The actress opens up about her struggles with her identity and how it helped her launch Pattern, the haircare brand fulfilling the unmet needs of her and her community
Welcome to Rooted, a campaign celebrating the power of black hair and the launch of ‘Tallawah’ – an exhibition by photographer Nadine Ijewere and hairstylist Jawara Wauchope. Here, we explore what the beauty of black hair is all over the globe, from Jamaica to London and New York to the screens of Nollywood films.
It’s likely that you saw Tracee Ellis Ross’s name and clicked through immediately, as, like everyone else, you’re obsessed with her very funny and very real presence on Instagram. Or, like me, have been obsessed with her since she played Joan Clayton on Girlfriends (if you haven’t watched, you need to – immediately).
However, the Tracee we’ve all come to know and love (on Instagram anyway) with her enviable curls, flawless skin, and chic fashions isn’t the Tracee that Tracee herself always knew. For Tracee, coming to love her hair has been a process, in fact, it’s a journey that has spanned decades, culminating last year with the launch of Pattern, a haircare brand specifically for the unmet needs of the curly, coily, and tight-textured hair community (read more on those terms here). “During high school, I was very aware of the fact it (my natural hair) was a societal standard I was pushing up against,” she recalls. “It felt very personal and challenging because every young teenage girl is working through that. You’re hurting, trying to fit in, and be beautiful.”
Despite being a hair icon and coming from literal hair royalty – when Tracee first came up with the idea for Pattern over a decade ago, she was told ‘no’, time and time again by investors. “I’ve been trying to do this for 10 years,” she says. “In that 10 years, my idea has gotten clearer, my language has gotten better, and I’ve gotten more evidence and information about the unmet need and the void in the industry.”
“Pattern is not just some sort of personal beauty journey, it’s an actual political journey of allowing a space to be ourselves” – Tracee Ellis Ross
To think of Pattern as just a haircare brand would be a severe undersell and Tracee’s holistic approach to the building of Pattern undoubtedly contributed to its huge success, despite launching only six months ago. Pattern’s Instagram account is a celebratory and diverse archive of beautiful black hair of all kinds – images she wishes she had grown up seeing more prominently. Elsewhere, the brand supports the black community charitably by giving back a portion of proceeds to organisations that support women and people of colour.
For Tracee, Pattern was more than a way to fulfil the unmet needs of her community, it was a way of bringing them together and celebrating them, as a political act of defiance to the discriminatory laws that are still upheld in 48 states in the US. “It’s not just some sort of personal beauty journey, it’s an actual political journey of allowing a space to be ourselves,” she explains.
Here, we speak to Tracee about the power of black hair and how Pattern is a vehicle for supporting and celebrating it.
What is your first hair memory?
Tracee Ellis Ross: Oh, God. Where to begin? I don’t know how I can narrow it down or remember it specifically as my first hair memory, but my earliest memories of my hair are really good. I have a photograph – the further you get for your child it sometimes requires a photograph to jog your memory – but I have a photograph of me on a beach at a young age. I don’t know, maybe I’m seven or something like that. My hair is just kind of after a swim and has dried in the wind. Probably it’s got a lot of saltwater in it. But it’s free-floating. Defying gravity.
I feel like the majority of my adult life has been me trying to get back to it. The sort of challenging portion of my relationship with my hair started later for me. They’re not the early stories. They were more about being a teenager and matching myself up to the images that I saw around me and feeling like I didn’t fit into the idea of what was considered ‘beautiful’. My hair would do what I thought it needed to do. Those were the years that started to get challenging for me and that gave birth to my kind of revolutionary idea of looking for a space for my own beauty and where the initial unconscious seeds of what gave birth to Pattern were planted.
I read that you were thinking about it as early as high school.
Tracee Ellis Ross: What started for me was, I don’t think initially in high school, I was thinking: ‘Oh, I want to make a line of hair products.’ But what I did think was: ‘Why are there no hair products?’ I could go on about my laborious hunt that went on for many, many years, but during the school years I was in the dark trenches of trying to sort my hair out, make sense of it, and gain a relationship with it.
I had a very contentious relationship with my hair because I couldn’t find products that supported it. My hair was extremely damaged from trying to beat it into submission – from hair relaxers and getting my hair blown out, to putting a blow dryer and hot comb, all the different things that people of colour end up having to try in order to manipulate their hair into what society says it should look like.
What were some of the things you tried using on your hair to tame it?
Tracee Ellis Ross: I was trying different things, I put beer in my hair. I had an Italian friend who had big, huge, glorious curls. She would wash her hair, wet them, and then pour a can of beer in her hair. And it would make the curl. So I tried that. But that was the beginning of me discovering how my hair did not like alcohol. Maybe for the first couple of hours because they would curl, but if you do that for a month it will be dried to a pulp. I’ve tried all of it. I tried ironing my hair with an actual clothing iron. Many, many things that all of us try and do. And then I started to educate myself both about what worked on my hair and what didn’t.
“I was trying different things, I put beer in my hair. I tried ironing my hair with an actual clothing iron. I’ve tried all of it. Then, I started to educate myself both about what worked on my hair and what didn’t” – Tracee Elliss Ross
What kind of impact did the lack of products suitable for your hair have on you?
Tracee Ellis Ross: It was the beginning of me thinking: ‘Oh my God, why does this product not exist? Why is it so hard?’ Then by the time I had nursed my hair back to health, I was extremely protective of it. When I started acting professionally I wouldn’t let anyone touch it and I did my hair myself. In Girlfriends, for most of the first two seasons, I didn’t let hair people touch my hair for me
How did that then move on to you coming up with Pattern?
