Would you like some cake?” I stare, slightly perplexed, at the sizeable sweet treat being presented to me at Hair Lounge. A few questions race through my head. To get through that mammoth piece, how long will I need to leave my mask off? At what point does that become illegal? After over-indulging pre, during and post lockdown, should I really be eating more cake? Overwhelmed by my thought process, I politely, reluctantly, declined. Being served homemade nutmeg cake at a hair salon might seem unusual but this is Charlotte Mensah’s salon. It has a reputation not simply as the place where storied clientele come to have their hair done, but as a place people come for community, conversation and, yes, cake. “I love to bake,” smiles the softly spoken Mensah on the afternoon we meet. “It’s something I got from my grandmother. She had a massive clay oven in her compound in Accra, in Ghana, where she would bake a lot of cakes and breads. She also knew how to do hair.”
To know Mensah is to know that the “doing hair” gene has most definitely been passed down. But to say Mensah does hair is akin to saying the pope does religion. In Afro hair circles, she is a legend. Her experience as a stylist spans three decades and countless awards, including winning British Afro Hairdresser of the Year three times. In 2017, she became the first black woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Hall of Fame.
She works on campaigns for some of the world’s biggest hair brands and is also an entrepreneur; her eponymous line is sold through prestigious fashion and beauty retailers – Net-a-Porter, Space NK, Cult Beauty. And she is the founder of Hair Lounge, where she welcomes an impressive list of clients that run from authors (Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) to singers and actors (Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, Michaela Coel). Her first book is published this month. Good Hair: The Essential Guide to Afro, Textured and Curly Hair intertwines her journey from London to Ghana and back again, celebrates her remarkable personal and professional wins, explores the history and politics of Afro hair and offers a pragmatic guide for those with textured hair.
It’s a lot to cover. I wonder whether Mensah, whose previous writing credits had just been short magazine quotes, felt daunted at the prospect of crafting an entire book. “Oh yes,” she admits freely, “I was very intimidated.” It took her more than 18 months to complete. “I was not used to doing so many words but,” she breaks into a mischievous smile, “you know when I’m ready, I love storytelling. And I have so many stories.”
Her tales – intertwined with those you hear in her salon – are compelling, and legendary among her clients. As Zadie Smith writes in the book’s foreword: “Pretty much every time I walk in there, I come out with a short story. It’s all day characters, all day chat, all day drama, all day philosophy and bare jokes.” Hair Lounge is such a safe space that Mensah does not hide her celebrity clients away. “Everyone to me is a celebrity, I’ve had clients here when lots of big superstars are in. We all just talk together.”
Mensah’s stories – discreet and harmless, of course – are generous and good value. Like when she describes the scene last Christmas at Kotoka airport in Accra. It coincided with that of Ms Tina Knowles, aka Beyoncé’s mother, and the traditional Ghanaian dancers and musicians that had arrived to welcome Knowles and her entourage to the west African country. “You should have seen it. Beyoncé’s mum was really dancing,” Mensah laughs, elegantly simulating her moves. “The whole thing was mad.”
Some stories reveal private moments. Like the 8pm catch-up with singer Erykah Badu that should have lasted an hour but went on until 4am: “People say, ‘Oh she’s weird’ and, yes, she is a very different kind of woman – she is quite strange and she is quite quirky – but I feel I can be open with her – more than anyone I know. We talk about everything. I can’t believe how close we’ve become.” Then there was the story about the shall-remain-nameless high-profile actress who was jaw-droppingly rude to Mensah at a party – even then she tells the story without malice. “I really have no idea what her problem is,” she says, dismissing it with a shrug. Of all the stories, however, it is Mensah’s own that is the most compelling.
Born to young Ghanaian immigrants in London, she was the sixth of eight children and the first to be born in the UK. At three months old, she was taken to Ghana to live with her maternal grandparents. “My grandmother also had eight children, who all had their own children, and we all lived in the same huge compound. There were 47 of us in total.” She laughs at my stunned reaction. “Yes, 47! But I became a bit like a celebrity,” she recalls, smiling. “People would say, ‘Oh look, there’s the English baby.’”
When she came back to London at 11, she experienced a blow, not just her parents’ divorce but a cultural shift for which she was totally unprepared. “Oh my goodness,’ she says, shaking her head. “It was terrible. Really terrible. I felt like I was an alien living in this city with very, very cold people and…” A small, sad laugh peters out. “I had this idea that it was going to be idyllic. I used to read the Peter and Jane books, I loved the way they used to play and I always thought, ‘Wow, they have so many nice apples.’” She laughs at her naivety.
