Meet Neijae Graham-Henries, an 8-year-old aspiring barber from West Philadelphia.
• Child’s play: Neijae’s favorite movie features a character with very bad hair — and intentions — Chucky.
• Why being a girl barber matters: “You can show people that you can do something that you haven’t done before,” she said. “I have a point there, right?”
At 8 years old, Neijae Graham-Henries is almost as tall as this reporter. She told me so. She also asked to cut my hair — about eight inches of it. We did not have an appointment for her to do so.
I failed. Spectacularly.
Then Neijae took my notebook and began asking me questions.
That was just the first 10 minutes of our interview.
Neijae is the kind of confident, inquisitive, energetic kid who reminds of you what the world was like before doubt set in; the kind of kid who makes you believe in yourself — and her — without question.
There’s only one time when she quiets down, when the questions stop and she becomes fully focused. It’s when she’s cutting hair.
“I get in a zone. I’m not really one who talks to the client, not the person who says, ‘How’s your day? Blah, blah, blah,’” Neijae said. “I like to be quiet in my comfort zone.”
When Neijae’s brother decided not to follow through with the Junior Barber Academy in North Philly last year, she took his spot in the class. Then 7, Neijae was the only girl in the six-week course.
In the nine months since finishing the academy, Neijae has spent time giving free haircuts to those in need and shadowing Philly barbers to learn all she can.
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So where does Neijae get the confidence to pursue a career at this young age in a male-dominated profession?
“I was confident since the day I was born,” she said.
Neijae’s mother, Jaime Graham of West Philadelphia, estimates that her daughter has coiffed about 28 heads of hair since taking up the craft. While Neijae has styled a few women, most of her clients have been men, whose hair she enjoys cutting more.
“They have better texture,” she said. “No offense.”
Since the minimum age for securing a barber’s license in Pennsylvania is 16, for now Neijae must provide her haircuts free under the watchful eye of a licensed barber.
On a recent weeknight, Neijae brought her iridescent pink roller case of barbering tools to Fred Cottman’s shop, Supreme Clientele Hair Gallery in Darby, where she cut 14-year-old Rymir Ware’s hair as Cottman observed.
Neijae and Rymir met when he interviewed her for his internet radio show called My Dad & Me on Blazin267.com.
While she was focused, serious, and gentle for most of the haircut, there were moments where it was evident that Neijae is still just a kid. After doing the angles above one of Rymir’s ears, Neijae asked Cottman if she could cut the part on his head.
“Slow down, you still have to do the other side first,” he told her.
And after she finished the cut and swept the floor, Neijae spun the broom around like she was in color guard. Strike that. Not color guard.
“Ninja broom!” she said.
As for Ware, he was pretty happy with his first haircut from a third grader.
“Honestly, she did better than I thought. ... I didn’t expect it to be this sharp," he said.
Aside from barbering, Neijae enjoys sleeping, eating, dancing, and playing video games like Minecraft.
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She dreams of one day cutting Kevin Hart’s or LeBron James’ hair. While she plans to pursue her barber’s license when she’s old enough, she’s also interested in a career that involves sewing.
Graham, who is documenting her daughter’s journey on Instagram, said she takes great comfort in knowing that whatever career Neijae pursues, she’ll always have a skill that will allow her to be self-sufficient.
“I think she’s also learning to be extremely confident and, more importantly to me, she’s learning how to communicate," Graham said. “She’s understanding the power of her voice, the power of choice, and the power of focus.”
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