Black Actors Are Getting Huge Roles In Hollywood, But Still Doing Their Own Hair
In film and TV, hair and makeup comes with the gig. So why must Black actors provide their own?
“Just come with your hair washed,” were the directions actress KJ Smith received from a director before shooting a commercial a few years ago. “My natural hair wasn’t styled, but I came to set equipped with a clean wig — just in case,” she says. “I showed up and they insisted that my natural hair was fine, but I felt like they were telling me that my hair looked good because they didn’t want to deal with styling it.”
For many Black actresses in Hollywood, Smith’s story is a daily reality. "There are two ways to describe how it feels to sit in the hair-and-makeup chair on an unfamiliar movie or television set: terrifying and high-anxiety," says Smith. The actress, who has appeared on NCIS: Los Angeles, Black-ish, and Madea's Family Funeral, says she always comes prepared with her own brush, gel, or wig to pick up the pieces from an inexperienced stylist on set. Michelle Mitchenor, who plays Detective Sonya Bailey on Lethal Weapon, can relate. "Picture walking into a hair salon for the first time and being placed in anyone's chair — without knowing their background or work," she says. "That same anxiety is how it feels walking on set."
Earlier this year, Black actors and actresses, including Natasha Rothwell, Yvette Nicole Brown, Malcolm Barrett, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, and Gabrielle Union, took to Twitter to discuss the many horror stories of what they referred to as #ActingWhileBlack. Scroll through the thread and you’ll see hundreds of tweets about poor hair-and-makeup experiences at work. “Most Black actresses come to set with their hair done or bring their wigs and clip-ins with them,” Brown wrote in a viral tweet. “It’s either that or take a chance that you will look crazy on screen.”
With a disproportionate number of stylists in the industry unfamiliar with the intricacies of Black hair, many actors have to bring their own styling kits to work. "I've incorporated wigs and weaves into my set life because I can't rely on set stylists to be trained," says Smith. "Sometimes I bring four to five different options to set to make sure that I’m covered."
In some cases, actors have sought out hair services on their own prior to taping. "A lot of the time, myself and other actors go to our personal stylists before going to work. That way we don't have to worry about someone messing up or not knowing how to properly style our hair," Smith says. Actress Gabourey Sidibe tweeted that if production doesn't have a budget to hire a Black hairstylist to work with her on set, she asks the directors to consider protective styles for her characters, which she can install ahead of filming. “If they don’t have the budget to hire a Black hairstylist for me, or won’t, I just get the director to agree that my character should have box braids or Senegalese twists,” she wrote.
With films like Black Panther and movements like #OscarsSoWhite, there is no question that Hollywood has witnessed a seismic shift in diversity and inclusion over the past few years. But despite the long overdue focus on Black talent and inclusiveness on-screen, there is still a blatant lack of diversity and skill behind the camera. On top of institutionalized bias, one of the biggest barriers for entry reportedly comes down to union requirements, an observation brought up time and again on the #ActingWhileBlack thread. “What a lot of non-industry folks don’t realize is that you can’t just use your normal hair stylists/barbers/makeup artists on a union job (most jobs are union),” actress Gabrielle Union shared with her four million followers on Twitter. “Those artists have to be in the union and getting them in has never been easy or smooth. Ever.”
Getting Into The Union
Nearly all of the crew — actors, camera operators, and lighting technicians —who work small-screen and motion-picture sets are represented by unions. Local 706, or The Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild, is the official labor union for makeup artists and hairstylists in film, television, stage, and digital media in Los Angeles. Local 798 is the official labor union for hair stylists and makeup artists across various East Coast locations like New York and Washington, D.C.
These unions provide necessary protection for hair and makeup artists to receive fair pay, treatment, breaks, and other important workplace necessities, like pension plans and family medical insurance. Takisha Sturdivant-Drew, owner of TSD Hair and a professional hairstylist who works with Kerry Washington and Willow Smith, has been a member of the Local 798 union for nearly 14 years. “The benefits are — hands down — the most vital part of the union,” she says. “Because of this, my children’s health care is covered and I am able to receive a pension.” Celebrity stylist Lacy Redway agrees that worker’s protection on set is important. “As a freelance artist, I know there’s a need for a system that helps us when we have issues at work," she says. But getting into the union in the first place is complicated, they say.
"I've incorporated wigs and weaves into my set life because I can't rely on set stylists to be trained."
The IATSE Local 798 union website breaks down a detailed, multi-pronged application process. It includes providing proof of 180 days of paid work, proof of 18 months in a Local 798 jurisdiction, in-person interviews, and a $3,500 initiation fee upon invitation to join. Local 798 Secretary and Treasurer John Curtin tells Refinery29 that paid hours only qualify if they’re comprised of film, television, or commercial work, or live theatrical events. The Local 798 website states that print, editorial, photo shoots, weddings, and salon work — which is how most makeup artists and hairstylists get their start — are not considered jobs covered under union contracts.
