Wanda Sykes on Her 'Gay Hair'

Wanda Sykes on Her 'Gay Hair'
Earlier this week I had a candid chat with acclaimed actress, comedienne, and writer Wanda Sykes. OMfrickingG! To be honest, I was nervous, geeked, and utterly star struck. Before the interview I was attempting to implement what I teach my clients- thinking positive thoughts, practicing slow, diaphragmatic breathing, and convincing myself that I was ‘worthy’ of the coming experience.

Enter Wanda.

I immediately felt relieved- her down to earth and approachable manner instantly put me at ease. She was amazingly personable. It was like talking to an old friend. And get this, she is a regular CurlyNikki.com reader thanks to her stylist Lisa Deveaux. She asked about Baby G before I could even ask my first question! My mind was totally blown. She opened the door and I walked right in… I had lots of questions- about her hair story, about her fav products, and about her participation in the campaign against gay bullying. Specifically what we, as a society, and on an individual level can do to help prevent it. Finally, we discussed how her journey to curl acceptance paralleled her coming out. The take home message? Acceptance and tolerance. Be respectful of one another. Do you and let others be.

What’s your hair story?

I started getting perms back in junior high, mainly because I was tired of my mother burning my ears off with the hot comb. I permed all the way through college and much of my early career. While on the set of Wanda at Large, they were using the curling iron on me just about every day. This, of course, resulted in damage, so I started getting extensions. Once they took the extensions out, my hair was worse off, so I said, you know, I’m just going to cut it, and go really short. That was just prior to Wanda Does It. From there, my hair started growing out a little bit more, and I decided I was done with perms. They control your life, and honestly, especially when you’re with somebody, you just don’t feel sexy- you have to go to bed with your hair all wrapped up, and you’re all crinkly in the shower with your plastic cap on. You go on vacation and people are like ‘hey, let’s jump in the pool’…nope, can’t jump in the pool. It was just so controlling and one of the main reasons I cut it short and went natural.

The other reason was because I had to have surgery. I had fibroid tumors. This was right after I did Monster in Law– I wore a little short wig on set. After getting out of the hospital, I was unable to make it to the salon for a while. I finally had to go in because they needed the press junket for the film. My roots had grown out considerably and my stylist told me that she could see a curl pattern. I said, okay, let’s cut it off, skip the perm, and just see what it does.

I loved it short, it looked great, but I really started missing my length- I wanted to grow it back out. That’s when all the drama started. We were coloring my tips to add dimension, and my hair would reach a certain length, start to frizz, break off, and I would have to cut it really short and start all over again. I went through three attempts of letting it grow but each time resulted in me having to shave my head and go back short. It was really frustrating, very hard on me and my wife Alex. When I met her, I had already shaved it once. It was a little shorter than it is now- probably like 3 inches. My hair was breaking badly and it was time to cut again. She asked me not to because she liked the length. I explained that while I liked it longer too, I had no choice. So she went through two of the times I had to start from scratch.

Dyes can be very harsh. Especially when you’re lifting dark hair up to a light brown or blonde.

You’re right! The blonde was drying my hair out, so after this last cut, I decided I was just going to lay off the color- the lighter colors. I still wanted to put something in it to cover my grays, so we opted for darker tones. My hair is the healthiest it’s ever been. The only thing I still do on occasion is texturize. I feel guilty sometimes like I’m cheating, but my stylist keeps telling me it’s no big deal. It smooths the texture out a little and helps me retain more length. I was a little concerned at first because it’s the same stuff you’d use for a perm, but she explained that it’s milder and it’s only left in for a few moments… like not even a minute. I want to be all natural, I tried. The texturizer stretches the curl a little so that it doesn’t break as much. I’ve experienced a lot of retention since going this route. So that’s been great.

I feel you, I retain more length when I keep my hair stretched. I set my hair in twists which helps it hang and keeps it from knotting up on itself. That may be an option you guys can look into.

I will definitely give that a try, now that I have more length for twisting. I’m still representing for the curlies though. I’ll never go back.

So your hair is ridic! In pictures, your curls are always so perfect and defined, what is your process?

