Advancing the acceptance of natural beauty, the radiant hair care icon.
So certain that their first-born child would be a boy, Barbra Jean and Preston Newsome awaited son Preston, Jr. When their Aries daughter arrived, they named her Prestonia and called her “Toni.” She would one day become “a new” Prestonia when spirit would dictate that she assume a name to “help manifest the qualities needed” to reach her “incarnation objective,” or purpose in life. As a new member of the spiritual community, Ausar Auset, she was dubbed Anu Kemmerå, one who sees beauty in serving and having correct behavior. Nearly thirty years later, “I’m still working on the behavior part,” she chuckles. She indeed sees the beauty of serving and has crafted an impressive career in the service of healthy beauty – one that has its genesis in her childhood. At ten-years-old, a too-strong perm left her with badly damaged hair that was then cut into a tiny Afro. “At the time, the only people with Afros were in Ebony or Jet. They were celebrities.” Heartily embraced, the reaction to her natural hairstyle surprised her, as she became a celeb among her peers for wearing the “new Afro hairdo.” She’d always “played in other people’s hair,” so by the time she entered her teens she was the go-to girl for all the basketball-playing boys who wanted their hair cornrowed. Her love of beauty is deeply ingrained, from her hairstylist grandmother to her own mother who affirmed Toni’s beauty at every turn. She entered her daughter in several beauty contests, including the famed Hal Jackson’s Miss Teenage Black America Pageant. “We rehearsed at Harlem Hospital’s auditorium: walking and charm taught by the popular models of the day and our talent routines. I chose poetry because spoken word was popular then.” She walked the stage to the strains of Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming.”
The music-loving contestant asked for a pic with the Queen of Soul backstage at the 1972 pageant.
Reciting Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa,” she intoned, “…Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.” It was a fitting poem for a girl whose bucolic beach existence in Norfolk where her dad was a naval photographer was interrupted by a parental split and relocation with her mom and siblings, Linda and Butch to gritty 1970’s New York City. “In Virginia we could go outside whenever we wanted to. I could just get on my bike, go exploring, get lost, try to catch June bugs and butterflies…or walk, long distances. My mother allowed me the freedom to walk wherever I wanted to. My grandmother’s house was about a mile and a half away and my great–grandmother’s was three miles!”
“When we moved to Brooklyn, everything was on the shutdown, we became prisoners in the apartment. We couldn’t go outside unless an adult was home. It just really changed things.” However she loved their apartment in a huge Pre-war building in Brownsville. “It was really big, had French doors and a sink in our bedroom, which I thought was just the grooviest thing.” The art deco bathroom had a floor-to-ceiling tiled shower stall in addition to a bathtub. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. In Virginia we’d only had a tub. So once we got to New York, I thought every day should be a shower day.”
Because of her frequent indoor confinement she “really got into WPIX’s Million Dollar Movie on TV” and remains a film buff to this day. Watching television also introduced her to pioneering African-American news anchor Melba Tolliver and when she traveled to DC to visit an uncle, the numerous black broadcasters there encouraged her as well. “I thought, I can be a broadcast journalist.”
Enrolling in the communications program at SUNY Brockport, she “couldn’t even believe how far away it was.” The eight-hour, intra-state trek to the quaint college town was longer than the drive from NYC to Norfolk. It was another world to the brown girl from Brownsville, a one-cinema town with no place to “get hair grease.” She was, however, struck by its beauty, its dramatic seasonal changes and its night sky. “It would be so full of stars and seem so close like you could just reach up and touch them. But when I came home for Christmas, I realized how much I missed being around my people.”
She transferred to historically black Howard University, “a more nurturing environment.” Those days truly shaped the woman and entrepreneur she would become. “Many pivotal changes happened in my life while I was there. I stopped straightening my hair, I became a vegetarian, I discovered yoga, and I learned how to put in an extension, so my career started at Howard.” The summer before her senior year, she started braiding hair at the popular salon, Shelton’s Hair Gallery, took a semester off and never went back, eventually returning to New York. An impetuous move to Jamaica West Indies without enough money to live on yielded “a few weeks of starving” and a need to relocate. She joined her sister, a University of Miami student in South Florida. Doing business as “Have Comb, Will Travel,” Prestonia made house calls to local clients as well as those in DC, New York and eventually the Bahamas. Disenchanted with both Miami’s monotonous climate and Floridians who didn’t “get” the Afrocentric yogi, she moved back to New York and found a sense of community with the Ausar Auset Society. “It felt like home,” she says. They offered yoga, meditation, breathing and African culture based in the sacrifice of the lower parts of your spirit, as opposed to the sacrifice of animals” found in some other African practices. They embraced vegetarianism. “They had all the components I was seeking at that time.”
