Big Beauty Tuesday: ‘Before I Let Go’ of Essence Festival 2019, I Have to Say Thank You to Black Women

The Root’s Felice Léon celebrates the end of Essence Festival 2019 at Color of Change’s Black Women Brunch
Photo: Maiysha Kai/The Root

Essence Fest tried to take me out, y’all...and I can’t wait to go back.

The final day of The Glow Up’s Essence Festival diary was unfortunately delayed, due to the fact that no sleep and a permanently damaged cornea made me a half-sighted, no-voiced person yesterday as I stumbled my way back through the Louis Armstrong International Airport and onto another blackety-black (and also delayed) plane. Notably, my exodus from New Orleans was significantly lower key than my arriving flight, as we Essence Festival goers collectively did the damn thing in the Big Easy last weekend.

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As a result, I’m writing this from my sick bed, with a Bright & Tight sheet mask from black female-owned Bee Cosmetics plastered to my face. The brand is one of many major finds we stumbled upon at Essence’s Beauty Carnival on Sunday, where video producer Felice Léon and I were on hand to capture some of the energy, action, entrepreneurship, and of course, beauty.

Felice (pictured above) is the star of this week’s Big Beauty Tuesday post, both because yours truly hasn’t the stamina for a new look today and because this beauty singlehandedly got me through the long weekend like the pro she is—all while garnering her own celebrity status for her glorious head of natural curls.

(Okay, maybe I can give you one selfie, from just before my eye gave up on me Sunday afternoon.)

Photo: Maiysha Kai
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But back to Felice: Seriously, folks stopped us every few steps to compliment her mane, and if I didn’t adore her so damned much (and agree with them wholeheartedly), I’d have serious follicular envy.

Okay, I still do, but who wouldn’t? Look at this woman!

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On that note, shouts to the black female-owned Heat Free Hair for keeping me looking fly and fresh this weekend, despite the sweltering and steamy temps. Their drawstring ponytails saved much-needed time and energy in our jam-packed days and nights, and I admittedly got my share of compliments, too. Y’all kept me feeling pretty through it all, Heat Free Hair. Thank you!

Come through, Heat Free Hair!
Photo: Maiysha Kai
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But believe it or not, our marathon Sunday didn’t begin at the Beauty Carnival. Felice was also the co-host of Color of Change’s Black Women’s Brunch, which opened the day with a focus on black girl magic and building community among the hundreds of women assembled in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street. There, we were served chicken, waffles and “woo-woo-woos” from Living Single’s still adorable Kim Coles, who also performed in the all-female lineup of the “Herlarious” comedy show at the top of the weekend. (Fun fact: The Root crew also ran into Erika Alexander in our travels; was there an impromptu reunion?)

In true New Orleans style, the brunch ended with music. Elle Varner (who has new music out Friday) and new Roc Nation artist Angelica Vila serenaded the crowd before a brass band brought the second line spirit into the ballroom and attendees to the dance floor, including Felice (as you can see above). It was a jubilant way to start our last day of Essence Fest, and to recognize the tremendous power of black women, whenever and wherever we gather.

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Making our way back to the convention center, Felice and I got to talk to some especially stylish festival goers about their personal style, and several female beauty bosses about the challenges of launching and sustaining a brand (more on that to come). Then, we took a wander through some of the carnival’s bigger installations, including SheaMoisture (founded by Essence owner Richelieu Dennis), My Black Is Beautiful, and Dove brands, which announced its participation in the CROWN Coalition, a national alliance in partnership with Color of Change, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the National Urban League to end hair discrimination.

Photo: Maiysha Kai
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An acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural hair,” the CROWN Coalition was big news during Essence Fest, especially as California became the first state to ban discrimination against natural hairstyles just ahead of the weekend, thanks to a bill introduced by Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Calif.)

Dove’s participation in this alliance is particularly notable, as it highlights the fact that its parent company, Unilever Brands, also boasts black woman and natural hair aficionado Esi Eggleston Bracey as its Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of North America Beauty and Personal Care.

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Via a press release, Eggleston Bracey celebrated the partnership, saying:

Dove is proud to be a part of changing the narrative for Black women and girls and anyone with textured hair, and we are excited to stand with The CROWN Coalition and Senator Holly J. Mitchell to make a tangible impact in the state of California. We are overjoyed to see Governor Newsom sign The CROWN Act into law...and are looking forward to continuing to drive legislative change in other states in the months to come.

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There were also several appearances of note on the final day of Essence Festival’s Beauty Carnival, including celebrity hairstylist Vernon François, who teased out Serena Williams’ ombreéd and flowing mane for her new Harper’s Bazaar cover (and is one of my new favorite people, after a candid conversation with him at Spotify House the day before) and wowed the crowd with a tutorial on natural curls. Closing out the day? Our favorite beauty influencer Jackie Aina, who joined Essence Fashion and Beauty Director Julee Wilson onstage to talk about challenging the beauty industry to recognize black and brown beauty, one YouTube video at a time.

Photo: Maiysha Kai
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If you’re thinking Felice and I should’ve been worn out by that point, you’re absolutely right—my eye was already starting to tear and twitch with fatigue—but how could we miss the world’s biggest white party? In honor of the man of the night, Frankie Beverly, the audience at the Superdome was primarily dressed in white, and the effect was pretty visually stunning.

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But before Beverly was awarded a key to the city by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and took the stage with Maze, we spent the remainder of our dwindling energy dancing to Ro James, Major, Nelly, Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland, and Pharrell, who teamed up with his mentor, Teddy Riley for a medley of his most infectious bops. (And there are so many Pharrell bops, aren’t there?) Cue my lost voice and blurry vision, and blame it on all those problematic, but irresistibly percussive “Blurred Lines.”

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Riley, looking and moving like it was still ‘88, kept us in throwback mode, inviting Blackstreet to the stage before Doug E. Fresh entered for an extensive set that was only eclipsed by the fact that he seems not to have aged a day, either. (Seriously, what skin products are these men using? Who are their dermatologists? I need referrals.)

Slowing it down a notch, Anthony Hamilton and the Hamiltones gave a tribute to Beverly that could only be topped by the man himself, and boy did he. Reminding the Superdome of the timeless magic of Maze’s music, generations stepped, twirled, and two-stepped together as we ended Essence Fest with the type of joy only we can create.

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It was magical, y’all...and though I’m significantly worse for wear, there’s nowhere else on earth I would’ve rather been than New Orleans this Fourth of July. So, I dedicate this Big Beauty Tuesday to the incomparable beauty of black women that inspired the Essence Festival. Beyond the concerts, parties, brand activations, food, and swag, a genuine feeling of sisterhood was at the core of the weekend, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. From bonding with the incredible black women on The Root’s team (I see you, Felice and Tonja!) to meeting new friends as I waited for my delayed flight home, it was clear that we are the magic of Essence Fest—and if only for a few days, it was gratifying to see us harness that magic for ourselves.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.