For 13 years, hair stylist Neal Farinah has been the mastermind behind some of Beyoncé’s most iconic transformations. Her sentient long ponytail? Did that. Her Beyoncé-era angled bob? Did that, too. Her retro “Why Don’t You Love Me?” pompadour? Yes again.
For someone so integral in creating the look of, um, BEYONCÉ, Farinah has flown relatively under the radar. In the age of Instagram, when hairstylists who work with A-listers become celebrities by association, he prefers a more laidback approach. “I’m not desperate in this industry to become popular,” he says, “I was a backseat hair stylist. I never blogged. I never talked about who I was. I didn’t care about people knowing me or any of those things—all I wanted to do was create.” Do you feel like you just had a satisfying gulp of the clearest, most crystal spring mountain water? Me too.
Farinah hails from Trinidad, where he first started styling hair when he was 17. He met Beyoncé when he was working at what is now his namesake salon in Brooklyn; in 2005, a client said her friend needed her hair done. “I said ‘Who is the friend?’ and it was Beyoncé. And from there on, it just became magic,” he recalls. He’s also built up a steady clientele of other big names in music, including Solange (he did her hair for the memorable A Seat at the Table album cover), Nicki Minaj, and Mary J. Blige.
on his fifth world tour with Beyoncé, caught up with ELLE.com in between stops for On the Run II to talk about Bey’s hair on tour, his tricks for healthy strands, and his favorite Bey look to date.
What is yours and Beyoncé’s collaboration process like?
Our collaboration is amazing. Both me and Beyoncé sit together, we talk about any project coming up. One of the things I’ve learned is you never just leave everything for the artist. It’s your job and your responsibility if you want to stay current to do your research. You always have to be a leader and be different from the pack.
What has it been like working with a star as big as Beyoncé?
As we all know, Beyoncé is the biggest star and the biggest icon right now, but for years when I first started, people didn’t even know who I was. The industry does not give you as much credit as you deserve and I’ve learned that now. I’m not scared to say it or talk about it because I’ve been in this business for 13 years. I’m so happy that I’m doing this story with you because young hairstylists like me who are Trinidadian, who are mixed, we don’t get opportunities. I travel the world and people will say “You inspire me.” At the end of the day I’m one of the most humble hair stylists.
How would you describe the On the Run IItour hair looks?
This is a summer tour and it is hot. And, a girl cannot dance with a bunch of hair in her face. So I love half up, half down [look] because people get to see more of her face. Trust me, I love a lot of hair and hair flowing and hair all around the face, but I think right now people get to see how absolutely gorgeous this woman [is]. It’s hot most of the places that we are. You don’t want to get her hair all in the face or in the lipstick. It’s…no.
The half-up half-down look is really flattering on everyone.
On every woman! Because all you have to do is put some earrings on and that’s it. Nothing more. You don’t need a lot.
When Beyoncé performs there’s a lot of intense dancing and wind machines. How do you make sure the style stays in place?
The one thing that I don’t do as a hair stylist—and people will be like ‘No, you’re full of shit’—but truly, I don’t use a lot of products. One, because I don’t want to confine the hair. The thing people don’t understand is that when you start using a million products, you confine the hair. I think hair should be beautiful, blown, carefree, and magical. That’s the thing about me versus other stylists: They use too much products. You restrict the hair from what it’s supposed to do in these natural stages.
Any favorite styling tools in your kit?
I think to be consistent and to be the best you can be, it’s always good to try new things. So, I’m always using a new curling iron, a new flat iron. As a hairstylist, always do your research. See what’s new. What can improve your work? How can that help your work and make it easier? How can it protect your client? You’re curling someone’s hair almost every other day, so you have to know as a stylist, “How can I save this client’s hair after all of this?”
Do you prefer doing less heat styling?
Sometimes, yes. You have to understand when to kill and when you don’t kill. In a beauty shoot, you kill. For a magazine shoot, you kill. For a tour, you can minimize because it’s a tour. You can’t overkill on the tour. You want to minimize what works on a tour. That’s my gift that most hairstylists don’t have: They don’t know when to do the magic. And that’s what I have against them. I know I’m a trendsetter.
What are some of your favorite looks you’ve done for Beyoncé over the years?
Oh my God. There’s so many favorites. I would not lie. Sometimes I look back and say, “My God, I can’t believe I created so many iconic hair styles.” During the Formation tour, that magical braid had its own life. It’s just the moment. You look on the internet…and it broke the internet! So I love it. I just love every moment.
What about when Bey went super short with a pixie? That was pretty drastic and hard to pull off.
At the end of the day, a woman should always try new things. A woman should always feel empowered. A woman should always believe in herself and never let what one [person] says determine how they feel or how they should look.
How would you describe Beyoncé’s hair revolution since Lemonade?
That’s the thing about Beyonce: she’s always trying new things and she always wants something different. I love the curly texture [she’s wearing now] because that’s who she is. She’s a curly-haired black woman. She’s empowered. Like I said, trying new things all the time is what you should be doing as an artist. You should always try pushing the envelope.
What tips would you give someone who wants big, beautiful Beyoncé hair?
It’s easy. Always think outside the box. Don’t be scared, never be scared of a style. Go for it and if you don’t like it, you can change it in a second. There’s times when I do stuff and I say ‘Hey, you know what, it didn’t work.’ It’s ok, try something different. This is a different time. We’re not in the pageant world where things have to be pretty anymore. It’s a different world and women have to stop being so bothered about everything being perfect. Just live.