Janet Hubert, aka the first Vivian Banks from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, aka the original Tantomile in the first Broadway run of Cats, is On the Couch! Yes, this beauty, who has always had a regal aire, is natural and telling all… about everything! Near the end of the interview she says, ‘I’m not afraid to speak my mind’. And she’s not lying… she took it there!
This by far, was one of the most awesome interviews. Ever. Rarely do you see someone really speak their mind… without the publicists, the lawyers, the inbetweens, etc. Although I may not agree with everything she says, I totally respect and admire her candor. The honesty was refreshing and her willingness to push the envelope… amazing. I think it will definitely open up some discussion. So read, enjoy, and weigh in! Oh, and grab your Ipod and allow Kanye and Jay’s H.A.M. to play softly in the background, ’cause if this interview had a theme song, that would be it!
First things first, thank you for agreeing to the interview!
No problem. I always like to do things that are connected to natural hair. I’m getting tired of this whole phenomenon that is black hair, it’s very misunderstood.
So what’s your hair story?
Being a little dark skinned girl growing up, at the time that I grew up, definitely brought its challenge. I was always that little colored girl running from the rain. And I was extremely active: I rode horses, I was a cheerleader, I danced, I swam. I did it all. So getting my hair pressed was often a waste of time. But it was the thing to do… to have your hair fried. Every two weeks like clock work, suffering through the burning of the ears, the heat… gosh, it still gives me nightmares! And it was always my fault when my mother burned my ear! I remember I’d put spoons over them, to no avail.
I actually had a fixation with Veronica Lake when I was a little girl. I always wore my hair pressed to death over one eye. That deep swag over one eye… the Page Boy. I loved the Page Boy when I was a little girl!
Hilarious, ’cause I did that too. Only I was channeling Aaliyah.
Fast forward a bit to the late ‘60s, early ‘70s- once I left high school- I got my first perm and hated it. Absolutely hated it. My hair is thick and fine, and has three very different textures. So when they’d apply the perm to the back of my head, by the time they got to the top, it was time to rinse it out of the back. No matter what I did, no matter what they tried, no matter how much conditioning was applied, it would start to fall out. After a certain point, it would just start to break off. Plus, like I said, I was active. I sweat… a lot, and sweating is one of the biggest enemies of perm, because it’s salt. Add to that the chlorine from the pool, and my hair was a wreck. It would grow to a certain point, and I would cut it. I started over countless times.
Besides your experimentation with relaxers, what other hair adventures did you have?
I’ve always played with my hair and done a lot of different things. In the ‘80s, when I was in CATS, and whenever I was dancing, it was always braided up. Then, somewhere in Ohio, I got a bad Jerhi Curl.[Laughter]
I think I was on the road doing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. Somehow I got it in my mind that I wanted a Jerhi Curl so I headed to the salon. And Lord have mercy! I got back to the theater, and all of my hair just started coming out. I mean literally falling to the floor. The company manager looked at me and said, ‘your hair looks horrendous.’ I concurred. So I went to a barbershop in the next town, I believe Baltimore, and had my head shaved bald! Imagine my completely bald head, totally buffed out body, 5 pairs of lashes… when I walked out on the stage, people would gasp, they thought I was Grace Jones! I had this long, linear body, huge eyes which were accented with the biggest false lashes, and muscles galore![Laughter]
On top of that, people began calling me ‘sir’. So I kept a big pair of earrings on and always wore makeup. To be honest, I actually developed a bit of a complex with that whole issue. I was like, wow, people think I’m a dude! So I knew that the no hair thing wasn’t for me. Plus, I liked changing my hair, and I’m a hat queen.
Anyway, fast forward… my hair began growing back out. But get this, the roots had dis-attached! My scalp was so damaged that I had a slight case of alopecia. I had to apply steroid drops on my scalp for about 6 months. And when my hair finally grew, it came in completely straight. I looked like some sort of hideous little fuzz head!
