It’s not often that I come away from an interview so pumped, but after my chat with Charlotte Mensah, I left feeling so inspired by somebody who had experienced personal tragedy at an early age, but instead of letting it knock her down, endeavoured to achieve so much. She’s won British Afro Hairdresser of the Year twice, styled many a celeb and pushed herself until she got her salon on Portobello road. She’s an inspiration to all women and particularly to the Afro-Caribbean community.
As she now works towards bringing Afro hair care into the luxury market, I met with the Superwoman that is Charlotte Mensah to to talk: natural hair, Justin Bieber and Manketti oil, over a cup of tea and a biccie.
You’ve been crowned British Afro Hairdresser of the Year Twice.
How did it feel winning that for the second time? Which was more of a shock to you?
I think for me, winning the second time, words couldn’t even explain, because you win it the first time and you’re shocked, and are so overjoyed that you’ve won. The second time, you’re in disbelief. It just doesn’t feel real. For about ten days after, you’re in this zone, walking on air, taking a second look in the mirror, thinking to yourself, is this really real, is this true? It was an amazing feeling definitely, definitely quite surreal.
What made you decide to go into hair styling?
Unfortunately for me, my mum passed away when I was 13 and my little sister was three at the time. Generally at the age of 13 you turn to fashion and there used to be these really beautiful magazines, like Ebony and Jet and all the American magazines, and I used to look in them and think ‘these women look nice’. My sister had an abundance of natural hair, so I used to love playing with it. I would try out the styles that I saw in the magazines and because she was only 3, she never really complained- whatever I did she would just appreciate it and say ‘it looks nice, I love it’; whereas if it was an adult, they’d be like ‘ what have you done with my hair!’ But I think because she was so sweet, it actually made me feel confident.
I grew up in Ghana and my grandmother used to be able to do all of our hair, cook all the food, paint the house, and sew clothes, but she never took any of it to a professional level. Because of what happened with the death of my mum, I did concentrate at school, but not as well as I could have, so initially when the careers officer came to see us, (this was in the 80s when you used to have a careers officer that would come in before your sixteenth birthday to talk you through vocational jobs that you might be interested in,) I wasn’t really sure.
One of my friends who was the year above me, had gone into hairdressing and she came into the school one day and said ‘there’s this really amazing place called Splinters, I’m really having a good time and it’s incredible’.
The careers officer spoke to me a lot about retail- which I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into- but mentioned I quite liked the idea of hairdressing, because I was constantly doing my sister’s hair and loved the results that I saw. So I said ‘I think I know a little bit about a place called Splinters’, so they organised it for me, I got the interview, and I remember just running around Mayfair, to find this road called Maddox St. I entered this amazing salon and I was like ‘God whatever happens, I want to be in this place, let it happen, let it happen’ and of course I did my interview, and I got the job.
They put me under a scheme called the YTS, which you spent four days in the salon and went to college one day a week, so I went to the London College of Fashion, where I did my theory side of the hairdressing. And that’s how I got into it.
You’ve styled celebrities from Janelle Monae to Lorraine Pascale …
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about cultural appropriation and hairstyles, with the likes of Justin Bieber and Kylie Jenner being called out by young stars Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg for this. Personally I get both sides of the story, because, I straighten my hair, have relaxed it in the past and wear weaves, so in some way surely that’s the same in reverse. What’s your stance on this?
I think that at the moment, everyone’s into this urban look, everyone wants to look black. When I look around me -because I grew up in the nineties- it looks like, oh my god, we’ve gone back 20 years, this is so nineties, and for me I’ve done it already, so I wouldn’t do it again, but for the young people, like my daughter’s age or son’s age and they want to wear a choker, I’m like I’m 45, I’m not going to put a choker on, or put a nose ring on, but go for it.
[In respect to the hair] if you look at it, it’s very much like, ok great, they love it, they embrace it, but they should just acknowledge that it comes from the African descent, it’s not a European thing, and the sad thing is we never get the credit. No-one’s saying, don’t wear it, because like you said, black girls like to have weaves on, have their hair straightened, have a big bouncy blow dry- and that’s not really an african look, but we like to embrace that.
I think it’s good to be versatile and it’s good to have options and be open, but I think what a lot of the young people are getting frustrated about, is the fact that they’re not acknowledging that …just give them the credit and say I got the idea from… Don’t just say that your sister did it, because your sister didn’t do it, and she doesn’t know much about that culture, and it’s just nice to be appreciated and I think that’s kind of my standpoint on that.