Tying her mother’s gele in 1987. The yoga devotee in 1979.
After having been raised as a Christian, she embraced the precepts of Kemetic religion and dreamt the name her thriving business would take, Khamit Kinks. Although she left that practice 21 years ago, she remains in loving community with many former members. “My practice now is to be in truth with myself and others,” she says. Part of that truth is to awaken the “hoodwinked, bamboozled“ masses to the myths of popular culture. “I am a crusader for women to help them move from destroying their hair to accepting their own beauty, their own culture, their own aesthetic. What you were born with has value, all you have to do is love it, appreciate it and learn how to work with it or know where to go to have it treated with respect.”
She worked at legendary Kinapps African Groomers for several months until the entrepreneurial impulse resurfaced and she returned to working out of her home. When her friend Maitefa Angaza included pictures of Anu’s work in a pitch on African hairstyles to Essence, the magazine hired them both. Anu created looks for the professional shoot, her styles illustrating Maitefa’s text. Once the double-page spread ran “the phone started ringing off the hook.” Her business grew and she established a longstanding relationship with the magazine styling/braiding models as well as celebrities for editorial shoots. (Khamit Kinks is featured in “Super Naturals,” a beauty story in the July 2011 issue) From Angelas Bassett and Davis to Terry McMillan, Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey she’s covered a broad swath. In 1992 her client, radio deejay Imhotep Gary Byrd referred Stevie Wonder –in need of a quick shampoo– to her. She excitedly accepted but on a three-way call a few weeks later with Stevie on the line to schedule another shampoo appointment Anu replied in mock indignation, “What does he think this is, a laundromat? We don’t shampoo other people’s work!” Stevie remains a client nearly twenty years later, “Yeah Stevie is very relaxed, he thought that was pretty funny.”
Braids on Oprah, locs on Stevie and a head-wrapped Anu flanked by Nigerian thread-wrapped Angie and Alfre.
Her business has grown from girl-on-the-go to a single chair in a basement apartment to many years in her own Tribeca salon and back to her home borough. She and her team of natural hair care specialists/stylists move from her massive Downtown Brooklyn Gold Street space to a very well situated new space in the bustling Atlantic Avenue corridor later this summer. Among her most sought after services are consultations on damaged hair, a task she takes very seriously. “Having had the experience of losing my hair as a girl left an indelible impression.” She wishes for everyone pristine health from their follicles to their toes. “I’ve always had an interest in health having come from a very sickly family—my grandmother died when I was eight from diabetes and stroke, she was only forty-seven. My mother was in and out of hospitals all my life. The things that we do affect our health.” She highlights Diabetes as an example, “people used to just think its inherited, but no–what’s inherited is the diet that leads to it.” She is very mindful of how she moves through the world, from the energies she surrounds herself with to the foods she eats to creating “me’ time to the aromas in the air she breathes. She shares her knowledge through her services, her carefully developed product line, events she holds in-shop (like Zumba class) her blogs Ask Anu and Anu Essentials and the documentary she produced in 2009, In Our Heads About Our Hair.
From her lovely sister Linda in the early 1980’s to Nikita today, Anu features everyday beauties, not supermodels in her promotions.
Is no surprise that her innate love of and “nose” for fragrance would find its way into her business. She first used botanicals in her hair oils and years later introduced fragrant body butters and natural soaps. Upon reading master perfumer Mandy Aftel’s book, “Essence and Alchemy,” she was turned on to and turned out by natural perfumery. “It was so enchanting, it took me to another planet,” she says fervently. “It’s sacred art, really. Just the other day, I thought Wow! I wonder what God was thinking about when he made this smell this way.” The fragrances of nature have intrigued her since childhood: cut grass, soil after a rain, pine. For young Toni a fresh pack of unburned cigarettes was a nosegay as pleasing as any cluster of small flowers. She’d bury her nose in it and inhale deeply. Though she abhors cigarette smoke, as an adult Anu finds tobacco essence “hypnotically beautiful.”