Good grief! I’ve heard many a hair horror story in my day, but this one takes the cake. Did that end your foray with chemicals?
Actually no. After that, I went back and got another perm. We tried perming it in small sections, but that didn’t work either. Fell out nonetheless. It was during that time when I finally did Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I wore a press and curl. People didn’t know that! I was often asked how I achieved the body… the bounce. Well there you go! It wasn’t a perm, it was a press. The stylist on the set was great. She would straighten it and bump the ends. But the whole time I was on the show, I wanted to showcase my natural hair. In the third season, I had plans for Vivian to go natural, plans of wearing my curly hair on air. Vivian was going to find her Blackness! If I had actually come back to the show, I wanted to have an episode where I could wear my hair natural.
So after I left the show, that was it. I was done with heat. Pressing your hair breaks it down, just like any other process. And so there would be sections that, after washing, wouldn’t go back kinky. Sections of it would completely go dead straight. So for the last 20 years, I’ve barely even put a blow dryer to it.
Oh yeah, I had dreads for 2 years. And boy was that an interesting process. I had them on Dennis Leary’s show The Job. I do love them, my son now has them, but they were just a bit too dull for me. They’re dull no matter what you use… the light just doesn’t bounce off of them, the beauty doesn’t transfer well to camera. Also, there wasn’t enough versatility for me. I have to be able to comb my bush. To feel the bush! I always admire them on others, but they’re not for me. If I ever do them again, I’ll definitely get Sister locks. Because mine were thick and lumpy!
So in the years post Fresh Prince, you’ve worn your natural texture. Do you think this has had any influence on your career?
I’ve grown tired of the bullshit in Hollywood. It’s like weave city there. I’ve always had a real attitude about who I am, and have always loved my natural hair. And everybody doesn’t appreciate that. If somebody wants to do my hair for a show, it’s going to have to be a wig. When I did One Life to Live, I allowed them to press out the front of it, and I didn’t even want them to do that. Then I tried the weave thing and hated that… it felt like I had a dog on my head. I could not stand it. I think I had a weave for a day. I took a seam ripper and ripped the threads out, which took out half of my hair. So I shaved my head again!
So I’ve never been afraid of not having hair or having hair. I think we’re beautiful no matter what we do. My natural story is that I love my hair. I absolutely will not press my hair for anybody’s job. That’s just it. If you want to hire Janet Hubert, you’re going to have to take her as she is, or put a wig on it. Period.
And I understand that it’s a part of the process as an actress. But, in this era of the blond thing, which I abhor, it makes it very hard. I absolutely find it so sad that the bluest eye is upon us. And I feel so sad when I see a Black woman with blond hair… sad that it has come to this. Also, there are too many Black men trying to tell our stories about our hair. Too many comments and too much negativity associated with us as Black women. The whole funny thing about wearing a weave and ‘don’t’ touch my hair’… I hated the movie Good Hair. I thought it was an unbelievable insult to Black women and I just don’t understand why people feel that they can make a joke out of us all the time. I’m a little tired of it. I consider our hair beautiful, no matter how you choose to wear it. But it’s when women feel that they have to have this hair… that it’s the hair that makes them beautiful, that’s the problem. I can’t even go into a store and find a black wig anymore!
I went to the local beauty store recently and asked the woman there if she had ‘this wig in black’. Her response was, ‘oh no, everybody likes the blond hair!’ And she was looking at my hair and asked, ‘is that all your hair?’ And instead of taking my answer, she put her hands in my head to see if she could feel tracks… because I had this giant bush. And I said to her, ‘excuse me, but I do not know you, and I don’t know where your hands have been. You did not have permission to put your hands in my head’. It’s funny that even with natural hair, people still don’t think it’s your hair.
You don’t know whether to be flattered or offended.
