Advocating for age inclusivity is what keeps model Karen Williams going. The self-titled “empowered aging ambassador” has been modeling since she was 13, after she was scouted by a photographer. She subsequently signed to Ford Models and modeled into her early 40s. After taking a break to pursue other passions like film production and acting, Williams returned to the modeling world at age 54 with a mission to “advocate for greater representation of diverse people aging in fashion and beauty,” she tells Vogue. “And to promote the need for age to be a required component of diversity and inclusivity across all industries.”
In recent years, Williams has starred in H&M campaigns and posed next to her 80-year-old mother for the book I Am Beauty: Timeless Skincare and Beauty for Women Over 40 by makeup artist Riku Campo. When she’s not shooting, Williams hosts conversations with women over 40, such as DJ and actor Belinda Becker, as well as Chiara D’Agostino, a body positive model on the I Am the Movement YouTube channel.
Williams grew up understanding that Black was beautiful thanks to the people who surrounded her. When she was born, her parents were students at Howard University at a time when the Black Power movement was gestating. Her family counted Stokely Carmichael as a friend. “His mother was like a grandmother to me,” Williams says.
“Watching loved ones with a dizzying range of skin color and hair textures unapologetically celebrate their Pan-African Black identities with big and short Afros, cornrows, elaborate braids, or Nefertiti-styled headdresses was as normal to me as seeing them don Eurocentric hairstyles like beehives, bouffants, or flip ups,” Williams remembers. “My parents and their friends were brilliant mirrors reflecting ‘Black is beautiful,’ and ‘Black is diverse’ more powerfully than any slogan could.”
After her parents graduated, they moved the family to Jamaica. There, Williams remembers sitting between her mother’s legs while she parted her hair and applied the infamous VO5 and Ultra Sheen hair ointments, brushing “every flyaway strand into silky, shiny plaits.” Her father would take over for fancier occasions and do a one-braided bun at the top of her head, giving her words of wisdom as he worked. “When I started modeling, he wanted me to know the importance of using what’s in my head, not what’s on it,” she says. She credits his guidance for helping her to later “cultivate a deep intellectual well and inner spiritual life.” Her grandmother often did her hair when she visited the countryside, paying no mind to Williams’s tender-headed-ness for the bedtime plait up each night. For those “big gyal bouncy curls,” Williams remembers that it took “sweltering for two hours under a hooded dryer in Kingston,” to get the job done, even if the look was promptly deteriorated under the Jamaican sun.
To this day, Williams takes hair inspiration from her mother. “She was always experimental, yet practical,” she says. “I follow her lead with extreme hair transformations, from a mid-back mane to an almost-bald crew cut.” Williams keeps her mother’s words in the back of her head: “As long as it’s healthy, it’s only hair and hair grows.” To keep her hair healthy, Williams concocts a DIY scalp treatment that includes (but is not limited to): marula oil, argan oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and tea tree, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, chamomile, and peppermint essential oils, as well as aloe vera gel straight from the plant. Other times, she reaches for Fable & Mane’s HoliRoots Hair Oil. “The rich, penetrating Ayurvedic blend of oils, tonics, and herbs adds extra softness and slip, helps to reduce frizz, strengthens the scalp, and stimulates hair growth,” Williams explains. She applies the oil along with a head massage to create circulation and release tension.
Williams, who stopped dying her hair in favor of her natural gray at age 53, maintains her color with Maison 276 and Fanola Free No Yellow Vegan Mask. For a deep conditioning, she turns to Fable & Mane’s HoliRoots Hair Mask. For definition, Design Essentials Avocado & Almond Curl Enhancing Mousse is her go-to. “A little goes a long way,” she notes. When she wants a sleek look, Charlotte Mensah’s Manketti Oil Pomade gives shine, moisture, and reduces frizz, while Jamaican black castor oil helps to “strengthen the extra-fine, delicate front, baby-hair edges.”
After years of modeling, she’s learned a thing or two about maintaining her hair’s health amid all of the manipulation that often happens on sets. “I use no heat, and only when absolutely necessary do I occasionally allow stylists to use a cool diffuser on photo shoots or sets,” she says. “Whenever I’m outdoors hiking or exercising, I cover my head with a hat, scarf, or turban to prevent my hair from burning in the sun,” she adds. Using a silk pillowcase at night is another pro trick.
When it comes to embracing the glorious grays, Williams has learned to “have fun, play, and experiment with different styles that accentuate the new growth,” she says. “Try out wearing an inexpensive wig or two. If you don’t like what you’re seeing in the mirror, then change. It’s your prerogative to wear your hair in any color or style of your choosing. You’ll know when and what the right decision will be. Just make sure you don’t give that decision-making power over to anyone else.”
“I typically plait my hair up to seal in moisture."
“For sleek looks, I love using Charlotte Mensah's products to keep my hair hydrated.”
“I've learned confidence is built from positive, purpose-driven engagement, encouragement, and connection in community with role models who help to elevate us to become our highest selves,” Williams says. “Spend time in intergenerational groups of diverse Black women and men. Really listen to their stories and share yours as well.”
Maison 276 Clarify Pre-Shampoo
Maison 276 Hydrate Shampoo
Fanola No Yellow Vegan Mask
Fable & Mane HoliRoots Pre-wash Hair Treatment Oil
Fable & Mane HoliRoots Repairing Hair Mask
Design Essentials Natural Curl Enhancing Mousse
Charlotte Mensah Manketti Hair Oil
Change before you have to.