(Curl Conversation)

Nathalie Emmanuel On How She Never Let Hollywood Dictate Her Hair Journey

The Army Of Thieves star shares how she never let Hollywood dictate her hair journey.

Nathalie Emmanuel in a sheer black top and red lipstick with black curly hair

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

by Natasha Marsh
Originally Published: 
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For many actors in Hollywood, daring to wear your hair natural is still a risky choice career-wise. But for Nathalie Emmanuel, her relationship with her hair has always been grounded in love and understanding. “I was lucky to have a mom who is mixed raced as well, who had her own head of curly, coily hair that she knew how to do,” she tells TZR over Zoom. “My mom knew how to do my sister and my hair so I always felt like my hair was taken care of when I was small.” But for the British-born Anglo-Caribbean actor, known for Army of Thieves, Game of Thrones, and Furious 7, her hair journey was not always so seamless.

For her classmates, peers, and eventually the entertainment industry, respecting her curls was not always second nature — a troublesome reality many Black and mixed race actors and models experience as well. But, with a young nephew who also has curls and coils, Emmanuel is determined that now is the time to encourage acceptance of self and hair both from a personal standpoint, within the television industry, and society at large.

TZR got to speak with Emmanuel about her journey towards embracing her curls and her position as a role model for Black and mixed race people everywhere. “My hair is big and it always feels like a statement,” she says. “When I wear my hair out I feel powerful. It’s an indication of my heritage and pride and I’m really passionate about getting the next generation to feel that.”

Ahead, find out who was instrumental in the actor’s curl journey, and why her opinion is the only one that matters when deciding how to wear her hair — both on-screen and off.

What was your relationship with your hair like as a child?

At home, my hair was always detangled, conditioned, beautifully protected, and taken care of. Fortunately, I never had that situation where my hair wasn’t being cared for because a parent didn’t know how to care for it, which could really negatively form someone's opinion of their hair.

However, what I did experience, especially in primary school, was that my hair wasn’t allowed to be out, even in little ponytails or pigtails — it always had to be braided and tucked away. My school said this was for health and safety reasons. Which was confusing because the white girls in my school with big curly hair were allowed to wear their hair out. I was being singled out. Based on the clear messaging, I started thinking there was something inappropriate or unacceptable about my hair. So from a young age I understood my hair was a problem.

That was strange, and for a really long time I hid it away and didn’t really show it. I just had so much association with stress around my hair as a kid, as if my hair was a problem that needed to be managed.

The love shown for your hair at home versus at school speaks to the personal relationship Black women have with the way they view their hair and the way society perceives it. How did you overcome this?

There was a real moment of pride that happened when I was about 14 and we went to St. Lucia for three weeks to visit my grandmother. Something really profound happened when I realized the significance of my hair and how it ties into my mixed heritage. Being in St. Lucia, where one of my parents has heritage, I got to understand the background of my hair. I realized my hair curls the way it does because my family is from here. Being there gave me a real connection to my history in a way that I hadn’t felt before.

I arrived to school the day after St.Lucia in a massive afro. I brushed it out with a soft brush and let it be. I remember thinking this was a bad idea because it was even getting in my way, but the point is I loved it and I wanted to show it off. And that was really beautiful and started my journey of acceptance of my hair. I started to see the way my hair curls, the way my hair grew out of my head, and the way that it grew up and not down — I saw that as something to be proud of. And that was really the beginning for me.

Of course it didn’t mean that people didn’t tease me. One of the things the girls in my all girls school used to do to me was put things in my hair to see how long it would take for me to notice. At the end of the class, I’d get up and protractors, pens, and velcro would fall out of my hair. When it's amongst your friends, you might think it’s funny, but it really wasn’t. It felt like they were laughing at me, not with me. That was among many of the radicalized bullying that happened to me in primary and high school.

While judgement and slight digital bullying still happens occasionally, my pride and acceptance over my hair really changed, and I learned how to do it. Learning my hair became my most important mission when I left home at 17 to start working in British television. I was living in Liverpool and working independently, and I just knew how important it was for me to have my natural hair. Wearing my hair natural is something that I’ve actively done in my career — not just on screen but also in red carpets and my private life.

