Bafta winning actress Thandie Newton and I first met on a Vogue shoot about 6 years ago. It didn’t take long before I felt that I’d always known her. She is one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met and I’ve been fortunate enough to make-up, wax lyrical and travel with her ever since. I have made her up more than anyone else in my whole career, in an entirely different way each time. We often discuss what it is like to be mixed race, our experiences, what it means to us, what we continue to discover and most importantly perhaps, find ways of celebrating it. Our hair is not easy hair. It frizzes, it tangles and it knots and takes a lot to understand. There is still much stigma with a large ‘hair culture’ surrounding it, plus a multi-million dollar industry supplying women with ways of taming it.
Thandie has been growing out her hair relaxer for the last year and she’s now 100% Lye-free, (the controversial chemical in black hair straightening products) and is finding that wearing it big and natural is extremely liberating.
Your hair looks so different, what made you decide to go natural?
Its taken about 2 years to fully grow out my relaxer. I always thought I would go back to curly, because I didn’t want my daughters to judge their beautiful curls. I assumed they’d want to be like their Mum, and they’ve only ever known me with straight hair. However, it turns out they’re so secure in who they are as individuals that I don’t think it occurs to them to be like anyone else, and that includes me.
What inspired you to allow your hair return to it’s natural state?
So, the ultimate personal wake up call was when I saw Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, and saw how the active ingredient-Lye (that’s in all black hair relaxing products)- can melt a Coke can. Also the fact that the FDA take no responsibility with harmful chemicals when it comes to beauty products. Scary.
How does having wilder looking, bigger hair make you feel as opposed to the elegantly-on-trend hairstyles we’re used to seeing you with on the red carpet?
I have to feel comfortable with having ‘all eyes on me‘, which I do when I work, less so in life. Ironically I don’t want to draw attention to myself because of celeb spotting, but my big hair, for a time will work as a disguise! Straight hair has been ‘on trend’ for years and years, so having big-ass curly hair means “I’m stepping outside the mould, outside what’s accepted and applauded”. It takes a little courage to do that. Mainly, I want to wear it natural because it looks amazing!
Do you think cultural attitudes within the black community are changing with regards their hair?
The kinky-haired Afro has been practically ironed out (pun intended!) within the mainstream black community. Now, black women have silkier, smoother longer hair than any other women. And there’s no stigma attached to black women and false hair (weaves, extension, wigs) whereas if a white woman wore false hair they’d seem more of a phony and inadequate. That’s changing a lot, but men certainly don’t expect white women to have false hair, whereas black boys know that there’s ‘No touching above the neck!’ And there’s no embarrassment about it.
Being mixed race myself, know that there is a lot of stigma steeped in history surrounding black hair and it still exists today. Tell me a bit about your experiences.
The stigma with some black women seems to be that ‘nappy hair’ is almost as bad as loo roll trailing from your shoe. I have always let my daughter’s hair be wild and scruffy. I love the shapes and fluffy halo. But when they were ‘papped‘ in the States I had remarks about how I don’t take care of their hair. The truth is I choose to keep it that way. When I see hair that’s been pulled, stretched, brushed till bullet smooth I just think ‘ouch‘. I have my limits mind, sometimes I have to beg Nico to let me tidy it up for fear of her looking like she’s been neglected!
It was relatively easy for me growing up in West London amongst all colours and cultures, but how was it for you, growing up in Penzance, Cornwall?
Well for a start I only visited a hairdressers once in my entire childhood. It was a nightmare. They washed it and then (drumroll…) blowdried and BRUSHED it. It was like a huge candy floss – no curl definition. It looked ridiculous. And it cost my Mum 20 quid – that was the thing I hated most, that my Mum had to say thank you, pretend she was pleased and pay all that money. The truth is the salon had no idea – we were a loooong way from London. A long way from any other black person. I don’t think you could even buy a decent conditioner. Vitapoint was the only product, I bloody loved Vitapoint. The smell meant ‘friend’.
Without the support of a black ‘hair culture’ around you, how did you learn to manage your hair?
