How Hairstylist, Joyce Gilliard, Created Period Looks for 'Genius: MLK/X'

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Joyce Gilliard, was the key hairstylist on the fourth season of the anthology series Genius, which follows MLK and Malcolm XGeniusMLK/X explores the formative years of these historical figures, where they were molded by strong fathers and traumatic injustices, and their rich, parallel stories as they shaped their identities and became the change they wished to see in the world. The docu-drama series offers an intimate look into their complex lives as husbands, fathers, brothers and sons in order to show their humanity and take a deep dive into the integral role they both played in the Civil Right Movement. 

For the series, Joyce helped style over 50 wigs. She worked for each wig to be period-accurate, researching things like Jet Magazine, old yearbooks during that time period and authentic pictures of MLK and Malcolm X. Since the actors came in with modern hairstyles, Joyce worked to transform them into period-accurate looks without cutting or damaging actors' natural hair. 

Over her long career in the hair space, Joyce has become an expert in period-accurate hairstyling. For this project, Joyce worked heavily with the supporting cast. This included laying afro kinky textured hair on bald actors, making it custom to each person so it looked like natural hair rather than a wig. On the female side, Joyce incorporated human natural textured hair so it would blend well with the actresses’ natural hairline.

PH: Can you tell us about your journey as a hairstylist and how you found your passion for period-accurate hairstyling? 

Joyce Gilliard: I started my journey as a hairstylist while growing up in my grandmother's salon, Julia’s Beauty Shop, in Charleston, SC. I remember playing on the floor with my baby dolls, teaching myself how to braid and mimicking my grandma as she styled her client's hair. I learned from her how to style hair and even practiced doing the styles on my grandma and her older clients, who never changed their hairstyles with the times. They kept the same hairstyles from 1950, 1960 and the 1970s. I had plenty of practice.

PH: Research plays a significant role in your work on period shows. Could you share some insights into your process of researching and recreating period-accurate hairstyles? 

Joyce Gilliard: The key to styling period-accurate hair is definitely doing your research and making sure you have the correct shapes and silhouettes. I kept many of my parents and grandma's old yearbooks and magazines, including Jet & Ebony magazines. I would also watch old movies to get a visual. I also practiced on my mannequins. 

PH: When working on period shows like Genius: MLK/X, what are some of the biggest challenges you face in ensuring each wig is historically accurate while also accommodating the actors' modern hairstyles? 

Joyce Gilliard: The biggest challenge is when actors or extras prefer not to alter their modern hairstyle for the period. When it's a situation like this, I would often build custom hairpieces that I would incorporate with their natural hair to make the hairstyle period accurate. On a period show, everyone's hair HAS to be done. I would make sure everyone's hair is styled and approved prior to going to set. Most of the time, when it comes to WIGS,  I would have the wig already prepped and styled in the period, so all I have to do is apply it and use the actor's natural hairline for a seamless, natural look.

PH: Could you walk us through the techniques you use when laying hair on bald actors, ensuring a natural and seamless look? 

Joyce Gilliard: When I use the “Laying Hair” Technique, I would first remove all hair oils from the scalp with alcohol to prep the head for the adhesive and hair. I usually purchase bulk, afro-kinky hair and cut it up in small pieces. I would apply the adhesive starting from the nape of the head and apply each hair piece. I work my way up until the entire head is covered. I cut and shape the hair and create a natural hairline. The end product is a natural textured customized look for the period.

PH: Incorporating human natural textured hair to blend with actresses' natural hairline sounds like a meticulous process. How do you ensure consistency across the various hairstyles? 

Joyce Gilliard: To ensure consistency with each look, I take really good continuity photos of the front, back and sides, and I also keep notes of what I did to achieve the look.

PH: Were there any specific hairstyles or moments from the series that you found particularly challenging or rewarding to create, especially compared to other period shows you may have worked on? 

Joyce Gilliard: Creatively, this was one of my best shows to work on. I say this because we did many decades on this film… from the 1930s and up. Each decade, I researched the hairstyles and made binders and poster boards for everyone to follow for inspiration. It was fun recreating real people's looks from the era. It can be challenging when you see a hairstyle you want to do, but it may not be the right style for that person's hair you are doing. I always take into consideration head shapes, size and hair lines when choosing a style. I used my old-school marcel curling irons, like what they used back in the day, to give an even more authentic look. 

PH: As a Black hairstylist working on a series that delves into Black history during Black History Month, what message or impact do you hope your work will have on viewers, particularly regarding the representation of Black culture and identity through hairstyling? 

Joyce Gilliard: The message I want to convey is BLACK HAIR is beautiful. The styles we create with black hair are unique and ART. It’s very important to see an accurate representation of Black hair on the TV Screen whether it’s for a period show or contemporary. It is important to embrace our culture and identity and see it visually on the screen. It will inspire generation after generation to love their natural hair and know that black hair is beautiful.

PH: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your techniques and experiences working on period hair throughout your career? 

Joyce Gilliard: I continuously study the periods and practice. I am always striving to do better and evolve creatively. I love challenges, especially when it requires me to build custom pieces. I am grateful that the foundation was built when I grew up watching my grandma in her salon. I still watch and learn today. I believe that all my experiences working with my grandma’s older clientele prepared me to be one of the best period hairstylists in the business today.

All episodes are now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. 

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