Celebrity Hairstylist Yene Damtew on Healthy Hair, Fitness and Fitting it All In
By Na’Tasha Jones
At the age of 13, Yene Damtew started doing hair. Her early days of styling were based on what she was familiar with as the “go-to” for Black women’s hair. Relaxers, presses, and other methods focused on getting the hair to conform to a certain look.
“My focus started changing after I grew out my relaxer,” she says. “Once I went to hair school and learned how hair works and chemicals alter it, I experimented and became my own guinea pig. I saw that pressing my hair could get it just as straight as a relaxer, if that’s what I wanted.”
“Many women relax their hair for manageability. Easier to do their own hair, or their children’s. Which is what leads many women to doing with their kids. When you’re raised that way, it becomes a habit, a part of ‘what black women do’.”
Immediately following cosmetology school in 2008, Yene launched her career as the executive assistant to celebrity hairstylist Johnny Wright in Los Angeles. Less than six months into her apprenticeship, she packed her bags and moved to D.C. in 2009 to become one of two personal hairstylists to the Obama family. Currently, she remains the primary hairstylist responsible for the Obama family’s complete hair care needs.
‘Good Hair is Healthy Hair’
Yene’s focus is now all about caring for the health of the hair. Her motto: “Good hair is healthy hair.”
When her clients tell her that they relax their hair for ease of maintenance, she has a unique response:
“Someone says, ‘I want relaxer because it’s easier to maintain my hair.’ But then I ask, ‘Is it really? Because you’re getting your hair done by your stylist every two weeks anyway, so who is it really easier for?’ They usually can’t answer that.”
Yene strongly believes in continuing education for stylists and learning to identify what changes in the hair and scalp can really mean. “Many stylists today aren’t educated enough to recognize the change in your hair and ask what’s going on in your life that would cause this change in hair texture, fullness, etc. With trends like the lace-front movement, there are many stylists who know the application of these units, but who do not care for the hair underneath. You can tell the difference between those who truly love this industry vs. those who are just out to make money,” she says.
As a stylist, Yene also seeks to empower her clients to be able to take care of their own hair.
“You don’t want someone to feel crippled by or tethered to their stylist,” she says. “I want to educate my clients, so that they know how to take care of their hair on their own. You do your hair more than I do. If I don’t do your hair everyday I’m not really your stylist, you are.”
Balancing Hair, Health and Fitness
Yene’s philosophy on self care extends beyond just hair to caring for the whole self. This means prioritizing fitness and wellness and making time for self.
“With women of Color, we often don’t make [physical fitness] a priority. You wake up to go to work no matter what you did the day before and no matter how tired you may be. You go to work anyway because it’s a part of your livelihood and you need it to sustain. In the same way, your health is part of your livelihood and you need it to sustain,” she says.
Yene sees first-hand what it takes to balance a busy lifestyle in her broad array of clients, who are themselves largely busy professionals, from actresses and celebrities to political commentators, and, her most famous client, former First Lady Michelle Obama.
To say the former First Lady is busy is, of course, an understatement. However, as she told Business Insider earlier this year, finding time to fit it all in is all about planning ahead. Mrs. Obama told the magazine, “Proactively, starting every year before I booked anything, or agreed to any meetings or conferences, I sat down with my assistant and we looked at our lives first. We put potlucks in there, we put date nights in there, I put my workouts, we put our vacations on the calendar first."
Yene has tried to apply that same advice to her own hectic schedule. In addition to serving her clients, often traveling with them all over the world, consulting with various brands and companies and hosting her own speaking engagements, in 2017 she opened her own boutique salon, Aesthetics, in Arlington, Virginia.
“I wake up in the morning and workout. I make time for it because I know I spend 12 hours a day working in the salon, so I need to dedicate that time to myself,” she says. “I like to incorporate apps, do at-home HIIT workouts--think of things that are easy and on the go. You have to go with what works for your lifestyle to develop a habit. And then it becomes a thing that just makes sense.”
Of course, working out can mean even more hair maintenance for Black women. Yene believes that an active lifestyle and beautiful hair don’t have to be at odds with one another in your life. Educating people about how to do both is one way that Yene hopes to make a difference, and making a difference is what Yene is all about. Through her speaking engagements and by opening up more about her expertise on the web and social media, she’s sharing her knowledge with others.
“It’s a very intimate space when you’re in a woman’s hair. I really want to change this industry and what it means to be a hairstylist,” she says.
Follow Yene’s journey on Instagram @yenedamtew.
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