Exactly! Anyway, you asked me about my natural hair and work. I know I probably lost a few jobs by not pressing my hair. I remember going on an audition back in the day for Dark and Lovely. Didn’t happen. And I also have to share my disappointment in the hair books, in the magazines, even Essence, where we’re told to love our natural selves, but they have more straight hair in those magazine than you can shake a finger at. We have never been accepted as beautiful by the masses with natural hair.
Tell me about your hair today.
I love the two strand twist. That’s my experience with my hair now. I mostly do my hair myself, but Derrick Scurry, who is amazing, does my twists from time to time. My hair has a real curl pattern! I love that! And what’s interesting is that you will not find your natural hair until you leave it alone long enough to let it heal. And I feel that as my hair as healed, it has found itself. And unless you do that, it’s going to keep doing crazy stuff.
That’s great advice for transitioners and big choppers alike. Your hair 2 months post relaxer, or two months post Big Chop, is not what it’s going to be 2 years from now.
You’re right! It will be absolutely different. And you are going to love it. It will become very sacred to you… just like locks. People feel very sacred about their locks. I have three textures in my head. My hair is a jungle in the middle, loose in the front, and I always say I have Mother Africa in the back! I didn’t know this until I left it alone.
I’m in the same boat! My hair is loose in the front and tight in the back.
That’s funny. The similarities. Now that I’m graying I’m amazed at how strong and resilient it is.
As the aging process hits, it’s a whole other thing to deal with. Especially if you’re in the business. Because age is so frowned upon. We’re almost invisible. But at least for me, my natural hair defines and separates me from the crowd of weave wearers.
Tell me about your routine in detail.
The beautiful part about having natural hair is that for 3 weeks solid, I don’t touch it!
The thing that people don’t understand is that our hair is very dry and sucks up moisture. I usually just two strand twist it and moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. I love Miss Jessies Baby Buttercreme. I use a combo of Miss Jessies, Aveda, and Nexxus Humectress for moisture, and combine Vitapointe and Miss Jessie’s for shine. My routine is simple and I don’t stray from my products. I hate that I can’t find Miss Jessie’s in my local beauty supply. The Chinese and Korean owners don’t believe it will sell because it is so expensive. My thoughts are that if you are going to sell to us, at least provide us with some options, and some quality products… don’t make assumptions based on stereotypes. I usually end up ordering online.
When I want something a little special, I’ll take the twists and rod them for a curly look. Or, if I don’t have time for that, I’ll chiney bump big sections of my two strand twists. I take a few, wrap it around and knot them. When you release them, you have a gorgeous curl. Instant!
Do you only wear the twists, or do you wear twist-outs as well?
What I do is wear the twists for about 2 weeks and then I’ll release them and wear it like that for a while. Then sometimes, I’ll get in the shower and just let the water run through my twist-out. I don’t comb it all, and just watch what happens. It swells up, I get my real curl pattern with all the separated sections, and I’m left with this fabulous bush. People ask me what I do to it. Easy… let the water hit and let it grow, it’s like chia hair!
How often do you re-moisturize?
Every 3 days with the mix of products I mentioned before. I also grease my scalp. I’m a firm believer in greasing the scalp. I know that’s old school, but I’m sorry, I’ve got to do it! I suffer from a dry scalp condition, that if I don’t use something, it will turn white, peel, and flake. It’s like psoriasis. A lot of us have this dry scalp pattern. No matter how much oil you use, your scalp just starts lifting and peeling. It’s called seborrhea. And because my hair is so thick, it tends to make it worse. It will stop your hair from growing because your scalp is irritated. Also, because you’re not touching your scalp for long periods of time, your scalp gets tender. So every 3 to 4 days, I’ll take my fingers and give myself a good scalp massage.
So as you can see, my routine is simple. It’s not a lot of work when you really think about it. Every 3 weeks I wash and start over, I keep it moisturized in the meantime, and when I want something special, I can chiney bump it or rod set it. Or just let it be!
What do you think of the natural hair movement?
