Episode 7, Season 2: Flair with care — A conversation with a Pittsburgh alternative hairstyle and wig specialist

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The kind of hair service this Pittsburgh-based hair entrepreneur provides is for a particular clientele. Clients come to her in their most vulnerable time of need. In episode 7 of From the Source, you’ll meet Pittsburgh-based author and small business owner LaToya Johnson-Rainey, owner of A Hair Boutique Shadyside, a private wig boutique specializing in medical wigs and hairpieces.

Listen and learn how this business owner is helping clients find their perfect fit and style  after trauma, illness and injury.

TRANSCRIPT

Jourdan: Hey, welcome back.

Jourdan: This is from the source, episode seven, I'm your host, Jourdan Hicks, and I'm back with another one of your neighbors with an interesting story that makes Pittsburgh better. Before I introduce them, I would like to start out with a little bit of trivia, something that will help you to get to know them and understand their story a little better.

Jourdan: What role did the city of Pittsburgh play in the legacy and history of Black hair care culture in the United States and our country's first self-made Black woman millionaire?

Jourdan: Time's up. The answer is, Pittsburgh was the place that Madam C.J. Walker opened her first factory and beauty hair care college for beauty culturalists. She lived in Pittsburgh for two years, had a salon in the Hill District known as Little Harlem at the time, and lived in East Liberty.

Jourdan: LaToya Johnson-Rainey is following in the steps of Madam C.J. Walker as a small business owner. Beauty culturalist, an expert in a slightly different kind of hair care. In 2007, LaToya and her family opened in Pittsburgh's first Black-owned beauty supply store, Sisters Beauty Supply.

LaToya: And we were pioneers in that. We weren't able to get supplies like sent to us at first. We actually had to drive to Chicago, drive to New York, get with different vendors and convince them to sell to us. The internet was around, but it wasn't how it is now, you know? Instagram and all of that stuff makes a lot of things more accessible. Then it wasn't, so we had to do a lot of the legwork.

Jourdan: LaToya is the owner of A Hair Boutique Shadyside, that specializes in medical wigs and private hair care consultations. At the age of 18, LaToya was involved in a tragic car accident that permanently damaged her hair and required her to wear medical wigs. Not only did LaToya have to heal from the emotional and physical scars of the accident, but she also had to learn how to deal with managing how she felt about herself, how she looked, how she was able to present herself confidently in the world.

Jourdan: LaToya is a Black woman and is a part of that spiritual hair care culture that I mentioned earlier. She needed someone who understood baby hair and who could help her express the young Black, flair, fashion and style that was her at the time. She needed something with style and something that was understated. Listen to LaToya explain the medical wig options that were available to her as someone who suffered from traumatic hair loss.

LaToya: They looked wiggy, you know? They made me look like an old lady at church, you know? They were thick, they weren't youthful, they were itchy, you know, and then the person who showed me how to wear it, never really had to wear one. That made a big difference.

LaToya: This isn't just the photoshoot, you know?  This is your everyday life. Sometimes you don't want your hair to be so bold that you're getting compliments. Or, I don't want to say you're getting compliments, but it's the focal point where everyone's like, 'Oh, your hair looks cute!' Because it's so obvious that it's done, quote-unquote.

Jourdan: After having too many unfortunate experiences trying to find the right medical wigs, LaToya decided to step out on faith and go into business for herself.

Jourdan: Providing the delicate, comfortable and private experiences that people need, trying to find their new look after trauma.

LaToya:  A Hair Boutique basically came from a need, just a purpose, was totally purpose-driven. I haven't seen anything like it before.

LaToya: And I just knew that I want to combine the experience of the salon privately, personally with retail and a solution.

LaToya: I really believe it was just led by God. Growing that my mom was a hairstylist and I really didn't have any passion towards it, didn't want to do it, didn't have to do my own hair, any of that. But what I noticed was anything she did, she did well and she tried her best, you know?

LaToya:  And so when I was 18 years old, I was in a bad accident and my mom was killed in that car accident. After that, I experienced hair loss and I was young. I was 18. And the places that they sent me to get a wig, to get makeup, were medical-based places, and they were for older women, white women. Nothing really fit me, you know, being young, dating, coming out of this tragedy and just having to really learn life again, you know?

LaToya: Confidence was a big part of it. And it's hard to be confident when you don't feel pretty or when you don't even feel like yourself. It wasn't that comfortable for me to go to a hair salon, you know? It's out in the open, all of those things. It was something privately that I had to deal with and figure it out.

Jourdan: That's something I mean, I wouldn't have ever had to think about needing a private experience at a salon or at a beauty supply store or if I was trying on a wig.

Jourdan: Explain for me, what's the difference between, like, medical wigs and fashion wigs?

Jourdan: What about the experience that you had trying to find a wig that fit you, that fits your personality? Was it because of the culture of the hair place? Was it the texture of the hair? Was it you weren't getting the options that you felt fit your personality?

