She encapsulated a
world of firsts for African-Americans, including first salon owner to
offer advanced curly hair techniques and treatments (1959), first
inducted into NCA's Hall of Renown (1991) and first to receive a North
American Hairstyling Award (1996). Once director of education for Soft
Sheen, she pioneered the first black-hair advanced training academy and
developed the first universal relaxer.
Why She's Influential: Mastering all textures through competitions (and hoards of awards), she was the first authentically multicultural stylist who insisted, "hair is a texture, not an ethnicity." Today, that nomenclature is de rigueur. Strong, smart and even-handed, Benson never stopped sharing-in classes, on stage and in her salon. If the beauty door is universally open, it's because she unlocked it.
Who She Has Influenced: "Olive always gave good advice and never sold me up the river," says James Harris, creative director of Olive's Beauty Salon in Boston. "She was instrumental in my traveling through Europe and we collaborated on many things. We made $750 on our Josephine Baker competition look; she gave the money to me and I gave it to Patrick Kelley, who went on to become the world's biggest black fashion designer."