Natural or Straight: What Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Julianna Marguiles & Edward Allen Bernero (creator of Third Watch, Criminal Minds & Crossing Lines) taught me about my hair and this business
What hair do I wear for my life?
Fast forward a few years to 2008
I have never to this day, booked any job with long hair, not even a bob. Every on-camera job (and almost every theatre job w/the exception of one) that I have booked or been offered was someone looking at my headshot
So, don’t get caught up in the identifying your hair with who you are. Use it as a tool. First love the head of hair you got. And if you ain’t never seen your natural hair or you’re holding to some damaged process hair, do something for me: Find a hair stylist who values healthy hair above all else. I love Marvin Carrington's work. Go see him with one goal in mind: to get your hair healthy, nothing else matters. So if he tells you, you got to chop off a bunch and stop coloring it, do it. When it starts to shine, grow and flourish, you’ll be wearing a crown. Crowns make you fierce, not damaged mops.
Then if you need straight hair to get a job that will give you power and money, then get a fantastic customized wig. I love Danielle Wright’s work. And use that wig, not to make either way, but those wigs are weapon that helps them run Hollywood. And that’s far more powerful than an afro they wear any day of the week. When you’re in a position of power, create content that makes money and is successful, then you can work in films and tell stories that reflect a different you. A you with natural hair. For example, Kerry is wearing natural hair in the film Night Catches Us that I was a producer on. She wore natural hair for Our Song and Save the Last Dance. She wore natural hair in Django. She has that option because she has power now. The power of an award winning show.
Viola can show up at the Emmy’s and Golden Globes with natural hair because she has an award winning show on primetime where she can also take off her wig when she wants to. Because she has power in the industry, she can make choices that free her up to be an artist first.a working-class nurse principal character, but not the central character of the show. Her hair is a straight wig that looks exactly like what her hair would look like if it were straightened. Why? Because now she is playing the the central character in the show who is a powerful lawyer and politician’s wife and that character would have straight hair. This is not always the case, but this is the case for most women like this character and TV is echoing that reality.
The same is true of Kerry Washington on Scandal or Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder. Those characters are the central figures in the TV show. They are playing women who would have straight hair because they move in corporate and political circles of power & money. They are walking in the footsteps of Michelle Obama, Condoleezza going in more and more for people in places of power, money and control which is what straight signifies in the larger corporate structure of our country.
The good news is that now that gay stories are super popular; I get lots of requests for my natural hair. Well, there it is, we assume gay women care a whole lot less about the what is expected of a woman in a man’s world, so she can wear here hair however the fuck she wants: bald, natural, locked, whatever. Gotta love that.
But outside of that paradigm, in the world of film & TV, natural curly or kinky hair is more accepted, but is still connotes characters who are working class, quirky, edgy, not in control. Straight hair is still the symbol of characters with power, money & lead characters. For example, Julianna Margulies had gorgeous kinky curly hair in the show ER when she playedown hair, but rather because I’m not playing “April,” I’m playing a character and this is what she would have worn.
Now, so we don’t get it twisted, as soon as I walked out of that audition, I tossed the sides in the trash can in the waiting room, removed the wig and put it in my purse. Thus, ensuring that I left all expectations about that audition in that casting office. I left with no attachment to the outcome or whether or not I got the part. I did all that was in my power to give a kickass audition and let it go. Removing the wig and tossing the sides were 2 amazing symbolic ways of doing that.
The wigs are great for stuff that's older which I go in for a lot because I’m finally a grown-assed woman and being seen for my emotional type. I’ve been called in and gotten callbacks more with the wigs because I’m on my emotional type and not just my physical type. (Learn more about that business strategy which can double your auditions here). So I wear the straight curly wig to an audition for the first time and I booked Gotham.
Well, that makes sense because Gotham is an altered world of very large, film noir, period characters. The wig made sense for that character and I was ultimately costumed in a very similar one for the shoot. That wig communicated something about the character’s power, place in this society, her cultural background (a traditional Southern woman with a Mae West edge), so a big straight-hair, curly wig was just the ticket.
Could I have worn my natural hair, sure. Would the connection to the character have been as strong visually, no? So, I made a business decision to wear “the white woman’s” hair. Not because I have shame about my accessory as opposed to a necessity. If you straight hair. That internal identification is dangerous, now the outside world definitely has some value judgements when it comes to long/straight hair. The trick is to use those notions to get ahead, but not to identify your self worth with them.
Fast forward 2010
Bad wigs in an effort to have straight hair are always a bad move. They reek desperation and read as false and tacky on camera. For example, in this photo, I am wearing a cheap wig because that’s what I could afford. I call this, the helmet effect. I went into the audition, did fine. When I was done, the casting director asked me to take off the wig andgot a ton of natural hair on our head down your back, but full of split ends because you won’t go to a salon to have someone trim and keep it healthy because you’re more fixated on length than healthiness; you’re stuck. Healthy hair makes you beautiful, not just long hair that may or may not be healthy. Just like a fit body makes you beautiful, not a just skinny body that may or may not be healthy.