I think the closest thing I had to long, straight tangle-free hair was when I had it braided into ‘singles’ during the Summer holidays. By the time I was 13 I could do it myself. That’s one huge plus, I’m REALLY good at doing hair – I HAD to learn, and I did and I can do it all. I can braid, fit extensions, do my own weave, cut it, blow dry it bone straight, make hair pieces, fit wigs, style it beehive, forties, Afro, you name it. I started young and then from 16 when I started acting, I learned from the best of the best.
How was it for your Mum, coming to a culture where her ‘normal hair’ was suddenly non-’normal’, then having children, and approaching their hair in this alien place. What was her approach to your hair?
Mum wanted me to fit in, and I don’t blame her. My hair hampered that. Poor Mum. I remember when I was 7 at my convent school, it was school photo day so all the kids came looking their best. Mum did my hair in 20 or so ‘corn rows’ with green wooden beads on each end to match my school uniform. The nuns were appalled, they wouldn’t let me have my picture taken. I felt embarrassed, disappointed, ashamed. Can you imagine how my Mum must have felt? There was a mild rukus and the next day I had my picture taken. But then I read this year a piece in The Independent about a student who appealed against not being able to wear his hair in (what the school felt was a hoodlum style) braids, and he won. That’s 30 years since the Nun’s dissed me… This shit keeps going round and round.
Apart from the school photo incident it was 1 or 2 plaits every single day, and a bun when I was doing ballet. Never, ever, ever loose. Never.
So when did you discover hair products designed for black hair?
There wasn’t any ‘Dark & Lovely’ in Cornwall but I can say it was like Christmas when we discovered that a ‘home perm’ has the effect of loosening curls. I was around 14 then.
So what is your experience of modern hairdressers today-are they all clued up about how to manage your hair?
To be honest I do struggle with hairdressers, even now. The main problem is that hairdressers (and some at the top of their game) don’t understand how my type of hair changes dramatically depending on what climate, substance, effects it. Water in any form is like a cheeky magic wand – even mist! But with the correct tools ad managing my kind of hair can do ANYTHING, which is brilliant! So hairdressers like the genius Kerry Warn, or Maarit Niemela, are leagues better than others because they can work black hair from wet to dry in any style.
I’m surprised that more people don’t understand this (even though hair salons still seems to be culturally divided between ‘black’ hairdressing or ‘caucasian’ hairdressing), there are many black models and actresses around that they work with.
I think a problem for top hairdressers is that most black models and high end clients have weaves (Indian hair), so the technicians never work on authentic black hair. Whether black, white, blonde, brunette, I’d head to a local black hairdressers any day of the week- because if a technician can work black hair, you can work ANY hair.
So tell me about products. You’ve been an international actress all of your adult life, you must have tried everything!
My favourite shampoos, conditioner, serums and sprays etc are from John Masters Organics and the ‘Brilliant’ range by Aveda.
I have lots of ‘beauty icons’ that, to my mind, represent a more diverse attitude to beauty, that hopefully represent a wider scope of womanhood. Do you have any ‘hair icons’?
I just watched Flashdance with my girls. Jennifer Beales hair! In the same breath I get a total wide on for my friend Laura Bailey‘s hair. It’s unreal. Thick, shiny, heavy swinging blanket of the good stuff. Who doesn’t love Rihanna’s red? Or Stevie Wonder’s braids?
What would you say to young girls and women of colour who struggle with hair ‘issues’?
Ultimately the goal is to be free to do whatever you want with your hair. But what we ‘want’ is influenced by so many factors. When I was little I insisted my parents stopped calling me Thandie because it was so ‘different‘, my desire was influenced by a community where the way I looked was not celebrated, where my uniqueness was seen as suspect. Whatever we are repelled by, or don’t want – right there is the bud to a root we need to dig up and investigate.
Watch a trailer of Thandie’s next movie, GOOD DEEDS (out in US Feb 14th) HERE
Watch Thandie’s talk on ‘Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself’ at TED HERE
Watch the trailer to Chris Rock’s insightful documentary GOOD HAIR HERE
Read writer Funmi Fetto’s honest account of her hair from British VOGUE HERE
See my Pinterest board full of work that Thandie & I have done together HERE
Follow Kay on Twitter at@kaymontano