Nathalie Emmanuel, the former Game of Thrones cast member who currently appears in The Invitation, spent her twenties battling hair prejudice on set.
She's changed a lot; she's now 33; yet her new, cropped appearance exudes "joy, defiance, and empowerment."
Below, Emmanuel shares her lifelong commitment to self-love and her journey through an industry that typically expects Black women to compromise it.
I began acting and gaining notoriety while I was in my twenties. All of a sudden, I had to carry myself a certain way and meet the demands of the world. I was a little overpowered. My mother would say, "Your appearance is unimportant. You are stunning. There is nothing you need. You're gifted, intelligent, charitable, and humorous." At the end of the day, I was just ever me.
However, I appeared on the teen-oriented TV program Hollyoaks in England. Many students watched it, and many of the women in the cast were stunning and gorgeous. I made a concerted effort to become that.
There was a lot of pressure to fit in, to wear the very Western/white style, to have straight hair, etc. When I straightened my hair, people would comment, "I adore your hair, my God! You should consistently practice this." Every time, I would think, "Hmm, or not." I've always had a very strong sense of who I am, but when you're that age, you just want to blend in. You're usually a lot more open to being persuaded.
I can still recall the words that other Black and mixed-race women said to me when I first arrived in America: "You should definitely get a weave. Straight hair is a requirement." And I thought, "Really?" Simply put, I didn't want to do it. Each person is free to decide for himself. However, it never felt natural to me. Because my hair wasn't being properly cared for on set, I had to physically clip off a lot of it. That was just incredibly tragic.
That has, in my opinion, drastically changed. Although we now have excellent wigs, we are still engaged in a battle to ensure that our needs for hair and makeup are satisfied. People have touched my hair as if it were an impending bomb. Because of someone's carelessness, I don't want to be sobbing while seated in a cosmetic chair. People might think that since I'm well-known, it doesn't happen. That is not accurate. Therefore, consider what might happen to an actress who just started working as a day player.
I just had my hair cut short. When I was around 15 or so, I first asked my mother if I could cut my hair, and she said, "No, don't do that." I was ideal in her eyes. She was probably right to tell me that, as I believe it was a response to my failure to satisfy certain aesthetic standards. No sense of empowerment was present.
Shortly after that, my family and I traveled to St. Lucia in the Caribbean, where my ancestors are from. That trip had a very spiritual quality to it as I reconnected with my roots and realized that my hair curls because my ancestors are from this region. In September of that year, I returned to school while sporting a sizable 'fro. "Let them tell me I can't wear my hair," I said. I felt like, "Yes, I have fantastic hair. It's fantastic, but don't touch my hair."
After that, when I was 17, I began working in television, and because I had natural hair on camera, I frequently had comments like, "I adore your hair, my God! Because of you, I'm going natural." Then I understood just how crucial it was, even in straightforward things like fashion magazines and red carpets. The common misconception about glamor is that you must have the aesthetic and smooth your hair out for special occasions. I responded, "No, I'll do my texture."