Five-time NAHA winner and Creative Director of THE SALON by InStyle Inside JCPenney, hairstylist Michelle O’Connor is in a league of her own. As an educator and an Artistic Director for Matrix, O’Connor is constantly pushing boundaries in color, style and accessories, most recently styling several cutting-edge looks for Matrix Destination 2020. And her passion for up and coming talent is unmatched.
We had the opportunity to speak with O’Connor about her career and the importance of teamwork and representation in the industry.
On Getting Started
The Tease: What inspired you to become a hairstylist, and how did you get started?
Michelle O’Connor: I’ve always been fascinated by hair. I was a classically trained dancer for many years; therefore, I was always around the theater and stage. With that comes characters which include hair and makeup.
I also come from a racially diverse background, and I literally have the spectrum of hair ranging from super straight to the most tightly coiled. I was constantly observing and recognizing the beauty in all of it.
What moment in your career are you most proud of?
The moments I’m most proud of are my North American Hairstylist Awards. I’ve won 5 times. The only minority to do so.
You recently took home the NAHA for Best Team of the Year for your work with The Salon by InStyle. Why is teamwork so important in this industry?
Teamwork is extraordinarily important to leaving the industry better than you found it. My role in the team of the year award was that of a mentor. For me to pass on a level of expertise and knowledge that is not easily obtainable, brought me immense joy and fulfillment. I perhaps got more out of the experience than they did.
You also took home the award for Best Styling & Finishing. What are your favorite tools and products to use when styling hair?
My favorite tools are Olivia Garden brushes, YS PARK combs, FHI and T3 irons. I’m also a big Hobby Lobby girl. I love embellishments and accents in the hair. My favorite products are the Matrix Style Fixer, Biolage R.A.W. Curl Defining Butter and all the Matrix Oil Wonder products.
Challenges Behind the Chair
What challenges have you faced in the industry?
The only challenges I’ve faced in the industry have been making sure that I’m not pigeonholed and put in any particular type of box, whether that be the woman box or the minority box.
I honestly don’t subscribe to challenges. I have always just conducted myself as though they weren’t there.
Do you think these challenges are any different because you’re a person of color?
Sure. Let’s face it, I’m a double minority. There are two sides of the business. The professional beauty industry side of major manufacturers and trade publications that mainly recognize white talent and work. And there is the side where you may be doing amazing work as a black artist, [but] your mainstream exposure will be minimal unless you are doing celebrities.
Social media has played a major role in recognizing talent and leveling the playing field. [And] when we look at major industry trades, we are starting to see some growth there—but only recently.
Have you seen any shifts regarding diversity/representation in beauty and media?
There is a push to control the narrative. That narrative is redefining what we see in imagery that creates broader standards of beauty. If we start to constantly look at diverse images instead of one type of beauty, slowly it becomes the accepted norm.
We digest what we are fed. Imagery is powerful. Representation is powerful.
How has this impacted the work that you do?
It makes me feel as though I have a major responsibility to bring others with me. I recently had a master class for the entire Design Essentials education team. To be in a room full of amazing black stylists and show them tricks of the trade and break down what goes into shooting hair for an elite competition, was extraordinarily rewarding.
Do you have any advice for up and coming artists in the industry, especially hairstylists of color?
My advice is to treat your craft as a profession. Learn all of it. Be a part of your industry. Have a standard of excellence for yourself, and never let anyone put limitations on you. When they say you can’t do something… do it twice and take pictures!
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tease?
I, along with my colleague Dilek Onur Taylor, are getting ready to launch a series of pop up editorial capsule collection classes. I’ve always been approached to teach private classes. This will be the year!