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Hair and Wig Designer Mia Neal Wins Academy Award for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Michael S. Eddy • Industry NewsTheatre Buzz • April 28, 2021

For the first time ever, two Black women have won an Oscar for makeup and styling at the 93rd annual Academy Awards. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hair department head Mia M. Neal and Jamika Wilson, Viola Davis’ hairstylist along with makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera were honored with an Academy Award. On Sunday April 25, 2021, Neal accepted the Academy Award alongside Wilson and Lopez-Rivera. It was the first nomination and first win for Neal, the film’s hair and wig designer and hair department head; Wilson, personal hairstylist for Viola Davis; and Lopez-Rivera, Davis’ personal makeup artist. Here’s a video from the Academy of Neal’s acceptance speech:

Mia Neal, right, adjusts the hair of Viola Davis, as Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

In addition to the Oscar, Neal’s hair and makeup work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was honored with a BAFTA Award, Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Award, a Chicago Indie Critics Award, Gold Derby Award, Hollywood Critics Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association Film Award.

Neal, a veteran of New York theater productions, in addition to work on films and movies, has been based in New York since graduating from the Juilliard School’s Professional Internship Program specializing in Wigs and Makeup. Her Broadway and New York theater credits include West Side Story (2020), The Iceman Cometh (2018), Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (2016) for which Neal was honored with the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Wig and Hair, A Raisin in the Sun (2014), Boeing-Boeing (2008), and Julius Caesar (2005). Off-Broadway credits include: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park), By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (Signature Theatre), and Carmen Jones (Classic Stage Company).

She attended Merrillville Beauty College, then Columbia College in Chicago. After Columbia College, enrolled at Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Jackson, MS. While working at a MAC Cosmetics counter in Jackson, a co-worker encouraged her to apply for the nine-month wig program at the Juilliard School in New York. Neal counts the Academy Award winning costume designer of Ma Rainey, Ann Roth as a mentor. Neal credited her mentor, Roth, for suggesting she create a horsehair wig for Davis in keeping with what Rainey likely wore because of its durability.

“I was raised by my grandfather, James Holland, he was an original Tuskegee Airman,” Neal said on stage accepting the Oscar. “He represented the U.S. in the first Pan Am games, he went to Argentina, he graduated from Northwestern University in a time when they did not allow Blacks to stay on campus, so he stayed at the YMCA. And after all of these accomplishments, he went back to his hometown in hopes of becoming a teacher, but they did not hire Blacks in the school system.”

Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera with their Oscars for their work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

She continued: “So I want to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, who were denied but never gave up. I also stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. Because I can picture Black Trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, and our Latina sisters, and Indigenous women, and I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal. Thank you to the Academy, to Netflix, to Denzel Washington, to George C. Wolf, to Ann Roth, to Ms. Viola Davis, and the spirit of Ma Rainey. Thank you.”

“The recognition of my art and talent by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is bigger than me,” Wilson told Variety in March. “It is for every young hairstylist who dreams beyond the salon chair to work on a motion picture set. It is for the young child who tells their parents they want to be a hairstylist to receive a response of ‘That’s not a real career.’ The nomination is validation that hair styling is an art form, a craft, and a skill. It also shows every Black woman or man doing hair that we can achieve, and importantly that our talent and skill is equal and exceptional.”

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo: Courtesy of David Lee/Netflix

The film, adapted from August Wilson’s play and directed by George C. Wolfe, is set during a recording session in 1920s Chicago. It tells the story of Rainey, a pioneering blues singer played by Viola Davis, and her battle to protect her gift from exploitation.

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