Boasting a career spanning over 30 years and a clientele that includes Iman, Nicki Minaj, Tyra Banks, and Beyonce (in addition to loads of other A-listers), Oscar James is a mane force to be reckoned with. But exactly how does one go from ordinary human to Emmy Award-winning hair stylist behind Iman and the late David Bowie’s 2003 Hilfiger Campaign, Nicki Minaj’s countless magazine covers, as well as L’Oreal ads starring Beyonce? Oscar spoke to us about the highs and lows he faced as his career skyrocketed and the lessons he learned along the way. Scroll ahead now to read our full interview with the Mane Master.
How did you get started in the industry?
Ever since I was a child, I’ve always done hair. I got my cosmetology license in high school and I’ve been doing it professionally since then, so over 30 years. But as far as working with celebrities—I moved to New York City about five years after graduating high school and I worked there for 10-15 years. Then, one day, I was working at a salon in Manhattan and the owner got asked to do a fashion show and she couldn’t do it so I went to do it instead. There was a makeup artist there, named Sam Fine. Sam, who worked with Vanessa Williams regularly, saw me doing hair and he thought I would be good for her. He also introduced me to Tyra Banks and then another friend of ours introduced me to Iman and it was all in that very same year, 1994. Those are the three I still work with mostly these days. So, I just transitioned from working in the salon to freelancing. I’ve never looked back.
I haven’t been in the salon for over 20 years. I don’t miss the hard work, but I do miss the gratitude from the clients. There’s nothing like transforming the everyday woman and making her feel special like a celebrity, because I always did—I always catered to my clients. They’ve always been important to me. Seeing the look on their faces when transforming their hair, there’s nothing like it.
What was one of your biggest career challenges and how did you overcome it?
Probably the biggest challenge that’s happened to me was about a little over ten years ago when I was 40. I’m 51 now, I just made 51 a couple days ago. I always made lots of money, because I’ve always been a hairstylist—it’s one of the only careers where you can actually go to work broke and come home with a pocket full of money. I opened [a beauty salon] in my hometown of South Carolina a little over ten years ago and I did it because everyone said I should. It felt like the next thing to do. I never really wanted to a business because I’m not a real people-person in that way, I’m better by myself, I’m just better when things are a little more simple. I spent all my life savings, I spent everything, and then I lost everything. The business went belly up.
It could still be open today, but I didn’t want to live like that. I felt like I was just living to keep the place open and I never wanted that for myself. So when I decided to close it, I gave everything up and just wanted to start anew. It was very daunting being 40 years old and thinking I have no life savings, you know, just to start all over again. Then I had to put all the lessons I’d been preaching and teaching forever—I had to apply it to myself. And because I had been doing this alone, it wasn’t any harder than I thought I’d be.
The key was staying present, ignoring regrets and realizing that the obstacle was there to teach me to think about my choices and about what’s best for me and not do things just because people want you to do it. It taught me to learn how to honor myself and my feelings and the things I want for myself, rather than what people want for me. I call it, “Letting people should on you,” rather than, “Shit on you.” People always got opinions of what we should be doing with our lives.
What products are always in your tool kit?
I can’t speak to a brand but I can tell you what type of product. I love a good pomade, I like a great flat iron (I can’t live without), and an edge control. There’s a great beauty supply called Maze—it’s on 8th Avenue and 32nd—that sells a good edge control, as does Beauty 35 on 35th and 8th.
What advice would you have given yourself 10 years ago or what’s the best advice you received?
The best piece of advice I’ve received is probably from my mom—she always told me to be true to myself, always put God first. Life just gets easier when you take the time to honor yourself in the beginning of your day. I do it everyday now, because I realize if I don’t feed myself all the stuff I need and I just jump out there into the world, I don’t have my armor that I need everyday. And now with all the sh*t going on, you need it.
Do you have any advice for new hairstylists who want to follow in your footsteps?
Take your time and really hone your skills. I think the best stylists—I know they are—are built in the salon. Because of social media now, stylists are seeing people do so much and they want to jump out there and do it. Know that you need a solid foot in, which you can get in the salon—you learn how to switch it up really quick, and you learn different techniques. All that stuff you’re going to need when you get out there.
To know that all that glitters ain’t gold. A lot of times we look at other people and stuff they’re doing and we think they have it so much better than we do. Just to know that we’re all the same. More money, more problems. The bigger the name, the bigger the pressure. I would say be careful what you ask for and really, really take the time to hone your skills—and the place to do that is in the salon.
What are your favorite Instagram accounts to follow?
I love @thegoodquote. People always ask me, your quotes are always so poignant. I literally scroll these quote pages. There’s something about the written word to me so I save them for the opportune moment to post them. And there’s a young kid, his name is @lloydbarker and he has really beautiful quotes on his page as well.
For more #manespiration, follow @oscarjameshair.