When I have an upcoming photo shoot or TV appearance, and I want a very neat and finished look, my stylist sets my hair on drinking straws or flexi rods.

What about on a regular day? Do you do your own hair?

Yeah, everyday! I used to wash it all the time, but now I’m getting into the no-poo thing. WEN sent me some products to try and while I like the moisture it gives, it shrinks my hair up like crazy. It leaves me with more of an afro look, rather than defined ringlets. But it really does give great moisture.

It’s crazy how this thing is trial and error! I’ve read how you’ve gone through so many different products and some days the results are great, some days, not so much. For me, I noticed that I sometimes happen upon a good combination, like I mix one product with another and I’m like, ‘oh, okay… that did okay!’ It’s like a damn science lab! Reading CurlyNikki and watching your process has helped me out a lot, seriously.

You have to keep notes, or you’ll never remember what worked and what didn’t.

You know what, you’re right. That’s what I need to do. I should start writing down everything. Like when I get out of the shower- did I towel it off and then apply the products… or apply it straight to soaking wet hair? That’s the kind of stuff you forget.

When you do your hair yourself, are you washing and wearing or doing sets, like twist or braid-outs? What’s your staple style?

While I’m in the shower, I wash it, and then apply a lot of conditioner and comb it through . Then I rinse that out, and apply a little leave-in conditioner, and finally, I apply my styler.

What products are you using?

Right now, I’m really into AG. They have a couple of good products- a leave in conditioner called Fast Food and a curl definer called Recoil. Fast Food is really good and puts the moisture back into my hair, it makes my hair feel great. I usually apply the Fast Food first and then the Mousse Gel. It’s a foam, and it’s amazing and full of water which really works for me. My hair loves water based products, it just sucks it right up and brings the curl pattern in really nice.

For the best definition, I either just run it through (AG Mousse) with my fingers or comb it through with a wide tooth comb. Then, I let my hair air dry for a while. Once it’s mostly dry, I play with it and shape it with my fingers. But you know, it’s crazy. You can use the same products, go through the same routine, and still end up with a different look. So some days I go, okay, this is looking a little crazy- it’s a hat day! Or, you know what? It’s a bandanna day! You have to be really patient and flexible. And it’s like you said, the whole self esteem thing with your hair. It’s huge because some days I look at it and go, huh… I’m not feeling too pretty right now. I’m not feeling too cute… maybe I should perm. But no, I’m not going back. The curly hair totally matches who I am. My journey to accepting my curls paralleled my whole process of coming out. Showing the world, hey, this is who I am, this is my hair. Just being open and honest and accepting me, being totally authentic. Going through the drama with my hair was like my therapy and it helped me get to a place where I felt more comfortable coming out.
So if you ever see me with straight hair, it’s not a relaxer, it’s definitely a press! Some days, I’m like, maybe I’ll get a press and switch it up. Plus, I want to see how long my hair is!

That’s the beauty of curly hair! You have lots of options… it’s very versatile.

Yeah, I’m not going back to relaxers. Straight one day, curly the next. Especially now with the kids and my wife. She’s white and the three of them just jump in the pool without a second thought… so now I jump my ass in the pool too! No worries! It’s cool- I love the freedom. We recently went on a trip to Brazil. My wife was like, ‘let’s get in the water… let’s go on a hike… hey there’s a water fall, let’s walk underneath it’. I was game! When I was relaxed I couldn’t do those things. I have friends who are relaxed, I’m talking die hards, and they’ve actually canceled dinner on me a couple of times because it was drizzling outside. Seriously. But we’ve all been there.

It’s definitely a quality of life thing…

Yes! they go to the club and they can’t even dance hard… afraid to sweat their edges out.

What would you tell a woman who has yet to embrace her curly hair?

It’s a commitment and it’s hard. But it is so worth it. Also, I think the journey ahead will make you feel much stronger and it’ll give you more confidence. Don’t worry about what other people think. Stop doing things for other people- you’re doing this for you and it will definitely feel good. It’s a lot of strength in going natural! Go for it!

A CurlyNikki.com reader, Jasmine A, wants to know how you feel about the attention natural and curly hair has been getting in the media.

