The "Obama Effect" On Black Women's Hair Issues Whether a press and curl, relaxer, Afro or weave, the relationship between African-American women and their hair has always been a complicated one. NPR's Allison Samuels and celebrity stylist Marcia Hamilton explore the issues of African-American women, hair care, and Michelle Obama's sartorial influence.
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The "Obama Effect" On Black Women's Hair Issues

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The "Obama Effect" On Black Women's Hair Issues

The "Obama Effect" On Black Women's Hair Issues

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TONY COX, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. Press and curl, relaxer, afro or weave, the relationship between African-American women and their hair has always been a complicated one. The way an African-American women wears her hair can often define her. And as the first African-American first lady, Michelle Obama has encountered her own share of scrutiny over the decisions she makes with her hair. NPR's Allison Samuels explore the issue of African-American women, hair, and Michelle Obama with celebrity stylist Marcia Hamilton.

ALLISON SAMUELS: We now have an African-American president with an American-American wife and two African-American daughters. So now, we talk a lot about hair, you know, things that we probably didn't talk about when we had first ladies who were not African-American. So the conversation has gone from one end to the other. Should Michelle wear more natural hair? Should she cut her hair? Should she have a perm? Should she press and curl? My question to you as a stylist is what - why do we have such obsession even now in 2009 with hair - black women and hair? What is that about?

Ms. MARCIA HAMILTON (Celebrity Stylist): Well, I think that the obsession stems from corporate America back in the day. Remember going into the office? Personally I never worked in corporate, however, I am from Santa Clara. Well, I worked in Santa Clara and I had tons of clients that were in the corporate world that were African-American women, and their issue was, whenever they went into their office, if they came in Monday with one hairstyle and then they came back Thursday with a different hairstyle, that hairstyle all of a sudden became the cubicle chat, or when you guys meet up at the water cooler or whatever it is, it became water cooler chat. I've heard stuff from different clans like message boards, you know, with posts, just different things about wearing your hair a certain way. I've had clients who have been pulled into the office of the manager or owner if they came in with braids, and they would ask them to please not wear that anymore. Iit's usually called distracting.

SAMUELS: OK. OK. So can we win as a black woman with hair do? It seems like it's, you know, no matter what we do…

Ms. HAMILTON: I think now that Michelle Obama is kind of like, you know, a major representative for us, a positive representative and a professional representative for black woman. I think give her a few years. You know, I think over the first four years, people are going to start to just relax a little bit more when they take a look at black women's hair. It's not going to be such a big deal because they're going to become accustomed. So, I think as time goes on with Michelle in the public eye, it's going to become a little bit more normal to see black women with different kinds of hair.

SAMUELS: But the interesting part is that - and particularly with African-American bloggers - female bloggers, they're saying that Michelle really is sort of - as a representative for black women, could really do a little bit more in terms of wearing different hairstyles, be it braids, be it natural. And I'm wondering, you know, given her position, do you think she could do that?

Ms. HAMILTON: I don't think so. I think a lot of black women need to kick back, cut her some slack, give her a break. She just got here. She's the new woman on the block. Don't beat her up. I think all the pressure they're applying is because they feel that she's in this position to kind of show all these different styles. But I think if she - within the first month, she changes her hair four or five times, then a lot of - the blogs are going to suddenly change and people are going to say Michelle Obama is not doing her job as the first lady. She's too busy sitting around the hairdresser.

SAMUELS: Right, right. Yes.

Ms. HAMILTON: And as of now, I think she can't win. And I think a lot of times, women in general, not only black women but women in general, we have a way of always beating up on each other.

SAMUELS: Definitely.

Ms. HAMILTON: It's the same thing when - now, we see with awards season, the next day after awards season, you turn on the news and stuff or the morning chat shows, what do you see? Panels of women beating up on other women who are on the red carpet. And at the end of the day, these women, they look fabulous.


Ms. HAMILTON: They didn't come out with rags or they didn't come out with rollers in their hair. They look fabulous. But as women, we always just find it hard to give each other a break.

SAMUELS: Well let me ask you this. Being a visible woman in terms of - like a Beyonce, like anyone, Michelle Obama now is sort of a star. She's on the cover of Vogue for this month…

Ms. HAMILTON: Definitely.

SAMUELS: For March. When women are visible like that, don't they have to have options in terms of - be it pieces, be it a wig, be it whatever as African-American women. That's something that we, you know, we do.

Ms. HAMILTON: I think so, yeah, definitely because we know that our hair needs certain enhancement sometimes in order to achieve a look, you know, or a style. And I think, you know, Michelle Obama, her hairstylist, I think he's going to pull a couple of tricks out of his bag. And as the times go on, we're going to see them and hopefully, we're going to be inspired.

