Irene Shelley of Black Beauty & Hair magazine talks to Thandiekay

by Jenna Von Oy | Last Updated on: June 25th, 2021 at 1:45 pm

When Kay told me she was going to interview the wonderful Irene Shelley of Black Beauty & Hair Magazine, I remembered my first correspondence with them 20+ years ago. I was 15, and my Mum had a copy of the magazine. I saw that they were running a competition for wannabe models. It seemed easy – just fill out the personal details and send a photo. My Dad took a few pictures of me in our back garden (bless!) and I sent it off. A few weeks later I got a letter back telling me I’d got through to the final round! I had to go and meet them in their London office. The only hitch was that I’d been a little loose with my personal details – I’d said I was 5 ft 8 inches. The following week I walked my 5ft 4 inches into their offices, and, well, that’s where the story ends. I was too shrimpy for their modeling needs. Heh Heh. 

I like that this time Black Beauty is on our ThandieKay pages – and that Black Beauty is still going strong! x Thandie

I never set out to have a career in journalism. I enjoyed English and Art at school.  Then, from my mid-teens, I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. I did my BA at Ravensbourne College of Art and them my MA at St Martin School of Art. When I graduated I worked as a designer for a while and then eventually got a job as a fashion editor with Root Magazine – the UK’s first black lifestyle magazine. A couple of years later, I found myself at the helm of Black Beauty & Hair magazine.  I had the [usual] struggle of convincing my parents that I wanted to be a fashion designer. My dad had wanted me to be a doctor, but I eventually convinced him that I was more creative!

I’ve always loved the transformative qualities of fashion and I guess, being a shy person, I’ve always allowed my clothes to speak for me. When I was little I used to make paper dolls and make them different outfits – the fun was creating the outfits rather than playing with the dolls. I was good at drawing and started churning out fashion illustrations and found I was developing a style.


I started reading about designers like Ninivah Khomo who went to St Martin’s and designed beautiful leopard print clothes and also the American designer Norma Kamali, who was creating the kind of easy, playful clothes that I liked. And then came punk, which seemed to shake up everything.

Today fashion is much more democratic than it was back in the day.

Then, you had certain people who were arbiters of fashion who established what was ‘in’. They were usually well connected – models, actresses, royalty, etc. Now you have regular girls ­who have become style influencers – bloggers like Leandra Medine from ManRepeller who are having fun with fashion. Fashion is meant to be fun.

I’m Nigerian. Nigerians love dressing up – give them any excuse – a party, birthday celebration, or a wedding.

People are always buying fabrics and getting matching outfits made especially for that event. It’s a way of showing how wealthy you are and also how much effort you’ve put into looking fly at someone else’s party.

Technological advances like social media have meant that we can give readers an all-round experience of our brand.

When I started we were still using graph paper and typesetters to put the magazine together! Now because of desktop publishing software, anyone can create a magazine if they have a computer.

With Black Beauty & Hair online we can talk about more socially relevant topics in real-time rather than wait two months to put it on the magazine.

There is so much content that provokes debate.  For instance, many black women use skin ‘brighteners’ to improve their complexion, so we’ll talk about how to get a blemish-free complexion without using damaging and dangerous products. Then there is the other extreme when women don’t like their complexions and actually want to be lighter.  We’ll discuss that too and get the readers thinking about issues about self-worth.

We want women to love themselves wherever they are in their journey.

We don’t just push one look (say natural hair for instance), as black women don’t fit into one box. ‘Weave divas’ and ‘naturalists’ can co-exist on the same page.  I love how we [black women] can pull off different looks just by changing our hair.

Adornment has always played an important part in black culture. We’ve got amazing hairstylists in the UK who are in business to make women look wonderful. So whether they’re using weaves, extensions or natural hair – it’s all good.

The most obvious change over the years has been the hairstyling trends, which can have an impact on editorial and advertising. When I first arrived, curly perms were the major trend and women went to the salon for their treatments and services so it was very salon-focused.  That meant that the haircare companies needed a platform to talk about their product and aftercare, which the magazine provided. Now haircare is less about the salon experience and women feel empowered to find solutions for their own hair care needs.

