To fans of AMC’s TV series, Mad Men, she’s Dawn Chambers, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first black employee, but to many in the natural hair community she’s a hair icon, showing just how versatile and glamorous kinky hair can be.
her big splash
Teyonnah Parris is a Julliard trained emerging actress that’s been racking up notable credits since 2010 when she made her debut onstage and on screen in the play A Free Man of Color and feature film How Do You Know. In 2012 more people were introduced to Parris when she became Don Draper’s new secretary, Dawn Chambers in AMC’s Mad Men. But it wouldn’t be until late January 2013 at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards that images of Parris would flood the Instagram feeds of naturalistas abound. Parris was one of the few Black actresses on the red carpet that awards season, let alone one with natural hair. She wore a pompadour inspired up-do, created by Felicia Leatherwood and paired it with diamond chandelier earrings and a shimmery violet dress. Parris’s appearance and hair style was such a big deal because it felt like the first time in decades that her type of natural hair was placed in a glamorous and visible setting. Essence.com got the 411 on how her look was created.
red carpet crown
Following the 2013 SAG awards, the natural world began seeing and noting more and more of Ms. Parris’s red carpet ‘dos. With every appearance she further demonstrated the range of her crown–from a braided low bun look to a super high conical up-do. One would think that Parris had been natural all her life but she is actually a relatively new natural, having taken the plunge in 2010.
In April of last year she shared her story on Essence.com:
I got my first relaxer when I was nine years old. This was in the 90’s and I convinced my mom to let me perm my hair so I could wear a French roll with the crimps in the front.
It wasn’t until three years ago that I had an ah-ha moment, as Oprah would say. I was walking down the street with one of my girlfriends and I saw this young lady who had the most amazing, bomb twist-out. I said to my friend, “Oh my gosh, her hair is so beautiful. I wish my hair could do that.” My friend looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Uh, it would if you stop relaxing it.” I stopped and thought to myself, wow, duh. I kind of felt dumb because of course I knew my hair was naturally curly, but it had been so long since I had been relaxing. I realized that I had no real relationship with my natural hair.
learning her hair
When I was transitioning to natural while wearing straight extensions I kept flat ironing my edges and horseshoe (the hair left out around the part). So, when all the rest of my hair had fully transitioned when I went to wash the whole thing I realized those parts had heat damage and as a result had taken on a completely different curl pattern. It was wavy and long while the rest was a TWA. I looked ridiculous!
But also like most naturals Parris was able to navigate her tresses with a little help from YouTube:
…I adapted my regimen from ‘Naptural85′. She uses a lot of natural products that are straight from the kitchen. I tried a lot of the popular natural hair products and didn’t care for them. I really got excited about, essentially, being able to eat anything I put on my hair.
working with her hair
As an actress Parris has to be a chameleon both emotionally and physically, meaning her hair has to reflect the different personalities and times of the characters she plays. “I learned early on that I will always have extensions when on a set, or a wig.” She told Care for Your Hair. “I never want to subject my hair to the onset brutality. Some days it takes me 2 hours to finger detangle my hair….on set I just don’t have that luxury, lol.”
As Dawn Chambers on Madmen she’s conservative and neat and wears her hair in a short 1960s cut. Of playing Dawn she told Vulture.com:
I did not feel a lot of pressure. I am happy to be a part of the show. I know that this show hasn’t had an African-American in the office and I know that comes with a lot of responsibility as to how I portray this woman, but I can’t think about that. I can only go in and do what I think this woman would do. I try not to think, Oh, I have to represent every single black person in the world that was there in the sixties. I have to tell this one woman’s story and what that was for her. I’m kind of on the fence because as a black actress, there aren’t a lot of roles out there for us, and so you see a great show and it’s like, Oh wow, I would love to be on that show. Oh, but there are no black people on it. So that part is frustrating and I understand that, but at the same time I don’t expect to be a part of everyone’s story if it’s not true to the story that they’re trying to tell.
In an almost complete contrast to Dawn she’s playing Colandrea (Coco) Conners, in the highly anticipated indie film Dear White People. She describes Coco as a fierce woman who knows what she wants, will get what she wants and will do so looking good. Coco’s desperate for attention and uses her appearance, especially her bone-straight banged wig as armor. Hence, the scene where she takes off her wig marks a critical turning point for Coco. (We can’t wait to see this film).
having a choice
Returning to one’s natural state means different things for different people. For Teyonah it means opening herself up to more styling options, as she shared on Essence.com:
Today, I’m still learning how to care for my hair. I’m still on this journey but I am not a natural who thinks you have to wear natural hair all the time. I might have a weave all the way down to my butt next week and I’m totally fine with that. For me what this journey has been about is having a choice. When my hair was relaxed, wearing it natural was not an option because it was chemically altered from its original texture. Today, I can make the choice whether I want to wear it straight, curly or even wear a weave. Having the ability to choose is what has been the most important for me.
It’s also an opportunity for her to set a different kind of beauty example. She further explained:
It feels good to be a role model for little girls who don’t often see natural hair on the red carpet. I’ve wanted to be an actress my whole life and the none of the women I aspired to be like had natural hair. Today we have Esperanza and Solange who always look fierce and are proud to wear their natural hair. Maybe it’s not a statement for them, but for me, they showed me that I don’t have to equate fierce and gorgeous with long, straight hair. I hope there’s a little girl out there who may see me and say the same thing.