Alicia Keys' Hairstylist Nai'vasha Johnson Launches Haircare Brand Curl Queen

Vladimir Weinstein/BFA.com; Courtesy of Subject
Alicia Keys with hair by Nai’vasha Johnson (right) for the 2019 The Gordon Parks Foundation awards event.

The expert to Serena Williams and Lil Nas X talks about her new line and enrolling at Harvard Business School.

Hairstylist Nai'vasha Johnson spends "every single day" working with curls on some of the industry's hottest stars, including Serena Williams, Alicia Keys, Tessa Thompson, Logan Browning, Janelle Monae and Lil Nas X. She has heard all the complaints about typical products: Curl definition items are flakey or don't create shine, and hair products aren't pretty enough to sit on a vanity next to Chanel and Dior makeup.

"I know exactly the things that curly girls love and texture girls love … I felt like there was a space missing," Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was time for our voices and our curls to be heard."

So for the past three and a half years, she's been quietly developing her own hair-care line using her "secret weapon" laboratory to help define, revitalize and nourish curls through experimental cocktails. The hairstylist wanted a formula for all curls — "not just tight curls, not just for the kinky curls, but for all curls."

Now her testing has come to fruition and she's launching the Curl Queen hair brand, available starting Oct. 1 on the Curl Queen app and Amazon (which also offers Lady Gaga's makeup line). Curl Queen products include Curl Definition Gelee ($22), Royal Oil ($36), Beyond Moisture ($24) and Curl Revitalize ($19), scented with fig, blood orange and grapefruit essential oils. She will celebrate its unveiling with champagne and hors d'oeuvres at New York's Baccarat Hotel on Sunday during New York Fashion Week, for which she's styling Indya Moore.

Johnson already has tried out the creations on her star clients, unbeknownst to them and fans at the time. See the results on Yara Shahidi on THR's 2018 Young Hollywood issue or on Browning, star of Dear White People, at the Kenzo fashion show in Paris this year.

"No one really understood why I was putting things in my own little pots and people asked, 'What did you use on her hair? Like, oh my God, I want my hair to look just like hers, what did you use?' And I would never say it," Johnson says. "All of my colleagues and clients would chuckle and laugh and it's like an inside joke, but in actuality, I was using my products."

Browning was the first client she told: "She was ecstatic. She was so supportive and so happy. It was a moment."

The collection is fitting for Johnson's client Keys, since the singer is known for her minimal makeup, even when hosting the 2019 Grammys.

"Alicia is indeed a natural girl. She believes in everything pretty much organic," Johnson says, noting that Curl Queen is paraben-free and silicone-free. "That's one of the things that Alicia likes to focus on with her hair and her skin. So this falls perfectly in line; this aligns with her message."

As for client Lil Nas X, who ruled the Billboard charts this summer, Johnson says, "I like his style, because it's fresh, but it still has that sense of old-school eclectic to me." She adds that "he is probably one of the sweetest young men that I have ever worked with. He is so kind, he's so respectful and he's just humble. It just shows in the way he moves."

A former real estate agent, Johnson decided to entirely self-fund Curl Queen with no investors. "I didn't take out any loans from the bank," she says. "It literally came from my paychecks, from making wigs, doing hair color, doing haircuts. I just saved my money up and just poured everything that I make into it." It was important to the entrepreneur, because she didn't want someone else's input and didn't want to lose control. "A little bit of control freak kicked in. I would rather slow it down, do it my way, on my dime," Johnson adds.

Her business savvy has already paid off — she applied, was accepted and enrolled at Harvard Business School and started her first day of class Wednesday. The two-year program offers mainly online classes, currently focusing on business communication, but she'll attend some classes on the Boston campus on top of her work with clients: "To just plan that is a whole juggle game this year," she said.

Johnson was inspired by Swizz Beatz, the mega music producer and DJ who graduated from Harvard Business School in 2017. When she saw him go through the program, she began to research, order brochures and learn about what her business model was missing. "And I just decided to go for it," she says.

"I really want to come out of there being able to sit at the boardroom tables on my own and not have people speak for me. I want to pay my own bills. I want to speak for myself. I want to feel confident," Johnson says. "I want to know what I'm talking about, I want to know the ins and outs, so that I can have a successful business and not just a little sideshow hustle."

Well, that side hustle is heading to the red carpet this awards season. Johnson recommends starting a routine with the Curl Queen Beyond Moisture, a "super intense" two-in-one cleansing masque that detangles. From there, add Curl Definition Gelee to towel-dried wet hair to make curls "beautiful and luscious." Diffuse on a low or medium setting. "It's not going to flake, it's not going to crunch, it's not going to do any of those things, and it smells divine," she explains.

If a client wants extra shine or nourishment on their scalp, she suggests using the botanical Royal Oil with globally sourced ingredients based on her personal travels. Place on the palm of the hand and drag all over the hair from roots to tip. For second- and third-day curls, lightly mist with Curl Revitalize. "That will toss those curls right back into place. You can just shake and go. That's all you need to be a Curl Queen," she says. The brand is steeped in her experience traveling to France in particular. "Paris is my everything," she gushes, calling the destination "so delicate and so feminine. It just touches all of the things that pulls my heartstrings. The parfumeries, the flowers. The entire air about France just makes me happy."

The Memphis native was further influenced by her mother and grandmother, who showcased their collections of perfumes and nail polishes on their vanities, which inspired the graceful gold and glass aesthetic of Curl Queen's bottles. "I love being a woman and I love being a lady," she says.