Though he didn’t know it at the time, from the moment he found himself in a room full of different textures at a grade school event, Chicago native Andre Walker manifested a path toward primping tresses. His passion and professionalism would land him appointments with local news anchors in his bustling salon, located in downtown Chicago near the North Side, but a flower arrangement he sent to one local anchor in particular, who he ardently desired to work with, would define the next 20 years of his life. That local anchor was Oprah Winfrey. Yes, the Oprah Winfrey. Though Walker became Oprah’s personal hairstylist before her national show began, he ended up going along for the ride throughout her entire career, styling her strands both on and off screen. Yet Walker’s mane mastery doesn’t simply cease to impress there—he is also the creator of Halle Berry’s signature pixie, along with natural haircare line The Gold System. We got to know the man behind Queen Oprah’s coiffures in an interview about Walker’s journey to becoming a renowned hairstylist, natural hair myths, what he learned from working with Oprah for 20 years, and more—ahead.
Where were you raised?
I grew up in Chicago, but I knew I wanted to be in the beauty business so I planned to move to New York after finishing school and working in salons for a while because I figured that’s where I would get the most exposure and opportunities—Chicago wasn’t much of a beauty town, but now it’s a lot different—but then I met Oprah and that changed the whole trajectory of my life.
What is your first memory of hair or doing hair when you were young?
I remember being a kid in middle school or grade school and there was a holiday gathering for the school kids in my community. Where I grew up, it was pretty diverse. I remember seeing all the different textures of hair people had and I was really in awe of them. That one event stands out in my mind, because all the textures were so intriguing to me. From that moment, I played with friends’ hair and immediately family’s hair, my mom and my sisters.
What was the first hair product or hair tool you ever got your hands on?
My mother, who has very curly hair, used to wear hair pieces. If she wasn’t able to get her hair styled, she’d pull it back as tight as she could and put a hair piece on it. She had different hair pieces and rollers, and I remember playing with the rollers and setting lotion. That’s how I started doing my family’s hair. I would set [the hair pieces] on these big rollers and put them under her little hood dryer, and dry them and style them. That was the beginning for me. Prior to that, she would send them to the salon to have them styled. That’s how she dressed up to go to church. But when I started doing the hair, it eliminated the need for the salon.
Who was your first major client?
It depends what you define as major. Chicago was not a town of mini celerities although I did meet Oprah and Halle Berry there. Prior to them, the biggest celebrities I did hair for were news anchors in the city which is how I started building a name for myself in Chicago. If you were an African American woman or woman of color who needed someone to do your hair, you came to me or one or two hairstylists. We were the most popular in the area.
Who were your mentor(s) along the way and what did each teach you about hair, life, career, etc.?
I used to always follow Michael Week’s and Andre Douglas’s work, they were idols of mine, but I didn’t meet those guys until later on in my career. As far as mentors go, there were two hairstylists in Chicago. The first, Lee Jones, worked in a fabulous salon on the Gold Coast. He was so popular that he had his own room where he did all his clients’ hair. He would allow me to sit and watch him work, and I did. I learned a lot from him. He’s still around doing hair. Probably his most notable client now is Linda Johnson Rice.
But the person who really took me under his wings is the late, Rudi Hooker, a major hairstylist in the area. I assisted him and he taught me everything that I know. I worked with him at the salon inside of upscale department store I.Magnin & Co. When he moved salons, I.Magnin asked me if I wanted to stay and develop my clientele, and so that was the first salon I worked in.
Do you remember the first hairstyle you ever gave Oprah?
I did Oprah from before she had her national show. If you’ve ever seen her first show on YouTube, she had this really—what we call bouncin’ and behavin’ hairstyle—back in the 80’s. It was hair that was blow-dried, cut to perfection, and big and full. She could move her head and bounce it all around and the hairstyle would fall right back into place. Oprah loved rolling her head around because of that hair. I used to joke and tease her about it because she would overly exaggerate her head movements just to throw her hair around.
What was it like working with Oprah for the first time?
When I was younger, I used to be pretty shy. I sent Oprah flowers with a note that said I was dying to get my hands in her hair. For me to do that was major for me. So when she responded, that broke the ice for me. When I finally went to meet her, I wasn’t really that nervous. And you have to understand that she was pretty local herself, she wasn’t the icon that she is now. I think if I had met her now, I would probably be shaking in my shoes from being so nervous. I was a big admirer of her because she had a show that was local in Chicago and she was just amazing. I really wanted to work with her and that’s when I sent her the flowers.
Tell us about how you and Oprah came up with hairstyles everyday. What did that creative process look like?
It would usually depend on what shows she was doing. If she was doing an everyday topic, we did simple hairstyles. But if she was doing fashion shows or makeovers, we would jazz it up a little bit more to make it glamorous. It depended on the show topics, but when we would do magazine covers or public appearances, she usually left it up to me to come up with the styles.
What’s one thing Oprah taught you or what’s something working with Oprah has taught you throughout your career?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from her is living with intention. With anything you do, you should be very clear on what your intention is because usually that’s what manifests. That was a big thing of hers and it still is today. Be responsible for whatever you choose. I try to make decisions based upon what my real intention is because eventually that would be what manifests in the end.
Can you recall the story of how Halle Berry’s signature pixie came to fruition?
