Women in Music 2019

Rihanna's Game-Changing Bob: Hairstylist Ursula Stephen Remembers the Haircut Ten Years Later

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
Rihanna arrives at the 21st Annual Kids' Choice Awards on March 29, 2008 in Los Angeles.

When the music video for Rihanna’s hit number one single “Umbrella” first aired in March 2007 (followed by an appearance from the leading lady on the red carpet of the 20th annual Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards), it unveiled a side of the singer fans weren’t familiar with. Rocking a jet-black bob haircut, Ri -- who at the time was known for her catchy yet relatively benign track "Pon De Replay" -- solidified her entrance into edgier territory with Umbrella's parent album Good Girl Gone Bad, ushering in a decade that, ten years later, still cannot be remembered without Rihanna. 

Ursula Stephen, the hairstylist responsible for constructing the iconic bob, remembers the “frantic” two days of giving Rihanna the new look, saying at the time, she had been working on and off as the singer’s “filler” haircutter. As they started working more closely on projects, including the visual for 2006’s “Unfaithful,” the duo’s bond strengthened, and when the time came for Good Girl’s 2007 rollout, RiRi knew that she wanted a sharp contrast from her familiar chestnut locks -- a look that received too many comparisons to her other R&B compatriots. The Bad Gal knew that Stephen could deliver.

“We did it a day before [the photo shoot of] her album packaging in a hotel in L.A.,” Stephen tells Billboard. A rep from Def Jam was there to oversee the process (as “a spy,” Stephen jokes), but according to the hairstylist, “she was annoying to me, and Rihanna as well, because of her constant hovering.”

So Stephen decided to fool the rep by only trimming the singer's hair and dyeing it black, waiting until the following day when, away from prying eyes, they could finish the job. A then 19-year-old Rihanna freaked out in amazement at this first step, loving her freshly dyed, jet-black hair, at one point exclaiming, “my mother would never let me dye my hair black!”

The day of the photo shoot, Stephen cut Rihanna’s hair even shorter -- behind record executives backs, as promised -- truly initiating the pop singer's transition into the "Bad Gal Ri" she’d become. Everyone on set was “nervous” about how her hair would turn out, but when Rihanna finally stepped out of glam and struck the album cover’s signature leaning pose, nerves turned into “wows," as everyone knew this signified one of those special moments in music history when a pop star becomes an icon.

"If she didn’t change her look, [the album] wouldn’t have been as impactful," Stephen says. "Obviously, the music would have still been good, but her changing the look really made people pay attention to her. Everything worked together because even the music was so different. Everything was different. And [the hair] separated her from a bunch of girls that were kind of coming out at the same time or were already out at the same time."

After that haircut, everything changed. The Caribbean-born singer was propelled into the spotlight, with Good Girl Gone Bad selling 2.8 million copies and spending 99 weeks on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, where it raked in 3 Billboard Hot 100 No.1 hits with the album's breakout single, "Umbrella," spending over 2 months (9 weeks) at No.1.

She became a fashion and beauty muse, replacing Megan Fox as the 2011 face of Armani Jeans and Emporio Armani Underwear, working with brands like River Island and Balmain and signing a multi-million dollar deal with Covergirl cosmetics. As her fame grew, so did the attention paid to her, and in 2009 her boyfriend at the time, Chris Brown, was arrested and convicted for physically assaulting the singer. That setback hardly stopped Rihanna, though, and in 2011 the singer was back with her platinum-selling album Rated R. She started working closely with big name producers like Calvin Harris and Jay Z, and rappers and singers like Kanye West and Britney Spears, even showcasing her new sound in the 2015 track, "FourFiveSeconds," with West and former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney. 

Not only has Ri made an impact on the music industry, but she's also now known as a fashion industry tycoon, helping Puma have their best quarter yet due to her sell-out sneaker, the Fenty by Rihanna x Puma Creeper. And, of course, along with her award-winning shoe, RiRi is now a full-fledged designer, showing over-the-top and forward-thinking ready to wear collections at New York, Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks, with this year's being her  "Detention" themed FENTY PUMA by Rihanna Fall/Winter 2017 collection at Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

"I think the whole thing was a movement," Stephen, who is still Rihanna's hairstylist today, says. "With the hair change came the wardrobe change. It all kind of worked together cohesively. It was a whole new look," she says. "The hair was the beginning of her becoming that 'black Madonna' like she said she wanted to be [in a 2007 Paper Magazine interview]. I definitely give the bob credit for leading the way, because if she didn’t make that big chop, which influenced a lot of other changes, who knows if she would have done everything else that came after. And look at her now!"


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