SAMUELS: Well, let me ask you this though. The health of the hair is many reasons why we do that. I mean, because under the hot lights, if we're getting out hair done everyday, black females can't really handle that with their hair a lot of times. There's too much stress and too much heat. Explain to the sort of lay person who doesn't really understand that that our hair texture is - you know.

Ms. HAMILTON: Well, yeah. Because of our hair texture, all of us tend to have naturally curly hair. For anybody who has a curl pattern or curl texture in their hair, especially a tight one, a kinky one, your hair is usually drier. It's always going to be a little bit more dry, it's also going to be a little bit more fragile. And for African-American women, we can't - or it's not healthy for us to shampoo, blow-dry, flat iron our hair every single day. And for us to achieve a hairstyle that looks like the Beyonces and looks like the Michelle Obamas, we have to put aggressive heat on our hair daily. And it's just not right, it's not right for us do so. And…

SAMUELS: It'll break off. It'll fall out.

Ms. HAMILTON: Your hair will be dry, snap and break off. And going back to Beyonce, when Beyonce first started in her music career, she didn't have that knowledge, her mother didn't have that knowledge because her mom was doing her hair. And for every show that they ever did, you know, they reapplied heat, heat, constant heat. After a while, her hair snapped and broke off.


Ms. HAMILTON: Then what, she had to wear wigs in order for her hair to get back healthy. And I think at the end of the day, it's OK to have an amazing style. But if you have the stylist that cares, and if you care yourself, it's all about preserving the integrity of the hair.

SAMUELS: Well, let's talk about the little girls because they're all - there were also sort of some criticisms about little girls' hair being so silky straight at the inauguration. And I'm just sort of going, isn't that what all little black girls do on special events, get their hair straightened?

Ms. HAMILTON: Of course. I think Malia and Sasha represent any 11-year-old or eight-year-old black girl. And it's just like when our moms took us to church or, you know, we had to go to the - whatever, any kind of special occasion where we were dressed to the nines, our hair was always straightened because in our community, in our culture, that almost signifies just a more polished look, is to have your hair straightened. And unfortunately, that's been kind of brainwashed - we've been brainwashed by society. But I don't think that their hair is too straight. The girls, they wear their hair naturally usually when they're not in the public eye. But I think being in the public eye, Michelle probably even feels a little bit pressured, just a little bit to make them look pretty.

SAMUELS: I just think(ph) if they had an afro what would happen?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. I think if these girls came out with natural hair at the inauguration, those blogs are going to change to, Michelle's an unfit mother.


Ms. HAMILTON: These girls' hair, they're not being combed.

SAMUELS: Right, right, right, right.

Ms. HAMILTON: It's kind of like, you know, what we all said about Bobbi Kristina.

SAMUELS: Oh, my goodness.

Ms. HAMILTON: World knows when that girl came out, we never gave her a break.

SAMUELS: Yes. Whitney's daughter, her hair, she had hair issues. But I'm just saying, that's the thing about it. It was one of those kind of situations where we can't win. And I sort of look at Michelle Obama as being in the top, you know, at the White House she's at the top of, you know, everything. And still, we're talking about this instead of all the wonderful things that she can possibly do for us. We're talking about her hair in 2009.

Ms. HAMILTON: And it's terrible.

SAMUELS: I was like we're - I'm still amazed about that. What do you expect - you expect her maybe to try some pieces and...

Ms. HAMILTON: I think she will.


Ms. HAMILTON: Her hair stylist, I'm pretty sure he's progressive. And I think that he's going to try some things. Me, personally…

SAMUELS: I was going to say, what would you do?

Ms. HAMILTON: I would recommend that Michelle Obama wear hair extensions. I don't recommend that she wears permanent hair extensions. However, I think that on certain days, when she knows that she's going to be in the public eye and especially for a long period of time during the day, I think that she should warm up to clip-on extensions - clip-on human hair extensions because this is a great way to add volume. I don't think that she should necessarily add length.


Ms. HAMILTON: Because...

SAMUELS: She seems to have length on some level, right?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah, she's...

SAMUELS: Mm hmm.

Ms. HAMILTON: She's got length, but when I say length, I mean right now her hair is cut into a really pretty bob, kind of a modern-day Jackie O. And I don't think that she should do what - typically what a lot of African-American women do, do once they're in the spotlight and that is add tremendous length. I don't think that she should, you know, show up one day with her hair past the bra strap.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: And you know...


Ms. HAMILTON: With like, all these waves and curls, I just think she should keep it professional but I definitely feel that she needs to add a little bit volume.

SAMUELS: OK. And if she did that - because I mean, the reason is, like on TV, your hair seems thinner, isn't it?

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh yeah.

SAMUELS: Right, right. OK.

Ms. HAMILTON: It's definitely flatter.