This summer she launches her first perfume, the herbaceous, floral-kissed Meadowlark, a “green” blend of oak moss, clary sage and her beloved rose. “I am new to this industry, there’s quite a learning curve,” but she is very excited by her foray. As she expands her hair care line to include shampoo, conditioner, styling crème and a gel she incorporates her growing knowledge of the vast repository of botanical essences.
Rosemary-infused medicinal hair oil, glycerin-rich, hand crafted soap, and my favorite body butter, Sultry.
A long ago Essence photo shoot initially crossed our paths, but Anu and I have over the years come to discover several shared delights, quirky to sublime from the wafting aromas of laundromat exhaust to the wistful vocals of Madeleine Peyroux to the evocative treatises on fragrance by Mandy Aftel. Server and sybarite, Anu is a woman in balance. She works hard, plays hard and truly enjoys being in her own luminous, sweetly scented skin.
Before the Kemetic, yogic, Reiki certified, fragrance-loving, would-be pool shark headed to her billiards league, she shared some of the things besides lush, healthy heads of natural hair that stoke her Arian fire:
1. Natural perfumery. I love the botanical essences: how they smell, look, and feel–from very thin and light to thick and viscous.” Though Mandy Aftel is her primary mentor, she’s also been inspired by Amanda Walker of “A Perfume Organic,” master perfumer Sarah Horowitz, bloggers like Monica Miller and reading Chandler Burr’s books. “And I have a guardian angel in Marian Williams who has generously offered contacts to exclusive suppliers.”
A detail from her perfume organ, the natural perfumer’ organization system of raw materials, sorted by note.
2. Jewelry. “I love the gamut. I have a collection of pearls. I purchase them from a sister in the jewelry district on the Bowery. I fell in love with black jet beads a couple of years ago and bought some most precious finds on EBay.
A unique EBay offering: a Victorian Whitby jet watch fob.
3. Billiards. “This is my third season on a league at Amsterdam Billiards in NYC.”
Her “sweetheart,” entrepreneur (and billiards aficionado) Henry Rock, gifted her with one of her two cue sticks.
4. Spa Services. “My first spa experience was in 1993 at the Burke Williams Spa in Santa Monica. My favorites are Dr. Hauschka facials, salt exfoliation in a wet room with Vichy showers that hang above the table, deep tissue massage and all the ayurvedic spa services–especially at Kripalu Yoga Institute.”
Vichy shower: “a nearly orgasmic experience,” she says.
5. Gardening/Flowers. “I love all flowers, my faves are peonies, poppies, all lilies, bearded irises, hydrangea, hollyhocks, gardenias, roses of course, clematis, lantana. I could go on and on with this one…”
The fruits of her gardening labors.
6. Yoga. “Though I’m not teaching right now, I am a certified Yoga instructor trained at Integral Yoga Institute.” Its founder, Swami Satchadananda was “my first inspiration on my road to seeking my spiritual path.”
She has practiced Hatha Yoga for thirty years.
7. My Home. “I purchased my 1897 Brooklyn brownstone exactly one hundred years after it was built.”
“It took me about 5 years to get it where I was truly comfortable.”
8. Foreign and Independent Films. From Jules Dassin (Rififi, 1955) to Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) she enjoys bold, visionary cinema from around the globe.
Set in South Korea, Ki-duk Kim’s elegiac 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is a favorite.
9. Fine Dining. “I love to eat! I really enjoy fresh, quality and organic food.” She has unforgettable memories of a small Italian restaurant on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. “They bought out cheeses on a chunk of tree trunk, an array of olives and delicious bread to start the meal. There’s no menu, just absolutely great food.” She fondly recalls “the simply exquisite pleasure of dining at the illustrious Babbo Ristorante, and Dirt Candy, love their food.” Son Cubanois another haunt.
The humble vegetable as delicacy at Dirt Candy, and two all-time restaurant faves.
10. Birkenstocks. From shoes to sandals, her tootsies are happy in the famed Birkenstock cork foot bed.
Of her large collection of Birkis, many are Gizeh thong sandals.