As a young girl, Carla Clarkson spent her time playing with her grandmother’s old hair styling tools.
Although her mother, who worked in education, wanted Clarkson to take a more academic route, Clarkson’s grandmother, who attended cosmetology school and managed a salon, was her greatest influence. By the time she was 12 years old, Clarkson decided she would follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and attend the now-closed Edward W. Bok Technical High School for cosmetology.
Now, with nearly 20 years of experience in the hair industry, Clarkson still feels inspired by her grandmother’s stories about cosmetology school and childhood memories of rummaging through her old textbooks and tools.
“At a young age I decided that I wasn’t going to go to college,” the Strawberry Mansion native said. “I wanted to graduate high school and start my career. It’s so funny, like what made me have that audacity at 12?”
Although Clarkson’s mom didn’t initially agree with her idea to forego college, she was by no means unsupportive.
“I really had to stand up to her,” Clarkson said. “And so she said to me, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to be the best that ever did it.’”
And Clarkson is on her way—she landed a role styling lead actress Tessa Thompson’s braids and twists for the latest Rocky movie “Creed,” also appearing in a cameo role in the film.
Clarkson received the offer to work on “Creed” after her mentor, another Philadelphia hairstylist, recommended her due to her experience and expertise in multi-ethnic hair.
“Working on ‘Creed’ with just a bunch of young people bringing this historic story of Rocky to life, a story that’s so important to Philadelphia, it was just a good time and a good opportunity,” Clarkson said.
Clarkson also styles hair at The Honey Blowout’s North Philadelphia location at 2455 W. Harold St. Next week, Clarkson will officially bring the Honey Blowout to Old City with its new location opening at 219 Arch St.
Clarkson’s signature product, the Honey Blowout, is made with organic honey and used to balance and protect hair during blowouts. Clarkson said she developed the product when she realized many women, especially those with naturally curly hair, were getting blowouts regularly and needed greater heat protection for their hair.
In addition to her daily business as a hair stylist, Clarkson has worked on several projects and productions like New York Fashion Week, Philadelphia Fashion Week and annual HIV awareness benefit DIVAS Simply Singing. Her work has been featured on networks like BET and Nickelodeon.
Clarkson said the community of hair stylists in Philadelphia is supportive of her work and she often finds inspiration among the local network. The diversity of hairstyles in Philadelphia is growing, she added, and more stylists and artists are being drawn into the city.
“People are so partial to Philly no matter where we go,” she said. “We swear Philly is where it’s at, honey.”
Although Clarkson loves working on productions like fashion shows, films and photo shoots, her daily operations as a hair stylist allow her to form strong relationships with her clients.
“My clients really get me through,” she said. “They provide a lot of moral support. A lot of times my clients have been my counselors in the chair. [I also love] creating looks for them, collaborating with them and finding how they want to see themselves.”
Louise Anntoinette McDougal, one of Clarkson’s long-time clients and family friends from University City, said she has known Clarkson since she was 12 years old and has trusted Clarkson with her hair for years.
“[I’ve] watched her move and grow, try new things, experience life, face challenges and risks, fall, get back up, be so creative and go after so much that she set her mind to,” McDougal said.
Outside of her business, Clarkson runs Christian ministry events for young, single women. Clarkson said these events usually include a prayer session and inspirational discussions about being a single woman, achieving career goals and reaching out to others.
“It keeps me going,” she said. “It keeps me inspired and it is my higher purpose. Hair is my career, ministry is more of a calling.”
Erin Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video by Abbie Lee.