What would you do if you were a hairstylist flown to Paris for a gig and you showed up to set, only to realize you grabbed the wrong bag and had no hair tools with you? Cry? Scream? Fake your own death, change your name, and start a new life in Bora Bora? If you were anyone else, sure. But if you’re celebrity hairstylist and renowned “Hair MacGyver” Nikki Nelms, you improvise. “I open [my kit] up, and I'm looking at bras and sneakers, like ‘What the f*ck?’” Nelms tells me over the phone. “First rule: Don't let them see you sweat. Just don't bring attention to yourself ... I'm sitting there like, ‘OK, what can you do?’" She made it work.
True to her nickname, it turns out, Nelms could do a lot with the little she had with her during this nightmare scenario: a mini brush attached to her keychain, a bottle of Evian water, a borrowed curling iron, and four hair pins stashed in her pocket. “I was like, ‘OK ... if I just put these out on the towel, we're going to make this happen,’” she says. “I was like, ‘We’ve got to go to the concierge and get some hairspray or something.’ They went out and got a can of hairspray. Somebody else who stayed in the hotel had a curling iron, and I think I had four hair pins in my pocket.” As a welcome surprise to Nelms and the select few others on set who knew what was going on, it worked. And the client in question never knew.
“I just kept a straight face, and my hands were definitely the accessory that day, that was the tool,” she says. “I mentioned that story in an Instagram post, but I didn't say which client it was. My clients were like, ‘Who did you do that to?’ I'm like, ‘You'll never know.’”
There are some secrets Nelms is sharing, though. Partnering with Sebastian Professional, Nelms recently chatted with Elite Daily on the wild ride that was her rise to hair stardom, how she jumped from men’s hair to women’s hair, and the tools she uses to create the artistic, sculptural hairstyles she’s known for.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elite Daily: Everybody's journey in their career is so different particularly in the beauty industry. How did you get started in the beauty industry and with hairstyling in general?
Nikki Nelms: I've been doing hair since I was a kid in the sixth grade. In high school, I worked in a salon in the ninth grade. I've always had an interest in it and could do it really, really well. I realized that I could do hair and wanted to make it a career. My cousin had a hairstyle that I thought was so cool, and I thought she went to the salon, but she told me that she did it herself. It just opened my eyes to the fact that I could do this because she was somebody that wasn't a hairstylist. I viewed her as a regular person that could achieve a style that looks so amazing or professional.
From that moment, I started doing my aunt’s [hair] and it really became a thing when some of my aunts went to the salon, and some of my other aunts came to me — the styles that I did as a kid were better than the salon. Then, I started doing their coworkers’ [hair] and stuff like that. I moved on to high school, and my teachers used to sign me out on their planning periods to do their hair. My mother was like, "What? You do so well in school. You get all these As, and I just never see you doing homework. This is crazy." I'm like, "I was doing Mrs. Robertson’s hair again today."
ED: Stop, that’s so funny.
NN: Then I went off to college, because honestly, I love doing hair, but I didn't think it was a career. I didn't respect it early on — I thought it was something you did when you couldn't do something else ... I went to college and I wasn't happy, but I was there, because I thought that's what you did after high school. I ended up dropping out because I wasn't going to class, I was taking appointments. I’d skip science tests to give someone a trim.
ED: When did you know you were ready to leave college and pursue hairstyling full-time?
NN: I met a girl in my class, in one of my classes. It was our first day, and she just came over to me and was like, "Let's go out to eat." We were the only Black girls in our class, so it was an instant connection. I was like, "OK, well, you should let me do your hair." Marketing 101. She was like, "No, thank you. My mom does my hair. She's the only one who does it." I was like, "Oh, excuse me, OK." She's like, "My mom is really big." Then, she told me her mom's name, and I do remember her mom from all of these hair magazines. I was like, "That's your mom? Oh my God." She was like, "You should quit school. You should drop out and go work for my mom." I was like, "B*tch, no."
When I went home for the summer, I found her mom and these magazines, and I was like, "Wait, I'm out of here." I did quit and I moved to Miami from St. Petersburg and went to work at her salon. That's where it really started for me, because I moved quickly. You can only be featured in the hair magazine so many times before, you're like, "OK, what's next?" Miami was big for production during that time, especially music videos and commercials and stuff. I had to figure out how to break into that. My first music video was Timberland and Magoo’s “Indian Flute.” I hit it. It was crazy. I thought I had a full career from that one job, a full resume. I was so excited to get the resume out with one job. It's actually hilarious.
ED: You have to frame it like that! Marketing 101, you knew what you were doing.