We can argue until the dogs come home, because I like my hair like this. It’s not my natural hair, I have to straighten it to get it like this and it is probably more geared towards looking European, but I like the look of it and I’m not saying that this is from Ghana or anything, because our hair doesn’t grow like that, so it’s just about being able to be appreciated and give acknowledgement.
How did you come to set up in Notting HIll?
When I moved here it was still on the up, but not as much as it is now; we’re talking about 24 years ago. When I wanted to open a salon, there was no way I could afford to have it in this area, so I started off in the business centre in Kilburn, which isn’t far from here, but not exactly where I wanted to be. Once I’d grown the business, I was able to afford a stand alone shop here on Portobello.
There’s a huge wave at the moment, of afro caribbean girls returning their hair to it’s natural state, what do you think is the cause of this and what would be your top tips for managing black hair?
I think it’s good that the young people and people of Afro-Caribbean descent are embracing their natural hair, and wanting to wear it in its natural state, that’s such a good thing, but at the same time, I’ve seen some hair that looks really terrible; and I just think you need a brush, you need to comb your hair. It’s not enough to comb your hair with your fingers, as the space in your fingers is so wide there’s no way that can make your hair smooth, so I think it’s about education.
I know a lot of girls go onto YouTube, and they learn from their friends on Instagram, but that friend that’s doing the YouTube, that’s one hair type and there are so many hair types; and chances are, your hair will be different from the person you’re watching, so you need to learn how to look after your own hair.
Also for me, I think it’s a great thing, but sometimes I feel like everyone is just jumping on the bandwagon, and it can be a bit political, because I’ve had conversations with people who say ‘I can’t do this or that because it’s not natural’, and I always think, if you want to be natural, take off all of your clothes and walk in the street, because even the clothes that we have on our backs are not natural, the water we drink has been chemicalized, nothing is really natural. Of course you should be conscious, but I feel like there’s a little bit of a war going on and some people will look down on someone with a weave because it’s not natural, or say they’re trying not to be black, but I just feel like there are much more important things in the world, there’s so much more we should be concerned about as a race, instead of all this beauty stuff.
It’s good, and I’m in the beauty industry, so I understand, but I feel like sometimes, we need to focus on more than our hair. We need to think about economics, kids getting into the Silicon Valley, those are the things we need to be focused on.
The hair thing will always be there. People will always change their style, according to how they feel, according to the season, according to the trends, you can not stop that, but all the stuff I see on the internet sometimes, makes me sad. People get bullied for looking a certain way, or not looking a certain way, for wearing a weave and so on, but I think that as long it’s properly maintained, anything is good. It’s all about balance, so if you wear a weave for six months and you want to leave your hair out for six months, that’s all good, it’s all about balance and the proper care.
And for me the proper care starts with getting the right shampoo, conditioner, and other pomades and oils that work with your hair type, because when you go to some people’s houses they’ve basically got a salon. They’ve got too many products, and you don’t actually need all of that; it’s just about trying to educate yourself and finding what works for you. And also if your natural hair doesn’t have any curls in it, that’s fine, that’s your natural hair. I think there are too many people trying to find curls, so they’ll load their hair with products, and by the time they’re finished, their hair is hard and crunchy and just dry. Most of the products, even though they claim to be natural, they still contain starch or alcohol to define the curl, so it kind of defeats the purpose anyway.
Do you think coconut oil is all that it’s cracked up to be and is this in itself enough?
I think that coconut oil is good and I wouldn’t dispute that. For me it’s a little too runny and very greasy, so I would use it in moderation, but I think all oils are good. When I was growing up in the eighties, people didn’t want to go near it. People would say ‘oh my god coconut oil stinks’ and to put it in your hair you must be joking. Back then coconut oil is was something nobody regarded, but thirty years down the line, it’s come around. I think that everything is good, it’s just about how you use it.
So I know that you have launched your own range of haircare, how does your range differ from the likes of Mizani and Keracare?
For me I’ve worked for those brands in the past, I did the Mizani campaigns and have done lots with L’Oreal. I’ve done natural hair lessons and taught at the L’Oreal academy and I do think that Mizani is a good product, but for me I just felt like there wasn’t anything coming from a hair stylist who works with hair all day long and knows what works on the individual’s hair, so it felt natural.
Since I’ve had my salon, I’ve always mixed oils because and tend to layer products, and have always had the idea of customising formulas for specific hair types. So for me the natural step was to create my own. I just felt like there wasn’t a desirable product – something you could have in your bathroom and wouldn’t be ashamed about. I wanted there to be a product that is aesthetically beautiful but still very functional and I don’t think we had that.
