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For curly girls, it’s no straight sell

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Lorraine Massey, co-founder of Devachan, cutting hair in her New York City salon. (Photo by Sarah Breger/CNS)

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DevaCurl hair products line a wall of the Devachan Salon. (Photo by Sarah Breger/CNS)

When Ruth Balinsky, 23, went for her first cut at the Ouidad salon in New York City, she expected to be dazzled. Instead, she left frustrated with a style that was nearly impossible to repeat at home.

“Ouidad puts a lot of gel in your hair and charges you $100 for it,” says Balinsky, who has been fighting frizz for her whole life.

Her next try was New York’s Devachan Salon, and there, it was love at first cut.

“It changed my life,” says Balinsky, who now sports glossy, chin-length ringlets and refers to herself as the queen of curly hair.

When you talk curly, two names always emerge: Devachan and Ouidad. The two salons have starkly different philosophies on the cutting and care of curly hair, as well as legions of loyal followers who view those philosophies as gospel.

“Curly Sue,” “Mop top,” “Brillo pad”: Curly-haired women have often struggled to manage their hair in a world that can seem straight-centric, even though, according to hair stylists, 70 percent of women in America have curly or wavy hair. For years, these women have used a flatiron or French braid to control their hair. But now an increasing number are setting their hair free and looking to Ouidad and Devachan for the best way to do so.

The price for haircuts is steep: Cuts at both salons can cost between $100 and $250. But both Ouidad and Devachan train and certify stylists in their methods, letting curly heads in Arizona or Maryland get a cut at a cheaper price.

“I’m the one who pioneered the curly-hair industry,” says Ouidad, (pronounced WEE’-dahd), the Lebanese-born hair guru. In 1982, she opened her eponymous salon, which featured her trademark “carve and slice” method of cutting. This process cuts at the curvature of each curl and allows the curls to “puzzle into” each other so they don’t expand, according to Ouidad.

Her method spread through word of mouth, gaining numerous fans, including Rebecca Davis.

Davis’ hair turned curly when she was in middle school, and from then on, she kept it pulled back.

“Blow-drying would be a two-hour-long process,” says the 24-year-old. “I would have screaming matches with my mom on how to detangle it.”

She is still mortified to show her passport picture.

“I was starting to figure out if I could wear it down, and it is one big frizz ball,” says Davis of her hair in the snapshot.

In junior high, Davis grew her hair to donate to Locks of Love, an organization that creates wigs for children with cancer. She went to Ouidad, chopped off 12 inches and was hooked. Friends complimented her; strangers started coming up to admire her curls. Davis put down the blow-dryer and picked up the gel.

Davis recommended the salon to all her curly-haired friends—including Risa Chubinsky.

“I got the best haircut of my life. I never felt so good about my hair,” says Chubinsky, who uses Ouidad climate-control gel to stop frizz.

Devachan opened in 1995 with two groundbreaking ideas: cut hair when it’s dry and skip the shampoo. Dry cutting lets the stylist understand the fall of each curl, and shampoo is abrasive to delicate curls, according to Denis DaSilva, who co-founded the salon with Lorraine Massey. Devachan has developed a line of “no poo” conditioner that, they claim, cleans curly hair without the harsh ingredients, like sulfates, found in shampoo.

Balinsky has followed Devachan’s recommendations to the letter: no-pooing her hair every other day, drying her hair with a T-shirt instead of a towel and scrunching in Devachan gel.

“I have good hair, if I say so myself,” says Balinsky, who describes her pre-Devachan hair as “frizzy crazy gross.”

Balinsky has found her ideal hair and is not turning back.

“At this point, I will only go to a Devachan stylist or a Devachan-trained stylist,” Balinsky says.

The success experienced by customers of a specific salon can leave them wary of other methods.

“It’s very polarizing. Some feel you should never cut it dry, some feel you should never use sulfate shampoos,” says Michelle Breyer, co-founder of NaturallyCurly.com, a Web site that offers advice and products for curlies.

The message boards on NaturallyCurly.com are filled with people spreading the gospel of their chosen method while bemoaning those who follow the errant ways of the other. Some are grossed out by Devachan’s no-shampoo dictum, while others fear Ouidad’s hair-thinning techniques.

Stylists share many of their customers’ suspicions.

Cutting curly hair dry is “like being blindfolded,” Ouidad says.

“For me, they create a technique that really damages the hair,” says Judy Rabinowitz, a Devachan stylist, of Ouidad’s carve-and-slice method.

But all agree on the dangers posed by those who cut curly hair in the same way as they cut straight hair.

What brought Chubinsky to Ouidad was a disastrous haircut at a salon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“They cut it crooked. Maybe the wave was too much for them to handle.”

E-mail: sgb2115@columbia.edu