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Lupita Nyong'o's financial struggles helped her find her signature hairstyle

Big hair, do care! (Photo: Patrick Demarchelier for Allure)

Lupita Nyong’o has an Oscar, a beauty contract with Lancôme Paris, and a history-making role in Black PantherBut as she explains in the latest issue of Allure, she was once held back by an all-too-familiar self-esteem issue: disdain for her natural hair.

In the revealing interview, Nyong’o opens up about changing her hair to fit in with her classmates, the moment she first decided to shave her head, and trying to find a good hairstylist in Mexico. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t easy. “I’d have to take the bus to Mexico City to find a woman who could braid my hair. That was two and a half hours away.”)

As a child, Nyong’o says, she was “envious of girls with thicker, longer, more lush hair.” She begged her mother to let her straighten her curls with a chemical hair relaxer. Her mom, who had relaxed hair herself, wanted Nyong’o to wait until she turned 18 and truly understood the decision. But as she waited for her 18th birthday, Nyong’o “had such a rough time with being teased and feeling really unpretty.” Her dad jumped in and persuaded her mom to take Nyong’o to the stylist for a relaxer. “I felt so much better because it was easier to tame,” said Nyong’o. “All the girls in my class had their hair relaxed. Very few had natural kink, so I felt a lot more acceptable.”

She may have felt more comfortable among her classmates, but Nyong’o quickly realized that relaxed hair is “a commitment.” Between weekly styling and monthly retouching, she was spending more time (and money!) at the salon in the name of good hair.

“I remember doing crazy things, like sleeping with my head above the headboard so that my curls wouldn’t get messed up for the next day. I’d have these terrible neck aches because I was determined to keep my hair as pristine as possible,” she says.

Around 18 or 19, Nyong’o discovered her signature style, the close-cropped shave — all thanks to money problems. “I didn’t have a job or anything, so it was really my parents paying for my hair. So I was once asking for some more money to get my hair done and my dad joked, ‘Why don’t you just cut it all off?’ And a few months later, I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I?’ I went into the hair salon, and I said, ‘Let’s cut it off.'” She describes the moment as “scary but so liberating.”

She loved the new look, but her mom had a very different reaction. “It was hard to see the horror on my mother’s face. She was so disapproving, and I was so sensitive about it at the time that I started to get scared that I had done the wrong thing,” she said. Her dad, on the other hand, took two weeks to even notice the change.

Now, thanks in part to hairstylist Vernon François, Nyong’o’s hair is the longest it’s been in more than a decade. She lives by layering on products, using the LOC method: liquid, oil, then cream. “It’s the idea that you wet your hair first, then you add oil so that it can trap the moisture in, then you put a moisturizer or a cream over it,” she explains. Nyong’o has even experimented with YouTube DIYs to maintain her natural hair texture, including using “honey and rosemary water and avocado-paste conditioning.”

Braids and beads. Lupita Nyong’o dons a beautiful braided ‘do on the cover of Allure. (Photo: Patrick Demarchelier for Allure)

Nyong’o’s hair has been through relaxers, plaits, and avocado paste, but she’s learned the value in the journey. Her motto? Hair is “like clay in the right hands. Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but clay can be art in the right hands.” With Nyong’o, it’s always art.

For Nyong’o’s full story and to see more from the mag’s “Culture of Hair” issue, visit allure.com.

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