Keracare and Mizani are both very good, but I just felt like they all look very corporate and there was a gap in the market for that quality and style. There was nothing speaking for the Afro market. I love shops like Space NK and Liberty and I go in and wonder why aren’t those products in here, but that’s because they don’t like the look of them, so they wouldn’t put them on the shelves. So for me, the range had to be very much me, it had to be aesthetically appealing, but at the same time, the most important thing, was that what was inside was functional.
I know there are a lot of women out there that want that quality, because I go into those shops, and I see the women and I hear the conversations, and I just thought, hmm there’s something missing. So it’s about time really.
What is Manketti oil?
Manketti oil is an amazing oil that is from northern Namibia, it grows on a Manketti tree, called the Mongongo tree and it’s been around for centuries. It’s been used for over 7,000 years and is amazing. When I was developing my products, I first had the idea to use shea butter, because I’m from Ghana and we grow it in abundance and I love it.
I had the idea in 2005 but because I was busy growing my business and doing competitions, I didn’t do anything about the idea until 2010. By 2010, I would go into places like Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and I’d see Kleenex and Andrex toilet roll with Shea Butter and I thought ‘oh my god’ it’s become so common it’s actually in toilet roll. I still wanted to have shea butter in it, but I was on a search to look for the next oil that is as good as shea butter, has all the properties and benefits, but wasn’t as widely known in the West. I looked and looked and there Manketti oil was. And I love the name, it’s so exotic and it’s about time that we embrace who we are and enjoy our natural resources. What makes me sick when I’m back home, is that the people don’t appreciate what they naturally have, they’re always looking to the West and products like Stay Soft Fro, which is full of chemicals; And I think ‘ this is your oil, it’s natural, it makes you look good, it makes you glow, it makes your hair soft; why would you want to put all of these chemicals on that are coming from the West. It’s about time that we embraced who we are.
[ Me: It’s true because now we have Moroccan Oil…]
Exactly, it’s one of the best selling products on the market. In fact, on the Mintel report, it’s the highest selling product in the world and that just came from a lady going to Morocco and saying ‘look you guys have Argan’. The people there don’t even regard it, they would probably say it’s for cheap people. Because even in Ghana, I use Shea Butter, on my skin and people always say ‘what shea butter?!’ and I say, but yet when you see me, you’re constantly ask me what make-up I use and it’s not make-up I’m wearing, it’s the shea butter. So we need to own what we have and make the most of it. Because it’s all good for you. We need to just take control really.
Where do you buy your beauty bits?
I love shops like SpaceNK and Liberty. They’re my favourites. When I’m in America I also like to go to Sephora. I love the way the shop looks and the way everything is positioned. I’m in SpaceNK all the time because it’s just a walking distance from my house. And Liberty I love, because I just love the civilised shopping, no-one’s pushing me.
I do like Selfridges, but I find it too much. I always walk out of there with a headache. There are too many lights and too many people. And by the time you’ve smelt all of the perfumes, you’re kind of buzzing.
Which spa or salon do you have on speed dial?
I’ve just discovered this place, called Thai Harmony, they’re amazing. Because of all the standing in my work, I find that I get lots of knots in my back and there’s a lady there called Nina, she’s absolutely fantastic. I’ve learnt more about my body in the past two weeks than I have in my whole life. It’s just on Notting Hill Gate and they do the most amazing massages. I felt like I was 3 inches taller by the time she finished with me last time. She uses her feet on you and she even has a wooden hammer that she uses on your body; seriously it’s so good. It’s not always about the fancy places, it’s the feeling and the treatment that you get. Their service was incredible. It’s worth every penny.
What product can’t you live without?
What do you love about living in London?
I love everything but the rain.
I like the diversity of people and the fact that even living in this area, I’ve got so many different types of friends, from so many different backgrounds in so many different professions. It’s just a melting pot and it’s so nice. I’ve been to other cities like Paris and the black people are really oppressed, but here everyone just looks like they’re getting on with it. You got to Tottenham, there’s the Ghanaian community, you sit on the bus and they’re chatting away and it feels like you’re in Ghana. Then you go to Peckham and you’ve got the Nigerians, Brixton, you’ve got Jamaicans, and around here there’s a lot of Moroccans and Portuguese; it’s lovely, I love London.
I love the parks as well. We have a great park down the road – Holland Park. They have a Japanese Garden- in fact for my garden in Ghana I copied the Japanese Garden there. In the summer they have pink flamingos, it’s beautiful and it’s all free.
And the opportunity to just do random stuff. A friend will call you up ask, what you’re doing and you can just pop along to things.
What last made you blush?
A very cheeky man who came into the salon and started ranting about how we should only have sex for procreation. It was very awkward.
Charlotte Mensah Hair, from £18, available at: charlottemensah.com