By Lolly Bowean
Over the last five years, Meechy Monroe has built a reputation and international following among black women who turned to her for hair care tips and inspiration as they turned from chemically treated hair to natural styles.
Through her blog, social media and YouTube channel, Monroe won tens of thousands of followers who longed to know just how she twisted, twirled, patted and puffed her signature, textured Afro into an elegant, bouffant-esque style.
Her YouTube channel piled up more than 2.4 million views. She gained 36,000 followers on Instagram and reached thousands more through Twitter and her blog.
But recently, the 29-year-old West Pullman resident has been diagnosed with a rare brain tumor that affects just 1 percent of cancer patients in the U.S. The disease, along with the radiation and chemotherapy necessary to treat it, has changed everything for Monroe. She lost her ability to write clearly. Her speech became halting.
Added to those huge losses was another one: her hair, the glorious, dark black, curly mane that helped catapult her to icon status within the natural hair community.
“This is who I am now,” said Monroe, in an interview in her home.
Once tall and lean with striking hair, Monroe is now bald and has a circular scar on the left side of her scalp from two surgeries. Her medication has added 40 pounds to her frame.
As she has battled her cancer, she has found a new mission: teaching women that beauty is not all about hair.
“It’s just a new journey for me,” she said. “I’ve learned to be pretty confident in my skin. Chubby cheeks. Bald head. It’s beautiful. I have to show other women, no matter what, you’re still beautiful.”
Monroe’s real name is Tameka Moore, but online she is known by the nickname her sister gave her in high school. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 2008. After college, she returned to Chicago to work for a marketing firm.
In 2009, after receiving an unflattering cut at a salon, she decided to chop off all her chemically treated hair and start fresh with a short Afro. As her soft, curly hair began to grow and she experimented with styles, she said she often was stopped on the street by women asking for tips. She happily gave them advice.
“I wanted to help people, and I was still learning, too,” she said. “People would come up to me and ask what I did to my hair. They’d ask to touch it and I’d let them. I understood that so many black women didn’t know their natural hair. They wanted to learn. I’d stop and have a 20-minute conversation in the train station.”
Eventually she got the idea to start a blog and post videos demonstrating how she’d get her hair to hold its shape and look glossy and textured. She taped herself, at first in her father’s bathroom in the basement of their modest home, edited the videos and posted them online.
Quickly, they became popular.
“Meechy had always been shy and an introvert,” said her sister, Vaughn Moore. “But on her videos, her personality shined through. When she taped them, it felt like it was one-on-one. But she was speaking to hundreds and thousands of people.”
As her popularity and fan base grew, so did the opportunities. She was still working full time, but on the side she was spending hours creating her videos, testing new styles and writing about her newfound craft. She upgraded her equipment and paid more attention to details, what she was wearing, what products she was using.
She’d even borrow relatives’ bathrooms so she could tape in new spaces.
Just a year into her project, she was asked to help with social media campaigns for hair care products and later asked to review brands on her blog.
She was tapped to speak at events and paid to give demonstrations in Atlanta and New Orleans.
Fans labeled her signature look the ‘Meechy twist-out,’ because she’d section her hair in bunches, twist it at night, and by morning her hair would fluff into a soft, textured, vibrant Afro.
“I became popular because of my hair,” she said. “I never expected that.”
Last year, she was asked to serve as the brand ambassador for a hair steamer. Not only did that mean her face was placed on packaging and in print ads, she was flown to Paris and Amsterdam to talk about her hair care regimen.
“I was immediately struck by how genuine and passionate she was about hair and beauty,” said Ken Burkeen, the founder and CEO of Huetiful, a chain of hair salons that has trademarked the steamer and also sells hair care products. “She was really caring, really supportive. She was positive and uplifting.”
As he got to know her work, Burkeen was impressed.
“I don’t think she saw herself as a cover girl,” he said. “But she is both relatable and aspirational. She’s the girl next door. She’s the South Side Chicago girl, and she looks like she lives down the street from you. At the same time, women around the world say her look and style is one they want to emulate.”
Just as her career was reaching new heights, Monroe woke up one April morning feeling confused and having trouble concentrating. She went to the hospital but was sent home when doctors couldn’t find anything wrong.
A few days later, Monroe woke up and one side of her face was drooping. Doctors determined that she had suffered several minor strokes. She underwent rounds of tests and exams.
In May, when doctors conducted surgery, they found a brain tumor, one that normally forms in other places on the body and rarely appears in the brain, said Dr. Leslie Schaffer, her neurosurgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
“It’s very rare and it’s not easy to treat,” Schaffer said. “Sarcomas don’t respond to radiation very well, and they don’t respond to chemotherapy very well.”
Schaffer has surgically removed part of the tumor. Monroe has completed radiation and is currently undergoing chemotherapy even though the treatments are often unsuccessful.
Monroe will learn later this year if the cancer is in remission.
“Only time will tell how she responds to treatment and how the tumor behaves,” Schaffer said. “She’s a very exceptional young lady. She’s bright and very caring. She’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, and it’s a privilege to care for her.”
Nearly every day, Monroe is relearning to speak with punch, to write with precision and pull herself together with vigor. She is pushing herself to regain her stamina, her poise and the eloquence that made her a force online.
She’s also coming to terms with everything that she has lost.
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“At first, I couldn’t talk at all,” she said. “I’ve been making drastic improvements. The muscles in my jaw are building up. I couldn’t move my hand at first, and I can now. I’ll see more changes real soon.”
Recently, Monroe was only a few minutes into her speech therapy session in a cramped hospital office when she began pressing her therapist to challenge her more. She wanted to try tougher exercises that would help her regain her skills.
But as she read over a worksheet asking her to dissect a family tree, tears rolled down her face. She tucked her chin to her chest, and her hands trembled as she struggled with her emotions.
“Can we do this later?” Monroe asked, her voice shaking. “I’m not comfortable.”
“This is a challenge, I know,” said her therapist, Michelle LaMantia. “I know you’re doing your best. We’ve made a lot of gains lately. We don’t want to just be on easy street here.”
When she was at her best, Monroe saw her mission as inspiring other African-American women to embrace themselves in their most natural state.
These days, as she battles cancer, her followers and fans have given her inspiration, she said.
When she got sick, she disappeared from the Internet. Rumors floated and many of her followers tweeted and posted messages looking for her. With help, she decided to write a post about her challenges.
“Who knows how strong you have to be until you are faced with so many life-changing decisions,” she wrote.
Since she disclosed her illness on her blog, she has received hundreds of cards, letters and emails. Her followers have sent her hats and turbans, books and poems and have even raised money to help with her medical bills.
“I know we’ve never met … but continue being a fighter. God has your back,” wrote one follower from Metairie, La.
“Many prayer warriors are praying for you,” wrote a woman from Gary who knows her from social media.
Shortly after she posted about her illness, the hashtag #GetWellMeechy trended both on Instagram and Twitter.
On a Sunday morning, as she prepared for church, Monroe looked through her box of cards and letters. She patted her heart as she read them over and tried to hold back her tears.
“That’s the sweetest part of it all,” she said. “They don’t have to do this, but they feel it in their hearts. People have been so kind and I’m thankful for it.
“I can’t do it alone.”