What Mensah experienced was far more removed and multicultural than anything she could have read in the genteel Ladybird books. “We lived in Wembley. I went to a school where it was predominantly West Indians, Asians and maybe 15% white. I had always been incredibly popular at my school in Ghana and all of a sudden I became an outsider. My hair was threaded [an archetypal African hairstyle] and everyone laughed at it. My accent became a source of mockery. Even when you said something they would say, ‘Say that again,’ just so they could laugh. I used to come home crying every day. My mother would say, ‘Just stand up to them!’ But it’s very difficult when you have 20 people against you and it’s just you. It took for me to have a fight at school before the bullying eased.”
Mensah’s life changed irrevocably when, days before her 13th birthday, her mother died of a brain haemorrhage. This, however, roused her interest in hair. “I had fond memories of my mother doing my and my little sister’s hair. When she died, my younger sister was only three, so I took on that role.” Mensah left school with below-par grades. “With everything that happened, I was so traumatised I couldn’t concentrate,” she says. “Hair became a form of healing.”
A hair appointment with Mensah is, says a faithful follower, something of a “spiritual experience”. There are parallels with her maternal grandmother, a woman Mensah describes as “a great woman of faith who regularly evangelised and eventually built a church in her community”.
Without a hint of conceit, Mensah agrees her styling ethos is sacred. Her eyes light up: ‘‘Yes [the process] is spiritual. Think about it, you meet someone for the first time and you are touching them. You are laying your hands on their crown. You are trying to reassure them that everything will be fine, and they are putting a lot of trust in you. It’s almost like someone is naked and showing you themselves and you are having to make them feel beautiful.” She pauses… “That is a powerful thing.”
As I sit waiting for my colour to take, vintage R’n’B playing in the background, it is difficult to deny that Mensah’s space feels more sanctuary than salon. It’s unhurried (this is not the place to clock-watch; as Smith quite rightly notes, “Afro hair requires patience”), safe, a paean to black hair. “Coming in to have their hair washed and oiled and combed, it’s like therapy for so many of my clients,” Mensah says. But then lockdown hit. “They were completely lost. My inbox, my DMs, my voicemails, my texts were so full with messages. I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy. I also sold more products than I ever did. It reminds you that having your hair done is such a building block of your wellbeing. It helps you mentally and lifts your spirit.”
One of the first clients to visit the salon post lockdown was a seven-year-old mixed-race girl. On the day I spent with Mensah at the salon, she received a letter from the girl thanking her for helping to unseat her long-held, deeply rooted terror of having her hair touched – a fear that had left her hair tangled and matted. It took Mensah several hours to brush out and detangle. As a choked-up Mensah shares this with her team and an equally emotional clientele, anyone walking in would have mistaken it for a family gathering discussing someone they all knew and loved. There is, as Smith writes, “a sisterhood” (she also mentions the cake). It’s a sentiment echoed by writer Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish) and longtime friend and client of Mensah. “Even though I have spent a lot of time living and working abroad, I feel an afternoon spent in her salon is like grounding myself back in black London. Although she has risen to become a major power in the beauty world, her salon still feels like home.”
The creation of this familial social space was not accidental. After spending years moving around and staying with various relatives, – “I did move in with my dad but my stepmother didn’t treat me well” – Mensah ended up living in a hostel at 17. It was around this time she started her apprenticeship at Splinters (a groundbreaking, now defunct, black hair salon in Mayfair). “The place was happy, the music was on, the people came and shared stories. It was social, it was a community. I made friends who became like family. I was always looking for that because the family I had was broken. I felt like…” her voice breaks briefly. “I felt like I found a home. Going to Splinters saved me.”
It was there that she saw what she describes as “black excellence”. “These big-time lawyers, newsreaders like Trevor McDonald, Bob Marley’s kids. Diana Ross… I remember thinking, ‘I want to be on that level. I want to be the best at this.’ I didn’t want to suffer like my mother. She would get up at 5am, go to a cleaning job, work for British Rail, she was an Avon lady. It was a lot. I did not want that. I always had the idea that I was going to have something really amazing.”
Today, Mensah lives in west London with her husband and two children. “Growing up I was always living out of a suitcase, I never had a proper address, so when I had my kids, I said to myself I never want to move around.” They’ve lived in the same place for 27 years.
