Longtime celebrity hairstylist Rhonda O’Neal believes there’s no excuse for hair and makeup artists whose skills are limited to working with actors of their own race. Trained by her Black hair stylist mother, O’Neal, the hair craft president of the Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, now oversees the next generation of union members.
“One thing that [my mom] told me was to do everybody’s hair, not just Black hair, but that’s what helped me to be on so many different sets and work with so many different people,” she tells Variety.
Earlier this year, O’Neal led classes on styling Black hair, with record-breaking attendance in response to calls from Black actors like Gabrielle Union, Yvette Nicole Brown and Halle Berry to have more artists on set who know how to work with textured hair.
But in the union classroom, she noticed another problem. “It may be 150 people in the room, and only five of them were Black. I could count them on one hand, because there are very few of us in the union, period,” she recalls. “That helped to spark me in a way — I wanted to do more. I needed to have an avenue to be able to help people of color get into the industry.”
Because she understands the challenges — namely the lack of training opportunities and connections in the industry — that make it difficult for people of color to enter the union, O’Neal organized the Beyond The Combs Academy to educate the next generation of stylists. The inaugural four-day intensive and three masterclasses cover styling textured hair, correcting darker skin tones, as well as crafting hair & makeup for period shows. By teaching skills that are growing in demand, she hopes to place artists of color at an advantage, so they can be hired by any production.
The intensive on preparing actors of color for film and TV, began Aug. 29 and featured hairstylist Debbie Pierce alongside makeup artists Pinky Cunningham and Lorretta Nero. The masterclasses will take place Sept. 7, Sept. 27 and Oct. 10, with a number of O’Neal’s colleagues including makeup artist Sam Fine.
With over 100 credits to her name, O’Neal has styled the casts of TV shows like “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Modern Family,” while her film resume includes “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,” “Star Trek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World’s End.” She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2019 for her work on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
But the stylist often finds herself the only Black stylist in the hair and makeup trailer, inevitably taking charge of styling of Black background actors and other people of color who are “tired of their hair being torn out.” On a recent project, O’Neal worked with other artists inexperienced in executing textured hair and period looks. (O’Neal declined to share the title of the show.)
“Every morning, three, four or five days a week at 4 a.m., 5 a.m. in the morning, I run up there. We’re on location,” she recalls. “Just about 30 hair stylists, 30 makeup artists and maybe four or five barbers. But I was the only Black person, besides the barbers. About 60 hair stylists [and makeup artists], and you only hire one of us? That’s crazy.”
It’s an experience more hair stylists and makeup artists are opening up about, while urging producers, studios and networks to take responsibility for inclusive staffing. O’Neal has used her position in the union to push to improve artisans’ access into the organization — a factor, she believes, holds back producers from hiring them. “We’re doing more than we’ve ever done before. We’re bringing specialty textured hair [stylists]. People are bringing barbers in more than we’ve ever brought in and braiders and weavers,” she says.
With the shift in Hollywood’s landscape as the industry reckons with its history of systemic racism, she hopes producers across the industry will seek to hire more Black artisans in the hair and makeup trailers, especially with there being “more people of color, even in higher places above the line” (meaning more people of color on-screen) who are more cognizant of the issue at hand.
She also believes with the content boom fueled by streaming platforms, there will be more job opportunities for hair stylists and makeup artists. So when production resumes, O’Neal is hopeful more artisans from unrepresented backgrounds will find their way into the guild and into trailers, equipped with the skills to style every client, no matter their race: “Bring the person that looks like them to do their hair — [I think] that’s coming your way.”