LaToya:  Yeah, so it was more of a feeling with those type of wigs, medical wigs, which are really good for women going through alopecia or someone who has hair loss from chemo. For me, my hair was burned from the accident. So the ones that a regular beauty supply store, sometimes they're not made with hypoallergenic materials, you know, soft velcro, soft velvet, the inside isn't as important as the outside when you're dealing with those type of wigs.

Jourdan: I think what's so fascinating about the field of beauty that LaToya is in is that the average and hopefully healthy person wouldn't know about it or think about this kind of beauty service if they didn't need it. And the reality is that some people need this service. Life is so precarious, you never know what can happen to you, how your life will unfold, what experiences you'll have.

Jourdan:  I wanted to know from LaToya, what are some of the reasons someone will need to wear a medical wig and myths in general about how we look at wigs.

LaToya: There are some myths with it. Wearing the wig period has a stigma now unless it's a lace front or just something that is fashionable, you know? Those are popular now. So it kind of makes it a little bit easier. However, if it's something you have to do opposed to something that you want to do, there's challenges that come along with that.

LaToya:  The biggest myth is they have to look wiggy. Some of my clients you would never, ever know. And they don't have baby hair and everything else. And not that there's anything wrong with that, if that's your preference. But it's not everyone's preference. So they can be made to look more natural and like, hey, like you never even lost your hair or even better hair that you wish you had. The other thing is that your hair defines you. It really doesn't like if you're insecure with it. You can't let the wig wear you, you have to wear it. So finding that inner courage and just making it your own straight out the box, putting it on isn't going to be your own. You have to really find you in it.

Jourdan: Who makes up your clientele here in Pittsburgh?

LaToya:  My clientele is reflective of our city. I mean, Shadyside, I'm near Hillman Cancer Center, I'm near West Penn, you know and things like that. So naturally a lot of our clients are going through chemo. A small percentage of my market is theater and arts. We've done wigs for the Fort Pitt Museum. I would like to have more balance, but I do recognize that our clientele is reflective of the city we're in and that's for race, too. The majority of our clients are white women. And we have a lot of professional clients as well, some trans women. I think if we were somewhere else, it probably would be more diverse.

Jourdan: You shared that you grew up as a child in family members salons.

Jourdan: One hundred plus years later. What would you say, Madam C.J. Walker's legacy and the legacy of Black beauty and hair care is in Pittsburgh? How's it all working together today?

LaToya: Yes. So Madam C.J. Walker was an inventor of hair care products that people, women, wanted during those times, I believe in the '20s. And she just empowered other women to to have their own as well. The Black Rose by Tananarive Due is like one of the best stories on Madam C.J. Walker. I didn't like the biopic or the movie too much because it wasn't true. A lot of this stuff wasn't true. You know, I get that it was made to be interesting, but her real story was interesting enough. But yeah, Wylie Avenue Days, Hill District, we have a lot of rich history here and unfortunately, a lot of it was torn down and broken, especially with building the civic arena and after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I don't want to say we lost a lot of our culture, but a lot of it was buried and it's still there if we seek it. But for me, it's just living it through action, you know, taking the things that she put out and she learned and endured and taking up the baton and taking the next step further.

Jourdan: And this is probably my final question for you. You have your purpose, you are steadfast and grounded in that purpose and how you see it serving the community. What is the impact you would like for A Hair Boutique Shadyside to have on the city? What is the intention of your business?

LaToya: I really want just to empower women. So the clientele that I work with, I just see them as being so resilient. I've seen them come through their worst times and all of those things. So it really impacts me. And so overall, I just really want to see women win, you know? The legacy of our city is Madam C.J. Walker, the first woman millionaire, Black woman millionaire. I feel like that legacy is very, very rich and I just want to be a part of that and add to that so that we are a more livable city for young people.

LaToya: We are a livable city for Black people, a more livable city for women. And that really comes from small businesses being the backbone of our city. I mean, being the backbone of the country, period, really. So for me, it's taking these experiences, taking the education, taking the network and sharing where I've come from with someone else and being a bridge. And hopefully someone will share where they come from with me and be a bridge so that we can continue to grow and just be great and impactful.

Jourdan: I think LaToya and the work that she does out of A Hair Boutique Shadyside makes her an angel in disguise, but in pure sight on Centre Avenue. Just like Madam C.J. Walker, LaToya Johnson-Rainey is responding to the needs of her community. There isn't one part of anyone's life that does not deserve care and compassion. You may not be the owner of a premium experience wig shop or an entrepreneur and author like LaToya is.

Jourdan: But what knowledge, information and care can you pour into the city? The seed that you plant today may be the tree that provides shade to someone on a hot Pittsburgh muggy summer day in the future. You never know.

This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669. Or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

Also, we'd like to ask for your support. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. Please support local journalism and storytelling by going to a publicsource.org/donate

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