Recent times have been a challenge for the afro hairdressing industry as a whole. The advent of the natural hair movement has meant that black women are re-discovering their natural hair and are proud to wear their natural textures. They are giving up their relaxers and their reliance on their hairdressers and are going DIY. They get their information from YouTube, natural hair bloggers, and forums.

Anecdotally black women have always spent more on their hair and beauty products compared to white women because those products have been always been inaccessible or have been imported.  So we’re used to spending more money on things we need.

The specially formulated ranges that sell specifically to WOC, like Fashion Fair, BlackUp, Iman, Doris Michaels, and Sleek Cosmetics, cover a range of budgets and are doing a great job in keeping us looking beautiful.

I also applaud cosmetic companies like MAC, Bobbi Brown, and Lancôme, who have foundation ranges that suit different skin tones.

Necessity is always the mother of invention, and the lack of colour cosmetic products has given opportunities to savvy entrepreneurs who are making their own cosmetics ranges and marketing them through social media channels and that’s an exciting development.

However, I still think some of the major beauty brands haven’t made much progress in addressing the needs of women of color. Their color cosmetics ranges are still far too pale for WOC. And the day I attend a press launch where the foundation colors doesn’t stop at deep tan, will be when progress has been made.

I remember asking for black models at my graduation fashion show at Ravensbourne even though my collection didn’t have a particularly black theme, and we finally got two black girls to walk for us! So I’ve always been aware of the struggle to get black models represented on the catwalks. It’s a subject that’s always rearing its head on social media platforms or during Fashion Week.

For instance, there was that MAC Instagram post of a black model’s lips during Fashion Week A/W16. People went online to say that they would stop buying MAC because they were appalled that MAC would use a model with those lips.

It doesn’t seem to have improved since the Eighties, as the MAC post proved as there’s still an ‘otherness’ to black women’s beauty that the mainstream has trouble relating to.

Even top models like Naomi Campbell, Jourdan Dunn, and Chanel Iman have spoken out about how racist the fashion industry is.

I was so glad Lupita Nyong’o appeared on all those mainstream magazine covers and editorials, not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, but she represents the type of beauty that doesn’t get much airtime in mainstream media.

I love what Edward Enninful is doing at W and his images are about diversity, there isn’t just one aesthetic and that’s his strength.

I like celebrity stylist June Ambrose (she’s so extra), Julia Sarr-Jamois – fashion editor of Wonderland magazine and socialite Shala Monroque both have a great fashion aesthetic.

I love the energy and vision that manicurist Sharmadean Reid brings to her company WAH Nails. I’m inspired by fellow editors Carine Roitfeld, ex-editor of French Vogue, for proving that being sexy and chic doesn’t have an age limit, and Vogue’s Anna Wintour for being in her job for nearly as long as I have.

My beauty and hair regime

I have waist-length locs, so I make sure I moisten and condition them on a regular basis. I add peppermint and rosemary essential oils to my water spray and spritz my hair, then I lock in the moisture with argan [or some other lovely] oil.

The beauty and hair brands I really rate for WoC include Mizani, a great brand and I’m loving Charlotte Mensah’s new Manketti Oil collection – it not only looks fab on my dressing table, but it also makes your hair smell and feels fab too! For beauty, it’s MAC, Bobbi Brown, BlackUp, and Sleek Cosmetics who all have something great in their locker.

I used to be acne-prone so I still tend to use some sort of medicated face wash to keep my skin clear and then I use a dark spot removing serum because of hyper-pigmentation. And I finish off with an SPF moisturizer.

Out of work, I love hot yoga and try to do that once a week, I’d love to do it more often but I don’t have the time. We’ve recently had a kitchen extension built, and had a great time pinning everything we wanted to buy for the build on Pinterest. I now pin everything.

The advice I would give to other WoC aspiring to be editors and stylists is don’t limit yourselves to telling one story.

Jenna von Oy began her professional acting career at the age of six, when she landed her first big break in a Jell-O Pudding Pop commercial with Bill Cosby. Von Oy has made her mark in television, having been a series regular on three network sit-coms.