Rihanna’s hair stylist, Ursula Stephen, on how to create outstanding hair

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t hold back when we were offered the chance to tap Ursie up for her advice on everything from standing out in a crowd to finding inspiration. Plus, she walks us through how to create Hollywood waves (like the delicious ones she created for Zendaya’s 2019 Emmy’s appearance) at home.

If there’s one woman who knows hair, it’s Ursula Stephen. She’s the stylist who helped shape Rihanna’s grittier new image back in 2007 with the trend-setting Good Girl Gone Bad asymmetric bob (and countless Ri-Ri smash hit looks since).

She’s worked with the best of the best – her client roster includes Zendaya, Mary J Blige, Serena Williams, Ciara, Bebe Rexha, Rita Ora and more – and she’s worked on everything from red carpets to magazine covers, to backstage at Fashion Week as a TRESemme ambassador, and some seriously stunning MET Gala creations.

You’ve worked with some incredible people – anyone left on the bucket list?

I hate to say it because I feel like it sounds so conceited but I feel like I really checked off all the names on my original list. I had people like Serena Williams, Mary J Blige and all these amazing people on my list and I’ve had a chance to work with them, so now I’m trying to build a new list. I like working with new artists and new talent because I get a chance to help them to find their look and pull out their personality a bit more – it’s always in there, they just need someone to help them navigate it.

Biggest pinch me moment?

When I went to the Cayman Islands with Grace Byers who plays Boo Boo Kitty in Empire. She hired me to come out and do a campaign with her. I packed my bags, went there and worked on the beach all day. It was like being on vacation. I was like “am I really getting paid to be here.” It wasn’t anything crazy, like some of the other moments I’ve had, but that was the moment I stepped back and thought: I get to do what I love in this amazing, relaxing, beautiful environment.

My whole era with Rihanna was amazing. It was a special moment in time. And I love my time with Zendaya. When she asked me to be on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter with her, it was a big deal for me. I was grateful she gave me that moment. Opening my own salon was also huge. When I first started doing hair, I never thought I’d be working celebrities or going to these amazing places. My whole career has been a pinch-me moment. I get to create and make people feel amazing about themselves.

What’s the biggest mistake people make with their hair?

Not accepting their hair for what it is. You have to understand your hair and know what makes it tick. You need to know what makes it grow so it will love you back. You have to know what your hair can give you – what it can and can’t do. That’s why a lot of women go through breakage and alopecia, it’s because they’re doing things to their hair that’s not best for it. So it’s about educating yourself on your hair type.

That said, I’m all about doing what works for you and taking it to the next level. If you want to be natural today and then next week, you’re tired of that and you want to go get a relaxer, I’m all for that. Do what works for you and your hair. A woman should do what makes her feel beautiful. But whatever you decide to do, make sure you can do it well.

People are always so surprised when I change my hair. I’m so drastic. I’ll have super long braids, then curly hair. I don’t take it so seriously. I just go with how I feel and how I want to look at the time. It’s like fashion. With the seasons changing, it’s always nice to switch it up. It’s just hair, it will grow back and if it doesn’t, you can always buy some hair extensions.

What do you think made you stand out from the crowd and what would be your advice to others looking to do the same?

I made it in my career because I simply said yes and I surrounded myself with all things hair. That was my passion. I’d say get into it for the right reasons. I wasn’t thinking about celebrities when I started, I just wanted to be the dopest hair stylist in Brooklyn. I wanted everyone to see my work, so I spent every moment doing hair. I was an assistant, I took any job, as long as it involved hair.

You have to surround yourself with it, because all of those things are going to pour into you and help you become who you are. As you work around different people, you’re able to take different pages from their book and build your own book.

Also, a little naivety helped me too – not asking too many questions. Sometimes people ask so many questions that it just takes the fun out of it. Just do it. And don’t look too much at other people. You need to know what others are doing and what’s going on, but you have to stay focused on your own path. Be yourself, too. That’s what makes you different.

What’s been your biggest beauty disaster, or a situation that you’ve learnt from?

I’ve had plenty of what you’d call “failures and disasters” but I don’t see them like that. I’ve always seen them as opportunities to do something else or go in a different direction, even losing a major client. When you work with people that are major, it can take so much of your time. So, instead of looking at it as losing a client, I’d look at it as the door has opened up for me to work with other people – and that took me to other places.

