Ursula Stephen is the go-to hair stylist for R&B’s brightest stars
By Maura Lynch | June 18, 2009 3:00 p.m.
Photo: Laura Geiser
Ursula Stephen created hair history when she transformed chart- and headline-topper Rihanna from an island-girl-next-door to one of pop’s edgiest fashion icons with a few skillful sweeps of her scissors. (The look was voted 2008’s most coveted crop by ELLE readers.) Stephen’s reinventions may look hyper-modern, but her influences are distinctly retro: “I’m all about old school,” says the Motions hair care celebrity stylist, who also works with Keyshia Cole and Zoe Kravitz. “Right now for Rihanna, I’m shaking things up with a combination of Sheila E., Lisa Lisa, and mohawk style, concentrating on trimming the sides but letting the crown and back take their course.”
How can we keep chemical treatments and heat tools from damaging hair?
Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! I use deep treatment masques at least three times a week on my clients, swear by leave-in conditioners, and never skip a protective spray, which acts as a buffer between your hair and the heat. But I don’t use irons and dryers every day. If I fry your hair one day, I’m going to rely only on product the next day and give you a funkier look.
I’ve heard you’ve got a no-tangles secret.
After shampooing, focus conditioner on your ends. Comb it through in one direction, flip hair over, and comb through again—it detangles from all angles.
What about once you’re out of the shower?
Don’t throw the towel on your head and try to rub out moisture—that will start drying your strands in all different directions, making it more difficult to get a brush through later. If you need to, take the towel to your ends just to squeeze out excess water and speed up the process.
What’s an easy way to change up your hairstyle?
If I get bored, I turn to accessories—a sparkly headband you can buy at the drugstore will dress you up in an instant. I also cocktail products to create a variety of looks. You never get the right consistency or the right shine with just one product. My favorite is mixing molding paste or gel with serum.
How do you know how much—of what—to mix?
I like to create a thicker product for something messy, and add more serum for something soft and movable. Even if I give a client slick, superstraight hair, the serum might calm it but not give enough hold, so I need gel.
A lot of women are afraid of parting with long hair. How can you keep a crop feminine?
Put more thought into how you dress—you can’t hide behind your hair. If you have a pixie, you’re not going to throw on a muumuu and head out the door. I try not to keep the lines too hard, and I leave a longer piece in the front, like a sweeping bang, which feels good to be able to push away—it’s sexy. It should be wispy around the edges.
What made Rihanna initially go for that short cut?
She wanted something different for her Good Girl Gone Bad album, but the night before the shoot, there was a rep from the label watching me the entire time! I had to be careful. We made a pact—I’d go easy on her that night, just trim a bit, but the next day I’d put the room on lockdown and go crazy. And I did. Everyone ended up loving it, and after that, we just kept going shorter.
Stephen’s Styling Products:
The “creamy and thick” L’anza Color-Preserving Trauma Treatment an essential “style primer”; when on the town without her kit.
Stephen smooths flyaways with Shu Uemura Gloss Unlimited: “It’s sheer but just sticky enough to tame an unruly strand”
GHD IV Styler “comes in multiple sizes, so I can straighten or curl any length of hair.”
Motions Smoothing Shine Serum adds “extra luster” to any style.
“Unlike other cleansing formulas,” Ojon Ultra Hydrating Shampoo “makes even brittle strands soft.”
Tigi Bed Head Manipulator is Stephen’s go-to for creating spunky but “not too stiff” tresses.