For black women and their hair, sometimes things can get complicated. Titi Branch, along with her sister Miko, taught countless women that didn’t have to be.
At 45, Branch had helped create a successful salon in New York City with her sister—and a successful haircare line, Miss Jessie’s Natural Hair Products, nationwide. But at 45, Branch died of a reported suicide, leaving behind family, friends and a legacy that goes beyond the beauty industry.
Branch helped women feel beautiful by encouraging them to embrace their natural selves as she had.
“What’s great about Miss Jessie’s—we saw an emergence of black female entrepreneurs creating their own hair care products,” said Jenee Darden, a writer for CocoaFly and communications coordinator for the mental-health nonprofit PEERS. Darden described Miss Jessie’s as “empowering black women” by representing the idea that “I’m going to wear my hair the way God gave me. I’m going to create a product to take care of my hair. They were at the forefront of that. It showed that we do know how to take care of our hair … we know what we need for our hair and it was empowering for them to do that.”
Wearing your hair “as God gave me,” hasn’t always been so simple in the African American community. For decades, among black women, the primarily desired look as been straight hair, which often can only be achieved through chemical relaxers, hot combs, blow dryers, wigs and hair extensions. While the look worked for some, the combination of heat and chemicals took a toll on the hair of others. And even for those who fared well with straightened hair, the regular trips to the salon the look demanded weren’t always wallet-friendly.
Branch and Miss Jessie’s offered a solution to black women looking for more options, more ways to do their hair. And that solution came from a homemade brew Branch and her sister created together.
“Titi was one of the original architects of turning homemade ‘kitchen’ mixes and concoctions into commercial products,” said Leila Noelliste, founding editor of popular natural hair blog, Black Girl with Long Hair. “People associate the name ‘Miss Jessie’s’ with mainstream success of natural hair products. She inspired confidence in a generation of women who followed in her footsteps and went on to create commercially successful product lines.”
Branch grew up in Queens, NY, the daughter of an African American man and a Japanese woman. She and her sister went into business together in 1997, opening Curve Salon after a career in media. Branch, who had a consumer economics degree from the University of Maryland, focused on the business aspect of Miss Jessie’s—doing everything from running payroll to sweeping up after clients—while her sister, Miko was the stylist.
The idea to invest in their own hair company came from Miko after seeing how clients at their salon responded to her natural hair. They wanted Miko’s look, so the sisters became a driving force in the natural hair movement, creating their top selling Miss Jessie’s Curly Pudding and Baby ButterCreme. Following on the success of other black hair care lines, like Carol’s Daughter, they joined a booming $7 billion U.S. hair-care market of which black women and the products that target them make up $684 million.
Through her haircare line, named for her grandmother, Jessie Branch, Titi Branch was revolutionary. The brand’s rapid popularity and growth demonstrated the buying power of African American women, as Miss Jessie’s went from the salon to the counters of retailers like Target. It also demonstrated that the so-called “trend” of natural went beyond trend. Natural hair was becoming a look with longevity. Sales for hair relaxers among the black community have dropped by 26 percent in the past five years.
Described as a “book-smart tomboy,” Branch was pivotal in both the salon and hair care line’s growth. Miss Jessie’s is in more than 2,500 retail outlets and is set to double next year. Also out next year, a book, “Miss Jessie’s: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch—Naturally,” penned by Miko about the sisters’ success.
News of Titi Branch’s death hit hard. For those who covered beauty and natural hair or were simply fans of Branch’s business savvy and style, the sudden loss left a lot of questions.
“Titi Branch made an indelible mark on the natural hair industry before we even had a name for it,” said EBONY Magazine’s Senior Digital Editor Jamilah-Asali Lemieux. “It’s sobering to think that someone who had so many accolades, so many achievements, could be suffering so profoundly. My heart is absolutely broken for her sister, Miko and the entire Miss Jessie’s family.”
“I was really, really sad,” Darden said. “I’m always really sad when I hear things like that because you always wonder what happened. Was she getting the proper care? Did people know she was struggling? She was so young and successful. You can be broke, you can be a billionaire—when depression hits, depression hits.”
Darden called Branch’s Miss Jessie’s “impressive,” commending it for bring money back into the black community. She hoped that Branch didn’t take her own life, but if that was the case, Darden said there needs to be a dialogue about mental health in the African American community.
“We all need to take care of our own mental health,” Darden said. “We need to be kind to people and to have compassion for us who do have diagnoses because we all have to take care. You still have to take care of your sanity, your piece of mind. We need to take the stigma out of the black community and hold her in compassion and get the word out to stop the stigma in the community.”