Lupita Nyong’o has been very open about embracing her natural hair texture and redefining beauty standards in Hollywood and beyond. The Black Panther actress often experiments with a variety of hair looks on the red carpet, but learning to love what she calls her “African kinky hair” wasn’t something Nyong’o was always able to do as an adolescent growing up in Kenya.
“I didn’t love my hair when I was a child. I was really kind of envious of girls with thicker, longer, more lush hair,” Nyong’o told Allure for her cover story in the magazine’s Culture of Hair issue, on newsstands Feb. 20.
By the time Nyong’o hit her tween years, she started begging her mom to allow her to relax her hair.
“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,” the actress said.
Eventually, after much back-and-forth, Nyong’o’s father intervened and she started relaxing her hair. “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,” she said. “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!”
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After dealing with the high maintenance process for years, Nyong’o turned 18 and had to start paying to get her hair done herself. She knew it was time for a change. And she didn’t just go for a simple switch.
“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,’” Nyong’o told the magazine. “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.”
Even though it took the star’s mom a bit of time to come around to her new ‘do (“When I got home, my mother was horrified.”), the experience of being completely bald is what pushed Nyong’o to become confident with her natural hair.
“That was definitely a liberating stage. I had nothing to hide behind. I had my hair short for a very long time after that,” she said.
Now, the actress’ hair is “the longest it’s been in over a decade” thanks to the help of her hair stylist Vernon François, who also styled her hair for this Allure cover shoot.
“He’s been so helpful, helping me learn how to maintain my natural hair texture,” Nyong’o said. “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. Being able to have that kind of playtime with Vernon to create different things has inspired me.”