The Derek J
Yes, we wear our standard-issue, appropriate-for-work haircuts, but when you first plop down in your neighborhood hairstylist's chair every eight weeks or so, don't you want to be blown away with something big, bold, and non-occurring in nature? That's what fantasy hairstylists do. Squared. And Derek J. does it in heels.
Award-winning fantasy hair creator Derek J., who you may remember from Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, is calling the shots as a sweet yet headstrong judge on the new show Hair Battle Spectacular (Oxygen, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time). The show is a condensed, weekly version of what would typically happen at the annual Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, where stylists go head to head in coming up with (onstage, by the way) the most whimsical, fantastical, and imaginative hair creations.
Derek J. tells The Advocate about the odds of creating a masterpiece of sculpted hair in just a few hours and his previous brush with a contestant.
The Advocate: How did you get into hairstyling?
Derek J: I just picked it up, and I didn’t even think it would turn into anything. I moved to Atlanta to go to fashion school and I ran into this lady that was doing hair for music videos, so I started working with her as an assistant. At first I didn’t like the industry because it’s too catty. People are constantly trying to get jobs from you — it’s just too much. I stepped away for about two years and reemerged as a competing hairstylist. And then from there everything started snowballing into a big situation. Next thing I know, I’m on television shows, I’m doing this, I’m doing that. I don’t know how it actually happened; it just happened really quickly.
What kind of preparation does it take to compete on this level?
I actually have a different approach for how I compete. My team and I really take most of our time prepping for a show: getting a theme together, getting the music together. We’re coordinating the theme, the music, the models, getting the show and everything about a month prior. Then we don’t practice until the last two weeks before the show. A lot of people practice for up to six months to do the show. I just feel like you can’t. I work with professionals, so if you can’t really get it within the two weeks, you ain’t gonna ever get it. There’s no point in keeping practicing and wasting everybody’s time. We come at it really off the fly. We like mistakes. If something happens differently than we practiced, we understand that’s part of the show. It gives our show more character.
The contestants on Hair Battle Spectacular don’t have the ability to plan in the same way, correct?
No, they don’t.
So what do they have to do in order to make up that time?
You know what? I commend every contestant on HBS. I don’t know where I would fall in that category. I don’t know if I would have made it past the first round. All of my time goes into trial and error. Because I’m like, “I know I’m gonna make a tree,” but how do you actually make a tree out of hair? You go to the store, you buy all this crap, and you just try to make it work. Sometimes it works the first time, sometimes it doesn’t. So you know, so you say, “OK, using this doesn’t work, so let’s try to use this.” So the fact that we put these kids on a time schedule and we say “You have to make it work, and it has to be a good fit on the model’s head, and it has to be functional”— it was just crazy to be on the time schedule. I was telling the producers, “This is unbelievable what you’re asking these kids to do.” For one of those fantasy pieces that they make, it might take a professional two weeks to make, and they were making them in hours. They were put under a lot of pressure, but they were able to actually pull it off. And I think with time, they would have been able to be perfect, but the fact that they only had eight hours, 10 hours, 12 hours, or however many hours we gave them was amazing to me that they were able to get it together.
Did you happen to know any of the contestants before the show? Did you work with any of them or compete against any of them?
I actually had competed against one before. Obviously I beat them [laughs]. You know, I was very surprised when I walked in on set, ’cause I didn’t see anybody before until the first day I got there. Then I saw that person and I was like “Oh, OK. You’re here?” But yeah, I had competed against one of them before. The rest of them were very new to me, and I was really amazed to know that a lot of them were just getting into fantasy hair. So for them to be able to pull of some of the hairstyles they pulled off and not really having the formal training or the knowledge in that area was outstanding to me.
Even though competitions like the Bronner Bros. have sprouted from the black hair industry, the interesting thing about this show is the diverse crowd of stylists, not just racially but geographically, the diversity of style — it’s really fascinating.
The group of contestants they had, as you said, were very diverse. To see that even, like some of the people that were there, I’m like, “Oh, y’all know about fantasy hair? Y’all can even do this?” You know, for me, I’d only seen it in the black world. I just saw black people do it all day long, but to be able to see different ethnicities do it, it was good to see. And actually seeing everybody working together as one was really good to see.
Are there any really fun challenges that the contestants will be facing over the next season that you can reveal to us?
I don’t know. That’s a good question.