Iconic celebrity beauty moments aren’t born without the visionary artists that create them. In Behind The Glam, TZR gives you an inside look into the careers and inspirations of the industry’s top artists
If there’s one person you should be listening to about natural hair, it’s Felicia Leatherwood. These days, it seems the natural hair community is overwhelmed with products, marketing jargon, and conflicting opinions on everything from the best techniques to the most protective styles — even the age-old question of just how often to wash natural curly hair is up for debate. But amid all the confusion, Leatherwood is a forceful voice of reason, breaking through the noise with information (and products) all built off a legitimately legendary career of hair education and professional styling.
Leatherwood’s career has taken her around the world, leading packed conferences on hair care, styling for television and film, and crafting some of the most talked-about hairstyles for Hollywood’s brightest stars — like Insecure creator and star Issa Rae (casual flex).
Now one of the industry’s most sought-after and influential hairstylists, Leatherwood’s love affair with all things hair started in her formative childhood years — right back to her Barbie collection. “I didn't play with Barbie dolls,” Leatherwood tells TZR. “Just their hair! It was always about the hair.” Despite a penchant (and natural knack) for hair from early childhood, Leatherwood’s illustrious career didn’t follow a Candyland-perfect path from styling Barbie’s hair straight to Viola Davis’. Like all good Hollywood stories, Leatherwood’s journey involved plenty of soul-searching, endless work, and one big leap of faith that changed her life forever.
How She Got Started
For a young Leatherwood, doing hair was an inherent interest and one that held the key to her own independence. Hair was both a hobby and a way to make a little walking around money — her father worked a lot while her mother was often ill, relegated to bed. Her newfound autonomy, though, extended to her creativity, too.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, there weren’t too many beauty industry household names in general and even fewer for Black women and those with natural, textured hair. Though Leatherwood began experimenting with hair around age six, she quickly realized she would have to be her own role model — and the edge that perspective gave her. “I created things no one else had,” Leatherwood says, and would strive to identify trends she’d immediately subvert. “I would go and do something completely different on myself. I’m still like that to this day.” But despite her talent and love for doing hair, it’d be a few years yet until styling became her full-time career.
In her 20s, Leatherwood found herself in a perpetually freezing office at Warner Brothers where she worked a classic corporate job. The perks were solid, she says, but it wasn’t what she was meant to be doing. At 30, she realized where she was supposed to be, where her calling truly was. When she decided to enroll in cosmetology school, everything changed. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” she laughs, but walking away from that job marked a turning point in her life — and the decision was based on pure unadulterated instinct. “I really felt strongly that being a natural hairstylist would make my life way happier,” Leatherwood tells TZR. “I basically feel like when I chose that, when I stand stood firm on that and went to school and start working a salon, it's like the universe opened up — like all the doors opened.”
On Being The Lead Hairstylist For ‘Insecure’
One of Leatherwood’s proudest career moments, she says, was her work on the runaway hit show Insecure, created by Issa Rae. From the first opening shots of Rae in character, hyping herself up in front of the mirror, it was clear that this was a show so many had been waiting for. HBO was replete with nearly all-white ensembles of women in slice-of-life series, but the options for Black women were (and still are) limited. Insecure, a show about a Black woman simply trying to navigate her career, friendships, and relationships, was legitimately groundbreaking for the network and television as a whole. And possibly even more groundbreaking was the level of representation of natural hair on the show — all thanks to Leatherwood’s work as Rae’s longtime hairstylist.
After a chance meeting at the Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon, Leatherwood and Rae hit it off — “we’re both Capricorns,” Leatherwood says, a connection that explains their shared drive and attention to detail — which turned into an extraordinary partnership over Insecure’s five seasons. In addition to all their business dealings, Leatherwood and Rae became close personally, too. She even styled Rae’s hair for her breathtaking 2021 wedding to Louis Diame. Through their years together, united by crack-of-dawn call times and assorted film and television sets, “you get to really know a person,” Leatherwoods says about Rae. The pair bonded over everything from their work to a mutual love for cinnamon lattes, logging long hours behind-the-scenes planning, prepping, and styling together. Their nine-year professional relationship yielded intuition typically reserved for best friends, significant others, and the closest colleagues. “The other thing that I think is important too, is you have to know when not to touch the actor versus when to touch them or talk to them,” Leatherwood explains. “If they’re in character and there’s a big, emotional scene coming, it’s not the time to chatter — it's really important to be in tune with someone that you work with on a day-to-day basis.”
Those long days (and years) produced a lot of hairstyles — more than 300, to be exact. Leatherwood says she’d often created as many as eight hairstyles per episode, many of which she would have to style in under 20 minutes — “I learned to be fast,” she says, laughing, “and to be able to take a hairstyle and flip it and change it so that it becomes something else out of the base of the first thing you saw.” And as Rae herself is a naturalista, Leatherwood’s creativity exploded with ideas, which Rae was more than happy to let her run with. One of her favorite styles, plucked from season five, involved taking Rae back to her college years with a mini twist wig and faux braces. “Anytime you can create a whole other character out of the character, that is a lot of fun.”
