Is Natural Hair a Liability to Black Women Trying to Make a Career on Screen?
When news broke that meteorologist Rhonda Lee got fired for responding to a viewer who dissed her natural hair, a chorus of support ignited on Lee’s behalf. The news also poured gas on the raging debate about whether black women who choose to wear their hair as it naturally grows can expect to advance in their careers — and why it even matters.
For women who make their living in front of the camera, the decision to go natural can be the difference between booking a job, and losing a job. Model, actress, and columnist Erickka Sy Savané says she lost all her clients when she decided, eight years ago, to go natural.
“They did say,” Sy Savané remembers, “‘If you wear your hair like that, we can’t use you anymore.’ And they didn’t. But I ended up getting other things.” She continues, “I ended up getting that job at MTV as a VJ for MTV Europe. I ended up getting even the Pantene commercial.”
Actress Tanya Wright who has appeared on The Cosby Show (she played Theo’s girlfriend before Justine) and currently co-stars on HBO’s True Blood, says it comes down to self-confidence and choice. “Whether you’re a 1c or a 4B, straight, curly, weaved or dread JUST ROCK IT! Do you.”
Madame Noire: In your experience, do you think wearing natural hair is a liability for black actresses hoping to land lead parts?
Tanya Wright (TW): I don’t think anything that makes you feel more like yourself and gives you joy is EVER a liability.
Erickka Sy Savané (ES): I just feel like it’s up to people to just do what they feel. And that’s what the change is gonna be. When I got rid of my straightened hair, gosh, maybe eight years ago, when I was modeling, I woke up one morning and it was time for me to get my next relaxer and I could not — I just could not do it. So I vowed to cut my hair off and get twists, and from that I grew locs… [That] wasn’t being done at all, but for me, I was just doing what felt right. Now, I did lose my modeling clients. I was a catalogue model. I lost them all… but I ended up getting other things. I ended up getting that job at MTV as a VJ for MTV Europe. I ended up getting even the Pantene commercial. In the commercial TV world, they actually embrace natural hair.
MN: When you go on auditions, do you wear a wig to cover your natural hair?
TW: No, I don’t wear a wig. I use to wear weaves, admittedly, because most people wore them. The other part of that truth is that I simply did not know what to do with my hair — at all — and putting a rug on top of my head made it quicker to get out the door. I read this book called Curly Like Me and it changed everything for me. There WAS a method to taking care of my hair and I could learn it! Plus, there’s a whole community of natural ladies on YouTube — folks who have tried products and experimented with all kinds of things concerning natural hair—who post their results and SHARE them with others. I’ve learned SO MUCH from them.
ES: I haven’t. I definitely know girls who do. It’s funny, when it comes to commercial TV work, women actually wear ‘froed wigs…because they know it’s gonna help them get work. It’s almost like the opposite in that realm. The commercial world is definitely more reflective of what’s going [on]. They really have to study what’s going on in the country, what’s on trend, you know, because they’re selling product to people. They know that women wear their hair natural.
MN: The majority of black female celebrities from singers to actresses to on-air personalities have settled on wearing some variation of straightened caramel-colored tresses with the help of weaves, wigs, and straightening agents. Is there a secret memo going around Hollywood and the record labels insisting on this look?
TW: Ha! Not that I’m aware of. I think that generally, as with all things, folks just do what they see other folks doing until — well, they don’t. When one breaks out of the pack and takes the road less traveled, it’s somehow easier for others to follow suit.
Also, a lot of times when you’re working on set, it’s easier to wear hair that use to belong to someone else. There’s a lot of heat going on that tends to dry your own hair out, make it more prone to breakage.
ES: I don’t think it’s the industry itself, it’s those woman who have to be more fearless wearing styles, even if it’s in their makeup or their wardrobe if they want to wear something different. I think these women… they’re just locked into a certain look. They think it’s the look that is going to sell them. And because there’s so much fear around working and there not being enough work for black actresses and stuff, I don’t think they really want to do anything they feel is going to knock them out of their spot or make them lose work, or make them a little less popular.
MN: When Viola Davis left her wig at home, choosing to wear her natural hair to the Oscars, she got sooo much press. Do you think we’ll ever get to a time when a black woman wearing her natural hair won’t be such a big deal?
TW: I see natural girls left [and] right now, on television and film. It’s natural to be natural. And Viola? She’s one of the great contemporary masters in the field. A sublime actor who has been doing delicious work for a long, long time. I am chomping at the bit to work with her. Ms. Thang could be wearing a paper bag and she’d still be fly! Viola Davis is the truth.
ES: Viola Davis is not all of a sudden not going to work because she wore her hair natural to the Oscars because she’s Viola Davis; and if anybody says anything negative, I think people are [going to leap to her support] in droves. Like we are [with Rhonda Lee]. I just feel like it’s up to people to just do what they feel.
MN: India.Arie, Solange Knowles, Whoopi Goldberg, and Wanda Sykes are among the celebs who have chosen to rock their natural hair. Why do you think they’ve been able to achieve success despite their defiance of entertainment industry pressure to straighten up?
TW: All of the women you mentioned seem wonderfully self-confident. That’s the key, I think. Whether you’re a 1c or a 4B, straight, curly, weaved or dread JUST ROCK IT! Do you.
ES: It’s always up to us as black women. Maybe Gabrielle Union has no desire to wear her hair natural, you know? None. Maybe Kerry Washington has no desire. But I think, it’s great when people like Kim Coles step up and speak up about going natural. It’s gonna take someone… [really popular, that all the girls want to look like], you know, for the drastic change that would make Hollywood all of a sudden say, “Ooh, this is a look we can get behind.”
Tanya Wright recurs as Deputy Kenya Jones on HBO’s True Blood. She currently appears in the feature film Why Stop Now opposite Jesse Eisenberg, Academy Award winner Melissa Leo and Tracey Morgan. She recently completed work on her directorial debut, Butterfly Rising (and wrote a book of the same name) which is set to hit theaters March, 2013. Visit www.butterflyrisingthemovie.com for more info.
Erickka Sy Savané is a model, actress, and writer. Her work has appeared in Trace, Giant, Essence and Uptown magazine (where she did a stint as editor-at-large), and her “Beyotches Brew: Random Isht” blog will soon launch on xoJane.com. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Souléymane Sy Savané, and their two little girls.