At the "Hair Olympics '94" world hairstyling competition in London in April, American national champion Barry Fletcher was barred by the U.S. hairdressing team from entering the contest with his favorite model. The reason: She is black.
Fletcher, who is also black, was told that if he used a black model in the international competition he was sure to lose, not because of the model's race but because of her hair texture. Fletcher used the white model assigned to him and lost. He said later that the switch hurt his performance. While a black client's hair might pose a challenge to some hair stylists, in hands such as Fletcher's "it can look stylish; it can look vogue, it can be competitive," says Jackie Smith, the model with whom Fletcher won the U.S. championship.
For blacks in Orange County, finding a stylist who knows how to make the most of their hair isn't easy.
"Is it hard to find a good stylist here? Yes with a capital 'Y,' " says Pamela Coffey, owner of Images, a boutique specializing in African American gifts and clothes in Santa Ana.
"A lot of stylists claim to do black hair, but finding someone who can do a really good job is tough. Most of them are in L.A.," she says.
"(Black people) need a lot more care given to our hair" to keep it from being damaged, says Lenore Smith, owner of Hair by Lenore in Tustin, a salon that caters to blacks. "(Black people have) 10 to 20 different hair textures. Some of us even have three hair textures on one head."
In Orange County, where about 40,000 people are black, stylists estimate that there are about 10 salons that cater to them, most of them opening in the past five years.
Many black clients prefer to go to a black stylist who they feel will understand their hair better.
"We've had too many problems with our hair being burned out or falling out," Smith says. "A lot of beauty school teachers don't know how to do black hair."
As do many black stylists, Smith learned how to work with black clients' hair by cutting hair in her neighborhood.
At the Center Stage Hair Company in La Palma, a stylist who goes by the name Tree ("that's how people know me") has clients of all ethnic backgrounds, including a large following of black women.
"He's an artist and a scientist," says customer Jennie Spencer Green of San Juan Capistrano, sitting in a chair while Tree applies a chemical relaxer to the curl in her hair.
Blacks "have a variety of hair textures, so the stylists have to be a cut above," she says. "Tree might work with five different textures in three hours."
Black clients' hair ranges from very fine to very coarse, with varying degrees of curl.
"It's not always tight; it's not always straight," Tree says. "People who have straight hair want curly hair, and people who have curly hair want straight hair."
If the hair has kinky curls and the client wants it straightened, a stylist must know how to work with the relaxers that take curl out of the hair much the way a permanent will add waves, Tree says.
"You have to make sure you don't break the hair," says Tree, gently combing the waves out of Spencer Green's hair. "The hair has a tendency to be more delicate."
The hair can be fragile because the relaxers and curling irons tend to dry it out, so proper conditioning is critical.
"The hotter elements (such as blow dryers and curling irons) have a tendency to rob the hair of its shine, so you need products that add sheen and moisture," Tree says. "If the average black woman were to let her hair go, it would frizz up."
He encourages clients to treat their hair regularly with moisturizing conditioners and not to wash and dry their hair every day. Most of Tree's clients wash their hair once a week, then head to a salon to for styling. A styling session costs about $25 to $30 because of the extra steps involved (a haircut costs more).
"There's a lot more work because the hair is not as flexible. It doesn't necessarily blow in the wind," Tree says. "You have to condition, blow it dry, curl it with an iron. You're rearranging the hair."
Stylists must also be proficient with curling irons, which can bestow straighter, silkier hair or give it a gentle wave.
D'Moor, a stylist for Headlines Hair Studio in Lake Forest, wields hot pressing irons on a client's hair to straighten and add curl.
"If you know the dynamics of hair, you can work with any kind of hair. To me, it's like art; it's just a different medium," he says.