Lupita Nyong'o's hairstylist isn't afraid to be the 'bad guy' when speaking up about natural hair

Celebrity hairstylist and haircare creator Vernon François. (Art by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

Yahoo Lifestyle’s Diversity in Beauty Awards (the DIBs) highlight and celebrate personalities, brands, and products that embody inclusiveness and innovation. See the 2018 winners list here. We enlisted six experts who have championed diversity in their careers and cover all bases of the beauty industry to vote on the best in makeup, skin care, hair care, and more. Here, we put a spotlight on DIBs judge and celebrity hairstylist Vernon François.

When first meeting celebrity hairstylist Vernon François, it’s difficult not to marvel at his bubbly personality and contagious energy. He has worked with everyone from Lupita Nyong’o to Kerry Washington, and he continues to be an avid advocate for showcasing the crowning glory of kinky, curly hair textures. While lots of kudos are in order for this highly sought-after stylist, his humble beginnings and sincere passion are what make him a true class act.

Growing up, François can recall experiencing frustration when his mother would style his hair on Sunday afternoons. “I didn’t believe my hair needed to go through that, and I wouldn’t be happy with my hairstyle in the end — which made the whole process even more disastrous,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Instead of sitting around complaining, the U.K. native started teaching himself how to twist, lock, and braid, using beaded curtains, mop heads, carpets or whatever he could find around the house. He eventually worked his way into a salon age 14, and that’s when François really began to make his mark on the industry. At just 16, he won an award for his superior skills working with textured hair. From there, as François likes to say, “the rest is history.”

Glancing at François’s work, it’s no secret that he has played a pivotal role in changing some of the uncanny mythological narratives associated with natural hair. “I think it’s important to recognize my responsibility as an artist and to be able to demonstrate the versatility and the strength of those hair textures,” he says. “Yes, there could be ignorance. Yes, there could be racism. But I think it’s really important to take the stance that you’re in the most powerful position to teach someone something about yourself.'”

Francois’s optimistic approach to transforming conversations around curly hair is largely what made him the trusted expert he is today, and is essentially part of the brainchild behind his namesake line of prestige products for textured hair. It includes a full range of treatment and styling essentials, with award winners such as the Co~Wash shampoo and the Pure~Fro Moisture Spray.

“I sincerely believe women with kinky, curly hair types could never walk into a space that was specifically designed to make them feel luxurious, glam, relaxed, and fabulous,” says François. “They couldn’t walk into any of those environments and purchase products like their European girlfriends could and feel as elegant, as important, or feel like they’re investing in something that would benefit them.”

He adds: “The idea of creating something that really helped the experience in a luxury context is really, really inviting to me but, more importantly, making them recognize that exploring greatness with your hair is a gift, and we all have that gift to explore. Creating opportunities for that to happen is at the foundation of everything that we’re doing.”

François’s hair success and business victories haven’t come without challenges. In November 2017, Lupita Nyong’o called out Grazia U.K. for editing and smoothing out the look of her strands to “fit their notion of what beautiful hair looks like.” This happened to be a hairstyle that François had created, and he also took to Instagram to share his thoughts by reposting the cover shot along with the caption, “It’s time to celebrate the beauty of textured hair in all its glory. It’s imperative to have honest depictions of the vivacity of textured hair in the media so that we can embrace the reality that there is no one standard of beauty.” 

François admits there have been instances when he’s been asked to alter a client’s hair to make them look universal or polished, but he also confirmed that within those awkward scenarios, he’s never afraid to be the “bad guy” and speak up when it comes to properly showcasing the integrity of his work.

“There are a lot of egos that you’re massaging when you’re trying to help somebody understand that they told you to change who you are to fit their narrative, and that’s not what you are there for,” he explains. “You have to get them to recognize, ‘You picked me because you want to come across as inclusive. Now you’re telling me to conform a little bit so it’s not so outlandish to your clients.”

It’s not always the easiest conversation to have while working, but it’s a necessary one to have, as François puts it. “If you can talk to it in a light manner, and you can do it with an intent to change and show greatness within the muse you’re working with, everyone can have a successful outcome,” he explained.

Through it all, François is unapologetically leading by example, and creating fresh hair looks gives him pleasure comparable to the feelings a kid with a sweet tooth has when walking into a candy store. Fans have gone crazy over the red-carpet hairstyles he’s fashioned (remember Lupita’s Nyongo’s amazing Amasunzu Rwandan-inspired ‘do at the 2018 Oscars?), and he still remains surprised and humbled by all the support. “To me, the question is why are people going crazy? Is it because they haven’t seen it before, is it something new, is it the execution of my work, is it the combination of everything? That’s where my brain goes,” he says.

François strongly believes first and foremost that “all hair is good hair,” and he also wants the world to know that Afro and kinky hair types are some of the most versatile and exciting textures you can ever have the opportunity to be around or have. His extraordinary work certainly aligns with that mindset.

If anyone knows a thing or two about hair, you can bet it’s François. His motto: “If you just for one moment know that you can achieve greatness with your hair, the rewards for that can be forever life-changing.”

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