National Geographic's Genius: MLK/X Hair Department Head, Jessi Dean, Steps Forward to Unveil the Artistry Behind the Show's Iconic Hairstyles

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Jessi Dean, the mastermind behind the captivating hair designs of National Geographic's Genius: MLK/X, emerges to shed light on the intricate artistry woven into each character's hairstyle.

In an exclusive interview opportunity, Jessi Dean invites a closer look into the meticulous craftsmanship that brings historical figures to life through their distinct and memorable hairstyles.

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

Jessi Dean: I started out my hairdressing career in a salon on the Southside of Chicago. I’ve always had dreams of working on television and film, so I then relocated to a popular salon in Chicago’s West Loop that was known for servicing local celebrities and socialites. I worked there for three years prior to opening my own salon while simultaneously working on the Oprah Winfrey Show and Rosie and Steve Harvey Shows. 

I later joined the local union, which is where my love of period hair was born. I designed a 1980s flashback scene on a contemporary show and had so much fun! I was definitely bitten by the period bug, looking for more opportunities where I could revisit the past through hair. I had literally stumbled upon a new appreciation for the beauty and uniqueness of hairstyles from different eras. I found that period hairstyling allows me to connect with the past and express myself creatively in the present, and I was inspired to learn more about the history of hairdressing.

PH: What was the most challenging aspect of accurately replicating the period-specific Black hairstyles for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in "Genius: MLK/X," considering the span of four decades and the significant changes in hair trends during that time?

Jessi Dean: Attempting to schedule wig consults with most of our actors was a challenge, as they were located across different parts of the world and had very busy schedules with limited windows of availability. Thankfully my wig builders, Gretchen Evans and Tommy Kurzman, came through expeditiously. As a result, we were able to meet our deadline. They worked tirelessly and I can’t thank them enough! 

The challenge with designing Dr. Betty Shabazz’s hairstyle is that there were limited archival images of her journey. I told her story based on the photos I did acquire, and collaborative conversations with Jayme Lawson who plays Betty and the creators of our show. 

PH: Could you walk us through your process of researching each character's history to ensure the authenticity of their hairstyles at various stages of their lives, from childhood to adulthood?

Jessi Dean: I used reference materials such as historical photographs, paintings, films, and literature to gain more insight into each characters’ personalities and lifestyles. I also took into account the hair and fashion trends of each era we were capturing. I was searching for an understanding of how their personal experiences, relationships, and environments may have influenced their choices of hair styles.

PH: You mentioned creating more than 75 wigs for "Genius: MLK/X." Can you share some insights into your favorite hair designs, particularly for Malcolm's conk style and the representations of Coretta and Betty?

Jessi Dean: It’s hard to choose a favorite! However, one of the more interesting wigs that was designed is Malcolm's because it outwardly chronicled the evolution of his personal growth while progressing towards his commitment of embracing his natural hair identity; which was an honor and a privilege for me to recreate. My goal was to highlight texture, so I chose to use a kinky, reddish brown blend of coiled hair throughout.

Coretta and Betty’s wigs were both fronted individually with a curly and coily texture in an attempt to offer a realistic and versatile take on each of their looks. I gravitated towards images that captured their hair in its most lived-in states for inspiration since the tone of our show was focused on their individualities - who they were in their most private, intimate moments.

PH: How did you approach visually depicting the passage of time for Malcolm X, particularly during his incarceration, through subtle changes in his hairstyle, such as outgrowth and variations in processed versus natural hair textures?

Jessi Dean: When Malcolm was originally incarcerated, his hair was chemically relaxed, which permanently straightened his naturally coiled hair. Because of his lengthy confinement, it was necessary to reveal new growth of Malcolm’s natural texture to establish a time lapse and an inability to maintain his processed hair. Therefore, I styled his wig to highlight the contrast between the two textures.

PH: Concealing Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s shoulder-length hair under his MLK wig must have been quite a task. Can you elaborate on the techniques you used to ensure his hair remained protected while achieving the desired look for the character? 

Jessi Dean: Actually, Kelvin Harrison Junior’s hair was not wigged. He was the only actor of the four whose natural hair showcased the infamous MLK’s cropped comb-back. He cut his shoulder length hair for the project. However, Jaylen Hall, who played teenage MLK, had lengthy hair on top that was concealed under hand laid afro textured hair.

PH: Could you discuss the importance of protecting actors' hair, especially Black and natural hair, from damaging factors like heat and product build-up, and how you addressed these concerns during the production of "Genius: MLK/X"?

Jessi Dean: Prioritizing the health and safety of the actors’ hair is of the utmost importance. While filming Genius, I utilized braiding to protect and secure their hair while creating a stable foundation for our daily wig application. Overall, taking these protective measures allows the actor to focus on their work and not their hair.

PH: "Genius: MLK/X" showcases natural Black hair textures on screen in various climates and humidity levels. How do you believe this representation contributes to normalizing the diversity of Black hair and its appearance under different environmental conditions?

Jessi Dean: Our history is so vital to understanding how we have arrived where we are today. Black hair has a multitude of nuances and personalities, and I wanted to showcase what was underneath the assimilation of that era. Educating viewers who may not be familiar with natural Black hair and its various characteristics can potentially help normalize the impact and presence of natural Black hair. It was important for me to deliver the period styles with a fresh take on this historical moment.

PH: As "Genius: MLK/X" is a portrayal of two influential figures in Black history, how do you see the significance of accurately honoring their legacy through their hairstyles - particularly during a time when there was pressure for Black individuals to conform to white beauty standards?

Jessi Dean: Accurately honoring MLK and Malcolm X through their hair was a way to commemorate their legacy, honor their contributions to the civil rights movement, and ensure that their impact on society is remembered and celebrated for years to come. What a privilege and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to have been a part of this project!

PH: Can you share your experience working with inspirational Black female directors and showrunners like Nia DaCosta, Crystle Roberson Dorsey, and Channing Godfrey Peoples, and how their perspectives influenced the creative process of "Genius: MLK/X"?

Jessi Dean: Our culture is rich and our language is our DNA. There’s nothing like working with women who have had similar experiences and therefore understand our culture. There was a familiarity there that felt safe and empowering, as they prioritized the importance of protecting and presenting Black hair authentically. I was inspired by their tenacity and leadership, and am proud of helping bring their visions to life through the medium that I know best: hair. I’m honored that they trusted me and encouraged my process. Working with these three talented directors was a real dream come true!

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