Michelle Breyer talks hair — curly hair. Its texture, its porosity, its thickness.
She can look at your hair and give you a number and a letter combination that signifies the type of hair on your head. She can talk products and haircuts. She talks in curly-hair lingo like “the big chop” — that moment when you cut your chemically straightened hair off to go natural — or “the holy grail” — that product that for at least one day makes your hair look better than you ever knew it could.
Now 54, the Austinite has known curly hair all her life. She grew up in California at a time when all she really wanted was a ponytail that swished like the straight-haired girls around her had.
Her straight-haired mother didn’t know what to do with her hair, so she just had it cut into a pixie for years.
Then, as Breyer grew older and feathering became the rage of the 1980s, she feathered her hair, but she had to weigh it down with hairspray so heavily that if she lifted a strand, the whole wing of the feather would lift up with it.
For her birthday every year, a friend would give her the gift of blowing out her hair in an attempt to straighten it.
“I lived in fear that anyone would know how curly my hair was,” she says.
Breyer is the co-founder of the website NaturallyCurly, naturallycurly.com, which became a resource and a community for curly-haired people around the world. On Tuesday, she launches her first book, “The Curl Revolution” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, $19.95).
The idea to write the book had been bubbling up for a while. “It always seemed completely daunting,” she says.
Once NaturallyCurly decided she could take three to four months to make the book her job, it flowed.
The whole curl scene has changed so much in the 19 years since she started NaturallyCurly, she says. Writing the book helped remind her how far it had come since she and two of her fellow business reporters at the American-Statesman launched the website by asking a 14-year-old neighbor to build them one.
The book tracks the growth of the community NaturallyCurly created as well as provides tips such as how to figure out what kind of hair you have and the best products for that hair as well as techniques for styling it.
The book, like the site, is an affirmation for curly-haired people everywhere that curls are beautiful.
NaturallyCurly came into being after a fellow staff member remarked that all Breyer and co-workers Lori Hawkins and Gretchen Heber did was talk about their curly hair and complain about there being no good hair products for them.
NaturallyCurly launched in 1998 without even a business plan. It just had a cute logo of a girl with curls that was animated and a commitment to talk about curls and review some products.
It was bigger than them, though. The community found them. They traded hair secrets and laments. The community even created the hair-typing system. Originally it was based on Oprah Winfrey’s hair stylist Andre Walker’s method of typing hair from 1-4 with a 1 being straight and a 4 being super curly.
The community couldn’t see themselves in such limited degrees, so they created gradients a, b and c within the 1, 2, 3 and 4. A 2a would be curlier than a 1c, but not as curly as a 2b or a 2c. And they acknowledged that different parts of your hair could be different number/letter combinations.
Why did this matter? It would help you connect with people with similar hair and find the right products. It’s all about the right product and technique.
Twenty years ago, finding those products and techniques was a challenge. Even though about 60 percent of the population has some curls, often curly-haired folks had to adapt products made for straight hair or create their own products. There also weren’t many stylists who were trained to cut curly hair.
“Now there are curl lines,” she says. “More and more stylists are being trained to work with curl,” though they aren’t trained in school and have to get that training separately.
The community grew and has always been democratic, Breyer says, deciding what it wanted and needed. “It’s been an exciting time.”
Heber and Breyer stuck with it and began to realize they really had something, not just because of the community engagement on the site but because advertisers were calling them.
In 2001, hair-care giant Procter & Gamble called. “It opened our eyes … hair is big business,” Breyer says.
Breyer and Heber continued to work days for the Statesman and spent nights and breaks on NaturallyCurly until 2005. “I was a workaholic,” Breyer says. Her boss at the time knew what she was doing and looked the other way. “As long as I was doing my work, she was supportive, actually.”
Finally, NaturallyCurly was making enough money that it could pay Breyer and Heber. Breyer says she felt like they would never know what NaturallyCurly could be unless they made it their full-time gig and left the day job safety net.
The month they left the paper, NaturallyCurly lost its biggest advertiser at the time, Breyer was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and her house was robbed.
It was a test, but the community that found NaturallyCurly wasn’t letting go.
NaturallyCurly got advice from venture capitalist and tech guru Jimmy Treybig. He steered Breyer and Heber by asking them to answer the essential question: How could they get to $1 million?
“There never would have been a company,” she says, if he hadn’t mentored them.
The company has grown into Texture Media, which was bought by the multicultural hair-care product distributor Ultra/Standard in 2015. By then, Heber had left the company, but Breyer has remained as executive vice president in charge of strategy and partnerships. She says she always knew that she didn’t want to be the CEO. “I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not,” she says. Sales, yes, and strategy, but not managing the company’s 40 employees or the day-to-day details.