Halle was an actress when I met her. She came to my salon when I had a salon [in Chicago]. She was living in Chicago, but working in LA all the time so she would fly back and forth. When I first started working with her, she had long, shoulder-length hair. I always thought she was so amazingly beautiful and I used to do her hair like a lob. I just felt like she looked like everybody else, and one day we were looking in the mirror with her hair slicked back wet, and I mentioned to her why don’t we just do something really drastic. I said let’s try it and see, so wet cut it and went shorter, and that became her signature pixie.
Tell us about the process of creating your haircare line, the Gold System. What was your goal for the line?
My business partner and I, Diane Hudson, the former executive producer of The Oprah Show, we worked together many years and all we talked about was hair. Diane loved getting her hair done and fashion and so forth. She threw the idea at me that maybe we should start a haircare line. It’s always been something in the back of my brain to do at some point, but I never took the time to initiate it. It was right around the time when Oprah was retiring her show that we began developing the products, which was the perfect time to start the line.
But we had to think of products that weren’t already readily available. I was doing a lot of natural hair on Oprah, and I always found myself mixing hair cocktails. It was never just one product—I’d always have to mix three different things to get her hair how I wanted. So I thought why don’t I concentrate on that and make some stylers that would make it easy for people to use on their natural hair along with great cleansers and conditioners, and have a line that’s really simple. So that’s how it started. The first product that I formulated was the Beautiful Kinks Styling Crème Gelee so that all you’d need is one product for whoever wants to wear it natural or in some sort of protective style. Right now the Gold Line is sold on Amazon and on our website, but we’re working on expanding.
What’s one myth or misconception about textured hair that you wish people would stop believing or perpetuating?
One of the biggest myths is you shouldn’t shampoo your hair very often because it strips your natural moisture and oils away. I have been preaching this throughout all my career, and people look at me like I’m crazy. I used to tell Oprah the same thing—that we have to shampoo and condition because that’s the only way you get moisture back in your hair. So when I convinced Oprah, she liked the effect she was getting from freshly cleaned hair so we would wash it every other day. Slowly when I would win people over saying the more you shampoo your hair, the healthier it’s going to be, people started getting the results from it. I remember my mother used to say it also—sh
ampoos will dry your hair out and remove all the moisture. I think that may have been true back in the days of Prep Shampoo, but it was such an alkaline shampoo that you could probably chemically process your hair with it, that’s how strong it was. Now, shampoos are pretty mild, and designed to moisturize hair. If you have natural hair, shampoo it at least once a week. If you can do it twice a week, even better. Some people disagree with me on this, but I find that freshly cleaned hair always looks best—it has moisture, shine, softness, and it’s manageable.
We used to host these events called mother daughter tea parties in different cities. Most of the mothers who attended had relaxed hair and their daughters were little naturalistas. They didn’t know how to manage their daughters’ hair so a lot of the mothers would have questions about hair breakage, and I would always ask what are you doing to the hair? Some would say they just rinse and don’t use shampoo. I would tell them that’s the basis of your problem—you need to get rid of all the buildup and infuse moisture with water and shampoo.
The Original Andre Walker Hair Typing Chart created by Andre
What products, tools and brushes are always in your kit?
The Gold System—there’s no textured hair that I’ve come across that I haven’t been able to use the Gold System on.
The L’Oreal Elnett Hair Spray is always my go-to hair spray. I really like using the actual French version, because I think the formulation is better made in Europe, which is different from the one you can buy in the states, but even that one is great.
I always keep the Ouidad Double Detangler comb in my kit. It has made detangling the easiest thing to do especially if you have a lot of thick hair. For hot tools, I like the Hot Tools brand. They’re straight forward, they work well, they’re moderately priced, and if they break down or I lose them, I don’t feel like I lost the world.
If I’m blow-drying and doing straight hair, Denman brushes are great. If I’m going with a paddle brush, I look for what the materials are and usually I like natural bristle brushes, usually boar bristle.
Do you have any favorite DIY hair tricks or recipes?
I say leave that to the professionals. But as far as if you want a quick style or look, and your hair’s not acting right or your ponytail isn’t long enough, I love great ponytails you can buy and throw on last minute to switch your look up. The ones that are easy to snap on.
What would you be if you weren’t a celebrity hairstylist?
If I wasn’t in the hair business, I would 100% be an interior designer, which I’m doing now and have been for many years. If I wasn’t in the hair business, I would 100% be an interior designer. It’s a natural extension of what I do as a hairstylist. Composition of materials, color, and balance. When you’re doing someone’s hair you’re looking at the color, making sure there’s balance, that it works on the person. It’s connected. That’s just the way my brain works. I’ve done it for 15 years now. Even while working with Oprah, I would have clients when I finished traveling with her, or work on a project at night.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to become a hairstylist of your caliber?
The only advice I can give you is to make sure the passion is there. When you’re doing what you love doing, it’s not a job. You get paid for it, but it doesn’t feel like work—you’re like playing everyday. But you can’t just be creative and artistic, you have to be a professional as well. Be on time, be flexible, you have to know how to run a business as well. There’s no formula to becoming a celebrity hairstylist other than being really passionate and professional because the two work hand in hand. If you’re passionate, it’s going to show. People will seek you out for that. I don’t have celebrity clients because I wanted to be around celebrities—I have them because my clients know I love what I do and that’s how I was able to get them. I didn’t set out to be a celebrity hairstylist, I set out to be a great hairstylist.