V sat down with Yusef to talk hair, Rihanna, and the journey he's taken to get to where he finds himself today.
V sat down with Yusef to talk hair, Rihanna, and the journey he's taken to get to where he finds himself today.
Text: Stella Pak
Weaving through the lanes of high fashion and celebrity hair in high speed is Yusef – the man behind Rihanna’s hairstyles for the past 10 years. Rihanna is a chameleon with a tasteful edge of rebellion whose title exceeds categories of music, fashion, beauty, and style icon of our generation. Her looks from magazines and album covers, fashion shows and red carpets, constantly push the envelope to innovate us out of the norm. Yusef’s intuitive aesthetic amplifies the drama with no apology as seen in our V112 feature, Spring Takes Flight. The beauty of Yusef’s craft and why every high-profile female celebrity would want to work with him is that he envisions his muses into the future where they are queens, goddesses and superheroes.
Raised in Miami by parents who were musical performers, becoming a hairstylist wasn’t always Yusef’s ambition. Hairstyling became second nature as he watched his mother primp and glam to prepare for stage performances. A self-proclaimed mama’s boy, he’d watch his mother do hair on the weekends and quickly picked up the craft at age 13, practicing on his siblings. This sets a foundation for a journey ahead of him in performance, music, and fashion, all with his tool kit at hand. We sat down with Yusef to chat about his beginnings of his journey, the ex who inspired him to become greater and The Y of tomorrow.
Tell me about where it all started, and how your passion for styling hair came to be.
I grew up in Miami, and my mother and father were both in the music industry. They performed and I was always around beauty. That was my first experience with glamour and makeup and hair, with my mom and my dad. As my mom’s music career started to take a back seat, she started to do hair. She was really good at it. She had a big clientele. People would come and get their hair done, and I would watch her. I watched my mom do everything. I watched her sing, I watched her dance, I was a mama’s boy, in awe of my mom. I would watch her do hair all day on the weekends, because she only did it on the weekends. Not long after that, I started to experiment with my brothers -- cutting their hair, doing my sister’s hair, and I realized I had become good at it just by watching. I thought, “Oh, I know what I’m doing.” Especially at 13, when my mom was like, “do your sister’s hair because I’m tired.” I’m like, “Alright, cool.” That was my first introduction into hair, but my main purpose in life at the time was to be a musician, to be a singer, move to New York, be Usher, be some cool R&B singer or do Broadway. But as I got older, I was still cutting and doing people’s hair every now and then to make money because I love fashion. I always wanted to buy the latest Versace, or Moschino. This was the 90’s.
I was doing hair in the neighborhood, cutting guys’ hair and then working on womens’ hair. The womens’ hair work started to overshadow the guys’ because I made more money doing women. I perfected that skill, doing women’s hair. Toni Braxton at the time had a short haircut and that was really in, so I was able to use my techniques as a barber to get these styles for women, use a curling iron and create cool shapes. It took off. I had no plans to go to beauty school, anything like that. My mom told me I had to go to school for it and by then I was already in school, so I wasn’t interested. I turned my focus onto the music. Right after high school, I got a job as a performer at Disney World. I did that for two years, and then moved on.
What was it like to work at Disney and trying to find your way around performance?
At 17, 18 years old making $1500 a week, that’s pretty rich. You could either move on to casting for roles, or get another job in the company, and make a lot of money. I was doing alright. I thought I’d take it to New York and be on Broadway. I’d audition, get really close to getting jobs, but then I realized I was too young. I wasn’t given the Broadway jobs, and I thought “I can do this, I can do that, why aren’t I getting them?” It wasn’t until after I got an agent and they explained most casting directors hire 30-year-olds to play 21-year-olds that it made sense. They look at us like a flight risk. At that age, you’re not going to commit working 60 straight days.
It sounds like theater is the complete opposite of TV and movies.
Yeah, so when I heard that, I was like, “Fuck that. I’m outta here.” I’m not gonna be some guy who keeps coming to New York to live the dream and get a “big break”. I have other skills. I met someone who worked in fashion. He was my boyfriend at the time, and he took me to Paris with him. I got introduced to the world of fashion on that trip.
Is that when you started taking hair seriously?
Everything just happened. I was in Paris, meeting all these models, all the super top models. They would come to the house and have castings and he’d say, “Hey! Yusef can do your hair.” I bought all new hair stuff, hook the girls up, blow their hair out and sit in the castings. When I went back to Miami, I was like, “I need to figure this out.” In Paris, I met people like Miss J Alexander, Odile, Orlando – who are some of the top hair stylists in the world. I met all of these stylists at such a young age and having an opportunity to work with them and then come back to Miami, I didn’t have a beauty school degree, so I started beauty school.
