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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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Communications major Courtney Willis posed on an overlook. Communications major Courtney Willis posed on an overlook.

Say It Loud: I'm Curly and I'm Proud

Courtney Willis, a communication major, discovered a community she didn't know existed when she created Tik Tok content urging followers to embrace their curly identity.
By Olivia Li

With the tagline of “Your Curly Big Sister,” Courtney Willis, a fourth-year communication major from Monrovia, California is a rising Tik Tok influencer bringing light to the often unrecognized curly hair community.

At the height of the pandemic, Willis was bored. Sent home early from her sophomore year of college, Willis was working as a personal assistant and social media manager for a hair salon owner. In her free time, Willis did what everyone else seemed to be doing, going on Tik Tok and making fun videos to pass the time and connect with people while staying safely at home.

Though she barely knew how to use Tik Tok, Willis began sharing the behind-the-scenes world of salon work. Her account started to take off, but it wasn’t until she started sharing about her hair journey that she found her niche and passion.

At 16, Willis went natural, a term for those with curly hair who stop using any sort of heat styling products. In doing so, Willis struggled with self-love and embracing her natural hair, with beauty standards telling her that curly hair did not equate to beautiful hair.

“I posted a video crying and how I was struggling with my own hair and a lot of people resonated with what I had to say,” Willis said. “They wanted to watch me on my journey.”

Over 270,000 people have now followed Willis on her journey and the girl that once was struggling with her hair is now the one to help thousands struggling with theirs.

At the core of it all, Willis’ message stems from her previous experiences: for others to not “hide behind their hair” and to embrace their curly hair identity.

“I just want to create an environment that’s a safe space for those who are going through the same things that I went through,” Willis said. “Curly hair isn’t the beauty standard. I just say that I’m here for you if you need me and kind of like that big sister that doesn’t shame you.”

In the span of a week, Willis spends around six hours on Tik Tok, creating content and interacting with her followers. Some videos take one try to film, such as comedic videos or multiple tries, especially when filming a tutorial. Her plate is full, juggling being a full-time student, working on-campus at Aztec Lanes, a program of Associated Students, and managing her brand.

Within one year of starting her curly hair journey, Willis has partnered with a variety of brands, with her first “big girl brand” being Walmart and Shea Moisture. In addition, she has worked with Bumble & Bumble, TWIST and Carol's Daughter.

As a one-woman show, Willis communicates with the company, creates the content and caters each piece to the company’s liking. To date, the most exciting partnership for Willis has been with Target, one of companies she has always loved.

Despite working with many big name brands, it wasn’t until when Willis spoke at Curly Con, a Canadian convention centered around curly hair that Willis realized she had made it as a curly hair influencer. Her workshop, titled “To Chop or Not to Chop?” centered around the idea of whether or not to go natural and make the decision to fully embrace your curly hair.

Willis has used what she has learned in the classroom and translated it into her career. She has learned not only how to effectively communicate with different brands, but also to those who look up to her for her authenticity and vulnerability.

“As a communications major, I’ve really learned about empathy and how to talk to people,” Willis said. “I deal with a lot of people’s personal experiences — your hair is a very vulnerable part of yourself. Being able to communicate and understand individuals and where they are coming from is a big part of the beauty industry.”

Upon graduation, Willis is hoping to turn her part-time job into a career. While she has a long-term goal of one day releasing her own products targeted toward those with curly hair, Willis is looking to continue to build her network within the curly hair community and interview stylists in the field.

For Willis, the best part about being a curly hair influencer is the community she’s created during a time of isolation.

“I’ve met a community that I didn’t even know existed,” Willis said. “I slammed my hair on accident on the car door and 10,000 people were like, ‘I feel you!’”