Dominican-American singer-songwriter Leslie Grace has already made her mark on the music industry, and now she's ready to make her debut on the big screen. This summer, Grace will play Nina in the much-anticipated screen adaptation of Tony-award winning musical In The Heights — and based on the trailer alone, she's set to make a major impression.
As she makes her way to becoming a household name, Grace isn't letting go of what makes her unique — including her glorious hair. Ahead, she shares how she shut down the industry pressures to look a certain way and learned to be comfortable with who she is, whether she's wearing her hair in natural curls, waist-length braids, or smooth waves. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A Curly Culture Shock
My mother is a hairstylist, so I grew up in a salon, and I was used to seeing all different hair types. I would wear my hair really big and curly in elementary school, which was normal in New York where you see a lot of diversity. But when I moved to Florida at 10 years old, I was the new kid in school and my big curly hair wasn't that popular.
There wasn't a lot of diversity in Davie, Florida, at the time we moved. I came into the school year two weeks late, and I walked in with my big curly hair. They all looked me like I was an alien — they had never seen hair that big. It made me feel like the other. It was the first time that I felt like, "Maybe I'm not as beautiful with my hair like this."
Growing up, you want to fit in, and you want to look like somebody else that's popular in class. I had never been in a position to try and fit in or to make new friends. Everybody in my class had straight "nice" hair, so I wanted that. And so, I did keratin treatments for seven years until I learned that my hair is this way for a reason.
I got to high school, and I was like, "Curly hair is dope." So I told my mom to cut my hair off really short because it was damaged from so much heat. She cut it into a short bob, and from there I grew it out to a place where I could wear it curly if I wanted to. That's when I really started to relearn how to love my hair and embrace it for the way that it is. I can do straight, or I can do curly, and some people would love the chance to do both.
They all looked me like I was an alien — they had never seen hair that big. It made me feel like the other. It was the first time that I felt like, "Maybe I'm not as beautiful with my hair like this."
A Hair Education
Around the same time that I was breaking into the music industry, I felt this pressure to always have my hair straight or wavy. In the genre that I'm in now, I'm one of the few Afro-Latinas in the game, and I felt out of place in the beginning; I put a lot of heat and extra stress on my hair. I remember being in photo shoots where my mom wasn't there, and there'd be a stylist that was not used to working with curly hair. Those situations put me under stress. I would think, They're either going to burn my hair really bad, in order to get it the way that they want it to look, or they're not going to know what to do with it, so I'm going to look bad.
That's when my mom and I started getting into wigs and finding alternative ways to play with my hair without having to damage my own. That allowed my natural hair to grow so much, and I'm thankful that I learned how to play with my hair, because it has allowed me to have so much freedom.
Discovering Her Superpower
Hair is another way to express yourself. When I get braids done, I feel most like myself. Being Afro-Latina, I did my research on it. I actually watched documentaries on the history of the style and how it played a role culturally. As long as you're not trying to downplay the history or culture behind the style and you're doing it respectfully, I think you can do whatever you want with it — it's your hair. Now, I'm in a place where I'm not afraid to try something different with my hair, like braids. It's proof that I can be whatever I want.
We're in a time where what's trendy is being yourself, which shouldn't even be a trend. You should just be accepted as yourself. We put so much pressure on our hair. I want to strip that for myself. My number one advice is to embrace what you have — the moment that you do that, that's your competitive advantage in everything, not just in hair. You were made a certain way, like nobody else. That's your superpower.