Four years have passed since Lupita Nyong’o stole the limelight at the Academy Awards with her red carpet debut. While her robin egg blue dress has become a staple of red carpet roundup listicles, it was Nyong’o’s closely cropped afro from that night that has established the actress as a hair icon and a beloved crusader of the natural hair movement.
“Around 13 or 14, I had such a rough time with being teased and feeling really unpretty,” she said.
Presenting our March 2018 issue, The Culture of Hair, starring @lupitanyongo. In addition to talking to Nyong’o about her relationship with her hair, we also gave her and hairstylist @vernonfrancois total freedom over the looks. “Lupita and I wanted to show that coil-y or kinky hair has many strengths and can be worn in lots of different ways, celebrating its beauty and versatility,” says Francois. Link in bio for the full story. ____ ?: @patrickdemarchelier Hair: @vernonfrancois Styling: @alexwhiteedits Makeup: @dilokritbarose Nails: @deborahlippmann
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After years of having her curls relentlessly made fun of by her classmates, the Academy Award-winning actress decided to get a relaxer. Of course, it took some convincing before her mother agreed.
“She felt that that was a decision I could come to when I was maybe 18,” Nyong’o said, though she did eventually convince her mother to take her to a salon for a chemical straightening treatment.
“I felt so much better because it was easier to tame. All the girls in my class had their hair relaxed. Very few had natural kink, so I felt a lot more acceptable.”
But it didn’t take long for Nyong’o to realize how time-consuming her relaxed hair would be.
Black girls who have ever had relaxed hair will laugh-cringe at the moment Nyong’o described the demanding maintenance of her post-chemically straightened hair. “I remember doing crazy things, like sleeping with my head above the headboard so that my curls wouldn’t get messed up for the next day,” Nyong’o remembered. “I’d have these terrible neck aches because I was determined to keep my hair as pristine as possible. And it was super expensive.”
After years of expensive upkeep, Nyong’o’s dad joked that she should consider cutting her hair off completely. “I thought to myself, Why don’t I?” she said, seeing it as a challenge. “It was almost a dare to myself: Can I live without hair? He shaved it right off. It was so scary but so liberating because I went completely bald.”
When Nyong’o showed up to her parents house with a bald head, her mother’s reaction gave her second thoughts.
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“It was hard to see the horror on my mother’s face. She was so disapproving, and I was so sensitive about it at the time, that I started to get scared that I had done the wrong thing,” Nyong’o said. “Eventually, my mom came around. I remember once when I was dressed up for church, she actually said, with a very quick mouth, ‘You look nice.'”
But moving back to Mexico, and later to the U.S., made her realize that her hair did not fit most beauty standards.
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“The beauty standards had nothing to do with me in Mexico. It was such a bizarre, dire time for my hair,” she explained. “I was living in a small town where there was not any semblance of an African community.”
To get her hair done, Nyong’o would take an almost three-hour bus ride to Mexico City.
The upkeep of her mane wasn’t much better in the U.S. When she moved to Massachusetts for college, Nyong’o suddenly found herself in a cold climate, where her tresses didn’t have the same support system that it did when she lived in Kenya.
“My hair did something very different in freezing weather, which I didn’t know how to handle. My hair needs moisture. It needs warmth. All of a sudden, I was in this very cold environment, and my hair was bristly and dry and really hard to manage,” She explained. To cope, she would get her hair braided in Kenya, and wear the style for months in the U.S. until she could return home.
These days, Nyong’o views her coils through a more approving lens.
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In her interview, the actress broke down why the language used to talk about natural hair is important. For starters, she says Black hair is way too rich with diversity to limit with one culture alone.
“I think the term ‘African-American; is often used as a racial term when it’s a cultural group that does not encompass every single person of African descent,” she explains. “When you say ‘African-American,’ you’re not actually addressing what you think you’re addressing. That’s a national identification, and it cannot be about the hair.”
Nyongo’s hair is the longest it has been in a decade, and after finally learning how to properly manage and care for it, the actress is happy to embrace the many styles she can shape it into.
“Now I love my hair. I love it because I’ve also been able to really embrace the stuff it can do. It’s like clay in the right hands. Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but clay can be art in the right hands.