From Rihanna to Ballroom, Yusef Williams Reflects on a Decades-Long Career in Hair

With a career spanning the scope of fashion, music, and professional hair products, Yusef Williams needs no introduction. From glossy editorials with friend, client, and muse Rihanna to fathering the iconic LGBTQ ballroom house Miyake-Mugler — the celebrated hairstylist and ballroom pioneer cut his teeth early sculpting tresses at Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior, and Christian Lacroix and continues to carve out a space uniquely his own. Ahead of the premiere of his new WOW Presents Plus docu-series, House On Fire, contributor Shelton Boyd Griffith caught up with Williams to speak about his prolific decades-long career, the influence of ballroom on the industry, the collaborative process with Rihanna, and his forthcoming reality show slated for Pride Month.

Interview by Shelton Boyd Griffith | Editor Irene Ojo-Felix

You and Rihanna continue to one-up yourself conceptually. What is your collaborative process, considering you’ve worked together for over a decade?
Touring was a lot of fun with Rihanna. The Anti tour, Loud — it was fun. It was a good time to see the world and see different places, how people dressed, their style, and different cultures. I think it was probably one of my most exciting moments. As soon as we see each other, we’re like, “Oh my God, look at this. Oh my God, look at that.” Do you know what I mean? All we do is send each other pictures and inspiration throughout the day. We’re forever locked into what’s happening. I’m out and running around, and she’s got her ear to the streets, locked into the trends. So, we feed off each other when it’s time to collaborate. It’s definitely a team effort. I can confidently say that when we do fuck up, we can kiki about it. Nothing is too serious. We’re not sitting around and planning out things for months. I show up in the room, and we get busy. That’s it.

How did growing up in Miami influence your early understanding of beauty?
Miami is a melting pot of so many different things, especially culture. You have the Latinx, the Southern, and the Caribbean. Every day was a new experience, whether it was fashion or beauty. Also, growing up in a house where my parents were in the music industry, my mom was also a hairstylist, which influenced me a lot. It was sensory overload for me as a kid. I was just trying to lock into one thing, whether it was being an entertainer, wanting to do hair, or the next day wanting to play sports —I even wanted to surf at one point.

Do you find that your background as a singer/performer inspires your work?
Yeah, absolutely. Music has always inspired the way I moved with artists and worked with talent. It plays a big part in everything that I do. I still sit in studio sessions with artists that I work with. Being a part of every aspect is important.

What’s currently inspiring you right now?
I go back to things that inspired me ten years ago and see if I can still get that old thing back. I feel like staying connected to that part really helps me. I love clothes, and I love ballroom. I’m always inspired by things that have always been right there.

Paolo Roversi for i-D Magazine | Image courtesy of The Wall Group

With such a prolific career spanning haute couture, music videos, and professional hair products, why do you still do what you do? What keeps you motivated?
I’m a father of a house. That queer experience in itself is something that I didn’t ask for; it just kind of happened, so it’s a responsibility to stay motivated and to be an inspiration. I got to be a trailblazer, a role model. It’’s a heavy crown, but some people set out to be that. For some people, it just falls into their lap, and I think when it just falls into your lap, the responsibility is bigger. It’s ordained.

As a ballroom pioneer, the ballroom scene, hair, beauty, and the effect — it’s such a vital part of the magic of the experience. What are some of your favorite iconic hair and beauty moments from ballroom history?
Octavia St. Laurent, of course, the mother of baby hairs. The first time I ever saw her in Paris Is Burning, the way she paid close attention to her baby hairs, gives me chills every time I see that. And in turn, I do that to all my girls, giving them severe baby hairs, really framing the face or, as I call it, head contouring. Sonia is another. It was all about the hair. Throwing it to the side and giving you all that drama when a sew-in was like golden. Stasha also has always had the most immaculate hair in ballroom for me. Yeah, I could go on and on.

As we know, ballroom has inspired the industry, popstars, and the masses in general (often without appreciation) — In your opinion, why is ballroom the blueprint?
It is the archive of all archives. Contrary to what people may believe, something so underground, so tucked away yet constantly pulled out whenever it’s convenient. People will go there and get their inspiration. That’s the beauty of ballroom. People always find themselves at a ball or sitting at home nowadays watching it on YouTube and being like, wow. It’s forever evolving and gathering new audiences. Simply put, ballroom is just it.

Your new reality series, House On Fire, debuts this month. Can you tell us more about it?
It’s family at its best. What’s the difference between chosen family and the biological family? You’ll definitely find out that they are all the same. Whether it’s the blood, the DNA is the same, the love that we have for each other, the drive that we have for our house, and representing ourselves as a unit is so important. And it’s just the way we are. Especially when you’re black, when you’re Southern — family is everything. It’s a snapshot of our lives outside of ballroom, outside of the glitz and the glamor and preparing for balls. We’re real people. I get up, I go to work, and all of us do. Then, we show up to the ball, and we can be somebody else. We can transform. With this show, you get to see all of that. Our lives are ballroom and beyond.

What is the most fulfilling part of your work?
The end result, good or bad. Everything is a learning experience. It’s being able to do what I love and know how to do with my eyes closed, which is hair, which is how to be creative, all of those things. When it’s all done, you’re like, I was a part of this. I did that.

What advice do you have for the next generation of beauty creatives?
Listen, I always say this to people who work with me, my assistants, my kids; just like my parents pushed me to try things, and it wasn’t just a try, do it. Go as far as you can go. And then, if you don’t want to do it, then, alright, let’s go on to something else. I always tell the beauty kids to know your shit, know your craft. Really educate yourself, and know how to do the basics. Learn how to do a sew-in, learn how to use a Marcel iron, etc. Knowing the foundation of your craft, whatever it may be, is important.

What’s next for Yusef Williams?
This amazing hit show that’s about about to take over the world. I pray that we’re able to create a space for generations to come in ballroom and turn this into something where people can actually have a better understanding of why we are so fucking fabulous. Aside from the show, my product line and, honestly, whatever comes next. I just love what I do, so I don’t try to predict things. I hit every day as it comes and just make the best of it. So If I wake up and they say, “Hey, we need you to go to Russia to do a cover of Vogue,” I’m just like, bet. My life is forever developing.

Yusef Williams | Image courtesy of The Wall Group

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