Brigitte Nzali was stunned the first time she was slapped with a fine for braiding hair without a cosmetology license in her trendy salon in Blackwood, Camden County.
Why should she have to pay $18,000 to go to beauty school and spend 1,200 hours to learn a skill that's steeped in African culture that requires little more than experienced, nimble fingers and a healthy dose of creativity?
"I learned how to do this from my mother. I was 11. It's my culture. It's my passion," said Nzali, a stylish woman with eye-popping tresses who was born and raised in Cameroon and educated at the Sorbonne in Paris. "We don't use any chemicals. It's all natural, a very safe procedure."
As she demonstrated at the African & American Braiding salon she has owned for 17 years, her thumbs and fingers rhythmically danced between her client's neatly parted strands of hair and a glimmering pile of extensions.
Nzali can't recall how much she's been fined over the years, but after a few encounters with licensing agents, she decided to fight back. She spoke out against the legal requirements that tie braiders' hands and helped persuade lawmakers to pass a bill last week — unanimously — that would free her and fellow braiders from having to obtain a state license.
Gov. Murphy is expected to sign the measure within 30 days. Twenty-five states have already enacted such an initiative, and Pennsylvania lawmakers are weighing similar action. In Pennsylvania, braiders must be licensed and must complete 2,000 hours of training in a beauty school, which covers a gamut of topics including hair styling and coloring.
In recent months, Nzali teamed up with the nonprofit Institute of Justice, which battles government overreach and abuse, and later joined with the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which also took up the cause and lobbied for a change in the law.
But the breakthrough came when Nzali found a braid-wearing assemblywoman in North Jersey who agreed to sponsor legislation to help.
Last week, lawmakers in Trenton voted unanimously in favor of the law change, which had been proposed by state Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, a Hudson County Democrat, in May.
"I had no clue … that braiders were being fined," said McKnight. "Some even had their shops shut down because they didn't have a license." She said Nzali approached her and told her she has been battling this issue — unsuccessfully — for nearly 18 years. The New Jersey Freedom Braiding Coalition also met with her and testified at the statehouse to help get the bill passed.
The licensing law is obsolete, McKnight said. It was created in the 1980s, before braiding became popular and a trade of its own, separate from hair styling and coloring.
"The world is totally different. Now, more women and immigrants and African Americans are in business, and there's more talk about going natural," McKnight said. Going natural, she said, means styling without the use of chemicals and beauty products.
State Sen. Fred Madden Jr. said Nzali visited him at his district office in Gloucester County late last year and explained the hardship the licensing law was causing for braiders. He agreed to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate that would be identical to McKnight's. "Had [Nzali] not come to me, I wouldn't have known of the issue." Even with the change, he said, "there will be some oversight. The braiders will have to register as businesses."
McKnight said no one knows how many braiders there are in New Jersey, because many are operating illegally, without a license. She said there might be hundreds, possibly a thousand or more.
In Camden, there are at least a dozen, mostly in the small business districts on Mount Ephraim Avenue and Haddon Avenue.
Marie Monteil, the owner of Upscale Braiding in Camden, said she welcomes the bill and hopes it becomes law. "We are born with braiding, and we're not using any chemicals," said Monteil, who grew up in Senegal and opened her shop in Camden five years ago.
"In Africa, I learned braiding when I was young, from my mom. … Most of us have a license from Africa, but the board here doesn't accept it. Here you need a high school diploma to go to hair school," she said. "People who braid don't need to go to school to learn it."
Nzali said that when she first heard braiders must attend beauty school, she looked into it and learned that braiding was not among the skills being taught. So she volunteered to give lessons to students at local beauty schools so she could recruit them for her shop. "I am not against the beauty schools. But braiding is a culture," she said.
Nzali said she usually employs three to four braiders in her salon, located in a strip shopping center off busy Little Gloucester Road.
Depending on the type of braiding a customer wants, the process can take 30 minutes to as long as seven hours and cost from $40 to $300, Nzali said. "A lot depends on the technique," she said. The braids can last as long as two months, and a range of styles are available, she said.
While taking a stand against the licensing law, Nzali said she hired a lawyer and then a salon manager with a cosmetology license to keep from being fined.
She has won awards for her braiding and as a woman in business who has made a difference in her community. Nzali also was honored by Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for her work in the community and for her testimony last year at the Red Tape Review Commission, which was held to find ways to curtail government overregulation.