Don’t we all wish we were as eloquent as Viola? The dynamic starlet recently won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, becoming the first African-American to do so, amazing millions of viewers with a conversation-stirring acceptance speech stating:
The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.
But it wasn’t just her impassioned speech that commanded the stage, but her very being. She thanked the many writers and black actresses within Hollywood that are striving to broaden what it means to be sensual, black and beautiful. It was quite evident that Davis truly stole the night. From her natural hair to her dark skin, she was a walking inspiration to many women of color, everywhere.
Viola Davis was born on August 11, 1965 on a plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina. Her father was a horse trainer and her mother held many occupations, ranging from factory worker to civil rights activist.
As a child, her family moved to Central Falls, Rhode Island where they were the only black family in the neighborhood. She was an active participant in the arts during high school and continued her studies in theatre at Rhode Island College. “Acting came from growing up in dysfunction. I mean, a lot of great times, but a lot of dysfunction,” Davis stated in her interview with Vulture.
At this time, she sported a small, coiled afro, an ideal look for a woman who was seeking low maintenance styles. She graduated in 1988, at the peak of tapered cuts and asymmetrical styles however, Davis embraced simplicity and kept her ‘fro teeny.
Hair Loss & Wigs
In 1989, Davis entered The Juilliard School to continue her ambitions in acting. By the time she graduated from Julliard in 1993, half of her hair had fallen out due to Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune skin disease that causes hair loss. The condition, she believes, was a result of stress. According to WebMD, the National Ambulatory Medical Survey reported that alopecia is one of the top ten reasons African-Americans will visit a dermatologist.
I was so desperate for people to think that I was beautiful…
In her interview with Vulture, Davis explained her reaction to the hair loss: “I woke up one day and it looked like I had a Mohawk. Big splash of bald on the top of my head. I was like, What is this?”
This is when Davis began her long-term relationship with wearing wigs. Wigs and hairpieces made her feel comfortable and womanly. Whereas her own hair, in its condition, made her feel self-conscious and less accepting of her natural beauty.
“I was so desperate for people to think that I was beautiful… I wore a wig in the Jacuzzi. I had a wig I wore around the house. I had a wig that I wore to events. I had a wig that I wore when I worked out,” Davis said.
Over the years, Davis’ wigs have evolved from simple to fierce. She’s rocked an impressive array of hair pieces, including long, silky tresses with a brow skimming fringe to bob cuts at varied lengths. Her wigs were never of loud colors, but ranged from black to chestnut. Naturally fitting to frame her face, and curled or straightened to perfection.
From the red carpet to the movie screen, she consistently wore wigs for convenience and comfort. It sounds simple and logical, but in reality the wigs were stunting her growth to self-acceptance.
How To… Accept Your Curls
On the red carpet of the 2012 Academy Awards, Davis finally revealed her natural hair. An inch long, tightly coiled and honey blonde TWA (teeny weeny afro), her new look was a stark difference compared to the wigs of the past however, she stunned as a fearless beauty and heroine to alopecia patients and black women everywhere.
Her hairstyle of choice for the evening was a surprise, but nonetheless accepted. She flaunted her natural curls confidently as the start of her new journey: no more hiding. She once shared, “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. ‘I am telling, I have spent so much of my life not feeling comfortable in my skin. I am just so not there anymore.”
Over the next few year years Davis would flaunt her natural curls in darker tones. She has worn twist-outs, tapered cuts, and blown-out curls, exemplifying the versatility of coiled hair. And she wears it confidently!
Davis continues to search for self-acceptance and knowledge in her most recent role in the drama series, How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM), with her portrayal of Annalise Keating. Her character is affirmative, strong, deceiving, ambitious, sensual, and possesses many other complex character traits that drive the storyline.
In the show, Davis wears short wigs that are as neat and serious as her character. However, the first season peeled back layers to Annalise Keating, with a groundbreaking scene of her removing her makeup and then her wig. This idea was Davis’. She wanted her character to be realistic. And for her as a black woman who wears wigs in her everyday life, removing her wig before bed was a realistic element to add to the scene. She realized that it might not have been considered aesthetically pleasing to the common eye to reveal her plaited, natural hair underneath the wig, however, she knew that it was vital for audiences to see. In November 2014 she sat down with Ellen DeGeneres and explained why this scene was so important:
I was so adamant about it. I said, ‘Listen, she can’t go to bed with a wig on… because women don’t go to bed with their wigs on.’ And I said, ‘A whole portion of women out there that are marginalized, I want to be a regal woman–let’s go for it! I’m a character-actress!’
During the first season of HTGAWM, a New York Times writer, Alessandra Stanley, referred to Davis as “less classically beautiful.” Weeks later, Davis appeared on The View and responded to the writer’s comment:
I think that beauty is subjective. I’ve heard that statement [less classically beautiful] my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you hear it from the womb. And “classically not beautiful” is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you. …it worked when I was younger. It no longer works for me now. It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you. Because at the end of the day, you define you.
With the highly-anticipated second season of HTGAWM currently airing, Davis is continuing to expand her character, and what it means to be a naturally beautiful, black woman scene-by-scene, line-by-line- and she does it well.