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The complex battle between Black hairstylists and their clients

Venting frustrations about hairstylists is nothing new, but the practice is reaching new heights on social media, and even at least one lawsuit. Some stylists, though, are looking for solutions — and a path toward healing.
Photo illustration of back of woman's head and a list of salon requirements
Some say the problem is rooted in the economic pressures and salon closures that came with the early Covid pandemic; increased social media use and the rise of at-home hairstylists led to a perfect storm.Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

Joanna Georges, 22, of New Jersey, was excited to get her hair done. She had contacted Alexis Antoine on social media to get box braids, and paid the $100 deposit to secure her 6 a.m. spot on Antoine’s schedule for Sept. 2. But the night before, Georges said, Antoine pushed her appointment, first to 8 a.m, then 9 a.m., then to 10 a.m.

“I had a feeling after waking up and seeing my appointment was pushed back that it just wasn’t going to work out,” Georges told NBC News. Still, she said she made the 20-minute walk to Antoine’s home for the appointment, only to get no response from the stylist.

“I’m just waiting outside her house for an hour,” she recalled. “I finally made my way home and she texted me, like, ‘I’m so sorry. I fell asleep.’”

The botched appointment set off a monthslong ordeal, with Georges urging Antoine on social media to return her security deposit. Georges said Antoine repeatedly gave excuses for not sending back the money and continued to put it off. Unsuccessful, Georges ultimately decided to sue Antoine in small claims court in Hudson County’s Superior Court of New Jersey. Georges said it wasn’t about the money, but the principle.

“I really just want people to stand up for themselves,” Georges said. “I felt I had no other choice.”

Georges is one of countless Black women who have taken to social media in recent months to complain about the state of the Black hair industry. From TikTok to Instagram, clients have detailed situations where stylists have canceled on them at the last minute, failed to finish their hair, overcharged for services, and subjected them to rules and policies they deemed inappropriate and unreasonable. The complaints represent a seeming shift as more amateurs become unlicensed stylists through the gig economy (though some, like braiders, don’t always require licensing, according to different states) or gain notoriety on social media with their incredible hair creations, but are not experienced in running a business or handling customers.

Many customers say getting their hair done has gone from being a communal, cultural experience to a hassle and an overall bad time. Some hairstylists and customers blame the gig economy, lamenting that some stylists are more passionate about making money than providing good service. But others say stylists deserve more grace as they contend with demanding and sometimes unreasonable clients. The overall tension is leading some professionals to share their business acumen and customer service knowledge with those trying to break into the industry.

“It’s really hard to get people in the chairs that are licensed,” said Naeema Finley, a longtime licensed hairstylist and owner of the Curlie Girlz Rock, a salon in Smyrna, Georgia. “A lot of people become famous on social media and then try to get into the industry without actually holding a license. People are finding that instead of going to school for a year, I can just do natural hair and get away with some things that aren’t getting caught by inspectors.”

She also highlighted salon suites, where at-home stylists made popular on social media can rent space.

“They’re not called ‘kitchen stylists’ anymore, they’re called influencers,” Finley said.

Amateur stylists set up in both kitchens and Black hair salons have long been crucial to Black communities, where customers have sought solace and capable hands.

“African American salons have been the forefront of our community,” said Najah Aziz, who runs Like the River salon in Atlanta. “Culture-wise, it’s a place for us to gather as a community, as family, as friends. This is our space of sharing ideas, gossiping, laughing.”

But, Aziz added, “Over the years it’s just become more of a toxic environment.”

Georges shared her experience on TikTok, giving updates about her civil complaint against Antoine. Users apparently could relate. Georges’ initial video garnered more than 200,000 likes, along with comments and response videos congratulating Georges for seeking to hold the stylist accountable.

Another woman, Tiara Armani, 21, vented her frustrations in a July TikTok, detailing her experience with a well-known social media stylist. Armani said she drove two hours to have her wig installed by the stylist in Tampa, Florida. But the stylist was an hour late for the appointment, telling Armani that she’d overslept, Armani said. Armani ultimately left and decided that she wouldn’t return, especially since the stylist had been late three times before, Armani said.

“After my video was made, a lot of other girls who went to her started saying the same things,” Armani said. “I think I was probably the first person to speak on my experience with her.”

Armani’s video got more than 100,000 likes and more than 3,000 comments on TikTok. The stylist declined to comment on the matter.

Some say the problem is rooted in the economic pressures and salon closures that came with the early Covid pandemic; increased social media use and the rise of at-home hairstylists led to a perfect storm.

