The King of the Crown: Meet the Mastermind Behind Zendaya and Lupita Nyongo's Natural Hair Slayage

PHOTO COURTESY OF LARRY SIMS, WEARING THE LARRY SIMS COLLECTION BY CENTRAL AVE

PHOTO COURTESY OF LARRY SIMS, WEARING THE LARRY SIMS COLLECTION BY CENTRAL AVE

Can you count on one hand how many black women you remember rocking their natural hair on the big screen growing up? Because we sure can. As much as we can all appreciate a long, straight, and luxurious Naomi Campbell moment, it’s incredibly affirming to see more black A-listers than ever embracing their natural hair by wearing TWAs, afros and waist-length braids everywhere from the Met Gala to the silver screen. This shift is largely a reflection of how our own views of black beauty have changed over time as a community. After all, we’ve BEEN celebrating natural hair over here, but it’s taken some time for mainstream Hollywood to catch up. Like all things including going natural, the transition hasn’t been easy, and it always takes a group of trendsetters to lead these cultural shifts in mainstream media. In the case of black hair, Larry Sims is one of those trendsetters.

Celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims stands as one of the few — and we do mean FEW — celebrity hairstylists committed to all things black hair. From sneaking in hairstyling gigs with Missy Elliot while on tour as her backup dancer to laying the edges of Lupita Nyongo, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Gabrielle Union for the world’s biggest red carpets, Sims has styled some of the most coveted black hair in Hollywood. In fact, many of our favorite hair muses  who were natural before it was “cool” turned to Larry Sims himself to define their signature looks. Today, he’s using his career and connections to not only style black hair, but to continue shifting the mainstream narrative about it by passing his knowledge forward to the new class of beauty professionals.

Larry Sims chatted with MILQ for an intimate conversation covering all things black hair, his favorite #SimStyled moments, and why celebrating black hair has become more important than ever.

On His Big Break

M:  You’ve been a choreographer, a dancer, a  tv personality, you design dope hats, and all of that. But you always say that no matter what you do, you always come back to beauty and the love for hair. What was that initial “aha” moment when you realized that [hair] was the full fledged direction that you predominantly wanted to go in your career? 

L: Being a dancer from Chicago, I was always sort of a secret, closeted hair person. I would do the local stripper’s [hair] in Chicago so I could keep money in my pocket during high school... I moved from Chicago to L.A. to pursue dance only, worked in Hollywood, and really became fascinated by the different levels; [how] hair stylists, makeup artists, wardrobe people, were able to work in the industry.

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On Mastering His Craft

M:  When it comes to a lot of the clients you work with, a lot of them have natural textures and in general there are a lot of celebrities we’re seeing that are making that transition [to natural hair]. What’s it like to navigate all these different textures, because no two natural girls are the same, and figuring out how to amplify their hair to make it the best that it can be?

L: A lot of stylists are great at just wigs, or they’re great at braided styles only. My goal was to always make sure that no matter what was thrown my way, I was gonna be able to tackle it and confidently execute it in a creative way no matter what texture it is.

M:  Our theme this month is all about style nostalgia, so we’d love to know: what style era you get the most style inspiration for hair?
L: I LOVE the ‘modness’ of the 60s, I love the blackness of the 70s, I love the hip hop of it all of the 80s, down to the asymmetrical cuts and stacked curls and all of that; the 90s were the poetic justice braids, you know? That whole movement; the patra braids. I LOVED the era. And then the 2000s was like just people exploring and playing with color, wigs, weaves, shaved sides, and you know, like really pushing the boundaries in terms of being creative. So all of those eras have played, definitely, a huge role in my inspiration and I draw from all of them.

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On His Celeb Clients & Their Top Hair Moments

M: Let’s take a moment to talk about some of the recent styles you’ve done on your clients and your creative process for each look.

Tracee Ellis Ross for Diana Ross’ 75th Birthday Bash

L: I wanted her to feel special and beautiful and fly. It was a great dedication to her mom, paying homage to her. And what better way to recreate a Diana Ross style than to do it on her daughter, so it was all Tracee’s idea, I just executed it and it worked it.

Gabrielle Union’s Statement Ponies

M: Gabrielle Union has been wearing a lot of afrocentric styles lately.  Like, you recently did this ponytail that was a fishtail and had the afro hair at the bottom, and you also did this really cool knot type ponytail. What inspired this shift toward all these really unique, different interpretations of her hair that you’ve been doing recently?

L: Gabrielle and I, we’re sort of like two fish in a pod. She really is sort of like my [muse]...we think so much alike, we’re so bonded creatively, and she trusts me so much...She’s tapped into our culture and our community, and we definitely were privy to the conversations about what was deemed beautiful or not in Hollywood, and what was accepted in Hollywood. And for a long time, textured hair wasn’t the popular thing for an actress in Hollywood. We decided collectively to shift that conversation.