Once you entered Hollywood and the film industry in general, did you ever feel the pressure or like you were being evaluated through your appearance instead of your talent?

I definitely still have times when I wish my hair could do something else. And there is also suggestion around my casting as an actor where its believed I should be changing up my hair to change my casting to get different roles. Obviously, you walk into an audition and people see the hair first and can’t see anything beside that.

I remember talking to beautiful Black British actors that had gone to Los Angeles and I remember one in particular saying that when she arrived to Hollywood with her natural hair someone immediately convinced her to get a sew-in if she wanted to be successful in the industry.

A few people have expressed the pressure to go and blow their hair out and straighten it just to get work. And I’ve definitely felt that pressure. When I was first starting out, I had a job where someone told me they wouldn’t be able to tell me tell me apart from the other mixed race actress on the show if I didn’t straighten my hair. So for six weeks, they straightened it. My hair was so destroyed and damaged from that experience that I vowed to never do it again, and I never have. Of course, if I feel like straightening my hair I will — but I won’t be forced into thinking that is the only way to get a role.

Whenever I wonder whether I need to change my hair or do things differently, I have a word with myself and I’m like listen, there are wigs. Because the truth is: there are so many options if somebody wants me to be something else for a character besides straightening my curls.

Is there anything you would tell young Black or mixed race actors today if someone comments on their hair?

It’s a journey for everyone. For me, I realized the power in my natural curls and my texture. It makes me emotional when I get mothers of mixed and Black children coming up to me and telling me how their daughters want straight hair or beg for sew-ins. They’ll share that since they’ve seen pictures of my hair, they love their hair. And it makes me want to cry because for so many years I was that little girl. When you’re that young all you want is to fit in — it's such an impressionable time. So the representation is everything, and I’m happy to be that for them but it still shows how far we have to go as a society. Young people should feel accepted.

In the era of social media, everyone’s got a bloody opinion. I’ll randomly see a comment saying, “You look much more beautiful with straight hair,” or “Why don't you straighten it?” And to be honest with you, first of all, I’m just a bit lazy and I don't have the time to do it. I barely have the patience to sit and do it. I don't have an overwhelming desire to straighten my hair, I’ve pretty much accepted this is how my hair grows out of my head and actually its pretty damn cool.

But sometimes I do have negative feelings about my own hair because as much as you can overcome negative thought processes in life, sometimes they creep up on you. Sometimes you have to be like ‘oh this again,’ then you need to work through it.

My advice to myself and others is to not let it dominate your thinking. I go through phases when I hate my hair and I’ll be in scarves and puffs. But there is also something culturally really beautiful about wearing a scarf on your head and so I just try to enjoy it. The versatility is actually my favorite part of my hair.

Throughout your journey, what products are tried-and-true? What does your wash day look like?

Dropping earlier last week on Netflix, Army of Thieves, I have some pretty epic hairstyles in that. My character is like a bank robber basically so she changes her appearance all the time. There’s a mohawk look that’s really awesome and some flat twists there. When I did Four Weddings And A Funeral, they showed such lovely ways to style my natural curls. That was all done on natural hair and really spoke to the versatility of Black hair.

But for me, when I’m doing my hair by myself, my wash day takes some time. And for product it depends if I’m feeling lazy or not, which I mostly am. At the moment, I use a variety of things. I recently discovered a cool company called Flora Curl which is a Black-owned, British brand based in London. She’s got this really cool clay mask that you mix with powder and I use it to cleanse my hair and scalp before I shampoo. It’s just amazing.

I recently started using Imbuee, which is really cool as well. Their stuff is really nourishing. Actually my hair designer on Army of Thieves, Nora Robinson, recommends really good products to me as well. I’m a huge fan of Jim + Henry’s leave-in conditioner. Once I’ve shampooed and conditioned my hair, I’ll oil my scalp so my hair can be saturated then I’ll apply the leave-in.

After all product is in, I might use my diffuser on a light heat for 30-40 minutes and then let it air dry. But if I’m not going somewhere, I’ll just let it dry naturally. And my hair can take days to dry. I’m also a huge fan of Pattern: the edge control and the strong gel for slicked styles — I mean not one hair moves. It’s amazing. Her combs are also so great. To be honest, for products, it mostly depends on what else I have left in the cupboard.

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