Nichola Watson and Catherine Woodely are celebrating the opening of their salon, the Afro Diva Salon in Victoria. Woodley, left, and Watson pose in their salon, which caters to African ethnic hair types.
Catherine Woodley hasn’t visited a local hair salon in more than 30 years of living in Victoria. Not because she didn’t want to have a new “do” for holidays, the latest cut in high school or a perfect coif for a job interview.
She would have loved that.
“There were no salons here equipped with products or stylists for black women’s hair,” she says. “It was very difficult.”
It was a shared dream of Woodley, 41, and her best friend Nichola Watson, 34, to see that change. A serendipitous timing of unemployment, supportive friends and investors made their dream come true.
Afro Diva salon opened its doors on March 27, with about 500 people stopping by to celebrate and check out the new digs at 1820 Oak Bay Ave.
“It was so emotional,” Watson says at the shop with Woodley. “You could feel the excitement.”
At the opening, I saw women sharing hair horror stories, poring over shelves of products featured in beauty magazines for women of colour that are rarely available in Victoria and booking appointments from a roster of styles, including braids, extensions, weaves, cornrows and chemical perm-relaxing. The salon caters to all hair and skin types — with a full menu of esthetics — but specializes in afro textured hair.
“Before the launch, when we handed out cards to people they’d look at them, their eyes would widen and then they’d lean in for the hug,” Woodley says. “This kind of place has been a long time coming.”
Woodley’s family settled in Victoria from Barbados when she was a child. Moving to a predominantly Caucasian community was difficult, especially during her school years.
“It was very hard on my self-esteem to feel that I was ugly, not attractive, compared to other girls,” says Woodley, who attended Colquitz and Spectrum schools. Part of that alienation came from not having the resources to care for her hair.
“It was easier to just cut it off. I was tall, lanky with short hair so I looked like a boy,” she says, adding that she compensated by excelling at sports like basketball and track and field.
After high school Woodley returned to Barbados to study and play sports, and reclaimed her long hair with access to equipped stylists. She moved back to Victoria to work in government and raise her son, relying on herself and friends to style her hair.
Woodley met Watson just a few days after the Jamaican-born Torontonian moved to Victoria in 2003 to work in social services after studying criminology at Carleton University.
“One of the first things I asked her was where do you get your hair done,” Watson says. “She just laughed and said, ‘This is Victoria, you’ve gotta do it yourself.’ ”
Since that meeting the two friends often talked about opening a salon here, not just a place to get hair done but a hub for the growing community of black women who’ve spent years scouting home stylists, remedies and products.
As we chat we overhear new client and longtime Victoria resident Myrtle Cumberbatch tell her stylist how she used to heat combs on the stove and brush her hair straight.
“You wouldn’t dare go in the water or it’d be kinky again,” she says, and the women laugh.
When the business partners found themselves in need of new career paths about a year ago, they brought their salon plan to a few friends and investors, who eagerly jumped aboard.
“Everyone we talked to thought it was a great idea,” Woodley says.
According to the last census in 2006, there are more than 35,000 members of visible minorities in Greater Victoria, and of them 2,400 are black. Thousands of new immigrants and residents have come since.
Watson and Woodley want women of all colours and hair textures to have a place where they feel safe having their hair done and where they see women like themselves, clients, stylists and in magazines.
“It’s especially important for young girls to feel proud of who they are,” Watson says. That’s why they convinced Watson’s stylist sister to move from Toronto to work at Afro Diva. Several of the stylists came to them, wanting to utilize their skills in textured hair. They’ve also chosen products for black women that range from traditional brands to organic and the latest buzz brands.
The women have reached out to the local Black History Society, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Society and Antidote, an advocacy group for racialized girls that Watson has worked with.
“This is more than a hair salon,” says Manjeet Birk, executive director of Antidote. “It’s an opportunity for a community that doesn’t have a space. Its impact on multiculturalism for Victoria is historic.”
Woodley hopes the salon becomes a space for education as well.
“We’d like to teach classes and reach out to parents who’ve adopted a black child but might not know how to care for their hair — like don’t wash it every day,” she says, citing the time a child grabbed her leg in Wal-Mart and said to her white mother, “I want hair like her.”
Watson and Woodley look forward to feedback from clients and the community, especially women from various cultures who are not getting their hair needs met in Victoria.
Afro Diva is a welcome and warm addition to our city’s fashion, female and cultural collectives. Stop by and say hello. I plan to sample their many conditioning products for curly hair types.
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