You ended up taking your mother’s recommendation?
Yeah, I went to beauty school. Thanks to my partner – he’s still a good friend of mine… he pushed me to see where this would take me. Years and years and years later, here I am. Singing and doing hair. It just took off, like it was the perfect match. I came to New York finally and continued to try to become an editorial hair stylist, and surround myself in that environment to get myself where I wanted to be. I always say that if you want to do something, put yourself in a room with people who are doing exactly what you want to be doing. I engulfed myself in the fashion scene, the party scene. They tied together in New York City. It was easy if you had what it takes, to meet the right people, get into the right parties, and hang out with the cool kids who worked in fashion. I got a lot of opportunities with magazines like Essence, Source magazine, hip-hop magazines, working with artists who were up-and-coming. The music scene really grabbed me. They saw that I was doing a lot of fashion. The urban music scene really came and snatched me up. That put me in the room with people like Alicia Keys, Angie Stone at J Records, Clive Davis. I used to do all their artists. I was constantly working because they had so many artists.
How did you balance fashion back in your life?
I was still going to Paris, doing fashion shows, so I kind of had the best of both worlds. I was able to make money, working with artists for album covers, getting paid very well, and then go to Paris and hustle and do fashion shows, to make half of the money [laughs]. It was very humbling. It made me realize what it takes. That’s what I tell my assistants and stuff, it ain’t easy. You have to put yourself in certain situations, humble yourself, to keep rising to the top. It’s not an easy climb.
Celebrity hairstyling, and then to move on to Paris Fashion week and working fashion shows – you’re dealing with two very different monsters.
Exactly. It was so weird because at that time, if you did fashion and then you did music, people were like, “What are you doing?” It was the weirdest thing.
Were they snobby about it?
Fashion kids were just all about the editorials, and I was one of the top assistants on the team. I was really working and making connections in fashion, making connections with models. Hanging out with Naomi Campbell and her picking me to do her hair, I was doing my thing. I was always around people just doing fashion, and their goals were the three C’s: Catalogues, Contracts and Campaigns. I was like, “I’ll get that too.” It was like you couldn’t do both. It’d be like doing both hair and makeup. At that time, celebrities and models were separate. Models were models. Models were getting the covers. Celebrities weren’t getting the covers. It was all model-based. But look at how things change. A model has to fight to get on a cover now. It’s all about the celebrity, it’s all about the musician. I saw that coming. Eras die and things change. Luckily, I stuck to my guns that I could do both. Now, I’m working with Rihanna who’s on the cover of magazines all the time, and doing sick fashion stories inside of the magazine. This is what I was talking about, people! It was a tricky thing to do, but I somehow managed to finagle my way. I changed the game a little bit. I was a pioneer of that.
Tell me more about the story behind the big hair looks in Spring Takes Flight.
They sent me inspiration, drawings Nicola (Formichetti) did and photos of afros, things like that. Immediately, I was like, these aren’t big enough [laughs]. I wanted bigger afros, let’s make them obnoxiously big and weird shapes. Let’s really take it there. Just play with hair. I came in and they saw one of the models who had just one afro on. Everyone was like, “Oh so beautiful! Let’s shoot it.” I was like, “I’m not done yet.” I put two more afros on her, and everyone loved it. They started shooting, and I knew that was the vibe -- to really take it there, amp things up. I didn’t want to be safe, I wanted to really go there, y’know. Let’s not just be the black girl with the afro, let’s be the girl with the SUPER afro. Something that’s unbelievable. Then Lizzo came in, and she was like I don’t know what to do. I was like, “Let’s do Cleopatra.” So I used super kinky hair and just chopped it. This modern-day Cleopatra goddess. It was a lot of fun.
Everyone looked like queens/goddesses.
That was the idea. It was like Goddess 2.0. Take it to the next level, and it was so fast. We did something and everyone loved it, like “Done!” The shoot only took four hours. Just give me the space and the idea and I’m going.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but how did you get started with Rihanna?
I’ve actually never told that story. I was working with an artist named Jazmine Sullivan who I adore. They shared the same manager. Ri was doing fashion week in Paris, and they reached out to me to see if I was available for a couple days to style her. Prior to that, Jazmine and I were at an event and we ran into Ri. Ri was like, “Oh your hair is so beautiful, who does your hair?”
What kind of look were you doing with Jazmine at the time?
We love big, glamorous hair, full, sleek, wavy. She (Jazmine Sullivan) was my Diana Ross meets Phyllis Hyman. That soulful jazz look, young and luxurious. Ri saw her and loved it.
What phase was Rihanna in when you met her?