Danai Gurira’s New Growth

M: Danai Gurira was bald during Black Panther, so I think a lot of us expected her to keep that as her signature. But she did the complete opposite and now she’s been doing all of these incredible looks. What has it been like, taking her from bald to all of these cool looks you’ve been doing with her recently?

L: I didn’t start working with Danai until after Black Panther...once she started growing her hair back, she really wanted to partner with me…[Lupita] connected us and we talked, and we’ve been rocking ever since. She wanted to creatively, really tap into her culture, her hair texture which is very specific, and do things that I can execute that doesn’t limit her to her hair...It’s given her another leg in terms of how people see her in fashion and she shows up on red carpets or in magazines. It really is cool to see the evolution of where she started and where she is now.

On #SimStyling Black On-Screen Characters 

Sanaa Lathan for Nappily Ever After

M: How did you feel being a part of a project [like Nappily Ever After] that sent such a powerful message about natural hair, and do you have any simple tips for girls who are embarking on a natural journey similar to Sanaa in that movie?

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L: We gave her the option to do a bald cap, where’d she wear a bald cap wig and she was like ‘No, I want to become Violet. I want to be this girl and I wanna be able to do this for the culture so that other girls can know that it is okay to shed the dead weight.’ She felt [that way] not only as an actress but internally as a woman. And for that I was just happy to be a part of [it]. 

Gabrielle Union for Being Mary Jane

L: We had a lot of conversations about what was acceptable for black newscasters. And it was like okay, well we don’t see a lot of black newscasters wearing textured styles, wearing braids. What if we pushed the envelope? What if we put natural styles on Mary Jane?...We were always conscious of the message we were trying to convey out into the world.

On the Met Gala 

“[The] Met is like the Oscars of fashion...you can’t really play around. Nobody wants to feel rushed, nobody wants to feel like you’re giving them your second best because you’re trying to get to the next girl; everybody wants to feel like you’re giving 1000%.”

M:  The Met Gala this year was probably one of the blackest Met Galas ever, you played a big part in that because you styled a lot of really heavy hitting women of color on that carpet. You did really cool campy concepts, but all with an afrocentric interpretation. Can you walk us through the creative process for each look you created?

Gabrielle Union

L: Our draw for Gabrielle was Coming to America. That’s a beautiful moment in black history. So we sort of recreated that idea by making a ‘hood’ that she had around her hair to create sort of a crown. 

Kiki Layne

L: With Kiki, we wanted to go super camp, super black girl and she wanted to bring a hood element to it. We know that black girls love a bun. So we decided to do an over the top ballerina bun and incorporated some fringe from the dress into it with that heavy straight across Chinese bang.”

Danai Gurira

L: Danai; the braids of it all, the black beads across the forehead. [It was] super black girl, super paying homage to the girls in the hood that wear and rock beads.

“They all had black girl references because it was really important to make sure that we were represented on that carpet and we weren’t conforming to an industry standard of what they think is beautiful. I mean especially with the Gucci controversy, we really wanted to make sure that we represented ourselves.”

On the Stigma of Black Hair 

M: Lately on the runway there is more natural hair, but most of the time the girl either has straight back cornrows or a fro. It almost kind of feels like it’s the only thing [the hairstylists] know how to do. Do you have any insight into why those are the only two styles that they seem to do [on runway models]?

L:  I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve gone on set and I’ve had a white photographer or a white Editor-in-Chief of a magazine say, “No, no, no the way her hair is now is perfect.” And it’s like yo, bro she slept in those braids for a week and they’re fuzzy. And she would never show these braids [in public]...It's disheartening to see. And I really wish people thought outside of the box [because] it doesn't have to just be cornrows and afros. 

M: It’s clear that you’re actively one of the leaders in the industry who is shifting how black hair is seen in Hollywood. How does that feel for you to hold that weight and that responsibility in the work that you do?

L:  To me, I’m just really proud to be a part of the conversation. When I think about my journey, [and] having a valid voice, [it wasn’t] something I ever really aimed to do. It kind of just came with the success of it; I wasn’t even thinking that far ahead. Now I feel like I have a responsibility to uplift and uphold us as a culture and really represent our Queens. And I Look at every actress that I work with as a Queen, and it’s always been my mission to represent that... I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure that I actively take care of my girls’ hair and actively inspire stylists to be creative with how they style hair and push people that are not educated in these environments where they don’t know how to take care of natural hair to get educated.

M: Do you have any tips for girls who are embarking on a natural journey?

L:  I would say to anybody that is holding onto damaged hair, dead hair, dead weight, dead energy, old relationships, it’s so freeing to cut it off and the biggest message from me is that you are not your hair, you are beautiful; your skin and your hair. And true beauty starts internally and it really just permeates and shines outward when you feel beautiful about yourself on the inside --  and no hairstyle can dictate how beautiful you feel like you are.