5 Facts on Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson: Black Women Making Oscar history

This year, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson made history. The two hairstylists received Oscar nominations for their work on the Netflix biopic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, making them the first black women to receive Oscar nominations for Hair and Makeup. Now, Neal and Wilson celebrate this win’s significance to black creatives worldwide. “It…shows every Black woman or man doing hair that we can achieve, and importantly that our talent and skill is equal and exceptional,” they said in a statement. From their exciting pasts to their creative journeys, here are 5 interesting facts about Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson.

1. Mia Neal wasn’t sure she could be a hairstylist.

Mia Neal fell in love with hairstyling as a child, working at her aunt’s salon in Gary, Indiana. But, she never thought she could make it a career. “Public schools don’t groom artists. I didn’t know my career existed,” she explained. Working at MAC cosmetics during college, another employee encouraged Neal to pursue the Juilliard Makeup and hair apprenticeship. As she told Variety “She wrote me a letter of recommendation. I went to the interview and I was accepted into the program, and that’s when everything shifted.”

2. Wilson the chameleon

Tamika Wilson’s decades-long career blossomed when she opened her Identity salon in California. Soon, she gained clients like Rihanna, Kelly Rowland and finally, Viola Davis. Working as Davis’ personal stylist, Wilson naturally moved into movies. This created a new facet of Wilson’s career. As she explained in an interview with stylist Tippi Shorter,  “It gives me something different outside of the salon to do…something more creative.”

3. Research for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was tough 

The untold story of 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey, Black Bottom was a difficult film to research. “There’s not very many images of Ma Rainey…” Wilson told The Observer, “so the pickings were very slim.” For context, Neal looked at pictures from the Great Migration, an era that occurred after Reconstruction, when black people left southern rural towns for big cities. This matched Ma Rainey’s roots. “There are a lot of photographs there that depict southern and city looks of the 20s,” Neal told PBS.   

4. That Horsehair wig

Because historical details were scarce, Neal was excited to discover one important fact about Ma’s beauty regime. “There was something written that said that she wore horse hair wigs. So, we decided that we should definitely go with that.” But the horsehair arrived with an unpleasant surprise. “It was covered in manure and lice eggs,” she told deadline. The process, however, taught Neal about black womanhood of the era. In an interview with PBS she explained “(I) realized why Ma wore horse hair wigs because….I didn’t have to reset it.” A black artist touring during segregation, Ma’s forever-set wig likely liberated her. “Who knew if there was a salon there where she could be serviced,” she told Blackfilm, “So she needed a wig to maintain.”

5. Making History now

Wilson also added to the legacy of black women’s hair when she created an iconic red carpet moment. In 2012, Viola Davis debuted her natural hair at the Oscars–and Wilson styled her. Years before natural hair became more popular, Wilson and Davis questioned the decision. “In the hotel we were not really sure because that was a big moment and something really bold to do. I literally had a wig ready because I said ‘i want you to be comfortable,” she told Shorter.  But ultimately, Davis and Wilson created a major moment at Hollywood’s biggest ceremony.  

From humble beginnings to great success, Mia Neal and Tamika Wilson’s experience has prepared them for this moment. This historical moment speaks both to their work, and to a larger history of previously unrecognized black creatives. With this, Neal and Wilson see their nomination both as a sign of progress and hopefully, change. “It’s crazy to think that we are the first Black nominees in this category,” they said. “But we aren’t the last.” 

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