(Curl Conversation)

How Gabrielle Union Unlocked The Steps To Flawless Hair

The actor discusses how she learned to embrace her natural hair.

2020 was the year of reflection, when people used quarantine to work on themselves. For Gabrielle Union, the journey began at the root. The actor and businesswoman, who openly shared her bouts with natural hair, transformed the love for her coils into a full-fledged business. Throughout last summer, Union and Larry Sims, her longtime friend and hairstylist, relaunched Union’s 2017 hair care line — Flawless by Gabrielle Union.

“It was important for us to get it right, which means to eliminate all of the ingredients from the past that are bad for our hair as well as making sure that our company is not just Black-led but majority Black-owned and marketed to Black people,” Union tells TZR. The revamped label includes 12 products (with naturally derived ingredients) made for all hair types and protective styles. And the best part? The products are under $10 and found on Amazon.

“We want to sell our products to brick and mortar [stores] that have been in the community for generations and at a price point that more people can afford,” Union continues. “’Cause it’s kind of pointless to come up with great solutions to a lot of our hair care challenges but then you price out the very audience that needs it.”

Below, the actor and Sims share the steps it took for Union to become flawless in her own way.

Gabrielle, what was your relationship like with your hair growing up?

Union: I loved my hair until probably like 7 or 8 [years old]. And then I became very aware of how my white classmates or my cousins who had different grades of hair were treated differently. I wanted anything but what I had. So at the age of 8, my cousin — who was a hairstylist — gave me my first relaxer. I definitely thought I was going to transform overnight into Janet Jackson or something. But that didn’t happen. [laughs] God bless my little heart.

When did you figure out, "OK, this is the right way to moisturize my hair. This is how I wrap it at night?"

Union: Oh, a few years ago. I stopped getting a relaxer in my 30s. I've been on this natural hair journey for many years. Then, when I lost my hair due to multiple rounds of IVF and all the hormonal changes... it's just been a long journey of loving myself and the hair that grows out of my head. When [my hair] really just became super natural, [that’s when] I found joy in it. Not "I'm going to tame or battle or whatever with my hair," but "I'm going to love and nourish my hair." That's been the last two years, girl. But now that I'm in, the water is warm. I'm like, "Y'all, I don't know what I've been waiting for!"

How has Larry guided you along this hair journey?

Union: I've been lucky enough that Larry and I have been best friends for as long as we've worked together. And he always saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. When I'm feeling like I'm a piece of gum on somebody's discarded shoe on the side of the road, the people around you can lift you up. So I've leaned on him in ways that far surpassed a hairstylist-client [relationship]. He’s shown me who I can be when I don't believe it — like this morning!

What happened? Spill it!

Union: [While on set,] he was like, "Don’t cry, we’re in public!" But he did it all with his eyes while I'm ready to circle the drain. [laughs] He just rubbed my shoulders [as if to ensure] this too shall pass: "We got this, but not now." My hormones are out of whack, and the enormity of everything just kind of hits you at the most random time. I just needed a lifeline and an anchor. Luckily, I'm very blessed to have Larry in my life.

Larry, what has it been like to witness Gabrielle's journey?

Sims: She’s not only one of my best friends, she’s like a sister to me. We've done everything with her style in the book: from long to short, to wigs, weaves, and braids. When her natural hair started to fall out, it was emotional for me. It felt like my hair was falling out. I lost sleep because of it. Gab would put her game face on, but I just struggle[d] to put a ponytail in [her] hair because the front of [her] hairline had a bald spot.

I was in my bedroom trying to figure out whatever we could do to make it grow back. We were in the lab trying to figure out a concoction. We finally came up with things that actually worked that were from the earth and out of the grocery store. When things grew back in areas that were bald, we were high-fiving each other. Those are victories that would become enormous for both of us. We did a cover [for Women’s Health magazine] and she wore all of her natural hair for the first time that I ever worked with her. A win for her is like a win for me.

Can you both discuss the importance of having Black hair stylists navigate you through Hollywood?

Union: There's been so many times where you get these amazing opportunities that will change your career. You get [on set] and you're like, "I want to look like this," and they don't have people that know how to do your hair. It just feels like you're watching that opportunity of a lifetime slip away from you. What is the point of delivering the performance if you look nuts and that's all the people are going to talk about? So, as we increase diversity and inclusion in front of the camera, we have to make sure that our unions are reflective of all of this new diversity so every one of our performers are able to look and feel their best. Unfortunately, that has never been the case and it's still a fight.

Union: And as many times as Larry has [worked with me] for months and months on a project, he's still not in a union in L.A. Someone with the same job who was not Black could literally walk right in without being asked to do all the other things that a celebrity hairstylist is being asked to. We can see the disparity in real-time and we are not buying the bullsh*t.

We need to be able to tell the truth in order to fix something. You can't keep passing the buck and say, "Oh, it's the producers." Well, the producers can try to get more representation in the trailer. But, if you're guarding the doors to the union like Fort Knox, you are the problem. You got to step out of the way and realize that creating more diversity within these unions creates more opportunity.

Larry, what are your thoughts?

Sims: Just from an artist’s perspective, I think the lack of diversity only hurts the [industry]. This has been an ongoing and very vocal fight for Black actors and models who have been in the business for years. It would seem like because they use their platform, that their voice could be heard higher. But the shift still doesn't exist. I'm more disappointed than anything else.

I don't think that joining at this point would be beneficial to me where it would move the needle in a huge way. It's just a lift of the eyebrows where I’m like, "Hmm, that's interesting that I'm not in the union."

Over the past few years, Black hair has become so political in a way that it really shouldn't have to be — like with the Crown Act. Now we're going to have Vice President Kamala Harris who represents Black women in the White House.

Sims: Black and Brown people have been asking to be treated the same, for their voices to be heard in the room, for decision-makers to represent and look like them and their community. Unfortunately, that's not the case on so many levels. But specifically with hair, I've just never heard of someone that has straight hair to be told, “You can't wear your hair in that ratty bun to work.” We've been pinned as problematic, unprofessional, and not desirable because of our culture and how we express that. I think now more than ever, we are not standing for it at all.

When we don't believe in something, we march and we fight. We aren’t sitting down and just taking what people are projecting on us. But it’s beautiful to see so many people — I mean, they're late to the party — are finally coming around. It's crazy that in 2020, Amazon had to put out that statement that allowed people to wear their locs when it originated from their African descent. To be told that you have to be ripped of your crown to work a 9-to-5 is absolutely absurd. □

With 2021 beginning with a new administration that includes the country's first vice president of Jamaican and South Asian descent as well as the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history, there is now even more incentive to stray away from societal judgment and embrace each other's differences. Now that more women like Gabrielle Union are learning to love every coil that springs on their heads, Black women's hair identity will continue to grow closer to complete autonomy.

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