We speak to the boxer/model/lawyer who is known for her natural beauty and hair, both inside and outside of the ring
Ramla Ali has come a long way – physically across the world, in her sport as the first Muslim woman to win an English boxing title, and with her personal relationship with her hair. In the 90s, Ali’s family moved to the UK from Mogadishu, during the Somalian civil war and the abrupt way they fled the country means that she doesn’t even know her exact birthday.
Boxing is something Ali kind of fell into, having been bullied in school for being overweight. She discovered a boxing class in her local gym and ended up loving the sport. Her family didn’t know until her uncle found out, he was very proud after watching her compete, and slowly her whole family gave her their support. After winning the 2016 England Boxing Elite National Championships, the champion boxer, qualified lawyer, and IMG-repped model has continued to make history, appearing in Nike campaigns, on the cover of British Vogue, and is now an ambassador for UNICEF.
Many women of colour have experienced a hate-love relationship with their natural hair and Ali’s recent partnership with Pantene is helping to reinforce her own positive shift. “It wasn’t until a few years ago that hairstylists on shoots would tell me how amazing my hair was. I never really believed it until then and that’s when I started embracing and loving my hair,” she explains.
Here, we speak to Ali about her beauty and hair habits, representation in the beauty world, and supporting women who want to box.
Can you tell us about any beauty rituals you’ve had from a young age?
Ramla Ali: Both of my sisters left the family home while I was still young and I didn’t get much education in make-up or looking after my skin. Since starting boxing, I make sure I exfoliate my face after I’ve had a sparring session. People come with dirty gloves, I’m sure I’ve got dirty gloves, and when the dirt touches your face, it’s not good.
Do you have any good luck charms before competing?
Ramla Ali: One is to have my hair braided. You wear headguards and no-one can see your hair, but the moment you take it off, not braided, the hair is messy and over the place. When people take pictures, you don’t want to look back and think, ‘Oh what was I thinking’. It’s quite a masculine sport so you want to feel feminine and look like your hair is in place – that’s why I like to have it braided. I know it’s superficial and that I shouldn’t think about pictures, but these are memories you want to show your kids later in life and you want to look the best you possibly can.
What has your relationship been like with your hair?
Ramla Ali: I haven’t always loved my hair. Growing up, I’d always see women with straight hair and silky, bouncy, looks-like-water-dripping hair on telly and in magazines and adverts – that’s the hair I wanted. It wasn’t until a few years ago that hairstylists on shoots would tell me how amazing my hair was. I never really believed it until then and that’s when I started embracing and loving my hair. Now I realise I can do so many things with it, I can have it straight or curly.
How important is it to have your hair showcased?
Ramla Ali: In the past there wasn’t a huge amount of representation in TV and media, girls didn’t have hair like me or look like me, so this new Pantene partnership is amazing. Never could I have ever imagined that someone like me could be the face of Pantene and what’s particularly amazing is that the Gold Series I’m photographed with is designed for black hair with black scientists in the States. The only thing I’ve always used on my hair until now is coconut oil.
“I haven’t always loved my hair. Growing up, I’d always see women with straight hair and silky, bouncy, looks-like-water-dripping hair on telly and in magazines and adverts – that’s the hair I wanted” – Ramla Ali
What other beauty brands do you like using?
Ramla Ali: I’ve recently started using Carbon Theory, it’s cruelty-free, vegan, sustainable and really nice. I’ve been using the morning wash, toner and moisturising cream – I like the smell and it comes in little pouches. I never found concealer or foundation that matched my skin before Fenty, I felt it looked too white. So much attention has been paid to all the different colours of women out there, that’s what I really love. (The whole line is) really impressive, the lip gloss gives a bit of shimmer but more than anything it looks really natural. I love natural beauty, I don’t like to look like I’ve put too much on, I like to keep it simple.
What is ‘beauty’ to you?
Ramla Ali: You can be so beautiful when you’re confident and that’s what beauty means to me. If you’re really confident, you enter the ring and it shines, you can see it, you’re glowing. It’s that confidence that can probably destroy your opponent.
What is your relationship with social media like?
Ramla Ali: I think there’s a lot of dishonesty in social media, everything is airbrushed and plumped, it’s not a healthy image for young girls growing up, looking up to models as idols. There’s loads of pictures on my social media with no make-up, just fresh out the gym and sweaty. I want my young followers to see both sides, me being as honest as possible. Yes, I put up photos of me glammed up as well but that’s the other side. I might filter some photos, so I don’t look as tired, but I try not to filter as much as possible.
What’s the best thing about being an athlete?
Ramla Ali: The discipline. I have a law degree as well, and looking back, I don’t think I could be a lawyer. Yes, you’re disciplined in your job but might have to go on a night out, look after clients, eat bad food and fall into that trap.
What advice do you give women wanting to get into boxing now it’s become more ‘acceptable’?
Ramla Ali: Don’t be intimidated by going to a gym, and by the number of men in the gym. Do your research to make sure you go to a gym that you know has amazing coaching. Sometimes people can be put off by coaches that are too full-on, too hard on you and someone that doesn’t necessarily have the time to show you the correct techniques and skills. I don’t think there’s a specific age to start. I recently met someone who said her nine-year-old daughter wanted to be a boxer and I think that’s great.
If you weren’t a boxer, what would you do instead?
Ramla Ali: I’d probably be doing some form of long-distance running. When I started, the coach would tell me I have to run, and that’s how I started running and competing in long distances as well. My East Africa genes are built for it!
Who do you look up to?
Ramla Ali: Serena Williams. She stands up for her beliefs and she’s made me love my body, hair, and the fact that I’m different because of how she is. And of course, she’s an amazing athlete as well.
What’s next for you?
Ramla Ali: I’m an ambassador for UNICEF and they asked me to write a poem for a book called Words By (it’s out this month). I would love to continue to be involved in sport, in one way or another, even after my Olympics cycle. To remain a voice for African women in boxing and sport generally, as there isn’t enough of a voice at the moment.