It’s no secret that television is more diverse than ever, with more roles written exclusively for non-Caucasian actors and more actors of color cast in traditionally white roles. In tandem with the so-called pendulum of ethnic casting, I’ve witnessed a more subtle (though also long overdue) change: the acceptance of natural hair on actresses of color.
It wasn’t always this way. Hollywood taught me to hate my tiny, kinky corkscrew curls long before I started working there. I grew up in the South during a time when natural hair was considered “nappy,” and my mother would religiously take me to the salon every six weeks to get my kinky new growth smoothed out. I genuinely didn’t know any other way. I’d never seen a sophisticated lady with natural hair before. I wanted to look like Tyra Banks, Gabrielle Union, and Tia and Tamera Mowry, who all had long, straight, luxurious locks.
When I moved to Los Angeles at age 15, I was lucky to become a series regular on the Nickelodeon show Just Jordan. At the time, my hair was shoulder length, pressed, and my own. Producers decided my character needed the classic long hair extensions and, to a certain extent, they were right. My character was a model, and an African-American model in 2006 wouldn’t have had any look but that. Even at my auditions, everyone’s hair looked the same: silky-straight and Europe-grown.
But I hated the extensions. They looked lifeless and went down to my butt. Not much I saw on television was real and hair was no exception. I stared in the mirror for hours puzzled at who was looking back at me. When I voiced my irritation to one of the directors, I was quickly told to hush so I didn’t upset the hairstylist or producers. OK.
I’ve always felt more like an Erykah Badu than a Beyoncé. Thus began my quest to discover the roots of natural hair. The only information I could find on going natural was a handful of black hair care forums. There were galleries full of women flaunting their gorgeous, healthy, kinky curls. Who were these people? I’d never seen them before! Their hair looked so alive! My view of beauty was quickly changing. Instead of feeling like my extensions were a status symbol, I felt enslaved to an ignorant concept of beauty. What young woman doesn’t deeply desire to feel beautiful in her own skin and her own hair?
Without anyone’s approval, I began wearing my hair natural underneath my extensions. Six weeks came and went, no “fixing the fuzz” needed. After another six weeks, the fuzz began to form into tiny little curls. I loved these little things growing out of my head! They were so fascinating! Still, my lack of confidence wouldn’t allow me to take my hair out of the Weave Protection Program. The thought of being of so real made me feel vulnerable.
After having lost roles to white actresses that specifically called for a nonwhite actress — seeing a girl booked who was not at the all-black callbacks — I couldn't help but try to be like them. Especially when all the black girls getting booked had that Beyoncé look. I wanted to be marketable. I wanted to work on ABC Family, Disney, and The CW. (And, ahem, still do!) I wanted to fit in. So, confused as all hell, I kept the extensions in. Sometimes straight, sometimes curled, but always extra long and European.
I wasn’t fully able to shed the fake me until summer of 2013, when I was hired to portray a young Olympic runner on the USA show Necessary Roughness. The producers were based in Atlanta, where the show filmed, and I had auditioned in L.A. They had only seen me and my kinda-curly, wanna-be-natural-but-not-quite weave in the audition tape sent to them. The first morning I arrived on set in Atlanta, while getting my hair and makeup done, word came from the producers that, if I was willing, they’d like to see how I’d look without my beloved extensions.
At the time, the question felt like asking me to take a shit in public. But I enjoy taking risks, so off they came. And off they stayed. I’d kept my curls healthy under the extensions for all those years, and this was the moment they’d been waiting for. If you watch that episode you can witness the debut of my natural do, a puffy ponytail. I felt scared, exhilarated, and raw all at the same time. I felt so beautiful. There was no going back. Being natural meant so much to me. Being natural is me.
I’m a firm believer that we entertainers have serious real-world influence. The folks cast in your favorite TV shows and movies set standards of beauty, femininity, and masculinity in our society. Or, at least, as a young girl I wanted to emulate what I saw on television. Now, as a woman on the screen, I want the girls who see me to be comfortable in their own skin and in their own hair. Haters still gonna hate and trolls still gonna troll. One time an on-set hairstylist got nippy, telling me the producers would never have wanted me to show up with my hair in an afro. But the producer put her in her place, saying, “the wilder Chelsea’s hair, the better.” Now, I often see other actresses sporting coils and locs at auditions. I high-five them. I ask about their time in the Weave Protection Program and how long they’ve been out.
Once, as I walked out of a callback, I heard the producer say, “But what about that hair?” Good question. What about it? Change is natural, and so is my hair.
Chelsea Harris is an actor living in Los Angeles. She currently has a recurring role on CBS police drama Stalker, and has appeared on Austin & Ally, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Community, Modern Family and Necessary Roughness.
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