We all know the feeling. You plop down in a stylist's seat excitedly waiting for your slay to begin, only to be met with a look of panic when they actually lay eyes on your hair. As a woman with thick and coarse 4C textured hair, I know that gaze well. Sadly, so do most Black women, and it's been an ongoing problem in the entertainment world for decades.
During a recent episode of Red Table Talk available on Facebook Watch, Willow Smith shared her experience of having to style her own hair at a major fashion event. She says:
"All of the white models were getting their hair done and they all had somebody. The person that was supposed to come do my hair, came, looked at it, and tried to do something to it; tried to touch it. I can tell they were extremely (pauses) perturbed. I could tell that they were just like, I don't know what I'm doing. That anxiety of looking at them in the mirror not knowing what to do with my head, made me feel like, I'm going to just take the reins. So, I basically did my own hair for a really high fashion shoot. That should never be happening."
Although her story is unfortunate, it's not surprising at all. However, it does make you think, with Black creatives making such an impact in Hollywood and the entertainment space, why are we still not being catered to in the same way? I mean just imagine being a Black hairstylist or make-up artist that gets booked for a high profile event and being unable to style white women's hair or face. Chile, we'd be fired so quick! There is a desire to increase diversity and representation in media, but what goes on behind the scenes suggests that that mobility is surface.
As a model, Willow has been afforded many opportunties to work with major brands like Chanel and Mugler, but is it really a seat at the table if she and women like her aren't afforded the tools and resources to bring their best selves to these spaces? Black women being met with stylists who don't know how to work with their hair is nothing new. If white stylist can't learn to work with our hair, so much so we have to do our own hair on these sets, maybe the bigger conversation is how important it is to make sure representation and diversity isn't just represented on screens, but behind the scenes as hairstylists and makeup artists on set too. Also, when we get opportunities, it is important to share them!
Speaking of sharing, here is a list of amazing Black women who have also spoken up about the discrimination of having to do their own hair on sets in Hollywood.
With the exception of her show Insecure, writer and actress Natasha Rothwell noted having to spend her last in the early stages of her career to ensure her hair was on point, a burden her white counterparts never had to bear. She said, "They can wake up, roll out of bed and don't have to worry about what's in their bag."
"It's a real disservice to actors of color who are effectively doing someone else's job and not getting paid for it. There's nothing [more] dehumanizing than sitting in a hair and makeup chair and watching your co-stars go through the works and leave, and you're still there because someone's moving very slowly because they're very scared. It's [you] feeling like a problem to be solved."
Taraji P. Henson
"If you know how to do it, great. If you don't, pass it to somebody who does. It has nothing to do with pride or ego," Henson told The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm not saying you have to be black to know how to do [that] hair, but you got to know what the hell you're doing. When an actress of color requests a hairstylist, listen to them. They're not being difficult."
In 2019, the model vocalized her experiences at Paris Fashion Week and not being able to find a stylist who knew how to do her hair. She wrote in her Instagram caption:
"I arrived backstage where they planned to do cornrows, but not one person on the team knew how to do them without admitting so. After one lady attempted and pulled my edges relentlessly, I stood up to find a model who could possibly do it. After asking two models and then the lead/only nail stylist, she was then taken away from her job to do my hair.
"This is not OK. This will never be OK. This needs to change. No matter how small your team is, make sure you have one person that is competent at doing afro texture hair care OR just hire a black hairstylist! Black hairstylists are required to know how to do everyone's hair, why does the same not apply to others?"
"It's mind-blowing to me that we still have to —- meaning Black actresses —- have to fight to have Black hairdressers on set for us. There was one time in particular I was doing this movie and, my God, I was the lead. And after this person did my hair, I cried. I was like 'I cannot, like, I cannot go out there looking like this.' I just don't understand why you have to fight to get someone to understand the importance of that."
While Halle Berry looks like she was made to rock her signature pixie cut, the style was actually a product of her environment as an up-and-coming actress who had trouble finding stylists who knew how to do Black hair on set. She revealed:
"That's why I had short hair. [Maintaining] it was easy. I think as people of color, especially in the business, we haven't always had people that know how to manage our hair. Those days are different now, that's when I started."
Queen Latifah, who notably did her own hair during her time starring in the hit sitcom Living Single, but expressed that change needs to be a focus:
"It's not because their heart wasn't in the right place — they just didn't have the skill set to do Black hair. As African-Americans, we have all different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and you got to be able to work with that. We are always in a position to be able to work with what White people do. That's just how it's been, but it has to be reversed. It has to be some respect over here and figuring out what to do with our hair. So we just really need to add more people to the industry."
Gabrielle Union is never one to mince words when it comes to speaking her truth. In a 2017 Glamour essay, she wrote about her experience when getting started as an actress:
"I was like a guinea pig on set, and I didn't yet have enough power to request a stylist who I actually wanted to touch my hair. It got to the point that I would pay to have my hair done before I got to work and pray they didn't screw it up."
"I realized very quickly that there were many people in hair and makeup trailers who were totally unqualified to do my hair. Hairstylists used Aqua Net–like hairspray with crazy amounts of alcohol, which caused chunks of my hair to literally come off on a styling tool."
Gabourey Sidibe shared in at tweet in 2019:
"If they don't have the budget to hire a Black hairstylist for me, or won't, I just get the director to agree that my character should have box braids or Senegalese twist."
In the Freeform series, The Bold Type, actress Aisha Dee plays the biracial, bisexual, bold Kat. However, she made it known before the series' end that all was not as progressive as it seemed behind the scenes on set. She shared on Instagram:
"It took three seasons to get someone in the hair department who knew how to work with textured hair. This was impactful on so many levels, and I'm grateful for the women who show me how to embrace and love my hair in a way I never had before. I want to make sure that no one else ever has to walk onto a set and feel as though their hair is a burden. It is not."
The Flash star Candice Patton revealed during a SXSW panel in 2019 that she, too, has encountered when she said she needed "someone who can do Black hair.":
"At work, I don't want to be labeled a diva because I have to say to production, 'I need someone who can do Black hair. I need someone who knows and understands how to do Black makeup.' It is not the same. We do not share the same kind of skin. We do not need the same kind of makeup. And not everyone knows how to paint me in a way that makes me feel comfortable on camera, and me asking for that is not me being difficult. It's me being a diverse talent on this network asking for something that's different. And if you hire me, you hire me with the intent of knowing that I have different requirements and different needs—and that's just what it is. I think there's a lot of education that still needs to happen."
Actress Jurnee Smollett was able to advocate for her desire to have a Black stylist on set of Birds of Prey by talking to her co-star Margot Robbie about wanting one. She stated:
"In pre-production, when we were creating a look for the hair, for me it was very important to bring a woman of color on in the hair department to create the look for Black Canary. My hair, my texture, the kind of blonde we were going for…and I called her up and I said, 'Honestly, Margot, it's different. I need Nikki Nelms and this is why I need her.'"
Featured image by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 Presented by Amazon Prime Video