Lupita Nyongo’ needs no introduction. She is an African actress reputed for her sterling performance in movies like “Black Panther” among others. She has won tons of awards for her acting including Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She is the first Kenyan and Mexican actress to win an Academy Award. Aside acting though, Lupita’s style has always been eclectic and fascinating. Her hair game is completely out of the box. In this interview with Allure Magazine she talks about hair, beauty standards and identity.
Q: How did you feel about your hair when you were growing up?
LUPITA: Well, I didn’t love my hair when I was a child. It was lighter than my skin, which made me not love it so much. I was really kind of envious of girls with thicker, longer, more lush hair. In my tween years, I started begging my mother to have my hair relaxed. She wouldn’t allow it, though her hair was relaxed. She felt that that was a decision I could come to when I was maybe 18. Around 13 or 14, I had such a rough time with being teased and feeling really unpretty. My dad intervened and spoke to my mom about my hair, and she finally agreed. She took me to the salon in the middle of the school day, and I got my hair relaxed. 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.
I had my hair relaxed for most of my teenage years, and that was a whole other world. The upkeep of relaxed hair is a commitment. It took styling it once a week and then having it retouched once a month. 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. I’d have these terrible neck aches because I was determined to keep my hair as pristine as possible. And it was super expensive. When I was about 18 or 19, I didn’t have a job or anything, so it was really my parents paying for my hair. So I was once asking for some more money to get my hair done and my dad joked, “Why don’t you just cut it all off?” And a few months later, I thought to myself, Why don’t I? I went into the hair salon, and I said, “Let’s cut it off.” 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.
Q: Did your mother know you were going to do it?
LUPITA: No, I didn’t tell anybody except for my hairdresser. When I got home, my mother was horrified. She was just like, “What have you done to my hair?” I remember her saying that: “I’ve been growing that hair since you were born — how can you?” Then I felt really self-conscious. 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. And it was cold. All of a sudden I would feel really cold on my head, and I didn’t have hats or the right head wear for a bald head. 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.”
That was so good to hear. It took my dad probably two weeks to notice I had no hair! At breakfast, he looked up and said, “Hey, where is your hair?” I said, “You said I should cut it.” He just burst out laughing. He was like, “I didn’t mean take it all off.” We had a good laugh about it. That was definitely a liberating stage. I had nothing to hide behind. I had my hair short for a very long time after that.
Q: And then you moved to the U.S…
LUPITA:Moving to the U.S. was very difficult because I didn’t have the same kind of support system. [Braiding] services were not readily available in Amherst, Massachusetts. For a long time I would braid my hair in Kenya and then spend months with the braids in when I got to the States so that I didn’t have to worry about my hair. Also, 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. One of the summers I went back home, I asked my aunt to teach me how to braid hair because I wanted to be able to do my own hair. I worked in her salon, and she taught me cornrowing, and twisting and plaiting.
Q: You lived in Mexico for a while. Did you find the beauty standards there to be different?
LUPITA: Oh, yeah, the beauty standards had nothing to do with me in Mexico. It was such a bizarre, dire time for my hair. I was living in a small town where there was not any semblance of an African community. I’d have to take the bus to Mexico City to find a woman who could braid my hair. That was two and a half hours away.
Q: Once you started working, did you ever feel pressure to change your hair, either for an audition or for a role?
LUPITA: Well, you know, the beginning of my career was so different than most. I didn’t really do a whole lot of the auditioning thing. I booked 12 Years a Slavebefore I graduated. So I already had that under my belt by the time I got to New York. Also, for auditions, I really do think about the character. There are going to be characters that have relaxed hair or whatever different hairstyles.
Q: We’ve had a lot of conversations here about language, for example people using the terms “kinky,” “curly,” “natural,” “black hair,” and “African-American hair.”
LUPITA: Well, I’m not an authority on this. But the term “African-American hair” is inaccurate because I’m not African-American. And 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. So there’s that. So 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. I like the term “kinky.” Some people don’t like that term, but when I think about my hair, I think of it as African kinky hair. But I’m not really in deep with the politics of it all and the language choice. I speak just from my own experience or my own preference. Curly hair differs so much.
Q: The subject of identity is such a big one these days. I sometimes get asked, “What are you?” when people want to know my ethnicity. How do you self-identify?
LUPITA: I find that people would ask, “What are you?” and that means what tribe are you, you know, what ethnic group. That’s the only time I hear the words “What are you” in a Kenyan context. But outside of Kenya, when people ask me where I’m from, I say, “I’m from Kenya.” That’s how I identify, unless ethnicity becomes more of a thing, and then I would say I’m Luo, which is my ethnic group.
You can read the rest of the interview here