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Curlies unite!

Breyer's business grows from an old frustration

michelle breyer

Michelle Breyer makes it cool to be curly.

Growing up with a head of curly hair, Michelle Breyer heard all the nicknames: Brillo Pad, Bozo, big hair, Medusa, poodle head, fuzz.

“Kids are mean,” she says. “Curly hair was not always considered the standard of beauty.” Luckily, standards have broadened to include anything from straight to waves to kinks. But women with curly hair still have a lot to talk about, says Breyer, BJ ’85. For instance, how to deal with their unruly tresses. “Walk up to a curly on the street, and there’s a bond,” she says.

That bond is what holds together Breyer’s $3 million a year Internet-based business, naturallycurly.com, which grew almost by accident as she researched and shared ways of treating, styling and living with curls. She says more than 50 percent of people have at least some degree of waviness.

It all started in 1998 when Breyer and Gretchen Heber were working at the Austin (Texas) American Statesman. “I covered entrepreneurs, but I never thought I’d be one. Then one night at a party, a guy overheard our conversation about dealing with curly hair and thought it was so funny. He proposed that we start a magazine or website. So we went online right there knowing we would find nothing — no resources at all for curly hair. But there were plenty of products and styling ideas for straight hair.”

So, out of altruism, Breyer and Heber launched a modest website with information and product reviews. “My 13-year-old neighbor developed the site, and people found it right away.” Soon thousands of women were reading the site’s stories and chatting with one another about finding stylists, taming curls with various regimens, dealing with curl-bashers and much more. Corporations took notice of the power of the curly bond. “Within a year, Procter & Gamble came to us and wanted to launch its new Physique brand for curly hair. We thought, ‘Wow, people want to pay us for this?’ ”

At the time, companies and stylists were looking for niches. By 2004, companies regularly called to place ads on the site, which is now chockablock with sales pitches for full lines of Pantene products as well as products with complex names such as Alaffia Beautiful Curls Curl Activating Shea Butter Leave-In Conditioner. The site also has an online boutique. The company’s revenue comes from a combination of e-commerce and advertising sales. Advertising is responsible for 60 percent of its profits.

“Back in 2005, we began to feel that it should be a full-time job, so we left the paper and rented office space. It was just two of us at first.” Naturallycurly.com now owns two complementary websites: It acquired curlynikki.com, which covers topics of interest to African-American women who do not straighten their hair, and it created curlystylists.com, which caters to professional hairdressers. “Between the three sites, we have 1.5 million hits a month,” Breyer says. A mobile app is in the works that could help boost that figure.

As a youngster, Breyer had a hair ritual. “I’d blow-dry it straight, put it in hot rollers, douse with hair spray and hope it would not be a humid day. I never wanted people to know how curly my hair was. When I went to Mizzou, I had a ‘chemical haircut,’ a relaxer with another relaxer on top, and my hair broke off. Thank goodness wearing hats was in vogue in the ’80s — I had one with ‘Deja Vu’ on it. It seems everyone has a story about the lengths they go to in dealing with curly hair.” Naturallycurly.com gives them a place to tell it.

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