What I love is that my natural hair is great. I have no shame around it, I don’t think I need straight hair nor do I believe that I am more attractive with straight hair. The trick is that I’m fine the way I am and the straight hair is like a change of dress, not something I need to be beautiful.
So the skinny is: there isn’t anything wrong with straight hair or weaves, it’s the needing the fake hair to feel worthy, beautiful or accepted. It’s the identifying one’s worth with with no hair or I went into the audition with no hair.
Tonight I had about a month’s growth of hair and was like, ugghh...it's too hot, so I went in the bathroom and shaved my head bald, threw on a dress and went to a show...I got stopped in the street non-stop by 25-year-old men wanting to chat me up and one woman grabbed her husband who was staring at me during the concert and then she sees me in the bathroom and says, "geez, I don't know what you're doing my husband, geez". I'm sorta speechless, because I'm wondering why everybody is tripping.
I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on, because I haven't been on a date in bit, but tonight wow, it was my lucky night...and then I had an "aha" moment. And this is important:
I like me the most when I'm bald, it feels like me (low-maintenance, minimalist, sorta earthy-chic beauty). When I have the long hair, I feel like I'm giving the world what it needs to be comfortable. And then I'm uber uncomfortable with all the unwanted attention that is about some long hair as opposed to it being about me, my heart, my warmth, my laughter...this here’s some important stuff to know. My natural hair is for me and no one else. That’s my personal shit…
I get it...I'm slow but I get it.... aha!
Fast Forward 2009
I do my solo show Liberty City @ New York Theatre Workshop and decide to wear my shaved head. I play 18 or so different characters of various ages, races, genders and don’t want the illusion of transformation hampered by big hair. And what’s key is play scenes with multiple characters in them simultaneously and do all of the transformations on the spot with no costume changes. I needed a neutral canvas to make that work: me and the head of hair I was born with.
Healthy hair makes you beautiful, not just long hair that may or may not be healthy. Just like a fit body makes you beautiful, not a just skinny body that may or may not be healthy.
The experience of doing my solo show is good because I learn that I love a woman who's bald one day, 2 days later she has blonde tresses down back, the following week, a pink Mohawk, then a straight bob the next day. Hair is most fabulous when it's healthy (and not just long or straight) and treated like an do it with my own little shaved head of hair. I did. She said, that’s the tape I’m sending to network. We’re looking to see you, not someone else. That’s what this role is buying: the real you.
That casting director then called my manager and asked her to never, ever send me to her office with that wig ever again because we know it’s a wig. My manager tells me and the wig goes in trash.
So, I’m rolling with either my double strand twists or bald head in the summer. I proceed to book a film, a pilot and a Broadway play. The end.
So to Wig or Not To Wig for auditions: the new playing field
Fast forward to 2016
Now I’m moving into a different age category where there’s more work for me and I can go in for character parts much older than I am. Here’s where really good looking wigs start to pay off. So, I broke down and bought customized human hair wigs. Customized meaning, my head has been measured the wig is built to mimic what my natural hair would look like processed and styled in the style of the wig. So they look like my hair with my hairline, my thickness or cowlicks on the sides, etc.
They cost a shitload of money, but the very first time I wore the long one to an audition, I booked one of the highest paying TV roles I’ve ever booked. The trick was that the character I was auditioning for was written for a white woman Southern belle, late 50-60’s, a little weathered by time and faded dreams a la Shelley Winters. Now that ain’t nowhere close to me, I got this audition because my manager/casting directors called me in based Rice. They are power players.
But guess what? Kerry and Viola both have natural hair under those wigs. They wear the wigs to work in jobs that make them the power players in Hollywood. Not because they thing their natural hair is ugly. They are beautiful you feel beautiful, but to give you access to money, power and career growth, so eventually you can wear whatever head of hair you want.
No cheap wigs! You can’t play powerful, successful people with cheap wigs. Because powerful, successful people don’t’ have cheap hair, they have healthy hair. Oops…stop hanging on to ideas and fears that no longer serve you. Let them go and give yourself the space to see how incredibly fierce you are.
Worried about where to find the money?
Stop buying cheap clothes and tacky acrylic nails. The only people who wear acrylic nails and cheap clothes on TV/Film are poor and working class people. If you’re fine, limiting yourself to those characters, then have at it. But the option of doing your own simple Mani will save you money and keep you open to playing characters from all different walks of life, social classes and backgrounds. And that versatility will make you money…
That’s my two cents. De-personalize the reasons why you make the choices you do. Keep the personal choices (i.e. natural hair) for you and hold fast to those decisions with pride and allow them to define your self worth. But when it comes to professional decisions, make the ones that will get you ahead, that will move your career to the next level, that will make you more money. Ultimately, when you’re making lots of money, you have the freedom to do anything you want and that’s the kind of power that you deserve.
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is a Tony-winning producer/writer/actor & CEO of TheDreamUnLocked: Boutique Coaching for Actors, Writers & Dreamers