Koni Bennett wants everyone to look and feel their best while she tries her hardest to make a difference in the beauty world from Scranton to New York City and beyond.
Bennett, who moved to the Electric City as a teen and splits her time between here and the Big Apple, remains a small-town girl at heart — even though her resume says otherwise.
The hairstylist, makeup artist and beauty expert worked her way up through the industry in New York and now collaborates with iconic brands, such as TRESemmé. She styled hair at New York Fashion Week’s salon and has been featured in well-read publications, including Refinery29, POPSUGAR, BuzzFeed, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and more.
In Scranton, Bennett is owner and stylist of Vanity, A Boutique Salon, in West Scranton, one of the only salons in the area that caters to multi-cultural hair. Vanity offers everything from blowouts and color to braids and extensions as well as hair straightening, natural hair care and more. This past January, the salon was named Greater Scranton Martin Luther King Commission’s 2019 Business of the Year.
“It feels amazing to bring something I had always wanted to do here to my hometown,” Bennett said during a recent afternoon at the salon. “To be able to bring my two worlds together, it’s just a dream come true.”
In both cities, Bennett also can contribute to a larger conversation. Most recently, she was involved with fellow Unilever brand Dove on an event for the #ShowUs campaign. Dove partnered with women’s empowerment nonprofit Girlgaze and Getty Images to create the world’s largest stock photo library that features people of all races, cultures and identities. Bennett styled the hair of the panel of women at the event — including client, friend and Marie Claire Digital Beauty Editor Maya Allen — all of whom are committed to tearing down stereotypes and promoting diversity and representation of women in media and advertising.
“The women and girls in my salon in Scranton, Pennsylvania — the conversations I have with them — I’m taking what those women have to say and I’m bringing it to the corporate world and these important projects,” Bennett said. “I’m bringing what I hear in Scranton, and those voices are being heard by people who really can make a difference in the beauty world, and in the world in general. I tell everyone about Scranton. It’s my home.”
Scranton also is where Bennett got her start in beauty. The now 29-year-old moved from Harlem to Scranton with her family when she was 14. When they got to Northeast Pennsylvania, Bennett, her mom and her sisters found lots of salons in the area but none that knew how to care for black hair. The only option for the Bennett girls and their mom was to travel back into the city for braids once a month, since braids were the style option that would last the longest in between trips. Weekend trips to the city continued for years until one Friday night when Bennett, the oldest, opted to stay home and do her braids herself.
“I was what they call ‘tender-headed,’ and I would cry sometimes (during braiding) because it can be painful,” Bennett said, laughing. “One day, I just didn’t want to go. I was determined to learn it myself.”
All day and night, Bennett sat in front of the mirror and unraveled each strand, understanding the way they folded around each other in order to put them back together again herself.
Bennett recalled the time spent in the African beauty shops in New York as a child. Braiding or other processes can take hours, she said, and all there was to do was watch the women around her working and studying their craft. By the time her mother and sisters returned to Scranton on Sunday, Bennett mastered doing her own braids. Once word got around to family, friends and neighbors, the then-16-year-old built up a repertoire of clients who wanted their hair braided and couldn’t find the services in a salon.
While Bennett loved braiding and beauty, her parents urged her to try something more stable as a career. After she graduated from Scranton High School, she enrolled at The Pennsylvania State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2011.
Bennett worked in the accounting field for a few years, but it didn’t feel right. She moved to New York City and began classes at Empire Beauty School in Manhattan, where she fell in love with the coursework as well as the ability to make others feel good about themselves.
Eventually, Bennett landed jobs in the industry, including a position as a hairstylist for an on-demand beauty service. Bennett and other stylists would set up chairs outside of the Hamptons’ trendiest hot spots, and offered blowouts, braids and more. The networking helped her further her career.
“I learned from that experience never to say no but also to look beyond the moment you’re in to what can be,” Bennett said. “You never know who you’re going to meet or what opportunities will present themselves. … Just show up and work hard and try to see the bigger picture.”
Today, Bennett is a contracted hairstylist with Unilever brands. In New York Fashion Week’s salon with TRESemmé, Bennett does the hair and makeup of NYFW guests and glams them up for their front-row seats. Bennett’s hairstyles have been featured on model Jordyn Woods; model, actress and transgender activist Leyna Bloom; filmmaker Kimberly Aleah and influencer Francis Lola, just to name a few.
In the middle of her beauty career, Bennett’s life took an unexpected turn when she and her fiancé, Micheal Mathieu, conceived their daughter, Mia. With her family here plus her own fond memories of growing up, Bennett knew being home in Scranton was the best option for her daughter.
“Mia completely rocked my world,” Bennett said of the 3-year-old, adding that she is filled with personality. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
She and Mathieu, a medic for New York’s fire department, are dual residents of both cities and come back and forth several times per week. Still, Bennett wanted something beauty-related to do during her time in Scranton and decided to open a salon in a West Scranton storefront she often drove past and admired.
Vanity opened in 2016, and what started a passion project has turned into something bigger than Bennett ever could have imagined. The shop is booked every day, with partner and fellow stylist Teniequa Bryan taking care of it when Bennett is traveling.
Aside from making women of all cultures and backgrounds look and feel beautiful, Bennett aimed to fill a void she saw. Clients thank her and Bryan all the time because, without Vanity, they couldn’t find another salon in the region that knew how to care for black hair, Bennett said. She also mentioned the white mothers of biracial daughters who come in with tears in their eyes because they don’t know how to do their children’s hair.
“I know what that feels like, to find out there’s no one who knows how to handle your hair. You feel lost,” Bennett said. “We’re here to be that place where that mom can bring her daughter and know she’s safe, she’s in good hands, and she will get the best experience.”
Bennett noted how important hair is not only women of color but to women in general. While it’s not necessary to all women, taking care of oneself is a ritual to most, and so much goes into the process beyond outward appearances, she said. It’s a total transformation of spirit when a woman looks into the mirror after having her hair done. Being in a salon, bonding and sharing these experiences is something that’s important to Bennett and to her clients, whether they’re celebrities or from a small town.
“The smile when I turn her around and she sees what she looks like, that smile is like nothing else in the world,” Bennett said. “It’s why we do what we do and why we want to be here to make them feel as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside.”
Meet Koni Bennett
Residence: Splits her time between Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, and the Green Ridge section of Scranton
Family: Fiancé, Micheal Mathieu, and daughter, Mia Mathieu, 3
Education: Earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the Pennsylvania State University and graduated from Empire Beauty School, New York City
Claim to fame: An entrepreneur, Bennett is owner and stylist at Vanity Boutique Salon in West Scranton and a freelance celebrity hairstylist in New York City. She also is a stylist for New York Fashion Week with TRESemmé as well as a contracted stylist with Unilever brands. Bennett has provided hair and makeup for television commercials, influencers, beauty editors, celebrities and more. She also has been featured in Refinery29, POPSUGAR, BuzzFeed and Marie Claire.
Gia Mazur is an award-winning staff writer and beauty obsessive who joined The Times-Tribune’s Lifestyles department in 2015. She’s a product enthusiast who can’t live without an eyelash curler. A proud Virgo, Charlotte Tilbury Matte Revolution Lipstick in Pillow Talk is her go-to. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9127; @gmazurTT