I love it. I loved Chris’ documentary Good Hair, it was just so much truth in it. Black hair is a big business and we weren’t getting any of it, but things are changing. Although stylists won’t be obsolete, they’ll definitely have to change the way they do business. I still have a hair stylist who I support. The move away from relaxers won’t necessarily hurt shops, as long as they’re comfortable reaching for the flat iron or doing twists. This isn’t the 30s, the day of the conk is over. We don’t have to have straight hair anymore. Be yourself! I think it’s a good thing. Curly hair scares white people!

Which is crazy too! Sixty percent of the world’s population is curly, but you’d never know that.

To what extent does your hair define or express your identity?

It definitely is an extension- the visual of who I am. I’m an individual. I don’t want to be like other people. I guess it is a statement of how comfortable I am with myself.

Jasmine also asks ‘Although one seems to be remarkably more trivial, are there any similarities between embracing one’s natural hair texture and embracing one’s sexual preference or identity?’

Oh totally. I really think embracing my curly hair was therapeutic and maybe subconsciously, it was my way of going through the whole coming out process. Being open and outward. My hair was saying, (in a sarcastic tone) oh hey, look at me, I’m gay! This is my gay hair! Anybody notice my short hair cut? Wanna ask me anything people? Look whose not getting perms? What about that?! What does that say? Ooh, I’m not looking for a man am I? With this hair?! So I think that was my way of going through the whole thing with my sexual identity. It speaks to who I am.

I saw you on Larry King recently talking about gay bullying and the recent string of related suicides. One of my readers, Naterra, asks, ‘What do you feel we can do, as a society or on an individual level, to help decrease the number of suicides in the gay community?’

I think it’s about being… just respectful of each other. As a society we should collectively agree to leave people alone and let them do their thing. You can agree with it or not, but as long as it doesn’t affect you, just drop it and move on.

It starts with enforcing what’s on the books, and getting things right with the laws. When you tell folks they can’t go in the military… you can’t serve your country because you’re gay, it’s like telling them they’re second class, or ‘less than’. That’s what they told African Americans. At first, we weren’t allowed to serve in the military, then it was segregated, and now that’s changed. So hopefully over time, sooner rather than later, things will change and we will actually have full equality across the board.

Also in our community, we have so many guys out there dealing with their sexuality and for a black man to say he’s gay, is huge. Our society makes them feel like they’re no longer a man, we denigrate our men, gay men… they become women, they become sissies, it’s like they can’t be men. So they go on the down low which is why instances of HIV among black women keeps rising. Because these men are leading double lives, running around with men and then coming back home to their wives or girlfriends, and that’s awful. We need to let there be some kind of communication, some openness and let people lead their lives and not feel like they need to be ashamed and hide because really all we’re doing is killing ourselves.

Someone in my life recently came out to me and a few other friends. His close family, the people that have known him his entire life, still don’t know, and won’t ask. He’s almost 50. It’s sad watching him with them because he can’t be himself. He does so much for his family and yet he still has to wear this mask for them. I can’t imagine having to keep a secret like that from the people that I’m closest too.

That’s sad, but not an uncommon story. I think I was 40 when I came out to my parents and honestly was like, there is no way they don’t know… no way that they would be surprised by this. But they were. When I finally told them, it was like total shock, as if they had no idea. I was living with a woman.. at the age of 40! Come on! It was pretty devastating for them. It took a long time, it’s still taking time and it definitely put a strain on the relationship. But I’m happier being myself. It’s sad hearing about the person in your life though. He’s 50 years old. He’s been living 50 years for them. He still hasn’t started living for himself yet. My heart goes out.

What’s next for Wanda? Any new projects? I love you in The New Adventures of Old Christine by the way!

I’ll be doing some theater soon. I’m playing Miss Hannigan in the play Annie at the Media Theater in Pennsylvania. It should be fun! I also have a show coming up at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT on Wednesday, November 3rd.

Is there any message you’d like to send out to the CurlyNikki.com community?

I’m proud to be a part of the curly community. Stay strong and hopefully we can get other people to come out!