At the studio to shoot the photos for this interview, an understated Mensah styles the models’ hair, and is still to be dressed or made up herself. It’s as if she’s in denial that she is the star of the day. Her achievements are indisputable, but as a black woman operating in an industry dominated by white men, she is very much an anomaly. Those men are usually the ones called on for the really plum jobs, working with influential fashion houses on catwalk shows and lucrative advertising campaigns. Yet most are unskilled in Afro hair. Mensah, on the other hand, is skilled in all hair types. Surely this galls? Her response is gracious but honest: “Opportunities have been limited on the fashion and runway side of hairdressing. As a black woman, I have historically felt that there were gatekeepers who made it difficult for me to break in and lead. Where I have seen opportunities more recently is being called in to be a specialist where black models are being used. I am thankful for these opportunities, but I do wonder what it will take to lead an entire show. Black models are very much ‘in’, but my talent is not limited to working on just black artists.” However, she is optimistic, and vows to keep pushing the boundaries. “I’m sure I will get my opportunity to lead the hair for a fashion runway show soon.”
The killing of George Floyd and the protests it galvanised across the world – “I’ve never seen such dark days,” Mensah says quietly – highlighted not just issues of police brutality but structural racism and inequalities across society. The hairdressing industry has not been exempt. “I started having all these European hair stylists who had never done Afro hair suddenly begging me to teach them,” she says. “‘I feel bad, I had no idea,’ they said. It was almost like they wanted to repent. I also had all these big brands ringing me saying: ‘We need to do more education on textured hair.’”
At this point she is incredulous, her voice slightly raised, highlighting her irritation. “I’ve been telling them this stuff for years and nobody took notice. I had no power. And now everyone is saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I feel like George Floyd’s death was a spiritual awakening, but it’s terrible that is what had to happen for people to wake up.”
She believes there is still much to do. “We need to get more inclusive boards of directors in companies. If we don’t get into those spaces, I’m not sure we are going to make it, because that is where decisions are being made. It’s sad that we have to keep on fighting, but we need to keep on fighting until we win.”
Levelling the playing field through education is one of Mensah’s passions – which is one reason she set up the charity LOVE (Ladies of Visionary Empowerment). “I had a lot of help from the Prince’s Trust – that is how I set up my first salon at age 28,” she explains, adding that an experience when she was teaching in Tanzania is what really sealed her desire to help others. “One young girl walked four hours to come to the course, because she didn’t have any money to take the bus. That broke my heart. Where she had walked for miles and miles in the red soil, all of her clothes, her face, her hair were all red. Honestly, I couldn’t stop crying. At that point I thought: ‘I don’t have a lot of money, but I have to do something.’” Mensah now teaches styling skills to young people so they can help themselves and their families.
Education is a big reason why she wrote her book. Its title is intriguing because while superficially “good hair” is simply desirable hair (subjective in and of itself), the deeper interpretation is much more odious. In the black community, the idea of “good hair” is steeped in the historical act of esteeming one hair type – that which is closest to whiteness – as more valuable than one in its natural Afro state. Chris Rock’s seminal, if now slightly outdated, award-winning documentary of the same name, provides much insight into the convoluted relationship black women have with their hair.
It is a discussion that Mensah still finds exasperating. “For so long, there were all these European standards and stereotypical images of what black hair looked like and what it meant. But for me, all hair is good hair, whether it is coily, straight, 10in or down to your waist,” she says. “We have been conditioned into thinking ‘good hair’ is long and soft. I once mentored at a school and all the black girls had straight wigs on. Some of them were as young as 10! Honestly I was traumatised. And heartbroken. I really hope this book encourages people to fall in love with our God-given texture.”
For all the illustrious names in Mensah’s orbit of clients and friends, including Vogue editor Edward Enninful (“I’ve known Edward and his family for a while; I admire how he’s stuck his neck out to ensure black talent gets the prominence it deserves”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (“She makes me laugh so much”), there is still one name on her wish list: Michelle Obama. “I’d love to have her in my space, just kicking it, speaking what’s on our mind and, of course, having tea and cake.”
‘I have learned so much’
In an extract from her book, Good Hair, Charlotte Mensah reflects on the importance of hair
Afro hair has come a long way since I started my career. In the 80s, I cut my teeth on the job while working at the first Afro-Caribbean salon in the UK under the tutelage of Winston Isaac, the godfather of British Afro hairdressing. At the time, the idea of natural hairstyles on the catwalk, or anti-discrimination laws to protect Afro hairstyles, was unthinkable; what’s more, few hairdressers were trained to care for our hair.
