“It Was Hard To See The Horror On My Mother’s Face” Lupita Talks Cutting Hair Off And Learning To Love Her “African Kinky” Texture
Lupita Nyong’o’s hair has been as much a part of her Hollywood story as her acting roles. One can’t talk about the Kenyan beauty’s fashion on the red carpet for one her latest movie premieres without mentioning what’s atop her head, be it a cropped fro or majestic updo crafted by the hands of hairstylist Vernon Francois. But as is the case for most women of the diaspora, Lupita didn’t always love her hair as much as fans do. And, frankly, neither did her family as the 34-year-old shared as the cover subject of Allure magazine’s March issue.
Titled “the culture of hair” issue, inside, Editor-in-Chief Michelle Lee shares a conversation with Lupita about her hair story which follows a familiar narrative for Black girls: hate → perm → poor maintenance → natural →love. And the Black Panther actress gets right to it when asked off the bat how she felt about her hair growing up.
“Well, I didn’t love my hair when I was a child,” she confessed. “It was lighter than my skin, which made me not love it so much. I was really kind of envious of girls with thicker, longer, more lush hair. In my tween years, I started begging my mother to have my hair relaxed. She wouldn’t allow it, though her hair was relaxed. She felt that that was a decision I could come to when I was maybe 18. Around 13 or 14, I had such a rough time with being teased and feeling really unpretty. My dad intervened and spoke to my mom about my hair, and she finally agreed. She took me to the salon in the middle of the school day, and I got my hair relaxed. I felt so much better because it was easier to tame. All the girls in my class had their hair relaxed. Very few had natural kink, so I felt a lot more acceptable.
“I had my hair relaxed for most of my teenage years, and that was a whole other world. The upkeep of relaxed hair is a commitment. It took styling it once a week and then having it retouched once a month. I remember doing crazy things, like sleeping with my head above the headboard so that my curls wouldn’t get messed up for the next day. I’d have these terrible neck aches because I was determined to keep my hair as pristine as possible. And it was super expensive. When I was about 18 or 19, I didn’t have a job or anything, so it was really my parents paying for my hair. So I was once asking for some more money to get my hair done and my dad joked, “Why don’t you just cut it all off?” And a few months later, I thought to myself, Why don’t I? I went into the hair salon, and I said, “Let’s cut it off.” It was almost a dare to myself: Can I live without hair? He shaved it right off. It was so scary but so liberating because I went completely bald.”
Asked whether her mother knew she was going to cut her hair off, Lupita said she didn’t tell anybody her hair plans, which led to dramatic reactions from her mom and dad.
“I didn’t tell anybody except for my hairdresser,” she explained. “When I got home, my mother was horrified. She was just like, ‘What have you done to my hair?’ I remember her saying that: ‘I’ve been growing that hair since you were born — how can you?’ Then I felt really self-conscious. It was hard to see the horror on my mother’s face. She was so disapproving, and I was so sensitive about it at the time, that I started to get scared that I had done the wrong thing. And it was cold. All of a sudden I would feel really cold on my head, and I didn’t have hats or the right headwear for a bald head. Eventuall, my mom came around. I remember once when I was dressed up for church, she actually said, with a very quick mouth, ‘You look nice.’
“That was so good to hear. It took my dad probably two weeks to notice I had no hair! At breakfast, he looked up and said, ‘Hey, where is your hair?’ I said, ‘You said I should cut it.’ He just burst out laughing. He was like, ‘I didn’t mean take it all off.’ We had a good laugh about it. That was definitely a liberating stage. I had nothing to hide behind. I had my hair short for a very long time after that.”
Now, thanks to Vernon, Lupita is experimenting with her hair more than ever.
“My hair is the longest it’s been in over a decade. A lot of that is because I have an amazing hairstylist in Vernon François,” Lupita said. “He’s been so helpful, helping me learn how to maintain my natural hair texture. Also giving me regimens that are streamlined because part of the challenge is all the steps. You go on YouTube, and there are just so many different ways of upkeep of one’s natural hair. It’s honey and rosemary water and avocado-paste conditioning and whatnot. I’ve tried it all. Now I love my hair. I love it because I’ve also been able to really embrace the stuff it can do. It’s like clay in the right hands. Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but clay can be art in the right hands. Being able to have that kind of playtime with Vernon to create different things has inspired me.”
And when it comes to how she describes her texture, Lupita has no problem claiming the term “kinky.”
“I like the term ‘kinky.’ Some people don’t like that term, but when I think about my hair, I think of it as African kinky hair. But I’m not really in deep with the politics of it all and the language choice. I speak just from my own experience or my own preference. Curly hair differs so much.”