Tastemaker Mikki Taylor on Newark Nostalgia

The beauty icon mulls over Brick City’s past and present vibrancy.

Mikki Taylor newark

Mikki Taylor. Courtesy of Derek Blanks

Growing up, style maven Mikki Taylor witnessed a glamorous side of Newark most people don’t know. The editor-at-large of Essence magazine, who has earned a reputation as a beauty authority for women of color, grew up in the city in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, her mother, Modina, traveled with Sarah Vaughan as her personal wardrobe/hair stylist and makeup artist and later ran Beauty à la Carte, a Clinton Avenue hair salon. We talked with Taylor about her memories of the city where she still attends church weekly, and is an active member of the Women of NJPAC Association, and which is the subject of her Audible audiobook, Force of Beauty: A Newark Family Memoir. Taylor lives with her husband in Union County; Modina is no longer with her, “but she lives with me in spirit,” she says.   

You grew up living across the street from jazz legend Sarah Vaughan. What was that like?
We lived on Avon Avenue in a house that Sarah Vaughan bought so my mother would be close. When musicians came to play at the Key Club, some of them would bunk up at our home and sleep on our living room floor. As a child, I would wake up stepping over musicians like Cannonball Adderley.    

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What are your memories of your mom’s salon?
She opened the salon after she came off the road from working with [Vaughan]. It was right up the street from what was then called Hayes Circle, a bustling area with banks and storefronts. Women from all walks of life came to get their hair done. It all went into my coming of age and formed me. It became the tapestry of who I am today. 

So it’s fair to say that the famous women you’ve styled for Essence, like Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, have at one time rocked a Newark look?
Everything I learned, I learned at home. I would watch my mother; some of my earliest memories are of her working backstage with Sarah at the Ed Sullivan Show and the Jackie Gleason Show. She would bring home beauty products from tours around the world. At the salon, women were getting more than a great hairstyle. They were getting tips and affirmation at a time when Black women didn’t get much of that.    

Mikki Taylor newark

Clockwise from left: Mikki Taylor’s mother, Modina Davis, and grandmother, Bessie Boyd; Taylor with father Charles Graves and brother Michael Charles Graves; and baby Mikki. Courtesy of Mikki Taylor

Did the Newark Rebellion of the 1960s strip Newark of the glamour you recall in Force of Beauty?
When the riots hit, I was away at summer camp. When I saw the newspapers, I was in horror. I couldn’t believe they were talking about the people of Newark that I knew. We were hardworking, gifted, talented people. I don’t think the media portrayed us by and large as we were then and as we are now. I remember feeling like, Are they talking about my Newark? The good news is not always told.  

Is there still a lot of good news to be told about Newark?
Absolutely. There’s still a lot of glamour! Shopping on Halsey Street was such a joy to me when I was growing up. I never dreamed I’d come back and see all the artisans and beauty shops and so forth that are there now.  

Any best-kept stylish secrets in the city?
I would say Marco Hall Designs. He has a boutique in Newark’s downtown arts district. I call him a well-dressed secret: He’s designed for everyone from Jill Scott to Ledisi to women like myself. And that’s only one of my Newark style mainstays.

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