#1 Young Oprah in rolled up bangs
Mine started around the age of 4 or 5 in the kitchen watching my aunts iron each other’s hair straight with combs and Queen Bergamot – you could always hear that hiss. For many African American women of my generation, the journey was fraught with an early perception that straight hair was more meaningful and placed you in a category where you’re prettier and more likely to succeed than 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 pretty as I could be with my bangs rolled up.
#2 Oprah with pigtails for her fourth grade picture
Fast forward to the local news in Baltimore as I wash and style my own hair. Back then, there was no hair and makeup team. As I tell Tracee Ellis Ross in The Hair Tales, there was this terrifying moment when I was told I needed to do something about my looks. I was sent to a New York salon and when I walked out my head was covered in scabs. I was put under a lot of pressure and criticism 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 wear an afro for a while. It was the most liberating time because I didn’t have to expend energy worrying about how I was going to wear my hair. I continued trying the Jheri curl. And when that came out, I met Andre Walker, who styled my hair directly for the Oprah Winfrey Show for 30 years. God bless him. He would wash my hair every other day and give me a chemical relaxant every few months. I look at those years in the 90’s and I had great hair. Andre was perfect for me. From 1986 to 1998 it was all my own hair.
It wasn’t until after 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 can start maintaining my own hair.
#4 Oprah with her barber
Of course I still have some help today. I stopped relaxing my hair over 10 years ago. If you see my long and straight hair, it’s because my hairstylist, Nicole Mangrum, spent two hours blow drying and straightening, and it’s probably a warm and sunny day with zero humidity. Or she stands nearby with a hair straightener ready to fight any fluff. It’s a challenge looking after my natural hair which is super thick and hits past my shoulders.
For The Hair Tales, I wanted to wear my natural hair. I didn’t want to sit up there and talk about my hair while I was wearing someone else’s. So it was washed, cut and twisted, left to dry overnight, and then Nicole parted each little curl.
When I don’t have Nicole’s help, I often pick up one of the girls. And by girls, I mean my wigs: Diana, Tina, Beyoncé, Viola—they’re all named after African American women. These wigs are practical.
I also braided my hair to protect it or when I would travel to Africa. On a visit we waited for Nelson Mandela to fly to this village by helicopter. I sat there with the mayors, 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 said, “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 Hair Past Moments with Tracee Ellis Ross
Today I’m fine with my hair, whether it’s braided and looking like a village girl or tied back in a ponytail. I also know how to tie a great headscarf. 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, find themselves identified and validated in the stories shared in The Hair Tales. And just so you know, my own hair story isn’t complete. There are still wigs to wear, ponytails to set and curls to style. And I will continue to celebrate my crowning glory for all he is – strong, purposeful and resilient.