Hair care is a legacy for musician and actor Leslie Grace, the daughter of a salon owner who witnessed firsthand the magic that a couple of hours in the chair could do for women of color. “I feel so privileged to have grown up in an environment that allowed me to see the breadth of beauty,” she tells TZR over Zoom. “I got to see women come in and leave fully transformed. And I learned a lot about people, too, being at the front desk or sweeping or doing my usual job which was washing hair in the back. Leslie's Lather Lounge is what I would call the back of the salon.”
Grace is already a multi-hyphenate force, boasting 1M followers on Instagram and racking up Billboard Latin Music Award and Latin Grammys nominations. But one of her biggest gigs to date has arrived with her first onscreen acting role as Nina Rosario in this summer’s sure-to-be blockbuster hit In The Heights, adapted from the musical written by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Nina is a character that not only Grace, but so many Latinx people all around the world can relate to — she is the first in her family to go to college while feeling mixed emotions about leaving her home in the barrio.
Hair plays an important role in Nina’s journey and there were a lot of conversations about pelo on set. “Jon still says until this day, ‘I learned so much about hair in this movie,’” says Grace of director Jon Chu. “In this musical, we spend some time in the salon and so, immediately, my mom asked, ‘So what are they going to do with your hair? Do you want me to go and talk to the girls?’” Of course a mother’s advice is always appreciated (especially when she’s a hair expert), but Grace was thrilled that the set had an incredible team of hairstylists and makeup artists that were collaborative and open.
“We knew just in general with Nina, that we wanted her to have several looks,” she says. “We love that she gets to wear her natural hair when she's out in the park with Benny and they're having their moment and she just feels like she's come back home — that you see her big curly hair.” That’s contrasted with her pin-straight hair when she’s coming back from college: a switch with which so many women of color with textured hair can identify.
Being a part of this movie is not only a dream come true for Grace, but a homecoming, as she spent so much time in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood growing up, and still has a lot of family there. “It feels surreal to be a part of something so special, so purposeful, and something that hits so close to home for me,” she says. “As a New Yorker and a kid of immigrants, a lot of my family's dreams have been wrapped up in New York. So, to be a part of something like this, it's life changing from the inside out.”
Below, Grace shares her hair journey as a child and teenager growing up in her mother’s salon, the Dominican beauty secrets she will always cherish, the pressures women of color feel when it comes to hair aesthetics, and more.
What are some of your most special memories and the lessons you learned growing up in your mother’s salon?
“I got to learn about women, our beauty, and the sanctity of having someone touch your mane and lay their hands on your head. [I learned] how that can change your state of being and that self-care, that time that you take off for yourself, how that can change what you're feeling, and how you go out into the world again once that time is up.
“Before I moved to Florida at the age of 10, I had grown up in my mom's salon in the Bronx. When we moved and my mom opened up her salon in Davie, it wasn't the communal experience that we had in NYC. And yet, I was able to feel a community forming around my mom's shop. Hers was one of the only Dominican salons in the neighborhood and I saw how women felt so empowered by that. It became the one place where I could feel community there and it was beautiful to experience. It influenced the way I see the beauty in hair and different textures.”
Are there any Dominican beauty secrets that you rely on when it comes to your hair?
“Homemade stuff for sure. I have a really dry scalp and I know a lot of girls that have textured hair struggle with that: especially if you're putting a lot of heat on your hair and blowing it out. So, apple cider vinegar and avocado masks are my go-tos, along with leave-in conditioners. If you go to any Dominican salon in the Heights or in the Bronx, there’s a treatment called la bomba, which is what we call the conditioner that has like eight different types of things that it does to your hair. It literally translates to “the bomb”. Once you leave that in and you get under the dryer for 20 minutes with a cap on, your hair is going to feel brand new after you wash it out. I have my own bomba that I put together and let sit in my hair.”
Have you ever felt any pressure to have your hair appear a certain way?
“Yes, big time. I've been through my own hair journey. Before moving to Florida, I was a chameleon. I would always wear my hair in all kinds of ways because my mom was able to do that for me all my life, which is a blessing. But then when we moved to Florida, I was the only girl with curly hair and I was getting all these questions about who I was and having to explain myself. I became ashamed of the texture of my hair, so I kept telling my mom, ‘I want to straighten it and do whatever I have to do so it doesn't frizz.’ I never had that type of relationship with my hair before. I had to grow through that and reclaim the pride in what my hair is and what it does in the heat.
“In the industry, there's a Eurocentric bias of beauty. That dictates how our hair is supposed to look when we are beautiful, feminine, and polished. I've had to battle with that which is why I believe that whatever I can do to push the needle forward and make everyone feel comfortable to come in as their authentic self is great. You’ll see that while watching In The Heights which is why I love our movie.”
How do you take care of your hair while doing promo tours and on the road?
“I am very fortunate to have grown up in a salon and I acknowledge that more and more as I get older. When I started working with my hairstylists Larry Sims and John D., they said, ‘Wow, you really know what to do with your hair.’ I notice not everybody has that knowledge, so I'm more and more appreciative of everything my mom taught me. I'm always changing up my look, so anytime I wash my hair, I do a leave-in situation for health. I deep condition my hair because I know I put it through a lot of stress from heat styling. My curls don't pop as beautifully as Nina's curls do right now, but hopefully I'll be able to get my curls back soon. Moisture is key. I don’t wash my hair more than twice a week, but sometimes it's once a week if I can manage it.”
What are your favorite ways to take care of yourself and recharge?
“I've really created a better self-care routine. I got myself a face steamer which is so nice. I moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic, so I really had to learn to have everything at home that I want to indulge in on my days off. I do all my hair masks and my face masks whenever I can fit them in. I get my little scrubs going in the shower and my Epsom salts ready for a bath every week. I like to put on some music and dance and not have to think about anything in particular. We’re always putting out so much energy with our to-do lists all the time, so I meditate and try to take some time to recharge.”
Shop a few of Leslie Grace’s favorite products to keep her hair on point on her self-care days:
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