There are hairstylists, and there are “architects of style.” Ursula Stephen is the latter. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born hair maven earned her cosmetology license even before her high school diploma, honing her craft early while working in salons after school and on weekends.
Brooklyn is now the site of Stephen’s eponymous salon, a boutiquelike gem nestled in the center of the New York City borough’s rapidly gentrifying Fort Greene neighborhood (recently immortalized in 2017’s She’s Gotta Have It reboot). It’s where you’ll find Stephen when she’s not jetting around the world to cater to one of her celebrity clients.
What celebrity clients, you ask? Well, Kandi Burruss, Keyshia Cole, Remy Ma, Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington, Serena Williams, Anita Baker, Laverne Cox, Nia Long, Jill Scott, Keke Palmer, Naomie Harris and Zendaya, to name a few. And then there’s this little-known singer named Rihanna, whom Stephen worked with for about a decade, crafting many of the chameleonlike star’s most famous transformations.
The two first met when both were on the verge of major breakthroughs; Stephen had recently signed with her first agent, and Rihanna was just starting to break out of the studio mold and into her own sound—and look.
The two immediately hit it off, and after working together a few times, the singer asked Stephen to design a new look for her third release, Good Girl Gone Bad.
The result? A sleek and razor-sharp asymmetrical bob, which signified the singer’s newfound independence and put her on the map as a trendsetter.
It also marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship, as Stephen tells The Glow Up:
I think when she finally got the cut and got it out [of] her system, it kind of opened up her creative energy. It turned on her creative senses—to know what she wants and how she wants to look. And that’s how it changed into us being very collaborative—or just us getting bored at the same time and [saying,] “Let’s do something different.”
“Something different” became a mantra that would span the next decade the two worked together. It was an era that would establish Rihanna as a skilled shape-shifter with Stephen as one of her erstwhile collaborators, equally skilled at executing new iterations of the evolving star:
Though Stephen would eventually expand her horizons to take on other celebrity clientele (and open her own shop), the two remain great friends and work together whenever possible. “She’s still one of my favorite clients,” Stephen tells us. “She definitely has been a muse to me.”
These days, Stephen is most readily associated with another young muse: Red-carpet favorite Zendaya became a client when famed wardrobe stylist and friend Law Roach asked Stephen to perform a last-minute miracle for the starlet’s appearance at the 2016 Met Gala, themed “Manus x Machina.”
Wearing a sleek, one-sleeved, gold, chain mail dress by Michael Kors, Zendaya was in need of an equally sleek and futuristic coiffure to match, one that the stylist originally booked for the evening was, unfortunately, unable to execute.
Like a super-shero in sweatpants, Stephen swept in and saved the day, creating an unbelievably fashion-forward bowl cut that helped land Zendaya on several of the evening’s best-dressed lists.
Wisely, Zendaya has continued to work with Stephen, most recently taking the stylist around the world with her for the multiple premieres of her latest film, The Greatest Showman. As we reported here in December, one of Zendaya’s best-ever looks was her incarnation as a black butterfly at the Sydney premiere—that is, before we saw her on this year’s Oscars red carpet.
Stephen created both of those stunning looks, and when asked how it feels to be so quietly influential in the crafting of a star’s image—and what have often become iconic looks—she doesn’t demur:
I feel like I’ve always been that person—even when I worked in salons—and I think I’ve continued to maintain that type of image when it comes to my work. So [my work is] definitely recognizable, you know? And I like that.
And I’m grateful that people are noticing it, because I feel like that’s something I always have in the back of my head when I do any style—I want my work to stand out, and I want to make the person feel amazing about themselves. So the fact that the world is able to see it? Yeah, I feel like I accomplished something.
But Stephen also wants to share the wealth of information she’s learned as a top stylist, which is why she opened her eponymous salon in 2013.
Aside from making Stephen’s skills accessible to the noncelebrity set, the salon also serves as a training ground for up-and-coming stylists. Stephen is both owner and mentor, and takes neither role lightly:
I love my industry, and I feel like that was [one way] to kind of give back. I love education, and I love teaching someone. ... Because when you have a passion for it, you understand what’s behind it. ... And you know, I just wanted to provide an amazing space for a stylist to work in. ... I kind of wanted to give stylists what I felt like I was missing when I was coming up.
As if she’s not busy enough, Stephen is also an official Unilever hair expert, working with household legacy brands such as Dove, Suave and Tresemmé (she swears by Tresemmé’s new line of Compressed Micro Mist hairsprays and Dove’s dry shampoos for keeping blowouts fresh). It’s the perfect fit for a self-professed “product junkie” who tells us she also hopes to be a household name one day:
“I think that because I’m open to different things and I’m thinking of it as a business, there’s no reason why I’m not going to go explore every other avenue that is part of this beauty world. So let’s go!”
The Glow Up tip: If you’re in or visiting the New York City metro area, you can make an appointment at Ursula Stephen the Salon in Brooklyn. But ever the educator, Stephen graciously left us with her official guide to “product cocktailing” for curly hair, using some of her favorite products from Dove:
“One of my go-to cocktails to style short-to-medium hair is a leave-in serum-and-pomade combo. You’ll want to comb your fingers through your hair with equal parts of a serum, such as Dove Absolute Curls Supreme Crème Serum to create definition, and a pomade. This combination is easy to use and great for styling your hair and, more specifically, when spiking and shaping short hair. The lightweight creamy formula of the two will give your hair a shiny, slick appearance without drying it out. Pro tip: This combination works best when applied to damp hair.”
“A serum-and-styling-cream cocktail is great because it serves a dual purpose. This combination is great to restore much-needed moisture into short or long dry hair but is also great to maintain hair on a daily basis. If your hair is craving extra moisture, I’d recommend applying this duo generously throughout your hair to replenish any lost nutrients, but if it’s only to reactivate hair, only use a dollop.”
“On your wash days when you have a few minutes to spare, take your favorite hair mask and add a few drops of olive oil to it. One of my favorite hair masks right now is Dove Anti-Frizz Oil Therapy Mask because it infuses your hair with proteins and Buriti Oil to deeply nourish hair. Coupled with olive oil, it ups the ante on a regular hair treatment, as the penetrating oils get into the shaft and soften your hair. This effortless cocktail helps treat dryness on your scalp while also tackling dandruff.”
“To master the perfect wash-and-go hairstyle on naturally textured hair, create a mix of your favorite wrapping foam and leave-in conditioner, and comb through your hair section by section. This combination is also great for short pixie cuts to use as a molding technique.”