Tracee Ellis Ross: It was right after Girlfriends that I wrote my first haircare brand pitch. During Girlfriends I had gone to a hair salon in Los Angeles that has all the beauty supply and professional beauty supply and then in the back they have a salon. I was shopping for products and the hairdresser came out and he said: ‘Oh my God, you have no idea how many people come in here with pictures of you to make their hair look like yours’. He said the only way to get it is for me to sell it. And I didn’t think it was true. I thought people just needed the right products so that their hair is supported. And he was like: ‘Well girl, let me tell you something. If you make products, hair products, you would be a millionaire’.
That was how the first seed was planted. It wasn’t that I thought, you are right and I should do that. It wasn’t like the next day I turned into a haircare brand, it was another four or five years. But it did dawn on me that this was not my own personal struggle and that there were more people than just met looking for these things. It was a void in the market in terms of understanding what it actually takes to have healthy and great hair if you are curly, coily, or tight-textured. So, that was the beginning.
You were met with lots of resistance at first and told you needed to find a professional as you didn’t have enough of an expert voice. How did that make you feel?
Tracee Ellis Ross: I was met with a lot of resistance. The response was: ‘Why you? You’re some actress and there’s a ton of hair products. Why would anybody want your product?’ I didn’t have a good enough answer. I knew what it was inside of me, but I didn’t have the language yet. It made me cry. It was very upsetting.
Women of colour have become their own experts because we’ve been forced into a beauty industry that didn’t offer products and choices and a world that wasn’t showing publicly numerous choices of how to care for our hair. But that resistance is also what forced me to get clear and to get more passionate about what I wanted to do. To continue to gather information so I could be really specific about what and why I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
What is the mission of Pattern?
Tracee Ellis Ross: There are two missions within my company. One is to create effective non-toxic products and end the unmet beauty needs of the curly, coily, and tight-textured community. The other is to create a paradigm shift around how we as a community are marketed to and giving us another place to see ourselves in our natural, authentic beauty as gravity defying, powerful, gorgeous head of hair that are worthy of celebration and joy.
Pattern is a space for self-love and joy within the beauty industry. So the feedback that is both the products are great and that they’re working. I love watching all of the social media responses. I get videos and feedback about how someone’s daughter or son looks at their hair, the texture and pattern. I’m so moved because I wish I had seen more images like this and had conversations about what I was experiencing with my hair outside of just my family. I wish it was on the wallpaper of our lives. I knew where I fit and knew all of the different possibilities and beauty of what I authentically had growing out of my head.
It’s more than just creating products, it’s about supporting a community in a way that isn’t political, but actually almost is.
Tracee Ellis Ross: It is political. I think looking at it as politics and law, there are ways for us to be safe in being who we are. Space for us to celebrate who we are and have choices about who we are. So in that sense, it is. A world that hasn’t made space for it. I haven’t quite found the right language around mapping out it, but it is there.
There’s also a charitable aspect of Pattern. Why was it important for you to have that from the launch?
Tracee Ellis Ross: The sense of community. I really believe in service and the interconnectedness of the human experience. I also believe in supporting, giving back, and making space for all of us to feel safe and like there is a space for us in the world. This is also the community that I’m part of and mirrored back my own beauty. It’s a way of paying respect and homage to the community that helped me to feel good in my own skin. I feel like it’s a part of the process to interconnect those things.
“Pattern is a space for self-love and joy within the beauty industry. Space for us to celebrate who we are and have choices about who we are” – Tracee Ellis Ross
Do you have a favourite Pattern product?
Tracee Ellis Ross: The leave-in conditioner is my favourite product. It’s hard to say though because I can’t live without the others. The fun part for me was clearing my shower and all the other products that I was buying for all the years. Now, it’s literally just Pattern and my liquid soap in the shower and my scrub brush – that’s what in there. It’s so exciting for a woman who likes a clean counter; my shower is pristine.
The immediate response to Pattern has been incredible and it has grown so much already in such a short time. How does it feel after you’ve been working on it for so long to finally have it out there?
Tracee Ellis Ross: It’s the most gratifying thing ever. I have experienced it in a small way as an actress, creating something and wanting people to respond. But this was so different. This was a life dream 10 years in the making and also something that I have such a personal connection to. I really spent time making sure that these products are not just about me, but about a community of people like me in terms of hair.
What are your plans to continue growing Pattern in the future?
Tracee Ellis Ross: We’re working on phase two, which I believe will be launched in June. And will slowly roll out all of the many, many facets of the many, many things that will support the curly, coily and tight textured hair. Yes, I’m excited. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but we definitely will be moving into more styling. The long-term dream for Pattern is that it becomes a full-fledged beauty brand that supports authentic beauty, self-love, and joy in our experience and how we care for our whole selves.
For anybody out there who is using an iron or their hair or beer and struggling with their identity and celebrating it, what kind of advice would you give them?
Tracee Ellis Ross: First of all, I am not opposed to iron, beer, wig... anything. They’re all choices. The only suggestion that I would offer people, is inform yourself and be your own start from the seed of finding your own self-love and connecting to the beauty of what you and who you authentically are, what is authentically growing out of your head. Even if your choice is to wear wigs, make sure that you are caring for your scalp and your hair and offering it the love and support that it needs, even if it’s only in the privacy of your home.
Seek out a community of people that mirrors back to you the truth of your beauty and that offers you suggestions and tools that make you feel good about your beauty and who you are. To me, your beauty is who you are. It’s not a thing that over there. It’s a thing that is yours that you already have. So seek out a community of people and imagery that actually supports you. I’m really mindful about who I follow on Instagram and what images I look at because they make me feel good about myself. Go where the love is.