Hairstylist and hair designer Mia Neal says her first memory of doing hair involved playing with dolls.
"I played with dolls until it was weird. You know like when you’re supposed to stop? I didn’t stop. I had to hide them under the bed because I was still doing their hair," she says, laughing in her car. Neal was on the phone with Allure during a four-hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia to Hinesville, situated on the state’s coastal plain. "It's funny 'cause I feel like that's what I do for a living now with the wigs, you know? Somehow I made a job out of doing doll hair," she adds.
On April 25, Neal won the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for the film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom alongside Jamika Wilson and Sergio Lopez-Rivera. In winning, Wilson and Neal also became the first Black women to do so in the category, which premiered at the Oscars exactly 40 years ago. While Planet of the Apes and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao had been honored for special achievements in 1968 and 1964 respectively, it was the Academy’s lack of recognition of the makeup effects in The Elephant Man in 1980 that propelled the creation of the award the following year.
To have two Black women win the Oscar for a story that features an unapologetic Black woman in Ma Rainey as played by actor Viola Davis is especially notable, and is a source of pride for both of them.
"I am happy that young girls and boys can see that this is an achievement that you can have…for me, growing up, I didn't see anyone that looked like me winning an Oscar," Wilson says, adding, "It's truly a blessing and it means to me that the doors are open and that other young artists can see a goal to reach for."
While Wilson is Davis's personal hairstylist, Neal was in charge of the wigs and hair for the production. It was Wilson's job to ensure continuity and make sure that, each day, Neal's wigs were personalized on Davis's face. Together with Lopez-Rivera, Neal and Wilson aimed to give the film's audience the same experience of watching Viola's Rainey as audiences had during the early 20th century watching the actual singer. One consequence of that is the enduring commentary on how unsightly Davis looked playing Rainey. But of course, that was the point. It was part of Rainey's psychology to appear unappealing, as Neal points out. Rainey didn't wish to be aesthetically pleasing or socially acceptable.
"It was always interesting to me when I talk to people and they say, 'It was hard for me to see Viola like that,'…they kind of make the same comments that people made, who wrote about [Ma Rainey]," Neal says.
"It's easy to really get kind of pigeonholed in this business."
In putting together the look for Davis's transformation into Ma Rainey, the triad makeup and hair team — alongside costume designer Ann Roth, who won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for the film — based their creation from seven pictures they found in research, as well as numerous descriptions of the blues singer's presentation. Neal says that during Ma Rainey's time, she was often described as "the ugliest woman in show business" and, while "ugly" is not a word Neal would use to describe anyone, the team could not ignore it. According to Wilson, Viola also leaned into it.
"Viola loves a transformation. She loves being truly authentic to her character. She wants to give you the raw, the real…she channels who she’s playing," Wilson says.
Wilson began styling celebrities in the late aughts, first for actor Keke Palmer on the show True Jackson, VP. She's been Davis's personal hairstylist for 12 years now. Meanwhile, Neal's introduction into entertainment styling came post-college, after interning at a professional apprentice program at New York's Juilliard School. She had thought she would have to wait many years before she got to style hair on Broadway, but it happened during the apprenticeship, and her career soon took off. But it was 10 years ago, when she met Roth, that Neal says her career changed dramatically.
"She put me on productions and sat me at tables with people who I never would have had the opportunity to cross paths with. Something nobody really talks about is that it’s easy to really get kind of pigeonholed in this business," Neal says.
By this, Neal means that the opportunities for Black hairstylists and makeup artists to work on shows beyond ones with all Black-casts can be limited.
"It is unusual. A lot of the times people will [say] okay, we're doing a Black show, we're gonna hire a Black person to do this. And for me, it's like…I like period pieces, I like all types of things, I love doing research," Neal says.
"[Our win] means to me that other young artists can see a goal to reach for."
Wilson believes the industry needs to dig deeper and get to the root of Black stylists' limitations in production. Of course, like any representation dearth, it's never about one production, but rather an entire industry landscape that makes the barriers to entry difficult for Black people — from financial constraints to mere lack of exposure to the possibilities of careers in the field. There is certainly no shortage on the genre of stories that cover how a lack of diversity in makeup and styling can fail Black actors on set, from stars to supporting roles and extras.
But both women note that as more Black actors get hired as leads and can make requests, the benefits trickle down to their hair and makeup stylists. "Thank God the actors are now speaking up and requesting for us to be in the trailers with them," Wilson says.
Neal also believes that streaming services like Netflix, which distributed Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, have helped to change the game. Since these formats rely on a monthly subscription model, budgets aren't reliant on films getting money back at the box office. As a result, Neal says these services have "invested in artists globally… and given them a proper budget."
Notwithstanding, Neal says that she has felt welcome in the industry, and hasn't felt any "resistance to diversity." From her perspective, it was just a conversation that needed to be had in the industry. She also says sees more Black people now in her union than when she joined 18 years ago and, for her, that is progress.
For now, as Wilson and Neal savor their Oscar win, they also have an eye on the future. Wilson says she'd like to do more styling for films — especially working with and making wigs — and possibly come out with hair products at some point. As for Neal, she wants to continue to work on period pieces. But she’s mostly just enjoying everything that comes her way, including an upcoming Noah Baumbach film.
"I feel like I'm always getting called to do dream projects," she says. "I feel like every project I get is a dream project."
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