The first time someone recognised Patrice Grell Yursik as her beauty-blogging alter ego Afrobella, she was at the grocery store in Miami, contemplating dinner. It was clear then that the Trinidad-born and -raised writer had a winner on her hands.
And that was four years ago. These days, fan recognition isn’t so rare. And Yursik is hard to miss, with her signature well-tended afro and unique sense of style.
She was fresh-faced and bubbly in our Skype interview from her Chicago apartment.
“It’s the most wonderful thing, but it’s also kind of weird,” said Yursik, her Trini accent still going strong. “I can’t go out the house looking any kind of way any more, and I kind of miss that. It’s crazy to walk into a huge event and be recognised.”
What began as an idea shared with friends over wine in 2006 – to create a blog that spoke to women of colour, that made it OK to have natural hair, to be glamorous and to love make-up – has become a worldwide phenomenon.
“I just couldn’t find a print or online publication that spoke to me, so I created what I couldn’t find,” said Yursik, 33. “I write about things that inspire me; I write about things that will inspire others.”
Now, thanks to her regular blog posts on hair and Afrobella-tested beauty products, music, culture, politics and personal topics, Yursik is an undisputed opinion-leader in the international beauty world, with an online fanbase of more than 28,000 Twitter followers and over 14,000 on Facebook. Afrobella.com gets upwards of 150,000 hits per month.
And the truth isn’t only in the numbers.
“I think she’s opened up what beauty can be, from all shapes, sizes, hair textures, colours,” said Felicia Leatherwood, a close friend of Yursik’s and natural-hair stylist to stars like Jill Scott. “Her blog stands out because it hits another level of what beauty is for women of all nationalities.”
Last December, Yursik was named one of Ebony magazine’s 100 most powerful people of 2011, alongside the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah, Jay-Z and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. She worked with leading cosmetics company MAC on a limited-edition, often-sold-out MAC lipgloss. Add to the list Urban Decay and Lancôme. This New York Fashion Week regular also graced the red carpet at the Oscars. Her blog awards are too numerous to name.
When actress and comedian Kim Coles of Living Single fame opted to cut her extensions and go natural in January 2011, it was to Afrobella she gave her lifestyle-change exclusive.
“I knew that Afrobella was the right person to talk to when I decided to go mainstream about my hair, the person who would treat my story with respect and grace and the right amount of celebration,” said Coles in a telephone interview from Hollywood. In fact, she credits Yursik’s blog posts with elevating Coles’ brand and exponentially increasing her fans.
But even as Yursik acknowledges the amazing connections she’s made because of the blog and her writing there, she’s amazed herself at how popular it has become and that it’s how she makes her living.“If somebody told me all this five years ago, I would have never believed it. It’s like living out your dream.”
Yet she remains adamantly down to earth and aware of the culture that produced her, often using Afrobella.com as a forum to share her Trinidadian and Caribbean culture with the world. Her blog posts over the years have featured Bajan soca singer Alison Hinds and the late Trinidadian parang queen Daisy Voisin.
During a recent trip to Trinidad and to Tobago, where she had earlier honeymooned, Yursik’s entries were heavy on the islands, featuring everything from where to shop for local beauty products to a family visit to a century-old cocoa plantation in Gran Couva, in Trinidad’s lush central range.
“I love how she always brings in and supports the history of Trinidad,” said Leatherwood. “She always makes sure that she stamps where she comes from throughout all she does.”
“There’s a soulful connection that Caribbean people have to the earth and each other and life in general,” Coles also said. “Afrobella brings that.”
And yet, despite Yursik’s international celebrity in the blogosphere and the beauty world, she remains largely unacknowledged in the Caribbean as a pioneer in her field and as an influential cultural ambassador. She shrugs it off with grace.
“This is a way that I can be an ambassador for my country, to share what shaped me and what is beautiful about Trinidad still.”
How Afrobella was born
“When English and writing are your only real skills, your only real loves, it can be scary in the Caribbean,” Yursik said.
But the headstrong Yursik is not one to be easily fazed, says her mother, Peggy Grell. She describes Patrice, the youngest of five siblings, as an intellectually curious child, seldom afraid to challenge boundaries and ask difficult questions.
Belmont-born and Westmoorings-bred, Yursik began writing as a child, penning poetry in closely guarded notebooks. Before graduating from Bishop Anstey High School, she wrote for the Sunday Guardian.
“We knew from small,” said her mother by phone from their Trinidad home, while her husband Patrick chimed in.
Yursik struck out on her own in 1998 to the University of Miami, where she studied film criticism and scriptwriting. It’s also where she met her future husband Steve and earned an MFA in creative writing. She worked for several years as the ultra-hip assistant calendar editor at an edgy alternative newspaper, Miami New Times.
It’s in that time that Afrobella was born: August 13, 2006.
“I think what started her off on the natural hair is sort of my fault,” her mother confessed.
She recounted having her daughter’s hair lightly straightened from the age of seven, and how much the future Afrobella detested the smell and the occasional scalp burns. The last time Patrice put chemicals in her hair was the week she got married, almost a decade ago.
In 2008, when juggling work as an entertainment journalist with her life as an immensely popular blogger became an impossible balancing act, Yursik knew she had to make a difficult choice.
“It was the most scary, emotional decision to leave security, to give up all we’d created, and leave the only Caribbean community I’d known abroad. But I was ready to write about what I wanted to write about instead of what someone was telling me to write,” Yursik and her husband quit their jobs, packed their bags and took a 20-day roadtrip up the US east coast to Chicago where Steve’s parents live.
Just as Yursik journeyed from Miami to Chicago, so too has the blog been a journey for Yursik.
“I’m not afraid anymore of standing up and saying something, but I try to be very careful with my words because I know that there’s power there. I try to follow my gut and do what feels right to me and the response has been good.”
Yursik maintains a distinction between Patrice, her private self, and Afrobella, her more social pseudonym.
These days, Yursik relies on hand-picked contributors to keep the blog rolling when she’s tied up with events like the Academy Awards or working on HIV/AIDS awareness with the Red Pump Project. It can be a challenge putting her “baby” in others’ capable hands.
“At this point, Afrobella is my virtual resumé,” Yursik said. “When people contact me to do something, they already know who I am. That’s the most validating thing as a creative person and as a writer.”
Yursik has dubbed 2012 the year of the book. Although she’s been approached by publishers to write a non-fiction beauty book, her focus is on writing a fiction book for young girls “to let them know they’re beautiful and special at an early age.”
“As her talent is exposed, as she’s allowed to do different things, as she expands, she’s going to reap the rewards,” said her father, Patrick Grell. “Afrobella is a powerful brand. She has a good story to tell and I think it can really help people.”