Love your hair, love yourself. This is the mantra that underpins the Curly Hair and Natural Hair Movements – a global community of women (and men) who are redefining standards in beauty by embracing their natural curls. At the forefront of the movement’s Australian faction is Neel Morley, whose Melbourne Salon, Neel Loves Curls, is one of the few specialist curly hairdressers in the country.
“This is a curly hair sanctuary,” he says, as he gently performs his trademark twisting and clipping technique to his client’s hair. “Curly hair isn’t taught in Australia. It’s very sad. And a lot of curly-haired people go to salons feeling like second-class citizens.”
I am one of them. I have naturally curly hair. Effie hair. A wog fro. Throughout my childhood, people used to come up and play with my long, curly hair, fondling it, making amused noises and walking away. It was as though there were a curious-looking dog attached to my head – like a mythological beast perhaps, like a minotaur, only cuter – and people took some small pleasure in coming over to have a play. It was for me as it is for anybody who finds themselves in the position of being petted by the general public: disgusting.
And so, like many of Neel’s clients, when the instruments of straightening became available to me, I embarked upon a lifetime of ironing my natural curls into oblivion, aspiring to conform to something more normal, more safe. I have roughly spent two hours per week straightening my hair for 12 years. That’s 5000 hours of my life (to date) I have dedicated to resembling somebody else’s idea of beautiful – and basically wasting my time.
Although the Natural Hair Movement has existed since the mid-1990s, it has been more recently that the community, also known as #TeamNatural, and their ethos of self-love and self-acceptance has found a wider audience. “A lot of women have just destroyed their hair and are just trying to bring it back to life,” Neel says. “I get people who say, ‘But I need to straighten my hair, Neel. I have a corporate job, I need to look smart.’ I always say, ‘If you wear your curls properly and you hydrate them, then they’ll look amazing.”
Neel sees himself as not only a curly hair educator (I left his sunny, Liberace-inspired mini hair palace with instructions to get hold of and study Curly Girl: The Handbook, a bible which I was assured would – and has – changed my life), but as a best friend to his clients who comes from across the country to seek out his services. “Channel Minnie Driver,” he says. “Channel Shakira. Some people haven’t seen their natural curly hair not frizzy, or they haven’t seen how their hair can sit really beautifully, because sadly there’s not a lot of hairdressers like me, doing what I’m doing.”
Neel recommends the Curly Girl method: no shampoo, no sulphates and no parabens. “The best things for curly hair are coconut oil and lavender oil,” Neel says. “Get a water spray bottle, pop some lavender oil in it and spritz it through your hair on day two or day three. It’ll refresh the curls.” Neel advises to seek out recipes from the Curly Girl bible, now available in all libraries across Melbourne’s northern suburbs, upon Neel’s personal insistence. “I’m a different realm,” he says, speaking to his level of curl obsession. “I spend 50 hours a week looking at curly hair and I don’t ever let go. It’s really hard.”
Image: Hilary Walker
This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 62 (Nov/Dec 2014).