I recently went out to NYC on business. On the West Coast you see more weaves, but on the East Coast you see lots of gorgeous natural hair. Everybody damn near had natural hair and I said ‘look at this, ladies! Did you ever think we would get to this point?!’ It’s become very accepted, especially for commercials. It’s almost become the thing!
I agree! Although some might say that it’s only one type of curly featured in the majority of these commercials.
I know what you mean. This whole dark skinned, light skinned thing has got to go! We’re beautiful no matter what! We can’t control what Madison Avenue deems as beautiful. But what makes me sad is that the dark skinned woman has never been idolized, not in music videos, TV shows, movies, nothing. It’s not ‘White’ Madison Avenue that’s doing it, it’s us! Take a moment and think about the actresses that are working. They all look alike! That’s us… it’s on our hands. I for one, was replaced by a lighter skinned black actress. The same thing happened on My Wife and Kids. It’s sad but it happens, and it needs to change.
I subscribe to the ‘if you want Janet Hubert, this is what you get’. I’ve had my time. I’ve had my time in the sun and I’m cool. What you see is what you get. Some people are shocked when they see me and I have this big bushy head of hair. And they’re like wow, you’re a natural girl! And I’m like, ‘why wouldn’t I be!’ I’m no longer living up to other’s expectations of me, I’m living up to my own expectations.
You always looked so regal! You’re gorgeous. But with the bush, you’re stunning. I love it!
Thanks! I think my hair defines my beauty. No, better yet, it accents me. I think my natural hair is much more beautiful that my straight hair. It was so fine when I wore it pressed. Now it is thick and wild, and truly is my crown and glory! I consider it gorgeous, and if you don’t like it, you can bite me!
What would you tell a woman who has yet to embrace her natural hair?
That’s a very interesting question. Wearing your natural hair doesn’t make you blacker than anyone else. It doesn’t make you better than anyone else. It just makes you want to be who you are. I say give your natural hair a chance. I know it feels like it is a lot of work, and it is, but it’s worth it. When you look in the mirror and you see that kink… it’s powerful. It’s where you started, it’s the hair you came out of the womb with. And yes, we can change it. I say embrace it because it can and will change. It’s much more versatile than any other hair. You can always go back! It’s wonderful because it is like the weather, it can change. Give it a chance, be patient, play with it! Work with it. You can do so much with it.
One day, after all the frustration, you will look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m digging this’. And if you keep pressing it, fighting with it, blowing out, bumping it, etc. you’ll never know what it is capable of. The least that you do to your hair, the better it is. I don’t believe our hair was meant to be combed. My little ends are so curly that when you comb them too much, they start to break no matter what you do. Our hair is very strong, but very fragile too. Don’t beat it to death. It’s not that deep.
I used to say to my ex husband my hair is kinky so that if you fall to your death, you have something to grab. [Laughter]
What are you working on? What do we have to look forward to?
I’m actually talking to some people about putting together a pilot for a talk show. I really feel like there is a generation of people that are forgotten. I also don’t particularly like the role models that are representing us. So I’m really anxious to put my hat in the ring and see what happens.
The Life After Piece for TV 1 was phenomenal and I’m very glad I did it. It was very freeing.
I also have my children series I am partnering with an animation company called Cosmic Toast, they are going to be animating J.G. and The B.C. Kids. The book is out right now on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I put book bags in Walmart two falls ago and we sold out of White Plains the day we got there! It’s about bringing book smart and street smart kids together to make life smart kids. Also I’m sure you and your readers would like to know that J.G. is very strong and she too has natural hair. She has dreads. And she is beautiful.
We’re going to be creating more stuff and get this thing out nation wide. And hopefully folks will support it. We don’t support one another and it’s a tough sale to bring something positive about children. I’ve had to do it completely by myself. I’ve gone to many companies… Spike Lee, Allen Houston, the so called Black Power players, and it’s very sad. I’m on my own. But it’s okay. J.G. is my passion. Bringing a consciousness to the whole bullying thing is my mission. It’s cool to be smart and I want kids to really realize that!
For more info, check out Janethubert.com