With a head full of blond corkscrews, Kristy Wilson, 34, was "a complete anomaly" in her hometown of Menomonie, Wis. "Everyone had long, Scandinavian, blowing-in-the-wind hair."
Trips to the salon were a trial. "All the stylists would swarm around me and talk about my hair," she said. "It was like I wasn't even there."
Wilson inherited her curls from her father, who managed his mane with a close crop. Her mother had zero experience with textured hair. That led Wilson to an early adolescence of crying over wide-bristled brushes and desperate rinsing in the kitchen sink.
Like some other women with curls, Wilson stopped going to salons altogether; they only left her hair looking worse. Instead she determined that she would master her own hair, hunting for how-to tips on www.naturallycurly.com, loading up on Dep gel and L.A. Looks mousse. Eventually, she took to containing her gravity-defying locks with elaborate braids.
Wilson grew up to become a hairstylist with a mission: helping other women with curls care for, accept and even love the natural state of their hair.
"Traditional styling methods have failed curly people," she said with a hint of religious zeal.
In August, Wilson took her crusade one step further: She and another local stylist, Rosie Jablonsky, opened a specialty salon in Minneapolis called Uptown Curl.
The world has known a few pioneering hair stylists. Vidal Sasson mastered the geometric wedge cut. Here in Minnesota, Horst Rechelbacher forever will be associated with Earth-friendly hair care. And Lorraine Massey, author of the 2001 book "Curly Girl," is well on her way to achieving guru status for women with natural curls.
Massey founded the curly-oriented Devachan Salon in New York City in 1996, where she counseled clients to stop shampooing (it dehydrates thirsty curls) and stopped cutting curly hair while wet, clipping only when the hair is dry and fully shaped.
No thinning shears
A dry cut "is more like hedging a bush," explained Wilson, one of a handful of Massey followers in the Twin Cities area.
Hair is left in its natural state and shaped curl by curl with a scissors. Thinning shears are a big no-no for stylists in the Massey tradition — even for women with pillowy thick hair. Thinning shears cause fraying along the edges of a hedge-like mass of hair.
Massey went on to launch the Deva Curl line of curly hair products and started offering educational workshops for stylists. In the Twin Cities area, stylists at East 42nd Street Salon in south Minneapolis were among the first to sign up.
"There was no salon in Minneapolis that catered to curly hair," said Teresa Johnson, owner of East 42nd Street, who went to New York City to train with Massey. "Now 90 percent of our clientele is curly."
Johnson said she noticed an uptick in curly competition about three years ago. Now that more Twin Cities stylists have undergone Deva Curl training, a woman with curls can get a Deva Curl-style cut at Jungle Red in Minneapolis, Ficocello's in St. Paul and Woodbury and Beau Monde Salon in Burnsville, to name just a few.
And of course, many salons have a stylist or two catering to the curly set. For example, Ebony Davis at Intelligent Nutrients in Minneapolis is well regarded among black women who wear their hair naturally curly.
But only two salons — East 42nd Street (which is in the process of changing its name to the Twisted Hare Salon and Spa) and Uptown Curl (whose co-owners trained and worked with Johnson at East 42nd Street before opening their own salon) — match Massey's passion for deifying the curl.
At Uptown Curl, the stylists are loath to do blowouts, even when specifically requested. They even keep a jar of curls on hand to showcase various textures.
"The different kinds of curls are so beautiful," said Wilson, plucking a delicate coil from the jar and proffering it in her open palm.
Community of curls
Reclaiming the beauty of curls in a world of ubiquitous Pantene Pro-V ads hasn't been easy for women of any race.
For black women with curly hair, the first step is embracing their natural texture.
"I had relaxers since childhood," said Jan Tyson Roberts, a clinical psychologist from Minneapolis who recently had her curls washed and set at Uptown Curl. "It was kind of a self-discovery thing. I wanted to know what my hair looked like."
She came to eschew relaxers, which may contain harsh chemicals and require time-consuming maintenance. "I just got tired of fighting with my hair every six weeks," she said. "Every six weeks my real edges would start to show and I would try to lay them down."
The owners of Uptown Curl estimate that 30 percent of their clients are African-American or biracial. "But I think that number is growing," Jablonsky said.
In the largely straight-haired Midwest, white women with curls often have been saddled with such nicknames as "Ronald McDonald" or "the Lion Girl." Many came to hate their hair and went to extremes to straighten it.
"It's a curly epidemic, this kind of self-loathing," Wilson said. "For us, this is about so much more than just hair."