the board, including by stylists and unions. “I would say the willingness of hair and makeup artists to pursue further training is a positive sign,” says Matiru. “If people are feeling uneasy because they haven’t practiced a lot of Black makeup, they can sit down with someone and talk through and discuss things and learn from each other.” As Jackson puts it, “The best artist never stops learning.”
To support such continuous learning, NABET and the CMPA recently partnered with Jackson to offer master classes (Styling Techniques for Kinks, Curls and Waves) for industry stylists. “We want to continue to up our members’ skills in this area,” says Kyriakidou.
“I thought that was really amazing,” says Jackson. “I love that people are wanting to learn, because it’s so important.” She explains that her class offers a collaborative environment to take in information and ask any questions — even uncomfortable ones. And she says she sees more of the same types of classes being offered to stylists in the industry.
On top of her film and TV work, Matiru is also a consultant with Black Beauty Roster, a New York–based organization that works to amplify the work of Black beauty professionals, as well as educate the industry on textured hair and global skin tones. Matiru has led sessions for BIPOC makeup artists on what it takes to run a makeup department, as well as sessions to teach non-BIPOC artists about makeup application for diverse complexions.
She recalls one class in which the models were background actors of colour, “and all of them were so excited that this class was happening. They were seeing things move in a positive direction, and hopefully a repairing of relationships between performers and makeup artists. We can repair the damage that has been done by bad experiences or by being dismissed.”
“THIS IS A POSITIVE DIRECTION IN WHICH WE’RE GOING”
Of course, it’s only when the entire industry pulls together in the same direction that momentum can be gained. Producers, unions, stylists — everyone has to want the same thing. And that seems to be the case.
“Ultimately, I am optimistic that this is a positive direction in which we’re going,” says Matiru. “It’s a beginning, but I do feel that we’re in a positive trajectory.”
Kyriakidou believes that the partnership between unions and producers will keep things on that trajectory. “We are working with our producers to make certain that we are meeting their requirements,” she says. “All we need is a conversation. We collaborate and we figure out what we can do to get them the stylists they need.”
“I do think collaboration is important for the change that needs to happen,” says Holness. “And I think the right attitude is being applied to the problem. We are in a much better place than we were a few years ago. There’s work to be done, but I gotta tell you — it feels like this is finally going to happen.”