You don’t know Eugene Davis but you’re definitely familiar with his work. After hooking up with Lil’ Kim in the early 90s, Eugene was responsible for the follicular fabulousness that defined the Brooklyn-born rapper’s bonkers style: an experimental day-glo legacy you can trace right to the heads of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. His connection with Lil’ Kim and Bad Boy then led Eugene to the sets of a slew of seminal 90s videos like Biggie’s “One More Chance” which includes cameos from Aaliyah, Mary J., Faith Evans, and Queen Latifah.
His start in the industry sounds like a movie. Specifically the movie Mannequin, but unlike Andrew McCarthy's character who'd stay behind after hours and restyle the window displays, Eugene would work in secret on the mannequin wigs. These days he tends the locks of British soul-pop singer Lianne La Havas and does Angel Haze's weaves. I caught up with Eugene in London where the New York-native is currently based.
Noisey: How did you get into the hair business?
Eugene Davis: I started doing visual merchandising for Bloomingdale’s in New York in 1988, straight out of high school. There was a window dresser who was there for years but I noticed that the hair wouldn’t really match up with the clothes, so I used to stay behind and change the wigs and restyle the hair. This went on for months. One day I was in the back room cutting away, creating these short fringed bobs that were in at the time and my supervisor walks in and was like, “I knew you were the one back here restyling these wigs! I’m going to give you some advice, you can stay here as long as you want, but why don’t you go to hairdressing school.” It was the first time it even dawned on me.
What happened next?
I always knew I wanted to do something that the world could see. I knew I was taking on a lot because it takes a special kind of person to just put yourself out there. I learned to get tough skin very quickly. That’s when I started to push myself towards videos and celebrities because that’s an even bigger platform where everyone has an opinion. I’ve never looked back. The more creative or innovative or the more an artist let’s me push the boundaries the more I enjoy it.
Was Lil’ Kim the first artist to have a serious impact on your career?
Yeah. I remember the day I met her—a very unassuming young girl, no make-up, hair pulled back. I tend to be a stylist who is over prepared. I didn’t know what direction we were going to go in so I just had bags and bags of hair. I recut her weave and put some extensions in and it worked. Two weeks later there was a huge billboard! From that day forward I knew everything had changed. Kim called me to do several more things with her. From there I met Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Chanté Moore, Queen Latifah. Then I was asked to do the Biggie Smalls “One More Chance” video.
Was there a sense on set that you were part of something that was about to blow up, in terms of it being a huge era-defining song and video?
Yeah there was a real buzz about Biggie and everyone was excited to be a part of this production. Although I couldn’t have know at the time how this song would change all of hip-hop or the style of videos to come.
“Crush on You” was the second video you video with Lil’ Kim and seems like it was the one where you really let loose.
Yeah at this point no hip-hop or R&B artist had experimented with bold color. The stages on set turned from blue to green to yellow to red and I saw that her clothes were like that too. I was like, “You know what Kim, we need to do something crazy and different.” I left Long Island City where we were shooting, went back to New York, bought some wigs put them on her and recut them on her. That video became legendary. Extreme color is still my thing.
Right, you’ve started incorporating color in Lianne La Havas’ hair…
That was a custom ombre that I did for her bangs. I kept looking at Native American Indian beading. I did a few different colors for her to take on tour. Hopefully it’ll catch on as a Lianne La Havas thing. Who knows!
Do you prefer working with musicians?
I really enjoy music artists because just like their music, they understand the layers that go into creating a finished product. They get me. When I hear the music and I’ve gotten to know them and I say, “This is happening in fashion, this is your style, this is what your music is saying, this is what I’m feeling, what do you think?”
What was your stance with Angel Haze?
Angel’s this tough girl and she’s sharp with her mouth but soft at the same time. She needed to be approachable so I suggested long hair would be the thing for her. And then you have this styling like Aaliyah, but you don’t want her to be Aaliyah. I thought that would get her noticed and a good thing to play on while still keeping her uniquely her. People miss Aaliyah or they miss that good tomboy thing. It works.
Bar Lianne and Angel, who else have you been working with recently?
Well I took a break between 2001-2005. I just stopped. I got tired and I wanted to put things in perspective. My friend Christopher Maldonado was Aaliyah’s make-up artist and he was on that last shoot with her. I was trying to get from LA to Florida and they were trying to get from the Bahamas to Florida to get to a party, hence why they were all trying to get on the same plane. I was in a hotel and I got the message that Aaliyah’s plane crashed, I was like, if Aaliyah was on there, so was Chris and so was [hairstylist] Eric Forman.” Around that time my grandmother who raised me died, there was 9/11; it was a lot. I stepped back and just thought nothing is forever and things can change just like that, what have I put into my future? I’m living a great life, I’m making loads of money, I can’t turn on the TV without seeing a video I’ve participated in or worked on, but something was missing. I really had to put my life into perspective and in that time I met my wife and we started up my business again.
What was Aaliyah like?
One of the sweetest, sweetest people I’ve ever met. Gone too soon. Lianne reminds me of her. I think that’s why I enjoy working with Lianne, she’s easy going but she knows what she wants, she’s confident, she wants to be beautiful and Aaliyah was very much like that. I love to see how much she’s grown in the industry. People have really embraced her and I think it’s really refreshing, not just as an artist, but as an artist of color from Britain. I think she’ll continue to grow just like Adele.
Are you still in touch with Lil’ Kim?
We haven’t seen each other for years but we’re in touch on Instagram and Twitter. Sometimes I’ll pull out old pictures and she’ll be like, “Oh my God! Where’d you get that?”
It must have been brilliant working with her because she’s like a cartoon character. You could really play up to that and make her anything.
Anything! And she allowed me to. She wasn’t afraid to try different things. This generation thinks Nicki Minaj is the original, but she’s not. Lil’ Kim did it first and broke the boundaries of what a female artist is supposed to look like and how many clothes you’re supposed to wear!
And also what a female rapper is supposed to be like.
Exactly. MC Lyte was all hard and rough and Kim’s like, “I’m from Brooklyn but I’m a girl, in high heels…”
And I seem to have forgotten half my top!
Exactly! The biggest shocker was the purple wig and the pastie.
You were involved in that? That was the talk of the MTV VMAs in 1999.
Yeah! The whole world was like, uh oh. I actually didn’t see the outfit till the press came out. The next day in the news, I was like, “Oh my God!” But I was so used to her being her I thought everyone else was. They were not ready for that. Amazing!
Eugene is continues to style musicians and celebrities and is currently working on a hair extension line called Sear Marpe which means “healing hair” in Hebrew.
Style Stage is an ongoing partnership between Noisey & Garnier Fructis celebrating music, hair, and style.