Phil Morgese has been a single dad since his daughter Emma was 1 year old. Of the many challenges Morgese faced, managing Emma’s hair was among the hardest.
Until he learned a simple three-strand braid. Which led to a fishtail braid. And then a braided bun. And then to an appearance on the Tyra Banks Show. Before long, other dads wanted to learn how to braid their daughters’ hair, too. So Morgese started the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory, a pro bono clinic/support group for fathers to learn both the mechanics of caring for their daughters’ hair and the value of doing so. The factory has grown to include 17 clinics nationwide — all free — as well as outposts in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.
Its motto? “It’s not about the braid; it’s about the bond.”
When my ex-wife and I split up, she started fading out of Emma’s life. And when she did show up, she brought with her emotional baggage and stories of going to jail and rehab. I didn’t want Emma exposed to all that crap, so I took full custody of her when she was just a year old. I was frustrated initially because most of every paycheck was just going to keeping my nose above water. Although I was thankful to finally be separated from Emma’s mother, I was struggling to accept that it was the right thing to do.
Back then, Emma had fine hair, which I found easy to manage. But when she got a little older, she’d wake up with her hair in tangles. It was a nightmare! Plus, her scalp was very sensitive. I was always scared I was going to hurt her. To make sure I didn’t, I’d sit with her and go centimeter by centimeter, carefully pulling out each tangle one at a time with a fine-toothed comb.
That meant, however, it took forever to brush her hair out before school. The whole thing really stressed me out. So much so that one day when we were late getting to school, I lost my patience with Emma and said some very mean things. I barked, How old are you?! and she meekly replied 10? I screamed, How come you don’t act your age?! I could tell she was defeated when I dropped her off at school. To this day, it makes me upset thinking about it. Your kid looks to you for support, and if their only form of support is you screaming at them, they enter the day feeling defeated. After school we had a long talk about it and came to an agreement to prep the night before so we could avoid those kinds of mornings. I failed her that day.
It’s not an excuse for my behavior, but I couldn’t get over my insecurity about not being able to handle Emma’s tangles. The moms were always there when I dropped her off at school, and I was afraid they were judging me. I had zero money in the bank. The low fuel light was always on. But more than anything, I was concerned about Emma showing up to school clean, kempt and with her hair put together.
So I reached out to my friends on Facebook and asked if anyone had tips or tricks that could help me with her tangles. One of them responded by suggesting that I should try braiding her hair before bed. I didn’t waste any time, and tried out the advice immediately. The following morning when she woke up and I undid the braid, it was like magic: The hair was completely untangled! I started bringing Emma to school with a simple, three-strand braid and the teachers would say, “Emma’s hair looks so cool. Did you do that?!” They were blown away. The way they looked at me and praised me made me feel like a million bucks. I thought, What else can I do? That led me to the fishtail braid, which was actually easier than a three-strand braid.
It grew from there. My friends started sending me links and encouraging me to try different things. Ninety percent of the time I failed, but I started realizing this was very special time I was spending with my daughter. I was engaged with her and didn’t have my tablet or phone. Instead, we’d have long conversations about everything and nothing at all. I would ask her questions just to hear her response, like, “If you could be any animal, which would you be, and why?” I’d say things like, “You are going to make this world a better place, just like you did to my world.” I’d often joke about giving her a Mohawk or some other ridiculous hairstyle, just to make her laugh. We’d design our dream house with an indoor slide, ball pit, game room and slurpee machine. All the while, I was getting better at managing her hair. I mastered the “braided bun,” which I could never do when I first started, and was even invited by CuteGirlsHairstyles to host a tutorial on their site!
Around the same time, there was a story about a dad in Colorado named Greg Wickherst who went to cosmetology school to learn how to do his daughter’s hair. It was pretty uncommon to hear about another dad who did hair, so I connected with him and we shared some of the challenges we faced.
A month later, the Tyra Banks Show was doing a show about dads who do hair and reached out to Greg. He couldn’t make it, but recommended me as a replacement. I was hesitant. I’ve always been a manly man and didn’t really know if I wanted to be known as “the guy who does his daughter’s hair.” I quickly got over it, though, and said, “Screw it! I can’t let insecurity stop me from doing something great. I have the opportunity to inspire a dad to get out of his comfort zone and try to do hair.”
That certainly seemed to happen. Because after the segment aired, a lot of my guy friends started reaching out. Enough of them asked if I could show them how to braid hair that I decided to teach a class on the basics of brushing, braids and buns. There were seven dads and their daughters in the first one. I was so nervous. We’d been given a room to use at a local beauty academy, and six members of their staff decided to sit in, meaning I now had an audience as well as students. And you have to remember: I’m not a professional. I never went to school for this. If anything, I was probably doing a lot of things wrong in that classroom.
I started by showing them proper brushing techniques: Separate the hair, start at the bottom, work out the tangles while they are small. Use spray if you need to. From there, I found my confidence and voice — in large part because everyone seemed super into it. It was beyond invigorating for me. I loved seeing other dads who were involved. As a single dad, when I go to the park, I’m usually the only one — i.e., it’s typically just me and a bunch of women. So it was both inspiring and comforting to be in a classroom filled with guys who were super engaged with their daughters, too. A couple guys even stayed behind after class to learn the trickiest style I teach: the French braid.
Afterwards, I shared pictures from the class on the Fancy Follicles SubReddit and got the most upvotes I’d ever received. By the end of the week, I had 4,000 emails — and not just from other dads, but also from moms saying their favorite memory was their dad learning how to brush their hair. It all meant so much to me that I stayed up all night responding to every single message.
In June of last year I was nominated for “Father of the Year” on the Steve Harvey Show — the winner would receive $10,000! I remember being truly excited for the incredible guy who won because he opened an outreach program to help inmates learn barber skills, which gives these guys a second chance.
The Daddy Daughter Hair Factory has grown ever since. On our Facebook page the other day I noticed a bunch of Chinese characters and thought, Oh crap, now our story’s shared in China! It’s wild. But people love to see fathers who are involved in their children’s lives.
That’s definitely where we try to go with the class. I emphasize the importance of being there and staying connected. I mention it every other minute, in fact. I remind them that there’s going to come a point in time when your daughter’s going to be too old for this and the only things you’ll be left with are the memories you create now.
Some dads are worried people will think they’re soft because they’re doing their daughters’ hair. I’ve certainly heard a lot of hateful things. I’ve been called gay; I’ve been called a pedophile. But those opinions don’t matter. Some people try to cut you down because that’s all they’ve got. That’s why we have a “no-judgment zone” in class — as well as no-women policy. It’s not that I don’t think moms should be involved, too; it’s just that I want our class to be a place where dads can meet to discuss fatherhood and hair and laugh about the struggles we’ve had without trying to flirt.
I’d be lying if I said every dad who’s come through our class has been receptive to it. Three-quarters of them take the free products, leave and are never heard from again. Other guys take the class in secret because they’re worried about how they’ll be judged, the same way I was concerned about people knowing me as a dad who braids hair.
I’ve found, though, that my concern was totally unwarranted. I’ve also found that there are no gender roles these days. I do all the laundry because if I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done and I can’t afford to pay someone to do it. It’s totally unevolved for a guy to rule out taking care of his daughter’s hair because he thinks it’s women’s work. Any guy stuck in that traditional mindset needs to go back to the 1920s. Because he’s missing out on a beautiful connection with his child. Plain and simple.
—As told to C. Brian Smith