Ms. HAMILTON: It's definitely flatter on television because for TV also till you get your hair done, at least an hour or two prior to your appearance, and then you're there, in between takes and all that and then, the lighting and...

SAMUELS: OK, all of that.

Ms. HAMILTON: Humidity, everything.


Ms. HAMILTON: It just - it wears and tears on the hair.

SAMUELS: To clarify something just to the end of this, you know, black women aren't the only women who wear weaves. So I think, there's some type of confusion about that.

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, no. They are not.


Ms. HAMILTON: Women of every other culture wear weaves, and I think in our - actually, I know that Caucasian women, Spanish women, they have been wearing weaves before black women have been wearing weaves.

SAMUELS: And it seem like Linda Evans from Dynasty wore pieces.

Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you.

SAMUELS: You know.

Ms. HAMILTON: I mean...

SAMUELS: It's amazing. Well, let me ask you this. Is the stigma still there though? Because you know, there used to be such a stigma because the black people get into this good hair, bad hair thing and if you have a weave, you must have bad hair because, you know...

Ms. HAMILTON: But the stigma is definitely still there.


Ms. HAMILTON: It is still there. I still get clients that come into the salon and they sit in my chair and you know, (laughing) they have this frown on their face and they wished they had good hair. I just think, you know, we start with our kids now to break this horrible cycle. We start with our kids and we let them know, there's no such thing as good and bad hair. I think if you have hair on your head, and I think if it's healthy hair, it's good hair.

SAMUELS: That's so funny.

Ms. HAMILTON: If your hair is unhealthy, it's bad hair.

SAMUELS: My grandma, used it a long time, you know, oh, your hair is good, on your forehead, that's bad hair.



Ms. HAMILTON: That's all it breaks down to. I don't think the texture matters or if you are 10 percent, 50 percent Indian, two percent white, whatever it is...

SAMUELS: OK, let me ask you this.

Ms. HAMILTON: You know what?

SAMUELS: Why does it continue though? This has been going on, the good hair, bad hair, I mean...

Ms. HAMILTON: It's passed down through generations.


Ms. HAMILTON: It's passed down through generations and now, white girls that I see are (laughing) more than happy to sit back with black girls and compare weaves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: I've seen - I've seen them...

SAMUELS: You've seen that. You've seen that.

Ms. HAMILTON: Compare price as you know...


Ms. HAMILTON: Pull or pull out their hair and say, OK, I got mine at this place.

SAMUELS: What I don't understand about the stigma, particularly when, you know, African-American men complain about is like, now you have sisters and mothers, now you know exactly how this works.

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, boy. Yes. Thank you very much. I have a couple of those African-American male clients who sit up in my chair and they talk about the woman they would love to meet and love to date and love to marry, and they always say they want this woman without a weave. Fellas, you know what? It's 2009 and for all of you who are looking for a woman without a weave, good luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: I suggest you just - I was going to say, go to Africa, but she's not even there anymore.

SAMUELS: They wear weaves in Africa, too.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah, they do.

SAMUELS: I mean, I was there. I saw it.

Ms. HAMILTON: They do.

SAMUELS: So yeah, they wear weaves in Africa.

Ms. HAMILTON: Sorry fellas. Sorry fellas.

SAMUELS: So, yeah. That's - it's over with that. But I always say Beyonce wears weaves. So what are you going to do?

Ms. HAMILTON: Does she - I have a special supplier where I go get my Indian hair.

SAMUELS: Mm hmm.

Ms. HAMILTON: For weaves for my clients.

SAMUELS: Mm hmm, mm hmm.

Ms. HAMILTON: And when I walk in there, about 50 percent of the women that are in there are non-African-American.

SAMUELS: American, right. OK. And there's not that stigma for whatever reason.


SAMUELS: For them or whatever.

Ms. HAMILTON: No, no, no, no.

SAMUELS: Well, I just want to say, I will wear one of them in a minute and I keep my hair in the car.

Ms. HAMILTON: Can I do your weave?

SAMUELS: I just wear it - sure.


SAMUELS: I keep my hair in the glove compartment in case I need to, you know...

Ms. HAMILTON: That's where you're supposed to keep it.

SAMUELS: Have some. That's what I thought.

Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you. See.

SAMUELS: That's what I thought. I tell them.

Ms. HAMILTON: I tell them...

SAMUELS: You never know.

Ms. HAMILTON: I tell my friends, glove compartments or in the trunks.

SAMUELS: That's what I'm saying.

Ms. HAMILTON: So you're always ready.

SAMUELS: Always ready, because you never know when you need more hair. Since we're talking about weaves and black women and having options, how do you avoid - because one of the down sides of a weave is when it don't look good, it's a bad situation for everybody. We all take the heat for a bad weave.

Ms. HAMILTON: It's a walking weave.

SAMUELS: It's a (laughing) - How do you get the best look?

