When Tracee Ellis Ross scored the role of Joan Clayton in Girlfriends, she was excited to star in one of the most popular television shows of the early millennium. But for the first two years of taping, Ross had to wake up three hours before her early morning call time to do her own hair. Though the cast of the hit series were majority Black women, she still felt better equipped to style her hair than the professionals on set at the time. "I've worked on jobs where there was a lot of support, celebration, and understanding of my Blackness," Ross told Refinery29. "But when it came to hair, I've been my own little lone ranger."
After years of learning how to style and protect her strands, Ross got the idea to develop a line of products specifically for curly hair. Despite having the world's best tools and stylists at her disposal (and mother and hair icon Diana Ross as a mentor), the actress spent three years painstakingly testing and building her own hair-care brand, Pattern Beauty, from the ground up. In 2019. Pattern made its debut with five core products and tools that quickly earned acclaim among curly-haired consumers.
Ross isn't the only Black woman carving out space in the hair aisle this year. Taraji P. Henson trailed closely behind her in early January with her namesake scalp-focused line, TPH by Taraji P. Henson which includes a scalp scrub, serum, and conditioner available at Target. After its initial launch in 2017, Gabrielle Union and her longtime hairstylist Larry Sims relaunched their hair brand, Flawless by Gabrielle Union, this past July. Finally, as recently as September, natural-based haircare brand Sienna Naturals announced Issa Rae as its new co-owner.
The actresses have a lot in common, from hit television shows and awards to global influence and massive social media presences. A recent string of beauty ventures adds yet another shared line on their resumes, but it's the need to solve a problem that really ties the four together: After enduring a pattern of frustrating experiences on set, each woman decided to make the change themselves — and stake their claim in a billion-dollar hair industry that has historically underserved them.
"In my early years, I would go to set with my small 'fro to be greeted by white hairstylists who would spray my hair with water, or rub their fingers through my strands and be like: 'Voila! Done!' Rae says. "I'd look worse than how I came in." Henson told us earlier this year that she finally resorted to wearing protective styles after hearing horror stories from co-stars. "I heard about people losing their hair and the stress that is put on your natural hair for production, and noticed that damage for myself a few times. It's why I started wearing weaves."
Henson's first protective style was for Hustle & Flow, during which she wore a wet-and-wavy weave that presented a new set of challenges. "I didn't know that I had to dry my hair each time it got wet," she told us. "When I took it down, my scalp had so much buildup and a foul smell." That planted a seed in her mind to whip up a DIY scalp treatment, which inspired her core line of products. "I felt like no one cared about my scalp, so I had to create a solution for myself," she said.
Black women have long created solutions for themselves when industries and institutions failed them. Take a handful of entrepreneurs, like Rihanna, makeup artist Pat McGrath, and Uoma founder Sharon Chuter. They collectively shifted the cosmetics industry with innovative, inclusive makeup launches that put the spotlight on Black and brown skin tones. Now, Hollywood's elite are using their firsthand experiences to form solution-based brands with products that cater to the nuances of Black hair, and everyone is better for it — including the people on their own teams.
Take Union, who recently relaunched her Flawless line to prioritise her community first. "My first order of business was to reclaim my company and become 100% Black-owned, Black-led, and Black-marketed," Union told us in July.
For Union, creating a line with Black talent at its core ranked more important than revenue and return. "You're actually an asshole if you create something that helps you and write it out to exclude the vast majority of folks," she said. "There is a way of doing business without gouging, and we're always looking to challenge ourselves and do right by our community."
Since launching in July, nearly every product in Flawless' lineup has more than four stars on Amazon. Sims has also styled several powerful Black women like Zendaya, Regina King, and Alicia Keys with Flawless products, proving that the duo could create a range accessible enough for the working woman, with results worthy for the red carpet.
"There is space for all of us, and it's about time the beauty industry embraced that."
These ventures paint a clear picture of the success that is achieved when Black creatives uplift one another. It's why Rae says there's no better person for the job in the haircare aisle than a Black woman. "No one knows how to care for our hair better than we do," she says. "For too long, this industry has allowed others to speak and create for us."
The Insecure star, who also recently invested in the splashy Black-owned skincare line Topicals, wanted her involvement to go deeper than a campaign image. "I wanted to be a part of the entire process, rather than being just the face," Rae explains. Sienna Naturals founder Hannah Diop says that bringing Rae onto the Sienna Naturals team was a natural fit. "She has already made a name for herself in the world of textured hair by featuring its versatility and beauty on television with Insecure," Diop says. "But beyond that, I see Issa building businesses through empowerment, and that's the type of leadership I also want to embody."
The duo repackaged and remarketed the brand's clean-beauty products to hone in on the everyday luxury that Black women deserve. They created the four-step Salon In A Box, including shampoo, conditioner, leave-in cream, and styling spray, all vetted by Rae for curly hair textures. "This is an entire ecosystem that is created to serve all textured hair types, and Black women are at the centre," Rae says. They also re-evaluated price points to create more value for their customers. "Accessibility was crucial for me to ensure that my audience would get the most for their money," Rae explains. "I also wanted these products to be a reminder to embrace everyday luxury."
People and statistics might point to celebrity partnerships like Rae's as "oversaturation" in a crowded market. Black women argue otherwise. "We have a high rate of entrepreneurship, and yet we have the least amount of access to venture capital compared to other demographics," Diop explains, referencing the 2016 study that revealed Black women only receive 0.2% of venture capitalist funding. "We have to support each other, and it's in our best interest to do so." It's also good business. According to Neilsen, in 2017, African Americans spent $54 million (£41m) of the $63 million (£48m) total spend in the ethnic hair care industry and seeing a recognisable Hollywood face on their products strongly influence how Black consumers style their hair.
All four women launched lines around the same time, but see their brands as an opportunity to uplift one another. Supporting other Black women is a common topic in Union's group chats, and it's at the centre of what she's trying to achieve by re-entering the market with Flawless. "We've been fed this idea that we need to boot out the competition, but competition can foster a positive environment and make us better," she said. Issa Rae agrees, adding, "There is space for all of us. And it's about time the beauty industry embraced that."
Beyond providing products that actually work on natural textures, these lines opened up an even bigger conversation about Hollywood, hair, and hair-based discrimination. Each venture sparked a meaningful discussion about inclusion and has forced the industry to reexamine itself. Months before relaunching Flawless, Union took to Twitter to address the difficult process for some stylists to get into the hair and makeup artists' union in Hollywood. She's also been vocal about her experiences as an America's Got Talent host, where she was told her hairstyles were "too Black."
Important Thread! 👇🏾 What alot of non-industry folks don't realize is that u can't just use ur normal hairstylists/barbers/makeup artists on a union job (most jobs are union) Those artists HAVE to be IN THE UNION & getting them in has NEVER been easy or smooth. Ever. Like never. https://t.co/vBMFla2cQ2— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) March 11, 2019
Beyond Hollywood, hair discrimination is still present in schools and workplaces globally. All these founders have also been vocal about their support of America's The Crown Act, aiming to make natural hair discrimination illegal in all 50 states. "This isn't just a hair issue," Union said in a PSA for Glamour Magazine back in August. "Hair discrimination is racial discrimination. Period." By fighting for space and representation, and celebrating the unique beauty of Black hair, these founders aren't just launching products — they're creating change that will greatly simpact the next generation of Black women. And there's true beauty in that.