Inside the West Philly salon that's out for Internet domination
The curls out this West Philly salon are stunning, and so are the stylists' social media skills.
Tashima "Tah" Bowman had just finished a wash and press for the client. Looking at the resulting shiny hairstyle with each strand stopping in a perfect imaginary line, Bowman grabbed her phone and set up one of the new tools of her trade: professional lighting equipment.
During the quick photo shoot, the salon's owner and founding stylist Annagjid "Kee" Taylor sat one station over, finishing up an edit of a video for YouTube. Her salon, Deeper than Hair, specializes in transforming natural hair — black hair in all its curly, coily and wavy textures — to straight tresses with Marcia Brady-level shine. Taylor admitted she doesn't do as many blowouts these days, not because she's the boss lady, but because she spends so much time in production mode.
"I have my phone and my laptop more than I have my flatiron now," said Taylor.
The tactics at the salon — with its heavy marketing focus on Instagram and YouTube — demonstrate a shift within the hair care industry. University of California Santa Barbara black studies expert Ingrid Banks, who researches black hair salons, said social media "has shaped how salons do business today" by providing "an incredible line to free advertising." And Taylor has parlayed that into salon ownership, a hair care line, a popular YouTube channel, a gaggle of celebrity clients and a house in North Hollywood. When she moved to the house this past January, she converted the second bedroom into a video studio.
Deeper than Hair's success — and Taylor's rise as a stylist who now works for the Tyler Perry series The Haves and the Have Nots and does hair for the likes of singer Estelle and actress Keke Palmer — is because the staff excels at being hyphenate professionals: stylist-videographers who are perpetually plotting the right angles for Instagram.
"We think about social media as a form of entertainment and pleasure," explained Cornell researcher Brooke Erin Duffy, "but when it's for a business, it requires marketing strategy and being consistently on."
Chivina "Veen" Davis is a stylist at the salon whose braid styles, for which she deftly pans over a unique patchwork or cornrows and intricate beading, often go viral. Davis learned how to hold a camera in her television production coursework at Bartram High School, so it comes naturally to her. Lon Nicole, who also has a chair at the salon, understands the new order, but the additional steps often frustrate her.
"I like to get my clients in and out," said Nicole. She bears in mind that wait times can turn to gripes that she'll eventually hear about, or worse, see online in a comment or review. And shifting the lighting or the chair to direct a shot? That takes more time. "I don't want to stop and take pictures, but I know that that's my ticket."
It wasn't that long ago, Nicole remembers, that professionals used to keep photo books, like a portfolio, for clients to thumb through for inspiration. She also remembers, even though she hates Instagram, that when she was looking for new job, Taylor asked for her Insta handle and made her decision from there.
Duffy studies how women entrepreneurs are faring in the internet age. "There's something endemic about Instagram as a platform that compels all of us to participate in this culture of airbrushed perfection and carefully curated impression management," she said. "It's gotten to a point where we kind of mock it, but we still participate in this."
Social media influencers, Duffy continued, contend with a number of tough questions: how to win among the high-octane competition of the open digital field, how to develop the skills to be "jills of all trades" for content production, how much time should be spent self-marketing vs. pursuing a craft, how to account for "the time, energy and money we put into staging a perfect shot." Instagram's user base skews female. Duffy said when followers expect warm, speedy engagement, those ideals stem from societal notions that cast women as constant caregivers.
"I find the emotional labor aspect interesting," said Duffy. "The women are enjoying tremendous success, but it reinforces that women must be community oriented."
Taylor tries to answer every question she spots that hasn't been asked previously, but sometimes followers and subscribers still express discontent. She recalled that one follower asked: "What? You gotta know me to comment back?" Taylor shook her head and sighed at the memory.
Taylor became a social pro in 2012 working at Philly Cuts, also in West Philly. The summer weather, or the summer sweat, always yields a down season for Taylor, a heat treatment maverick. But that year, she decided to counter it with an $100 sew-in extension special that she promoted through Instagram. The special blew up — she saved her coins and opened Deeper than Hair the following April.
On the waiting couch on a recent Wednesday afternoon sat three women — one who was visiting parents in Collegeville; another seeing family in Upper Chichester; and the third, a regular who resides in Williamstown — all who found the salon through Instagram.
"I'll come out here because I don't want anyone else touching my hair," said Hadiyah Cain, the Williamstown resident. Once, when Cain couldn't get an appointment with stylist Ashley Simon, she tried another hairdresser who ripped her hair while detangling it. Never again. "When I go on Instagram, I do heavy research because people say natural hair, but they don't be knowing how to handle it."
One time, she explained, a woman stopped her on Rowan's campus where she studies nursing, having recognized her from Simon's Instagram page. Cain thought that was weird, but otherwise she likes every time her hair looks fly enough to be included.
"It's like fulfillment," she said. "My hair looks like the Instagram people's hair."
Taylor has been approached about a reality show by her mentor Clint Saunders, an artist manager, but she's still thinking it through. She feels like it would be a good vehicle to promote the Deeper than Hair charity campaign — a crowdfunded effort to travel the country and give homeless women, service women and survivors of domestic violence free hair care — but the proposal hinges on audiences getting to know their everyday lives first. She upped her YouTube output to acclimate herself to the camera. "Now," when it's time to shoot, she explained, "I be chilling." (In the back of her mind, she's chasing Ryan, the 6-year-old YouTube toy reviewer, who now makes eight figures.)
There are times when she's working on a head of hair, and she gets the feeling.
"It's like 'Dang, Ima put this on the 'gram,'" she said. "It's almost as if you're creating art just to post it."
But then, there are also times when the hair hits every mark, and as much as she tries, as many angles she shoots, she can't get a photograph that looks as pretty as what she's seeing in person. And when that happens, she's come to accept it: "That can't go up."