#1 Young Oprah in Rolled Up Bangs
Mine started at 4 or 5 years old in the kitchen watching my aunts press each other’s hair straight with straight combs and queen bergamot – you would always hear it sizzling. For many African-American women of my generation, the journey has been fraught with early perceptions that having straight hair was more meaningful and put you in a category of being more beautiful and setting you up for success more than having your own “diaper” -hair. I distinctly remember pressing my hair at a very young age, probably for Easter Sunday. My Aunt Kate gave me Shirley Temple curls and I remember looking in the mirror and feeling as beautiful as I could be with bangs curled up.
#2 Oprah in Pigtails for her fourth grade picture
Fast forward to making the local news in Baltimore as I washed and styled my own hair. There was no hair and makeup team back then. As Tracee Ellis Ross tells The Hair Tales, there was this horrible moment when I was told I had to do something about the way I looked. I was sent to a salon in New York and when I walked out my head was covered in scabs. I was hard pressed and criticized in this new job and then I lost my hair. I was 22 and it was one of the most challenging times for me as a young adult.
#3 Oprah with Afro Hair
After that I vowed to go natural and wore an afro for a while. It was the most free time because I didn’t have to spend energy worrying about how to wear my hair. I went on to try the Jheri curl. And when it grew out, I met Andre Walker, who did my hair for 30 years right on The Oprah Winfrey Show. God bless him. Every other day he washed my hair and every other month he did a chemical relaxer. I look at those years in the 90s and I had great hair. Others were perfect for me. From 1986 to 1998 it was all my own hair.
It wasn’t until Beloved that I started wearing wigs. Peter Owen, who made these incredible natural wigs for the film, agreed to make some for me so I could start keeping my own hair.
#4 Oprah with her hairdresser
Today, of course, I still have some help. I stopped getting my hair relaxed over 10 years ago. If you see my hair long and straight, it’s because my hairstylist Nicole Mangrum spent two hours blow-drying and flat-ironing, and it’s probably a hot, sunny day with zero humidity. Or she stands nearby with a flat iron ready to combat any ambiguity. It is challenging to take care of my natural hair which is super thick and past my shoulders.
For The Hair Tales I wanted to wear my natural hair. I wasn’t going to sit up there talking about my hair while I was wearing someone else’s. So it was washed, sectioned and twisted, left to dry overnight and then Nicole separated each little curl.
When I don’t get help from Nicole, I often get one of the girls. And by girls, I mean my wigs: Diana, Tina, Beyoncé, Viola—they’re all named after African-American women. Those wigs are useful.
I have also worn my hair braided to keep it protected or when I would travel to Africa. One visit we waited for Nelson Mandela to helicopter into this village. I was sitting there with the mayors, the chiefs and all the dignitaries and they said, “We’re so excited. Oprah Winfrey is coming with Madiba.” And I said, “I’m Oprah Winfrey.” They replied, “You’re Oprah Winfrey? You look like a village girl. We want to see the real Oprah.” Lesson learned: When you go to Africa, try to look like you do on TV.
#5 Revisiting past hair moments with Tracee Ellis Ross
Today, I’m at peace with my hair, whether it’s in braids and I look like a village girl or pulled back in a ponytail. I also know how to tie a good scarf. I did so well the other day I was like, “Oh boy, do I look like Maya or what?”
I hope that people, especially African-American women, will see themselves in the stories in The Hair Tales and be validated. And just so you know, my own hair story is not complete. There are still wigs to be worn, ponytails to be placed and curls to be coiffed. And I will continue to celebrate my crown for all that it is – strong, purposeful and resilient.