I like a little challenge and getting told no, here and there, because I think “I’m going to prove it to you. I’m going to make you realise why you should have said yes to me.” I’ve never dwelt on failure or roadblocks, that’s just how it is, you just have to be able to move forward.

Where do you get your inspiration from for your looks?

So many places. I love nostalgia. I watched a lot of old black and white movies when I was younger at my mom’s house. I love taking old things and making them new again. The sixties and seventies are my favourite. I love landscapes, I love just walking around New York City. I love being in the hood where I’m from. There are so many things for me to pull inspiration from. I’m a very visual person, so I can see a bottle of water and take a shape off that. It could be anything.

How long does it take to do red carpet hair?

As long as they give me! Usually when you’re doing a red carpet, you have two hours. Sometimes they’ll schedule for four hours if they know the glam’s going to take a bit longer, but it all depends on who you’re working with. You have to be prepared – even if you’re told four hours, that you may have two – because there’s so much going on. I once had a last-minute call to do Beyonce’s hair, it was for a casual dinner, but she still wanted to look good. I literally had twenty minutes to put her hair up into a ponytail. It was one of those times that I thought: just forget about perfection and embrace the opportunity. So I did it and she was happy with it, but I would have liked more time to go in.

What is the reality of being a celebrity hair stylist?

We’re working with real women. They still want to look good and feel good. They still have their own hair issues that they don’t like. The difference is, they have a lot more eyes on them. When I do someone major, I have to consider the whole world chiming in, which can be tough on their self esteem, so I have to keep that in mind.

It’s my job to keep my client calm. Especially when I’m giving them a new look because there’s all eyes on them. If this haircut’s not right, the whole world is talking. So I have to make sure my client really feels confident in what I’m going to do. The rest of us can go home and wear a hat for a few days until we get used to it, but if I give you a look just as you’re about to step onto a major red carpet, I’d better know what I’m doing.

You have glamorous times, but it’s really a lot of work. You’d be surprised how many conversations are had for a simple ponytail for a client on the red carpet. Stylists are chiming in, the management’s talking – and it’s a ponytail! “How is this ponytail going to be? Where’s it going to sit? Where’s it going to fall?” It’s very technical. People think when you become a celebrity stylist you get to the point where you can drop your shoulders, but there’s a lot of work that goes on behind it.

What’s your favourite look that you’ve created?

Rihanna’s blonde shag for the 2012 Grammy’s. That’s my all time favourite – I gave her dark roots and blonde hair. It was a real Sharon Stone, rock ‘n’ roll sexy look. Then, I love all my moments with Zendaya. We had some great MET Ball looks. The first MET Ball with her happened like the Beyonce moment. It was the one year I wasn’t booked for anyone. Her stylist, Law Roach, called me the day-of and was like “I need you to come and do Zendaya’s hair for MET.” That was our first time working together. It became a moment and we started working together a lot after that.

How to create Hollywood waves like Zendaya
  1. Spray TRESemmé Heat Protect Styling Spray all over hair “this is a must,” says Ursula. “Protect your tresses!” Then mist TRESemmé Flexible Hold Hairspray evenly through the hair.
  2. Start separating hair from the back into sections and clip away remaining hair.
  3. Curl each section away from your face in the same direction “so at the end when you go to brush it, it forms a unified ‘S’ shape,” explains Ursula. “For Hollywood waves, you want to curl all the way to the ends of your hair,” she adds, “whereas with updated waves you leave the ends straight.”
  4. Once you’ve curled it, cup your hand under the tong and catch the curl while it’s still in a loop, then pin it with a hair slide or clip. “The reason we pin the curl afterwards is because hair takes shape while it’s warm. If you don’t pin it – especially if you’re hair is longer – your hair will be loose by the time you’re ready to go. So this preserves the style,” explains Ursula.
  5. Leave the curls to set for around 15 minutes, the remove the clips in the order you added them.
  6. Choose your desired parting (a deep side parting works best for this look) and and gently comb them through with a wide tooth comb.
  7. Spritz in TRESemmé Day 2 Volumising Dry Shampoo to add volume, then using your comb, push the wave and clip wherever there’s a bend to encourage that ridged shape.
  8. Use TRESemmé 2 Hold hairspray to set it all in place, then brush out to make sure everything is uniform. Tuck the lighter half behind your ear. Once it’s all styled, and shaped you can remove the clips and push the bottom up for a bit of last-minute volume.

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