For her role in creating a platform for people with curls, Breyer was given the first lifetime achievement award in 2015 by subscription box service CurlBox at an awards ceremony that has the industry’s big guns like Revlon and Unilever coming together with smaller product lines.
Products for curly-haired people have become one of the biggest segments of the beauty market.
Big beauty companies are investing in creating products for curly hair. Breyer and curly-haired women have the attention of Walmart and Sally Beauty. Multicultural lines are huge. “There’s so much gorgeous hair,” she says, and so many varieties of ways to style it from braids to ringlets. Companies now recognize that.
Defined by curl
Once the NaturallyCurly community came together, it was clear how much they were defined by their curl.
Breyer’s favorite chapter in the book is titled “Living the Curly Life: Why Curly Hair Isn’t Just Hair.” Throughout the book, women and men share their hair secrets as well as how they feel about their hair and, by extension, themselves.
Photographer/writer Nicole Ortega shares: “I always had a ‘grass is greener on the other side’ mentality as a teen. I wished I had straight hair. As an adult, I’ve embraced my curls and wear them proud.”
“My curly hair is an enormous part of my identity — visually, culturally, ethnically,” says Talia Billig, musician YouTuber.
“My nickname from sixth grade to high school was ‘Curly.’ It started out bad, but now I own it,” says Andrea Barrera, a development director for a nonprofit agency.
“I am not my hair, but my hair is totally an essential part of me,” says Cassidy Blackwell, founder of the Natural Selection blog.
“I hated my hair for many years because I wasn’t given the proper training and tools to manage it. I now love it!!!” says Kennett Nicole Pyles, a restaurant manager.
Breyer always thinks of herself as a woman with curly hair, but every once in a while something happens.
She had a stylist five years ago who wanted to see what she would look like with her hair straight. “I didn’t feel like me,” she says. Her husband, Jody, and daughter, Emma, let her know “that’s not good.”
“It was too severe,” she says.
She went back to her curls.
There’s a lot wrapped up in the messages we receive about curly hair, Breyer says. On TV and in movies, a lot of stars have wonderful curly hair, but they straighten it. The curly girls are making progress, though, with more stars now embracing their curls in public.
Curls still aren’t the mainstream norm in pop culture. People will do makeovers for TV and be told, “You’ve got to get rid of the curls.” Early on, NaturallyCurly spoke out about “The Princess Diaries” and asked why the makeover of Anne Hathaway involved straightening her hair.
“These are so powerful as far as how people feel about their hair,” Breyer says.
People get told, “You’re so lucky curly hair is in right now.”
“Would they say the same thing about blue eyes, or freckles?” Breyer asks. “It’s part of who you are.”
She does see a move toward acceptance and embracing curls, especially in a new generation.
Her own curly-haired daughter, she says, “has such a good attitude about her hair.”
“If I accomplish nothing else, that’s my biggest accomplishment,” Breyer says.
Breyer helped put more curl on the runway of Fashion Week in New York. She remembers previously going to Fashion Week and not seeing anyone from “our community” on the runway. Now Texture Media has created Texture on the Runway, which shows off six different hair-care lines and curly-haired models wearing them. Recently, 750 people came to the show, which featured the McClure twins, young girls who now have more than a million Instagram followers and fabulous heads of curls.
The hair you don’t always love
Curly hair is complicated. More often than not, Breyer wears her hair in a bun on days when she doesn’t have to represent the entire universe of curly hair.
Bad hair happens. “It happens to me,” she says.
“Even if you think you’ve figured it out, you’re one bad haircut, one hot yoga class away from being back at square one.”
Curl typing helps you figure out which type of product works for you and which products work well together, but of course that changes with hormones and stress and the type of water you have, and especially weather. “My hair is a barometer,” she says. Major events like puberty, pregnancy and chemotherapy also change the curl.
Breyer recommends people with curls keep a few tried-and-true things on hand:
- A microfiber towel for drying it.
- A satin pillowcase to not smash it during sleep.
- A hair dryer with a diffuser for controlling some of the frizz.
- A range of styling products including shampoos, conditioners and styling products for different days.
NaturallyCurly’s community has taught the hair-care industry that it can’t just design products for one type of curl, and sometimes the products that aren’t specifically for curly hair might work best. “You definitely realize it’s not all one size fits all.”
That is why if you go into a curly-haired person’s bathroom, you see shelves of products.
“We’re always looking for a miracle,” she says. That one perfect product. “The holy grail.”
Women are willing to pay $55 for a product if it works.
“One of the frustrations is it’s unpredictable. One of the wonderful things is it isn’t predictable. You figure it out.”
Having great curls and figuring it out, with the help of the community and resources like NaturallyCurly, can do more than just give you a great head of hair.
“It’s about confidence,” she says. “We feel better about ourselves.”
“The Curl Revolution” book release party
7 p.m. Tuesday
BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.