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Gabrielle Santana wakes up every morning to a cup of homemade coffee. It’s a mixture of Café Bustelo, almond milk, cinnamon, and sugar that she’s perfected for years. While she prepares it, she invokes the spirit of Amazon’s Alexa to blast the salsa classics – Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, La Lupe. That’s when you see her at her best – dancing in her kitchen, her lush, curly hair moving side to side, her hips imitating the swirl of a spinning top circling all the way to the Caribbean.
It’s a cold Saturday afternoon at her Jersey City apartment when she receives the Emperifollá team. She’s dressed in a casual look – a bright blue velvet dress and layered jewels. Casual, as she informs me right after arriving, does not mean basic for her. In fact, nothing is simple for this New Jersey-born Puerto Rican, who recalls her mom saying Santana was wrapped in glitter instead of blood when she was born.
Of course, her hair – the main protagonist of her Instagram account, The Curly Bella – is front and center today. Throughout our conversation, she moves her fingers through it, moving it side to side, each time changing her hair style in the process. “I have a lot of hair, yo,” she says.
Her journey to self-acceptance is one of hair love. As a child, her father would always urge her mom to leave Santana’s hair curly, saying she looked like a lioness. One time, after her mom straightened her hair, her dad wet it. But Santana always craved straight hair, mostly because, as she remembers Puerto Rican culture is not welcoming of natural curls. “It’s always ‘Nena, ¿tú no te vas a peinar hoy?’,”she recalls. In college, she’d spend hours straightening her hair, saying her former roommate always reminds her of the burning smell in the room. Still, after all the treatments, all the effort, she says she never had the straight hair she always craved.
She started her transition from chemical and heat treatments to natural hair, when she moved to Miami, where she was working at an agency and doing bottle service at a club, making “a shit ton of money.” One day, she found herself missing her deceased mom and remembering how she’d always tell her to “just leave your hair curly.” “I filmed a video and grew a following from there,” she says. “That’s how The Curly Bella was born.”
Santana’s hustle is worthy of respect. A graduate of Puerto Rico’s Universidad de Sagrado Corazón, she moved to New York City in 2018 without a gig, joking that she “found a boyfriend before I found a job.” Today, she’s the marketing manager for Foot Action, where she says she can “finally dress like I do in real life.” Her present success came after a few stints at agencies like Laundry Service, where she was laid off. When I tell her I was recently laid off as well, she turns to me and says, “Mami, believe me, it happens.”
Over the years, Santana has also kept her Instagram side gig going, growing over 29,000 followers and working with brands like Palmer’s, Blink Fitness, and Ulta Beauty. On paper, she is an influencer. In reality, the word makes her uncomfortable. She says she just wanted to have a platform to empower younger versions of herself, and admits she cries every time she receives a DM from a follower who feels inspired by her story.
Santana’s home is evidence she’s heavily rooted in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. In the hallway, she keeps a table with photos of her closest relatives and an empty Medalla beer can. Her bedroom houses bottles of Ron Barrilito and Palo Viejo to store makeup brushes. “My bedroom looks like I’m an alcoholic but I don’t even drink,” she says, explaining she’s quit for years because of health issues. There is also a wall full of art in her hallway that evokes her spirit in many ways: there’s a “¡No me quiten el perreo, puñeta!” (a phrase popularized by Bad Bunny’s Solo de mi) by Dominican artist Tony Peralta; there’s a modern-day, streetwear-styled Barack Obama; there’s also a big vejigante mask.
She ends our visit by showing us her morning coffee routine in the flesh. She blasts La Lupe and Celia Cruz and dances in her velvet dress while barefoot. She gives us a sip to try her concoction in her “Make Jefa Moves” mug. It’s clear her success and unapologetic nature is rooted in taking her heritage as an armor against the world. “I’m just a girl from Bayamón with a lot of hair,” she says.
Photography and video by Stephanie Stoddard Cortés.