To say that Black-ish has made a significant cultural and societal impact on the way audiences view the modern Black family is an understatement. Created by Kenya Barris, the ABC series revolves around the lives of an upper class African-American family that takes viewers through the individual experiences of the characters and how they navigate socio political issues. Black-ish stars amazing talent such as Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi, Marsai Martin, Laurence Fishburn, Marcus Scribner, and Miles Brown. Each character is infused with personality, intelligence, and opinions on modern day hot button topics such as Black Lives Matter and police brutality that have made them forces on and off the screen. As one of the prominent Black families on television, viewers have grown to watch the family evolve over 7 seasons and gravitate to their stunning styles.
We had the chance to talk with the innovative Emmy-nominated Black-ish hair stylists Nena Ross and Stacey Morris who are the creative forces behind the dynamic hair styles on the show about how the show is impacting representation of natural hair in mainstream media. And we got to ask them their favorite looks from the show!
Tell us about your backgrounds as stylists and how your experience has been working on Black-ish
Stacey: I was raised in New York, my father was involved in the music industry and my mother was a model so I was always surrounded by industry people and fashion. Because of the environment I grew up in I adopted an interest in styling and spent my summers assisting in salons and I eventually made that my career. I’ve had an awesome experience working on Black-ish because I’m given the freedom to create the looks we see fit for each character which are modern and reflect the current community trends. We’re all like family and there’s a different type of connection that occurs with styling because we get to do Afro-centric designs that are indigenous to us, for us, by us which makes it fun and interesting. It’s not one specific look we have to adhere to all the time and while there are “checks and balances” that occur when working on a network show it’s pretty fair when it comes to being artistic and creative.
Nena: I started doing hair in high school through various programs and also went to beauty school right before graduation. My first salon experience was in Long Beach, CA and then I began training in different hair techniques before eventually opening my own salon. I later got into the industry where I did various hair shows and competitions, joined the union, and started working on different shows which eventually led me to Black-ish. It’s been a great experience that has allowed me to express my creativity while working on hair and pick a lot of styles that are true to the culture and characters of the show.
How has Black-ish helped to normalize natural hair in mainstream media?
Nena: Black-ish has been able to normalize natural hair partially due to the pandemic because people were unable to go to the salons and were forced to think of creative ways to do their hair at home. It really ties into what we’ve been doing at the show, for example Diane (Marsai) wore braids for the majority of the season so I was able to do creative braids and add accessories like jewels to give it a contemporary look. It’s been a blessing to be able to work on this show and be on a platform that embraces natural hair and can set new trends for our viewers.
Stacey: The more that we see ourselves on screen, it builds that momentum to normalize it in everyday culture and for people to wear their natural hair unapologetically. It’s empowering. Black-ISH is a staple in people’s homes because it reflects themselves and has set its own trends within our culture. I’ve had so many people reach out to me about how I style Andre Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) hair since guys are now growing their hair out. Styles come back into the mainstream, obviously we’re not wearing 1970s afro’s but we’re seeing that make a comeback now and I do different textured looks to that length.
What inspires the styles you create for the characters on Black-ish?
Nena: For me it’s a combination of the look of the character and what they are doing in the scene. It ends up being a collaboration for me with the cast where I do research and we go over different looks with various hair options. Everything depends on the character and their personality as a person so we just collaborate together and I give them my inspiration and they provide their input.
Stacey: I agree with Nena where it’s about finding a style they will be comfortable in and also what translates well on the camera because the director may want something different. In the initial seasons our show creator Kenya Barris was very much involved in the look of the show whether it was being age appropriate for the children or adjusting the style based on how we needed them to look. For example, Jack Johnson (Miles Brown) had a little boy haircut for a while, no line up, edge ups, just very natural and this last season we gave him a line up to show his age. There’s lots of checks and balances and we bring it all together for the small screen.
What defines a “hair moment” for you? Is it the time spent, technique, intricacy/details?
Stacey: It’s the transformation and what you end up with. You can wow somebody because they come with one idea and leave with another. In addition, I enjoy incorporating different hair types into various styles, I call making the hair submit. A few things I’m proud of is when I get to build a look that appears natural or real, like when I can create a beard or give a bride hair she didn’t originally have. I’m always impressed with figuring out what it looks like in “Coming 2 America” and Wesley Snipes needed a wig and I had to bring that look to life. On this show Jack Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) has a smooth curl to his hair and when you wet it shrinks up so there are moments I have to make it appear undone or ungroomed.
