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To Ohio's Cosmetology Industry, Black Hair Doesn't Always Come Naturally

Adora Namigadde
Students at New Directions Beauty Institute in Columbus work on and get licensed to do natural black hair.

As Queen Roshae preps for an intimate, 10-hour hair session with a client, the stylist breaks out into her theme song.

"I'm a soul sista, knocking those naps up on their backs!" Roshae sings. "Oh, baby, come see me!"

Roshae, who owns Napps, Kinx & BB's Urban Day Spa in Columbus, is a stylist in demand. Switching between her Arizona and Ohio salons, Roshae flies to clients around the country, and they fly to see her.

Today, though, is all about Saundra Johnson.

“It’s just gonna be me and her. We gonna eat some kale salad. We gonna vibe, we gonna woosa and she’s gonna be fabulous,” Roshae says. “She can get in the pool, she can walk in the rain - tonight.”

Roshae is styling Johnson's hair without chemicals, so Johnson won't have to be concerned about it being ruined by the elements. Roshae holds a ball of poofy, kinky hair in her hand. She delicately picks off pieces and blends them with Johnson’s hair.

"Let's see how she feels," Roshae says. "This is her test loc, so we can be clear we're having the right size."

"Oh yes!" Johnson says. 

Credit Adora Namigadde
In her Columbus salon, Queen Roshae gives loc extensions to Saundra Johnson, a 10-hour process.

With the seal of approval, she continues giving Johnson loc extensions. It’s one of a few techniques Roshae says are essential to her craft, but that she didn’t learn in her time at cosmetology school.

"I do locs all day. That’s all I do," Roshae says. "There’s a time I would have starved to death in Columbus trying to do natural hair."

Times have changed. A movement encouraging women of African descent to keep their natural hair texture has created more demand for stylists.

But that's also raised greater attention to the natural hair industry, which had gone largely unregulated until the late 1990s. Until 1999, the Ohio State Board of Cosmetology required natural hair stylists to get full cosmetology licenses.

Stylists who work with kinky or coily hair, though, have fought the requirement, saying cosmetology doesn't teach anything about their craft. Many of them learned from their family or other people in their lives, or from experimenting themselves.

And Megan Davis says regular cosmetology courses don't deal with natural hair at all.

"The only thing you will learn in the traditional cosmetology program is to straighten by chemicals or extreme heat African American curly hair," Davis says.

Credit Adora Namigadde
Lavonia Buck, who is aiming for a natural hair stylist license, prepares a customer's hair for braids. She commutes more than three hours to attend Ohio's only accredited natural hair program.

Instead of requiring the full cosmetology license, Ohio introduced a "Natural Hair Stylist" license in 1999, but that was time consuming and expensive. The natural hair license requires 450 hours of schooling and can cost thousands of dollars. 

Many stylists found it easier to work in the shadows, off the books. In fact, according to  Paul Avelar of The Institute of Justice, Ohio only issued 62 natural hair stylist licenses between 1999 and 2014.

That led the state to make another move last fall, when the Board of Cosmetology created a new “Boutique Services Registration” in addition to the natural hair stylist license. It has some overlap with the natural hair stylist license, but is not all-inclusive. The idea was to make it easier to style natural hair legally.

The industry, however, is still divided over the changes.

"The boutique services registration was created as an alternative to two competing interests in the last General Assembly," says Tony Fiore, a lawyer who helped write the regulation.

One party wanted to see increased regulations and schooling for natural hair styling, whereas the other wanted to see further deregulation. With the boutique services registration, potential stylists can pay $75 to be certified to perform certain natural hair services like braiding and threading.

Roshae says the registration will let her expand her business, and even create an internship program.

"Seventy-five dollars, I can get you in here, get your license, invite you in and train you tomorrow," Roshae says.

She sees the new regulation as an opportunity for the natural hair industry to grow as a whole.

"It's working for me, I don't know what the problem is," Roshae says. "But somebody else will feel different."

Credit Adora Namigadde
New Directions Beauty Institute in Columbus is Ohio's only accredited natural hair program. For owner Nicole Perrin-Hill, a new boutique services registration is unfair to those who've taken the time to do a full program.

Somebody like Megan Davis, who originally opened The Kitchen Salon out of her home in Toledo in 2007. Thanks to the new state certification, she was able to open an actual building - with some reservations.

"The boutique license they offer is wonderful to a certain extent," Davis says. "But it doesn't allow the stylist to be able to shampoo the client's hair prior to servicing."

That's a big problem, she says, because very curly hair is best managed wet.

"French braid, cornrow, twist or coil," Davis says. "All of those are best done on damp hair."

With a chronically ill daughter, Davis says she doesn’t have the time or money to obtain the natural hair stylist license, which would allow her to offer shampoo services. She also says she doesn’t need the full cosmetology license.

But for others, like Lavonia Buck, that specialized license is worth it. Buck commutes more than three hours to attend Ohio’s only accredited natural hair program at New Directions Beauty Institute on East Dublin Granville Road. 

"I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I travel here to Columbus every day from Tuesday to Saturday and I attend school," Buck says.

Credit Adora Namigadde
A close-up of Saundra Johnson's hair as she receives loc extensions from Queen Roshae.

New Directions opened in 2010 and has certified about 300 students. Owner Nicole Perrin-Hill says the new boutique services registration is unfair to those who take the time to do the natural hair curriculum.

"A natural hair person who’s coming to school to do the right thing, to do these services, I kind of feel like they’re being a little bit jipped because now you can go pay $75 and we can braid you," Perrin-Hill says.

Even though the natural hair stylist license is more valuable than the boutique services registration, Perrin-Hill says the curriculum needs to include things like trimming natural hair.

Some of the issues raised by stylists might be addressed in Senate Bill 129, which Fiore helped introduce in Ohio. That proposal would lower the full cosmetology license requirement from 1,500 hours to 1,000, and add additional boutique registration options for services like crafting wigs.

Roshae, though, is confident that the black hair business will survive any hurdles, regulatory or otherwise.

"Black churches and black beauty shops and barbers, we ain’t going nowhere," Roshae says. "Crack, recession, do what you wanna do. You can’t put me out of business."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled "Tony Fiore."