The first thing you notice about Monica “Mo” Stevens is her hair — a glorious, bouncy crown of luscious, shiny red curls.
A lot of dolls gave their lives for that hair.
When Stevens’ was young, her mom styled her hair. But that huge head of heavy, thick, God-given hair was a challenge.
“She could do basic things … a couple of ponytails,” the 32-year-old Kansas City native recalls. “By the time I got up to maybe fifth grade I’m looking at other kids and they’re starting to get more teenager-looking hairstyles and I was still with the pigtails. I said, ‘Momma I want this.’ And she didn’t know how to do it.”
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So Stevens experimented on her dolls.
They never grimaced or made faces as she twisted, coiled, wrapped and used Kool-Aid to dye their synthetic tresses.
“Over time I destroyed every doll ever bought for me just by constantly doing their hair,” she laughs.
She learned more about hair by hanging around her aunt and cousin’s beauty shops then graduated from working on dolls to doing her friends’ hair.
Now the Kansas Citian is helping women across the country do their hair. Stevens has become an online celebrity in the growing natural hair community of women who don’t use chemicals to relax or curl their hair.
Her YouTube videos about curls, braids, wash-and-go styles and general natural hair maintenance have been watched nearly 11 million times since September 2013.
People send her e-mails all the time requesting appointments and she tells them — as she notes on YouTube and her blog, MoKnowsHair.com — that she is not a professional stylist.
She’s careful not to overstep her amateur bounds, routinely telling women to consult a licensed professional — doctor, dermatologist, esthetician, stylist — for help on more serious beauty issues.
She’s been stunned by how much black women from East Coast to West Coast do not know about their hair — she’s attracted half a million Instagram, Facebook and YouTube followers.
Her Internet popularity has grabbed the attention of the $600 billion black hair care industry.
Popular name brands including Dark and Lovely send her around the country to give workshops. A summer tour for Dallas-based Sheer Luxe Beauty will have her leading seminars in four cities, including Kansas City.
“She’s a very personable YouTube personality. You feel like you’re talking to your girlfriend,” says Anthara Carr, creator and owner of Sheer Luxe Beauty. “You feel like if you saw her in your local grocery store you could stop her and ask her, ‘Hey, what are you doing with your hair?’”
Darren Orlando, director of multicultural beauty for L’Oreal in New York, calls her one of the “top 5” natural hair aficionados in the country.
Last year L’Oreal bought Carol’s Daughter, a line of hair, body and skincare products popular with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jay Z. Stevens has worked with Carol’s Daughter for more than two years, starring in videos for the company and making “guest” appearances on the company’s Instagram page.
Stevens, who has a full-time, non-hair related job, is feeling the tug to focus more of her time and attention on her Mo Knows Hair brand. She has a strong interest in creative directing and editorial styling, jobs that would help her set trends and shape the public’s perception of hair of all types.
But being a hair guru, as some people call her, isn’t what Stevens set out to do in life.
The University of Missouri business graduate worked at General Electric for a while, then studied marketing at Avila University.
Then she felt the strong pull of her creative side — the noncorporate side of her personality that likes to draw, paint and play with makeup and nails.
Toward the end of 2012 Stevens set up an Instagram account where, like most people, she posted photos of herself and her friends.
But what happened next was a little breathtaking.
Total strangers who saw all of that big, bountiful hair on her head started tagging her photos, sending them out into the vast audience of cyberspace.
Almost immediately, natural-hair companies, advocates and media outlets began reposting her photos, too.
People she didn’t know posted questions.
What did you do to your hair? What products did you use in your hair?
So she started talking about her hair, informally sharing information about the products and methods that made her hair so silky and shiny.
With her Instagram presence taking off she built a website and started making how-to videos guided by two multimedia-savvy friends who walked her through getting a blog started and counseled her to buy the best video equipment she could afford.
In September 2013, MoKnowsHair.com went live, featuring hair care tips, styling methods and product reviews for all hair types and textures.
Her business training told her to carve a niche. She saw that nearly everyone on YouTube demonstrated techniques on their own hair.
To make hers different and to showcase what works for hair types other than her own she decided to use family and friends as models.
“I use other people because I know more about hair than just how to manage my own,” she says. “I consider myself more of a resource than ‘Oh, look at me, pretty.’”
She also scours science journals and used cosmetology-school manuals to learn the chemistry of hair and products. Carr of Sheer Luxe Beauty says that depth of knowledge shows through in Stevens’ videos, further setting her apart from the crowd.
It became clear to Stevens very quickly that maintaining and styling untreated, natural hair like hers was perplexing for women who have spent years and money on chemical relaxers, itchy wigs and glued-on weaves.
“There are people who have never done their own hair in its natural state,” she says.
Natural hair can take more time and effort to maintain and style than chemically straightened hair, and the learning curve is frightening and steep for many women.
“It’s not going to be silky-beautiful easily all the time. It’s going to frizz up if there’s any water in the air and you haven’t layered in your products properly,” she says.
“And if it’s frizzy or you want to straighten it, it’s not as easy to straighten now. Now you’ve got to stretch it, flat iron it, you’ve got to be careful that you’re using the right products and tools so you don’t damage the curl pattern. There are so many things.”
She’s been filming Cherie Williams of Kansas City for the last 19 months as the mother of three transitions from chemically treated to natural hair.
Cutting all those long, chemically straightened tresses off her head — leaving short, springy hair she hadn’t seen in years — was emotional for Williams.
“You get used to seeing yourself in a certain way, so when you branch out into going natural it’s almost like a personal journey,” says Williams.
“It’s not about a hairstyle change in some sense because you have to embrace yourself on all levels. It really makes you start to think about loving yourself in a different way.”
Williams changed up her hair after deciding that she wanted her daughters, ages 5 and 7, to know what their hair could look and feel like without chemical relaxers.
“I just wanted them to embrace their curls,” says Williams. “They don’t have to (have straight hair). They don’t have to look like what everyone thinks they should look like. They should embrace what naturally grows out of their head.”
To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to email@example.com.