I think her hair was shaved at the time, this was 2008. Good Girl Gone Bad, it was really short. She didn’t have a bob. It was short. We were introduced, and then a week later I got called to do something for fashion week. She didn’t even know it was me, the guy she had met with Jazmine. They were just like, “we got a guy named Yusef, he’s dope.” When I walked in the room, she was like, “Didn’t we meet?” She wasn’t expecting me. I did her hair in a completely silent room. At the end, she was like, “cool.” And then left.
What was the look you did for her?
This was for the Chanel show, in Paris 2008, 2009. It was her first time going to fashion week and shutting it down, being the new fashion It-girl. The next day, I came in and she was going to the Balmain fashion show. She never had her hair off of her forehead, but I came in and had the idea to do something like flames, crazy waves, orange on the tips. She was like, “I don’t know about that.” I did it, and she looks in the mirror and gives me a high-five. I was supposed to leave the next day, but they asked me to stay for the rest of fashion week.
The fire in that hair set things off.
I set fire to that ass [laughs]! I was working with her off-and-on, did her album cover for Loud, spent some days with her on tour doing her hair for shows. Then we did her cover for Talk that Talk, and then I was on tour with her full-time, doing her hair for photoshoots, campaigns, stuff like that.
You’re inseparable in a sense. When people think of Rihanna’s hair, they think of you.
She kidnapped me [laughs]! Definitely.
How is it working with Rihanna creatively? She’s next-level when it comes to her fashion, her makeup, hair… the whole look.
That changes. For photoshoots, we all brainstorm the ideas and try different things. Some things are wack, so we try something else. She’s usually the mouthpiece that’s like, “I’m not feeling that.” She’s so quick, she remembers everything. She’ll be like, “I did that in 2004 in Teen Vogue when I was 13.” We’ll be like, “No you didn’t.” She’ll pull it up and we’re all like, “Oh.” [laughs] She always wants to try something new. She pushes us to innovate, be different. She was like, “I’m your canvas. If it doesn’t work, I won’t kill you.” The process is pretty good, but it never ends. We send each other pictures and texts about hair, ideas whether a shoot is coming up or not. When a shoot is coming up, I’ll go to our archives. It’s nonstop inspiration between me, her stylists, the whole team. We stay connected to what’s hot, what’s not, what we’re going to make hot.
So it’s always a collaborative conversation?
Constantly. When the moment comes, our brains are already synchronized. We make sure we have the same vision for everything to run smoothly, pulling this and that to really align.
Our Music issue just launched and since you and your family are so deeply rooted in music, I have to ask who your musical heroes are.
I would say Bob Marley, to start. My dad produced a lot of music with him. Donny Hathaway...growing up, Donny Hathaway, the Bee Gees, Bob Marley, those were the kind of musicians that played in my house. I still listen to these guys all the time. There’s a lot of new artists I love, too. Jazmine Sullivan is my favorite, love her. I love music, I can go on and on.
I’ve been hearing some buzz about your very own hairline.
It’s shampoo, conditioner, dry shampoo, styling serum, styling spray, and then there’s a dual kit. It’s a shine and texture paste. It’s six products, but we’re combining two into one to really get rid of those flyaways. It’s called The Y by Yusef. It’s a really cool, much needed product. It works for all textures, all ethnicities. Over the years, I’ve acquired the knowledge of how much product a black girl would need, which product a Latin girl would need, gauged it all. Over the years, you see products marketed specifically at one group, but it misses the mark. I stripped everything down and made this perfect blend of products that will work for anyone. You can ask your black girlfriend to borrow her hairspray, and it’ll work perfectly. Everyone can share it and talk about it. It’s based on a love story, the shampoo is called “Love Me”, the conditioner is called “Trust Me”, the serum is “Respect Me”, the holding spray is “Hold Me”, and “Forgive Me” is the dry shampoo. It’s based on a love story, a love-hate relationship with hair. It’s getting people to love their hair again, wear their hair, talk to their hair. You have to nurture your hair, take care of it like a relationship. It’s a love story. My life is a love story.
If you were to give one nugget of wisdom to a young V reader who wants to get into hair, or has a passion for it, and doesn’t know where to start, what would you say to them?
There’s two things I always say to people. Don’t fake it till you make it. Know your craft. Know your shit. all the tools you need, whether it’s makeup or hair or photography. Know what you’re doing before you step into a room with people who could help you. That will go a long way. Just ex out the “fake it till you make it” shit. Know what you want to do, be clear about that. Then, put yourself in that environment, with people who are doing exactly what you want to do. Really learn, breathe in, take in the same air, learn the do’s and the don’ts. You’ll go far. Things will happen. The universe will put things in your lap when it feels you’re ready.