OK—did you die over Yara Shahidi’s hairstyle when she walked down the red carpet at this year’s SAG Awards? I died. Did you die over her “Weekend In Wakanda”-perfect bejeweled ’fro-cornrow extravaganza on Essence’s latest cover? I died. Hairstylist Nai’vasha Johnson is the one slaying the trendsetting actress’s red-carpet and special-event coiffures that keep us all watching, wondering and lusting over how to get those versatile curls for ourselves.
The Glow Up got the blow-by-blow from Johnson, who, though she doesn’t tend to Shahidi’s tresses on set for her hit shows, has created some of Shahidi’s most iconic looks for magazines and award ceremonies.
Here are some of Johnson’s glam-and-go prep tips and tricks for natural curly hair when she has 60 minutes flat to get Shahidi red-carpet-ready, working in tandem with makeup artist Emily Cheng:
“Don’t wet your hair too much, because at the end of the day, natural hair takes a bit longer to dry,” Johnson tells us. The more water you put into the hair, the less curl you’ll end up with, “like curlers in the hair under the dryer come out looking like a relaxer.”
Instead, she advises moistening the hair with a spray bottle and applying Oribe’s Curl Definition Cream. Besides smelling so good, “it can bring dry curls back from the dead and make them look fresh and new.” In this hairdresser’s opinion, “you can never put too much conditioner in your hair.”
Curly-haired folks, listen up: Diffusers are not as safe as you think. “I see people literally melt their hair by putting the diffuser on high and directly in contact with the hair,” Johnson says. “It will melt your hair off your head.”
Suicide for straight hair is “obsessively flat-ironing the same section over and over again.” As a preventive method, Johnson prefers to “go over the whole head with a single pass on each section,” then pass the iron over again only on sections where it’s needed, as a “finishing tool for shine.”
Johnson warns us that teasing should be done by delicately back-combing with a paddle brush. Duly noted. Now that we have the ground rules and styling safety tips, let’s get to work.
What’s the key to the sleek look Shahidi rocked for her shoot for Vanity Fair’s 2018 Hollywood issue? Johnson’s trick is applying Gorilla Snot [Editor’s note: gross name, great product] to dampen hair with some mousse. “The low alcohol content of the gel means it won’t flake or turn white on the hair,” she says. She’s also not a fan of tying hair down with do-rags because “it makes hair look plastic and hard.”
Thinking of skipping your baby hair? Check out Shahidi’s look at the Kids’ Choice Awards and think again. “Every curl matters. Every curl has rights,” Johnson jokes. Seriously, though: “Deep conditioning is key for the most beautiful curls on the planet. You don’t have to spend a bundle to get the look,” she says.
Paul Mitchell Instant Conditioner is a favorite of the stylist—she mixes it with water in a spray bottle. She advises brushing the conditioner through with a paddle brush: “The more conditioner you add, the more the weight of the product changes the natural curl pattern.”
Paddle brushes and finger-combing are Johnson’s preferred methods, but her newest favorite product is only $3: Ecco gel, discovered by Johnson’s two tween girls, was used to smooth Shahidi’s edges for this month’s Essence cover.
And for the classic Diana Ross-Chaka Khan situation Shahidi wore to this year’s SAG Awards, Johnson spritzed the hair with leave-in conditioner and added hair to the back for length and volume. The look was finished by gentle back-combing to get the shape. “I love hair play,” she says. “I’m a big advocate of wigs and weaves.”
A favorite source for wigs and pieces? “I make wigs,” she says. Whaa? “Yes. Just DM me on my Insta.” It’ll set you back $1,000 to start, and “the sky’s the limit, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.” It can be very difficult to match the curl texture of real hair to a wig, but it’s something that Johnson assures me she’s expert at creating.
“I love doing hair; I can express myself without having to speak on it,” she says. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t do hair: “I was doing a sew-in weave by myself on clients in my neighborhood since I was 10 years old.”
How has Johnson seen the hair game change in the 20 years since she’s been doing hair? “The evolution of natural hair,” she says. “Lupita was the celebrity power player that influenced the world to go natural.”
And the biggest trends for spring? Hair accessories—think bows like the Dior ones she put in Skai Jackson’s hair for a W magazine luncheon, or gold barbell barrettes on Shahidi’s high ponytail for this year’s NAACP Awards. If Johnson’s work on her clients—who now include Storm Reid, Uzo Aduba, Sasha Lane, Amandla Stenberg and, of course, Shahidi—are any indication, we’ll be following her lead this spring.