NN: [That resume] did not get me another job. I sent it to this one agency, and I called them like, "Hey, just making sure you got it." They were like, "Yeah, we got it." That was it. I was like, "What do you think about it?" They were like, "We were wondering, do you have anything else to add to it?" I was like, "It's pretty filled up. You want another fitting? You want contact info?" But I've worked on so many videos [since then], like Kanye West “Gold Digger.” I did a lot in Miami, but I noticed that it was harder to get respect as a local artist. They always flew people in from New York and so my new strategy was “OK, I'm going to move to New York, they'll respect me and fly me back to Miami.” Then, I got to New York and I was like, "F*ck Miami. This is cool. I'm cool. This is better."
ED: I was going to ask if you have a mentor or if you previously had any other industry professionals who helped guide you, but it sounds like you really just paved your own way.
NN: Now on this side of things, I feel I connect more with photographers and artists, not hair artists but [visual] artists. I'll call Mickalene Thomas or Lorna Simpson. I just liked their perspective and how their art or what they produce is really viewed as art. Sometimes I feel more in that arena than I do a hairstylist ... I kind of found my own mentor after I figured out what I needed or what worked for me.
ED: I feel like that's almost better, to know exactly what you want and what you need from someone.
NN: But it can be hard. I made a lot of mistakes I probably didn't need to make, but sometimes mistakes might've been necessary, and I just didn't find out till later that I needed them. A mentor can guide you, but they guide you with what they know. Their Bible becomes your Bible and then you kind of miss out on your own stretch sometimes.
It's been hard, though, in some spots. Lil Wayne was my first [celebrity] client, but having a male client was not the goal. It came, so I worked it ... I was trying to [work with] these artists and they're like, "Oh, who have you worked with?" I'm like, "Lil Wayne." They're like, "Oh... what else you got?" But that kind of built my character. It empowered me and made me feel I could do anything.
ED: How did you make that jump then? After working Lil Wayne, what was your next break that got you into doing women's hair?
NN: Well, I was always ... creating moments in the [music video] world, they just weren't attached to a celebrity. For example, in the “Gold Digger” video, Jamie Foxx and Kanye were the stars of that show, but I just tried to make sure that the girls’ hair in the video was iconic enough to where it was a cool reference. Until I got better, I used what I had. It wasn't like now, where I can send you to my Instagram, you can look at my page, or whatever. It was like Craigslist, word of mouth.
I guess you can say my next client might've been Solange. I met her out and she had to go to an event, and she had pink eye but she didn't want to wear sunglasses ... I was told someone told her, “You should use Nikki.” She was like, "No, we only go to my mom." They were like, "No, she's good." She kind of didn't have any other choice, so I'm not going to say that it was intentional at first. But she came to me, I curved a bang to cover her eye in a cool style — we used to call it the rapper named Shareefa, so I gave her a Shareefa bang. It was done on the fly really quick and it worked. She was like, "I like your style." From then on, we started working together ... and it grew to something beautiful.
ED: From the outside looking in, it seems like anybody can spot a hairstyle you've created from a mile away. What are some of the key methods you've developed to help you create these gravity-defying styles that look like sculptures?
NN: You have to have the products that support your vision. I don't have a lot of time to struggle with products, nor does my client, so I need products to do what they say they're going to do. I love of the Sebastian Shaper Plus Hairspray ($19.50, Ulta Beauty) — that is my go-to and always has been. I work in an industry where people change their mind quickly and you have minutes to execute. I like Shaper Plus because I can go from something extreme to something soft that looks like there's not a trace of hairspray. That's why I use that. I need the flexibility. Keeping [my clients’] hair healthy if I can is important to me, too. Using products like on the Dark Oil Collection from Sebastian Professional ($48, Ulta Beauty) allows for a better day on set for me, and we can get to the style quicker. We don't have to cut through the damage.
ED: You've accomplished so much in your career so far. Is there something else you want next for your career or is there a goal you've yet to reach that you're still working toward?
NN: Of course and I'm working on it right now. It's so cool that I cannot believe that I'm doing it. I can't tell you what it is though. But it's history. I'm like, "I can't believe that they reached out to me. It's crazy." But I'm still working towards my goals, and I still have more set, because if I don't have something to reach for, I get bored easily. I feel I'm just getting started. So weird, but when things like this happen and opportunities like this come, I get a new energy. I'm like, "Ooh, it's a new me. It's the new Nikki.” This feels like the beginning of this career.
ED: Oh my God, I need to know what it is!
NN: I wish I could tell you so bad. I'm like, "I don't want you to get sued."
ED: That’s OK. We will wait with bated breath, and I can't wait to find out whatever it is.
NN: You call me back at the end of the year.
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