I’m talking to Taraji P. Henson on the phone, but I don’t know exactly how to picture her on the other end of the line. Are her strands high gloss and pressed, or is she rocking her natural curls? Less than 24 hours prior, I watched the Empire star pull off—count ’em—12 outfit changes and almost as many hair transformations while hosting the 2020 American Music Awards. According to Henson, she’s well rehearsed in constantly switching up her look.
“I’ve always been a daredevil with my hair. I went bald so many times playing with color when I was in college. I thoughtI was a hairstylist,” she says, chuckling at herself. Her inspiration? Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, and Salt-N-Pepa.
“When I got to Hollywood, my manager at the time told me I couldn’t change my hair that much anymore because no one knew who I was. But as soon as I established a name for myself, I became the hair chameleon that I’d had to keep under wraps.”
She also became an Oscar and Emmy nominee, a fashion icon, and, as of last year, the creator of a namesake haircare brand. The line, which includes four new products that are dropping in the early months of 2021 at Target, was influenced by her own natural-hair journey.
“I just wanted my hair to be healthy,” says Henson. “I cut it all off in 2017 and grew it back all natural, so now my curl pattern matches all over my head. I decided to never put heat on my hair again, so that was very transformative to me. When I first started the TPH line, I was thinking more about women who wear protective styles, but with the explosion of embracing your natural hair, I broadened my range.” The conditioning and styling formulas are meant to protect and nourish the hair from scalp to ends, and they’re the result of feedback she received from clients on the brand’s Instagram—and, of course, her personal group chats—as well as her own wash-day regimen.
“I’ve tied my wash day into my self-care routine, and that’s how I treat myself. I make it fun; it’s about taking care of myself. You could be feeling really down, but once you get up, take a shower, get dressed, and put some makeup on, you feel good. Washing my hair changes my entire disposition.”
It isn’t solely her own inner peace she’s concerned about. She founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 (named for her father, who suffered mental health issues after serving in the Vietnam War) to break the stigma around mental health management in the African-American community. She also hosts Peace of Mind With Taraji, a talk show on Facebook Watch that focuses on the topic. Hair is part of that journey too: Despite legislation to combat hair discrimination, it’s still rampant in schools and workplaces around the country, and it has taken a toll on Black people. (The CROWN Act, co-created by Dove, would make this kind of bias illegal, but it has passed in just seven states so far. Federal legislation was approved by the House in September 2020; as of press time, it hadn’t been voted on by the Senate.)
“I didn’t experience that type of discrimination, but that’s just because I didn’t buck the system. I was always wearing my hair straight and conforming, because that’s just what it was. That was the look,” she says. “But, why shouldn’t we wear our natural hair? There is nothing I can do about the color of my skin or how my hair grows out of my head. It’s horrible for a person to walk around and be made to feel that something’s wrong with them because of how they’re naturally born. It’s sickening.”
What Henson has experienced is a lack of education about and experience with Black hair within the professional styling community on set. She recounts how a stylist mishandled her hair and ruined her style when she was new to Hollywood. These experiences are still problems for those who aren’t far enough along in their careers to feel secure about speaking up.
“This was back in the beginning of my career, in the ’90s. Things have changed for me because of where I am now. I can request my own glam team, but it took me years to get there. And I had to have a bunch of hiccups and bad hairdos before people would listen,” she says. “It was frustrating!” Now that she’s in a position of power, she’s bringing the rest of the community with her.
“It’s fine, because I’m Taraji P. Henson. You’ve got to do what I say now.”
This story appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Marie Claire.