Her Most Major Moments
Leatherwood’s career has led her to work with some of the most popular and respected stars in Hollywood, including Anthony Anderson, Will Smith, and Viola Davis. “Jill Scott was probably my first ‘Oh my god, I did it, I’m good, this works!’ moment,” Leatherwood says, first working together back in 2003. Not only was Scott a major star with equally huge name recognition, she famously sticks to her natural hair — a preference Leatherwood says inspired so many other people to be natural, too. When Leatherwood started working with Scott, the conversations around the singer’s hair got much louder. “People were starting to pay attention to her hair, and not just her voice,” Leatherwood explains. “She's beautiful but they started to say, ‘Who's doing her hair?’ That really took it up a notch.” That buzz even landed Leatherwood her first-ever interview, conducted with a big-name ‘00s blogged called AfroBella. “When she exposed me to everyone else,” Leatherwood says, “that's when people really started to pay attention to my work.”
There are three moments that, to Leatherwood, that rank among her proudest. One is her lauded work on Insecure. Another is her own top-rated brush and ever-expanding line, emblazoned with her name in a surreal moment she describes as “a childhood dream lived out to impossible heights.” And the other involves award-winning actress Teyonah Parris, an awards show red carpet, and a legitimately show-stopping hairstyle. Parris was up for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for her acclaimed work in Mad Men, and all eyes were on the young star. Leatherwood styled Parris’ in a sculptural, looping hairdo that complemented her resplendent purple gown, and it set the Internet fully ablaze. “I shaped it in a way that people had never seen on television or anywhere,” she says, and the critics adored it. “That made me so proud — so proud,” she shares. Even through the phone, her glow is palpable.
An Unmatchable Knowledge Of Natural Hair
A large part of why Leatherwood has been so successful in the industry is her intimate knowledge and understanding of natural hair (and its care) on a deeper level.
Before she worked with these celebrities though, Leatherwood regularly toured the world educating people on natural hair. On-stage with thousands of women hanging on her every word, these classes — called Loving Your Hair With Natural Care — is what Leatherwood really credits with giving her career momentum in the first place.
If there’s anything Leatherwood wants to emphasize about natural hair, it’s putting a true understanding of it ahead of anything else — including tools, products, styling, everything. “The biggest misconception about natural hair is that it's difficult,” she asserts. “And it's really not the hair that's difficult, it’s us.” Leatherwood explains that before you go in [to the hair] with anything, identify and learn how to understand your own texture. “Once you understand the texture of hair you have and the level of what it needs,” she explains, “it becomes really easy. And I know people reading this are gonna be like, ‘Sure, it's not easy!’ but it's only because you don't completely understand the texture.” She adds that a lot of people today, inundated with new launches and an endless deluge of new formulas, are product junkies — “they're trying everything and they're thinking that they aren’t working, but it always goes back to ‘what does your texture require?’ And so that's what I do, I help people find and learn and understand their texture.” She’s quick to point out that she’s not just a celebrity stylist, but that her styling work is just a larger part of her education and deep love for hair.
But once you do get that deeper understanding of your own texture and its chemistry, Leatherwood has plenty of recommendations for products that actually work — as well as some at-home remedies that go even further than what you might pick up at Sephora. One universal is Leatherwood’s own Felicia Leatherwood Detangling Brush, which works on every hair type and is adored by professionals and hair civilians alike. In Leatherwood’s expert opinion, pure aloe vera is far and away one of the best things you can put on your hair. Steeped in natural vitamins and noted for its moisture content, aloe vera soothes scalps and hydrates hair to mitigate breakage and promote growth. An at-home black seed oil or rice water rinse work wonders, too, Leatherwood says — “there are old-school, do-it-at-home-in-the-kitchen things that are always going to work.” And speaking of kitchens, the Carol’s Daughter brand — which originally started at home before blossoming into the major brand it is today — is a Leatherwood-approved favorite.
Her Advice For The Next Generation
As Leatherwood’s career just gets bigger and bigger with every passing year, she says she’s still always learning, taking it all in, and applying that knowledge to her next projects. She considers herself her own competition, blocking out the external noise to focus on her craft — “my time is everything,” she says. Looking back at her years of Hollywood success, all built on one spectacular leap of faith and the drive to hone an inherent talent, Leatherwood says one of the best pieces of advice she can give to aspiring creatives is to zoom out. “Your perception of right now is not what it's gonna be like [forever],” she explains. “People can't limit where they are. So wherever you were standing — go outside of that vision, and dream bigger than you ever have.” At age 30, Leatherwood was standing in a freezing office complex. Today, she stands on some of Hollywood’s most high-dollar sets, with hair and makeup trailers stuffed with her own products.
“At one point, they thought the Earth was flat, right? They were only standing in a certain position, and they did not go further. They did not see the vision for the world and for us to expand,” she says in her measured, warm voice.
“So what I invite people to do always is to go past where you're standing in your mind, in your mind's eye, and expand out. Let your mind go, dream big, and say it's gonna happen and walk away and do you. And you look up one day, and everything's been laid out right in front of you.”