Nena: Intricacy and technique are what defines a hair moment for me because a lot of hairstyles require different supplies and ways to style the hair. I love the details of a look, whether it is sleek, caufed, or fine-tuned- I like using accessories to give that extra pop. The more intricate and time spent on a style can determine the bigger look. It all depends on the character, for example I did a montage of Olivia’s hair (Katyln Nichol) where I did a 1930s finger wave on the side with accessories. It took about 45 minutes and was very beautiful. I love being challenged and thinking outside of the box like when Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) comes to me with a style I’ve never done before and I have to really research how to create that look.
How would you describe the hair journey of a specific character? As people age/mature texture can evolve/change, how do you adapt to that?
Nena: I came aboard in season 7 so I did a lot of research on each character to understand their hair journey. With Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin) the goal was to transition her from a kid to a young lady and bring her to a contemporary style. Her hair texture has changed and what she wants for the character has changed like adding jewels, metals, or wires to her style. Tracee usually wears her hair natural and I wanted to build on those styles and her brand by staying true to the character.
Stacey: It was all about growth over time which you can see on the boys whose cuts and styles have changed over time. In real life kids grow up and they become their own person and start finding their own identity through their hair. With Jack Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) he started on the show really young and his hairstyles matured as he did. Even with Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) he has grown and matured with his beard which is now longer.
If you could recommend any of your favorite types of hair accessories, what would they be?
Nena: Accessories can always change depending on the hair texture, but I like using hair accessories that include bobby pins. I like to use jaw clips, wires, strings, yarns, etc. and I source them from all different places whether it’s a Michael’s or a Forever 21.
Are you given the freedom to try any trend you like?
Stacey: The show is a brand now that has a certain aesthetic so we can’t use every single trend that’s popular. It took awhile for the network to get onboard with letting Anthony’s beard grow even though that’s popular in mainstream culture.
Nena's favorite looks:
For the characters we do about 3-4 different looks per episode and try to keep the continuity between scenes. We don’t have a lot of time to create every single look so I like to create transition styles that help us as we move onto the next scene. I have a chart organized by how many styles we have per week, what I’m creating each day, and then we build additional styles on that.
Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi)
We went with two high buns and I slicked it back with product, I made undetectable hair extensions from fishtails I had pre-braided and set to the side. Once I swooped her hair up, I added the extensions and then added in jewels for a contemporary wedding look.
Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin)
For her wedding style we did her hair in braids and added a lot of jewels and created a big fishtail braid which brought out her outfit and look.
Stacey’s favorite looks:
Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson)
I love what we’ve been doing with Anthony’s beard which reflects what is happening with the world. In the past longer beards were worn by caucausians or lumberjacks and they have now been adopted by every culture. Everyone is wearing bigger beards, we always say that his beard is a whole other character.
Andre Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner)
I previously mentioned what I’ve been doing with Andre Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) and how he’s wearing a longer style. I love that it is so well received and want to know how I get it like that because trends start at the grass roots level. Stylists will see a look we like and tweak it, but once we do it and it’s seen on a massive platform like Black-ish where it’s viewed by millions of people, we inadvertently become trend setters. Marcus is fun and likes to try new things and I love what we’ve achieved with his look.
About the Stylists
Nena Ross is a Journeyman Celebrity Hairstylist with more than 20 years of experience working in the hair and entertainment industries. She recently received her first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Contemporary Hairstyling as the Hair Department Head of ABC’s “Black-ish,” Season 7. Her work can be seen across a wide range of programming from serving as the department head for Seasons 3 and 4 of “Grown-ish,” the CW’s “America’s Next Top Model,” and NBC’s“Access Hollywood” where she supervised the hairstyling for each cast member, to the pilot episode of ABC’s hit series “How to Get Away with Murder” where she styled leading lady and award-winning actress Viola Davis.
Stacey Morris, who does business under the pseudonym Stacey Kutz, is oftentimes referred to as “Stylist to the Stars.” For the past thirty plus years, Stacey has been an established Barber-Stylist based in Los Angeles catering to the demands of high profile clientele that span across the music, sports, television and film industries Worldwide. Stacey has been nominated for four Emmy Awards and four MUAHS Awards (Makeup Artist and Hair Stylists Guild). She was also the Hair Department Head for Coming 2 America and her other film credits include Sylvie’s Love, Bad Hair, Gone Girl, Norbit and Dreamgirls. She has also worked on and is the standing barber on several TV series including America's Funniest Videos, Black-ish, and The Voice.