It’s 8 o’clock on a Friday night in Chicago’s South Loop, and Lyn Turner is gliding across the floor of Issues Barber and Beauty Salon in a blunt black wig and glittering tunic of gold paillettes. Charismatic and warm, the hairstylist is consumed with delivering a bring-the-house-down rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” down to the singer’s confident, syncopated nod and effervescent shimmy of shoulders. Nearby, barbers tighten up fades behind two glass doors. In just under an hour, the flame-haired Sharon Holcomb will lead stylists and patrons in rousing prayer.
At the center of it all stands Yvenetta Welch—a 5-foot-4 force of nature who opened the salon’s doors some 17 years ago. “Some people call me boss lady, but I don’t like to be called that,” Welch says in her soft-spoken voice. “I’m just Midge.” With her royal blue pixie cut and silver sequined Chanel boots, Welch is a walking advertisement for her salon’s distinctive brand of all-in-the-family glamour: playing backup to a close crop gone wrong, offering a second pair of hands where they’re needed, and pausing for the occasional hug. “[Midge makes] perfection with a pixie,” says Emmy-winning producer and present-day talk-show host Samantha Thomas, who flies in from Las Vegas to get her hair done once a month. “I always say, when you find somebody who works your hair the way it should be, that’s where the magic happens.”
Still, the bulk of Welch’s clientele comes from closer to home, driving upwards of an hour across town from suburbs like Joliet and Naperville or mere blocks away, in the Jeffery Manor neighborhood, where she got her start. “Growing up in the projects, I was always the one who colored my friends’ hair,” says Welch, whose salon feels like a microcosm of the supportive work-hard-play-hard spirit that defines the community. “But I never had doubts about my business once I got started. As a kid, I didn’t have much, so I knew as an adult that I wanted much more for myself and my daughter.”
These days, her skill with a pair of shears precedes her: “You can’t Google short hair in Chicago and not find Midge,” as one patron puts it. And though her days are long—beginning at 6:00 a.m. and ending after 11:00 p.m.—she spends them among a tight-knit group of men and women who are more like an extended clan. Of Issues’s 21 stylists and barbers, many have been with Welch for the better part of a decade, including veteran artists and best friends Kristal Nicole Howard and Heaven Thurman, who specialize in color and natural hair. But there is always room for one more. MyAngel, the salon’s youngest trainee, landed squarely under Welch’s wing last fall during a serendipitous turn of events: “She was walking past on her way home from school, and she stopped and stared in the window,” says Welch, who caught sight of the 8-year-old—curious, shy, observant. “I told her, ‘Come in on Saturday.’ She’s been here ever since.”
Ask anyone who knows Welch about her success and they’ll tell you it has as much to do with strength of character, originality, and heart as it does with running a profitable business. “It’s not just a job for me. I like making people beautiful. I like to see everybody win,” she says. Over the course of the day, Issues morphs from a gathering spot for mothers, daughters, sisters, and cousins into a late-night dance party, the hiss of hairspray standing in for smoke machines. In the long tradition of black hair salons as communal spaces, where wash-and-sets can eat up an entire day due to overbooked appointments or friendly conversations that turn into heated, hours-long debates, Issues feels like a second home.
Beginning bright and early on the weekend, gospel music pours out from the digital jukebox. A few hours later, Chef Maurice—who sets up his makeshift kitchen, replete with a fryer and electric stove, in the back of the salon—starts serving up plates of fresh-to-order chicken and waffles, salmon croquettes, and shrimp and grits. Amaretto sours, an on-the-house specialty during what is deemed Curls & Cocktails Hour, may suddenly appear, like magic, on a silver tray while beauticians twist coils or comb custom wigs. It’s reason enough to stay for another hour, and before you know it, dusk falls and the soundtrack switches to Beyoncé and, eventually, trap. Come 9:00 p.m., Issues isn’t just getting women ready for the party, it is the party. And just about then, the conversation turns to the only real issue left up for discussion: good hair.