You can see the precision of corporate influence in every crevice. The customers don’t wait a second. Appointments are tightly regimented. All scheduling is online. Kinky Curly Beauty’s Hair Studio in Birmingham, Ala., is like the love child of a Fortune 500 engineer and your favorite girlfriend’s beauty salon, but with more melanin and fewer women named Kathy asking you to try their potato salad in the break room. And unlike your friendly neighborhood engineering firm, the women exiting KCB are also nappy and gloriously happy.
“Everyone knows I’m strict. I don’t play,” says Leslie Blakely, explaining how she became one of America’s most sought-after natural-hair stylists. After more than a decade inside some of the country’s top engineering firms, Blakely runs her hair studio under a policy of professionalism usually seen only in corporate America.
“My customers don’t have to wait. I’m not outside fussing with my man. I don’t have to run across town to pick up the kids. It’s a business, and I run it like a business. My philosophy is: My time is no more important than yours. I realize that today’s woman has a lot on her plate. If she has eight hours to spare, she doesn’t want to spend them here with me.”
Blakely’s path to becoming the high priestess of natural hair is filled with as many kinks and twists as the hair of the customers who travel across the country to sit in her thrones. As a child, she filled her time transforming her dolls’ hair into works of art, explaining, “I only liked dolls with realistic hair. No Cabbage Patch Kids or Raggedy Anns.” Before she knew it, she was styling the coifs of her friends and family members.
At 19, Blakely earned her cosmetology degree, long before the natural-hair trend became a movement. She worked as a stylist professionally for seven years until she decided to go back to college for a degree in engineering. Leaving her clientele behind, Blakely spent 11 years in her newfound profession as a network engineer: “I loved the money working in corporate America, but I didn’t consider that I wasn’t following my passion.”
During her time as an engineer, Blakely made the decision to stop relaxing her hair, which was difficult for a black woman in the buttoned-up conservative environment of computer-network engineering. Unable to find an expert, she leaned on her experience as a licensed beautician to find ways to keep her natural hair styled and moisturized. When she finally perfected her technique, others took notice.
“People would ask me who did my hair,” she said. “They would ask me if I would take them on as a client, but I would tell them I was ‘corporate’ now.”
Everything changed one weekend, when a friend invited her to a natural-hair show. The visiting instructor discovered that Birmingham—one of the blackest cities in the country—didn’t have a salon dedicated to natural hair. Impressed with Blakely’s styling and knowledge and the fact that she was a licensed cosmetologist, she convinced the stylist-turned-engineer that she was missing out on a great opportunity.
But there were too many hurdles: How could she leave a promising career with no clients, no solid income and—most important—no salon?
A few friends told her about a possible location in the perfect area of the city, but when she finally found the location, the landlord informed her that he had a long list of people who wanted to rent the space, so she put her dream aside.
A few weeks later, sitting at her desk, Blakely received a phone call from the same landlord informing her that the space was available, but others were interested, so she had to make a decision quickly. She put in her two weeks’ notice at work and never looked back.
Well ... kinda, sorta.
After three months, Blakely seriously considered closing down her business and returning to the corporate world.
“My clients make all their appointments online,” the queen of kink explains. The color green indicated that she had an appointment, while white meant she was free. “Every day I would wake up and see a couple of green spaces, but there was a lot of white space.
“I remember sitting in my car crying, telling myself: ‘You have bills! What are you going to do?’ Then one morning I woke up, checked my calendar, and there was only green for weeks! I screamed so loud, my children thought I was going crazy!”
Unbeknownst to Blakely, her daughter had created social media sites for the Kinky Curly Beauty business. Blakely had become an Instagram and Pinterest hit without even knowing it. OK, now I’ll say it: She never looked back.
Now customers come from around the world to Kinky Curly Beauty’s Hair Studio. She is booked for months in advance. (I tried to make a reservation for my daughter, but she doesn’t have any openings until January. She didn’t even offer to give me the hookup as an almost-famous, kind-of-good-looking writer or nothing! Frankly, I’m offended.)
Blakely estimates that fewer than half of her clients are local, while most of her regulars come from every point on the map. “I have regulars from Philadelphia, California and even Mississippi,” she says.
She offers one-on-one tutorials for professionals and individuals who want to learn how to style hair without straightening or relaxing. Next week she’ll host Morin Omorinsola, a stylist from Virgin Textures Nigeria, who will spend three days learning the craft.
“I absolutely love her method of styling,” Omorinsola tells The Glow Up. “It is so professional, her precision is on point, and I love the fact that she is all OCD about each customer’s hair. ... In Nigeria, where I’m from, humidity is a major factor for naturals and how long their hairstyles last ... I’m excited to take her classes, gain more experience and learn her techniques.”
When asked why she is so popular, Blakely says she believes it is a combination of her professionalism, experience and expertise. “There is a big difference between a stylist who does natural hair and a natural-hair stylist,” the successful businesswoman quips. “This is all I do, and I think I’m pretty good at it. A lot of people seem to agree.
“This is a totally different entity than relaxed hair. My job is to moisturize and protect the hair as well as styling,” the nappytologist (yes, it’s a real word; you just read it, didn’t you?) says, adding: “I think it’s like taking your car to Pep Boys versus taking your car to the dealership. We are both professionals, but I am a specialist in this specific area.”
When asked if she ever regrets leaving corporate America, Blakely laughs and says: “I love what I do. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m an artist. And I get to wake up every day and do what I love.”
She still hasn’t called me about that appointment, though.