In 2018, after 30 years of service to the industry, I became the first black woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame. In the same year, the British media was talking about school expulsions for pupils with black hairstyles and Lupita Nyong’o, a dark-skinned black actress, was on the cover of glossy magazines, her natural, tightly coiled 4c hair reaching up to the heavens.
Today, my list of clients includes trailblazing women like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu. I’ve flown the world over and have had women come from Berlin, Brasilia and Brooklyn alike to restore themselves at my west London salon, Hair Lounge. I’ve written features and been interviewed by Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Stylist, the Pool, Grazia and more. But here’s the truth: I never intended to work in the beauty industry. As a teen, I had set my mind on working in finance. But sometimes your path simply doesn’t run in a straight line.
Now a mother of two, I tell my children how funny it is to think about the things that you don’t know when you’re young. In hindsight, it’s clear that a career in hairstyling was my true calling. As a child, my dada used to take me to his boardroom meetings, instilling in me the building blocks of business. And following the untimely passing of my mother, when I was 13 years old, I took a keen interest in styling while caring for my baby sister’s hair, and never really stopped. I went from apprentice to entrepreneur and business owner, recently launching my own range of hair products.
Looking after hundreds of women over the years has taught me a lot. About hair, of course: the scientific composition, the best way to tend to it and the different ways in which to present it. But my journey has also schooled me about business, family and what it takes to succeed: the losses, the gains and the life lessons that come with both. I strongly believe that having your hair done is a form of therapy. It’s a time to relax and to talk, if you need to, and to be, in a way, with family. It is also about empowerment and what it means to take ownership of your locks.
Afro hair begins in Africa, where the textures found on the continent are vast, from kinky to curly to straight, depending on the climate and the region. For at least 6,000 years – as far back as experts have managed to trace African combs – the ways in which black people style their hair have been a symbol of wealth and class, as well as profession and availability for marriage.
Over time, the diversity of styles has increased around the world. Many women in tribes throughout West Africa, especially Ghana and Nigeria, shave their heads after their husbands have passed away as a sign of respect. The Mende tribe of Sierra Leone took pride in women with hair that was long and thick, because it signified their health, femininity and ability to procreate.
The Igbo and many other tribes carved combs made of wood for grooming, and these were made with long teeth in order to detangle the hair without pain. At the Hair Lounge, my salon on Portobello Road, I have many wooden combs from Ghana, proudly displayed in a glass case. They’re a symbol of my heritage and a reminder of our rich ancestral history.
Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, summarise it best when they say that hair for African communities acted as a gateway to the spirit world, because it was the highest and most accessible part of the human body. In Ghana, I grew up hearing that hair was spiritual. You had to be careful what energies you were putting into it and trust the hands that were dealing with it.
Hairdressing on the continent was (and still is) a serious business as Afro hair lends itself to experimentation and sculpting practices that take time and artistry. Many styles still worn today, such as cornrowing, originated in Africa. Some styles – hair threading, for instance – are dying out. Both cornrowing and threading involve the etching of shapes and patterns into the scalp through the sectioning of hair, and these elaborate styles were used for important events or simply for aesthetics. The time women spent styling each other’s hair was a time to share stories, laugh, and come together as one, much like in the salon of today. Trust, love and companionship were exchanged in the doing of hair, which required long hours and patience. The Mende believed that the success of a hairstyle also had much to do with the energy of a space, which needed to be ‘cleared of animosities and be full of good will and harmony’.
Byrd and Tharps state that the ‘hairdresser was often considered the most trustworthy individual in society’. The authors explain that the Yoruba of Nigeria trained all women to braid hair, but any young person who showed promise was made a ‘master’, responsible for the whole village’s hair. When the ‘master’ died, her tools were given to whoever came after her, during a special ceremony.
Hairstyling is an art – when you see a hairstylist at work, every single movement is precise and rapid. A good hairdo adds an element of glamour to what, for many people, can be a life of hardship. Afro hair, in short, has always been sacred, a way to communicate with the divine, establish bonds between women and to engage in creative and healing pursuits.
Good Hair: The Essential Guide to Afro, Textured and Curly Hair by Charlotte Mensah (Penguin Life, £14.99) is published on 29 October. Order a copy for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com
Photographer’s assistant Zeinab Batchelor; makeup by Claire De-Graft at Mojo Management using Tom Ford Beauty; hair by Charlotte Mensah and Charlotte’s team using Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil; fashion assistant Peter Bevan; models Lisa at Storm, Ruby at Elite, Zainab at Wild