These stipulations have made it difficult for stylists — who have established strong freelance careers in fashion, magazines, on red carpets, and with private celebrity clients — to break into TV and film. Nakia Collins, hairstylist to Beyoncé, Tia Mowry, and Yvonne Orji, says that many of her clients have outsourced her for styling prior to working on union sets. "I’ve had clients fight to have me on their sets and get shut down because I’m not a union stylist," she says. "I've also been brought on to sets that are unionized and have been told to sit in the trailer since I physically couldn’t be on set.”
With most film, television, commercials, or live events being unionized, it creates a catch-22 for artists who need to log 1,440 hours to qualify. "Recently, I've consulted on a few films and I am having issues getting proper credit for establishing certain looks because I am not in the union," says Redway. She explains that if an actress comes to her prior to taping, the department head on the film will ultimately get onscreen credit for the look. "You almost need a celebrity or producer to champion for you to help your chances of getting in," she says. In the past, some artists have been able to join the hair and makeup union by "star request," in which a director or celebrity provide a written request to have a stylist join a particular set.
Having Leaders On Set
But this paints a larger picture of a trickle-down effect: When there are Black people in leadership roles (like Chris Rock), it opens doors for other talented Black individuals to work and make important decisions on sets — including who styles the hair of Black actors and actresses. But there’s still a long way to go in diversifying talent on- and off-screen. According to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity report, roughly one out of 10 film directors is a person of colour and only 1.4 out of 10 lead actors in film are people of colour.
There’s no denying that the outcome of hair and makeup on projects with a majority-Black cast is less of a gamble when led by Black producers. Case in point: Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, and Ryan Coogler, who all hired Black department heads to oversee hair styling on their majority-Black cast films. But Mitchenor points out that any producer — Black or otherwise — can influence the hair-and-makeup experience for Black actors. "My producer on Lethal Weapon, Jennifer Gwartz, has been really communicative and receptive to feedback from myself and my cast-mates of colour," she says. "She really values us being comfortable, and we have an amazing stylist, Terry Hunt, on set who also happens to be in the union.”
Stylists like Hunt and Sturdivant-Drew are proof that there are Black artists in the union, but securing jobs on particular sets is still a challenge. "There are Black people in the union, but I think there's a disconnect because some of them might not know the right people to connect them on certain jobs,” stylist Camille Friend says. “This year alone, I helped staff three films that I was not department head on simply by connecting producers with people qualified to do the job well.”
Friend is a professional hairstylist who has been nominated by the Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards for her work in Black Panther and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2; she is also a member of the Local 706 union. Friend became a part of the organization while working on the set of A Thin Line Between Love And Hate (headlined by Black actors Martin Lawrence, Lynn Whitfield, and Regina King) in 1996. Since then, Friend has worked on many films and served as department head on major blockbuster pictures including Black Panther and Jordan Peele's Us. In her department head roles, Friend has been able to staff teams of stylists who are qualified to work on all hair textures. "I hire people who can do the job and the hair," she says.
Providing Necessary Education
Friend acknowledges that a huge part of booking jobs is who you know, but she stresses that having the right skills is equally important. While there's no denying that Black people are typically more familiar with styling Black hair, stylists of all races and ethnic backgrounds should know how to work with any texture that ends up in their chair. "As an African-American stylist, I've been trained to work on all hair types," says Sturdivant-Drew. Friend agrees that it ultimately boils down to education. "If stylists — union or not — were more committed to continuous education and practice on all skin tones and hair textures, some of these issues could be eradicated," she says. To help stylists grow their skills to adapt to the changing faces of Hollywood, Friend created Hair Scholars, an education program that teaches people hair techniques for film and television.
Like most of the discussions surrounding diversity, Black actresses and stylists hope that the #ActingWhileBlack conversation prompts better education for aspiring and existing union stylists, inclusive leadership among directors and producers, and more job opportunities for Black stylists on television and movie sets. "This is a real opportunity for everyone to learn," Friend says. "Stylists young and old should look into classes and always be willing to learn new things. There is a solution to this problem, we all just have to be willing to learn."
It's also why Smith stresses the importance of being an expert at what you do. "If an actor still acts the same as he or she did 30 years ago, that isn't a good actor," she says. "I don't show up to work and fix the lighting or to do casting, I show up to act — and to do it well, and stylists should know how to effectively work with the cast. It's important that we are evolving, learning from our mistakes, and becoming better every day at what we do," she says. "Everyone can truly win if we put our best foot forward and support each other."
IATSE Local 798 & IATSE Local 706 declined Refinery29's request for additional comment on this story.