Ms. HAMILTON: I think to achieve the best weave possible. You must go to the best hair stylist possible. Just be very selective. It's kind of like picking a car or something. You see somebody driving a cute car you ask him where he got it from. You get a great recommendation to a wonderful hair stylist and do not skimp. I know it's the recession. However, weave is an investment. Bad hair makes a bad weave. Bad stylist makes a bad weave. If you get the best quality hair possible, and the best quality hairstylist, then I think you'll have an amazing weave. Also, listen to your hair stylist. Sometimes women come in they don't really know what they want. They throw around a lot of possibilities and then they tend to control the hairstylist, as the hairstylist is applying the weave. Don't do that, ladies. Let your hairstylists do her thing or his thing.

SAMUELS: Now, to get a really good weave though, usually you're going to have to pay some good money, not just for the hair but also to get it done, right?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes you will. And it's an investment.

SAMUELS: Give us some idea of like, you know...

Ms. HAMILTON: Ballpark, about $1,200.

SAMUELS: About 12 - and that's the hair included?

Ms. HAMILTON: Hair included, yeah. Ballpark $1,200. And let me tell you, if you get amazing hair, amazing quality, your hair can be reused unless you're chopping your weave up to something that's super short, if you have amazing quality hair, your hair can be reused. So the next time you're going to have your weave redone, you're not going to pay $1,200.


Ms. HAMILTON: Because you already have the hair.

SAMUELS: Have the hair.

Ms. HAMILTON: And your hair is good for up one year.

SAMUELS: Now, how long - how often, like we know you have to - every six weeks get a retouch if you have a perm but for a weave, you get a little bit more time, right?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. A weave, if you're taking care of it properly and once again, if it's you know, done properly, your weave can last up to - I would say, three months.




Ms. HAMILTON: Three months and ladies, don't try to maintain it at home yourself, unless I mean, you've really been schooled by your hairstylist. Come in every two weeks and have it maintained by your hairstylist.

SAMUELS: Now, when you look at someone like Oprah who has gone back and forth, because I think that she sometimes wears her hair, sometimes she wears a unit? Is that such a...

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes, she does.

SAMUELS: Now, that's the unit. What is a unit?

Ms. HAMILTON: A unit basically - it's kind of like a fall or a wig, and it means that you leave a perimeter of your hair out in the front and in the back, and you braid the rest of your hair up and you attach your unit. You can either braid it up or pin it in there.

SAMUELS: Now you have celebrity clients obviously. Are they - well, they - are they OK with letting people know, you have people like Gabriele Union who will tell you in a heartbeat, she has a weave.

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, yeah.

SAMUELS: There's no problem whatsoever.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes.

SAMUELS: So someone like Serena Williams or whatever, they're fine with people knowing it?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes, yes.

SAMUELS: They are?

Ms. HAMILTON: They are.

SAMUELS: Do they have - I mean, given that they have to do so many things on the red carpet, and I'm assuming because I think you also do Jada Pinkett-Smith as well.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes, I do.

SAMUELS: They have to change it, what all the time like?

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh yes.


Ms. HAMILTON: Oh yes. And these women, they know what it takes, they know what it takes to compete, they know what it takes to look beautiful and glamorous and they are willing to switch it up. They're willing to throw a couple of tracks in there.

SAMUELS: Well, what I love about Gabriele, she says she puts it in her contract with the studios that I must have certain kind of hair.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes, she does.

SAMUELS: She does do that?

Ms. HAMILTON: She does, yeah. I know her hairstylist, and she does. She fights, Gabriele Union fights for her hairstylist.

SAMUELS: Now, what about - does that happen with a lot of African-American women? Because I mean, you know, you want this certain make-up on just because everybody, they're not to do African-American make-up, everybody doesn't know how to do African-American hair.



Ms. HAMILTON: If the actress or the talent is concerned about their look, yes, they do fight for their hair and make up team.

SAMUELS: That is big business in America though, right now?

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, huge business.

SAMUELS: The money on hair.

Ms. HAMILTON: Huge business.


Ms. HAMILTON: But also ladies, you know, don't be fooled by getting your hair on any and every Web site that says Indian hair.


Ms. HAMILTON: Because what they're doing is, your hair comes from India.


Ms. HAMILTON: Then it goes to China to be wafted. Once it gets to China, if your manufacturers are shady, they can infuse yak hair into your black Indian hair.

SAMUELS: Horse hair.


SAMUELS: Horse hair.

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, yak, that dude in the mountain.

SAMUELS: And on that note, we will leave this conversation. But thank you so much. We've learned so much today. Thank you so much. I'd appreciate it. Thank you. ..TEXT: Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you, Allison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That was NPR's Allison Samuels talking with celebrity stylist Marcia Hamilton here at the studios of NPR West.

You're listening to News & Notes from NPR News.

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