Black Hair, Red Carpet: How the Push for Representation Is Reshaping Beauty in Hollywood and Beyond

The breadth of Black beauty on the red carpet in recent years has felt particularly powerful—its significance a marker of how far we’ve come, the array of styles on display a vision of the future. The progress has been long in the making. It was 2015 when April Reign tweeted “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair,” kicking off a soon-to-be-viral hashtag that would center conversation around the racial disparities rampant in the industry; at that awards show, Giuliana Rancic’s off-color comments about Zendaya’s faux locs further cemented the need to address the ongoing negative stigmas around Black beauty. Six years later, in the wake of a nationwide racial reckoning, it made the latest sweep of Oscar looks—a golden curly updo on Andra Day, Viola Davis’s voluminous frohawk, cornrows on Tiara Thomas—feel like a kind of celebration: for our collective perseverance, for the talent onscreen and off, for the breadth of beauty that hasn’t always had a place in the limelight.

Growing up in East Coast suburbia in the 2000s, biweekly appointments to get my hair relaxed were a routine part of my adolescence. As I sat with a familiar burn that felt as if it were permeating deep into my follicles, I used to tell myself, beauty is pain. I was a military kid, constantly displaced, and I just wanted to fit in. This was the easiest way to ward off questions from my classmates about why my hair was different. It helped me avoid the feeling of violation that came when curious hands closed in on my face, the question “Can I touch your hair?” barely falling from the person’s lips—as if the sound of their own voice were the only permission needed to touch something that was incontrovertibly mine. Straight hair also made it possible to emulate all those red carpet–inspired styles in the pages of my favorite magazines. I never saw hair that looked like mine praised for its elegance or glamour, so to me that meant conforming to this distorted idea of beauty. I wanted to be beautiful too.

“It was passed down to us, this idea that we had to look a certain way to get a job, to fit in with the white norm, to be presentable, so we started changing who we were,” says hairstylist Jamika Wilson, who this year became the first Black woman (along with Mia Neal) to win an Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Davis, who plays the blues icon in the film, is a longtime client of Wilson’s; the two were together in 2012 when the actor decided to embrace her natural hair for that year’s Academy Awards—a headline-making departure from earlier red-carpet appearances. “I didn’t know that she was actually going to wear her short hair; I still prepped a wig,” recalls Wilson. “I wanted her to be comfortable with whatever decision she decided to make.” But after makeup was complete and Davis slipped on the wig, “it just wasn’t right. It wasn’t.” Wilson remembers Davis—a woman revered for her ability to embody so many different roles—looking in the mirror and deciding to be her truest self. “She said, ‘Okay, I am going to go natural.’ And it was the best decision.” The best actress nominee faced the cameras with her Afro, tinted a warm copper to complement an emerald Vera Wang dress. The reverberation was immediate.

There is no way to definitively tell the story of Black hair on the red carpet. Dating back to Gone With the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel in 1940—white gardenias pinned in her hair as she became the first Black actor to win an Oscar, during an awards ceremony that took place at a segregated Los Angeles hotel—such style cues have always represented something greater. Early on, the prevailing techniques, whether press and curls, relaxers, weaves, or wigs, reflected the message that to be glamorous meant to conform. By the ’60s, the Black Is Beautiful movement repositioned the Afro as a marker of pride and an act of resistance. Even still, the arrival of a new generation of empowered performers and their hairstylists in the last decade has further shifted the narrative. “In Hollywood, there was always this idea that for hair to be deemed beautiful, it had to be long and, ideally, straight or wavy. The hairstyles that Lupita Nyong’o and I collaborate on, [with her] consistently wearing her hair short, eclipse that,” says Vernon François, a stylist and educator with a curl-focused hair-care line. In the run-up to Nyong’o’s 2014 Oscar win for best supporting actress, the 12 Years a Slave newcomer emerged as a red-carpet force, as much for hair as for fashion. The duo creatively demonstrated the versatility of a short Afro by way of dramatic parts, sculptural shapes, and one diamond-encrusted headband.

“A huge misconception is that our hair does not have the same styling options as straight and wavy hair. That is a big lie. The things that you can do with our texture—endless,” says hairstylist Nai’vasha, whose red-carpet clients include Tracee Ellis Ross, Storm Reid, and Alicia Keys. Nai’vasha credits her own movement toward self-love with shaping the direction of her work (and her beauty brand, Curl Queen). “It wasn’t until I started to dive-deep into who I am—and understand where I came from, my history, my forefathers—that I started to really share my own texture and love on it and encourage other women to embrace theirs,” she says, describing a newfound intentionality. “I was hellbent on really pushing the envelope. I wanted the world to see what our hair can do and how glorious our curls and waves and kinks and edges could be.”

As more and more celebrities embrace their textured hair for the world to see, the damaging history of erasure is slowly being undone. So is the distorted sense of self in many Black women, as society grapples with our human right to be. “The ripple effect of celebrities rocking their hair’s true texture in hyper-visible moments like a red carpet can really help other people to walk out of their fear and step into courage with such confidence. It’s breathtaking,” says François. In a similar way, Nai’vasha has been equally determined to present looks she feels have been historically missing from the carpet—most notably the “huge, beautiful, gorgeously shaped Afro” she created for 2017 Emmy nominee Uzo Aduba. “When she said yes to it, my soul just turned flips because I felt like it was rebellion at that point,” Nai’vasha recalls.

About Dian Sastro

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