Montreal·Black Changemakers

This hairdresser is helping Black women embrace their hair, curls and all

Nancy Falaise spent the first three decades of her life hating the natural, curly hair that grew from her head, until a cancer diagnosis changed her personal and professional perspective.

Nancy Falaise hated her hair until a breast cancer diagnosis changed her perspective

Nancy Falaise specializes in helping people learn to manage curly hair. She opened her own salon in 2017. (JF Lechasseur)

CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province's Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the Black Changemakers.

It's safe to say that every Black woman has at least one story to tell about their hair.

Adventures in styling. Being teased. Someone asking to touch it. Someone touching it without asking. The list is endless.

Nancy Falaise has a hair story. She spent the first three decades of her life hating the natural, curly hair that grew from her head.

She was made to feel that her hair was "different," and she would chemically straighten it, commonly called relaxing, to get rid of the curls.

In 2012, Falaise was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the course of her treatment, her hair fell out. When it started to grow back, she realized for the first time that she loved her curls.

"It's my trademark, you know? It makes... it is who I am," she said.

That realization changed the course of her career. She had been working as a hairdresser for about 15 years at that point, and decided to learn everything she could about Afro-textured hair so she could help her clients love their hair too.

She said while there are many resources for Black hair care in the U.S., there are very few places in Canada that do what she does.

She runs workshops once a month where she teaches young girls how to shampoo, deep condition, de-tangle and style their hair. The classes are also an opportunity for the girls to share their hair struggles, talk about what's going on in their lives, and get a boost of self-esteem.

"I feel like if I can make a 13, 14, 15-year-old feel confident about herself at that age, what can she do as a grown woman?" she said.

Falaise's reach extends beyond the walls of her business, Salon Académie Nancy Falaise. She teaches her methods to other hairdressers and people who work on television and movie sets, and has travelled to Switzerland and Tunisia to teach people there. Last month, she went to the Dominican Republic to promote her line of hair care products.

Last year, she started a petition that garnered 10,000 signatures to persuade the government to include curly hair in the curriculum at Quebec's hairdressing schools. (She plans to broach the topic officially with the Education Minister when things are a bit less hectic).

She also has a number of clients who visit her before they start treatment for breast cancer. Falaise cuts their hair for free, and gives them a gift package that includes products she developed to fortify their hair.

Her clients find ways to let her know they appreciate her. Mothers sent photos of their daughters happily doing their own hair. One woman who returned to the salon for her first post-cancer treatment haircut brought Falaise a gift for her niece, because the woman knew Falaise wouldn't have accepted anything for herself.

Falaise encourages her clients to see themselves as queens, and to see their hair as their crowns, as one of the things that makes them unique.

"I love to see women shine," she said. "It doesn't matter how old they are, it's a pleasure for me when they leave [the salon] and they are touching their hair and they love their hair and they feel beautiful."

The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Read more stories here.

Written by Kamila Hinkson, with files from Maya Lach-Aidelbaum