“I think it’s really coming from hustle culture and everyone believing they can be an entrepreneur and make money,” Georges said. “Everybody thinks they can get rich quick off of doing these things without having basic soft skills.”

Not everyone sees it that way though. Stephanie Collins, 43, a Dallas-based hair braider, said she’s been braiding people’s hair since she was a teenager. After several years away from the business, she returned to braiding hair from home in 2020, experiencing the hardships of running a Black hair business firsthand.

“I feel like they’re being too hard on stylists and judgmental. On social media I see a lot of people complaining about the smallest things,” Collins said. She added that while some rules may seem unreasonable, they’re likely in place for a reason. Displeased customers have complained about hairstylists’ policies, which sometimes include rules around the length of a person’s hair, refusing extra guests, by-the-minute charges for lateness, and arriving with hair washed and blow-dried.

“It has a lot to do with stylists’ experiences,” Collins said. “They may experience something with one person and go, ‘I never want this to happen again.’”

Nasyiah Williams, owner of the Crowned by Sy salon in Philadelphia, said she understands the client complaints, and cited a lack of professionalism as the industry’s “downfall in the last three years.”

However, she said, there are many Black hairstylists who do prioritize professional, pleasurable experiences for clients. All stylists shouldn’t be lumped together with a few bad apples, she said.

“People can improve on treating hairstylists like they’re people too,” Williams said. “We have sick days, things happen in our lives, and I feel like sometimes when a girl just wants their hair done, they just want their hair done.”

She encouraged clients to have “compassion for your stylist” instead of “getting super upset and calling them unprofessional.”

Critics have often blamed unlicensed stylists for these problems. Licensing requirements to become a hairstylist vary by state, but most require months of cosmetology training, hands-on instruction, and ultimately taking the state’s licensing exam. This can be financially inaccessible for people, as training and licensing can cost thousands of dollars.

The rules are different in many states for hair braiding, though. At least two dozen states have exempted hair braiders from needing a cosmetology or barber license or have decriminalized braiding without a license. Black women have largely led the charge for these changes, holding that Black hair braiding promotes cultural heritage, creates a pathway to entrepreneurship for Black Americans and immigrants, and is a process that doesn’t require dangerous chemicals like relaxers.

Isis Brantley spent decades pushing back against licensing and other braiding requirements in Texas until 2015, when the state passed House Bill 2717, which deregulated natural hair braiding and made it exempt from licensure.

Brantley said she sees braiding as an ancestral, spiritual practice — one that shouldn’t be bogged down by expensive licensing requirements and other state regulations. She said she’s heard the complaints from people citing a lack of licensing for bad experiences with hairstylists. But, for Brantley, licensing isn’t the be all, end all of good service.

“Even licensed cosmetologists can hurt people’s hair, thinking they know how to dread, thinking, ‘Just because I have a license, I can do natural hair,’” Brantley said. “Just because you have a license and permission to abuse people’s hair, doesn’t mean you know healthy hair care.”

Brantley is among a group of veteran stylists, like Aziz, who have launched training programs for Black hairstylists. Brantley runs the Institute of Ancestral Braiding in Dallas, teaching aspiring braiders everything from braiding and twisting hair to setting up consultations with clients.

For her and Aziz, education is key. That’s why Aziz founded Beauty Beyond the Hair, a series of classes and workshops that teach licensed hairstylists everything from cutting and styling short hair to creating a professional, reputable salon business with a consistent clientele. The classes range from three-hour workshops to daylong intensives — all, Aziz said, to cut down on bad experiences clients have been complaining about.

“I was frustrated. I was one of those clients who would go into a salon and be there for six hours,” Aziz said of why she launched Beauty Beyond the Hair. “How we can fix this is offering more professionalism and customer service. I educate stylists on techniques of hair and the business acumen of hair. I want us to win as a community.”

As for Georges, a New Jersey judge awarded her a $100 judgment plus court costs for her complaint against Antoine, according to court documents shared with NBC News. Georges and Antoine made an arrangement for payment in February, five months after the botched appointment. Antoine confirmed that the two had come to an arrangement but declined to comment further.

“My biggest takeaway” from all of this, Georges said, “is that I should always expect the best of my service providers and treat them with respect but not let them walk over me.”

“I hope that people learn not to let others take advantage of them and to fight for what’s right. I also hope that the entrepreneurs learn that customer service is important in every business and that they should treat customers how they want to be treated.”

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