Karamo Brown is the “culture expert” on Netflix’s hit tear-jerker reality show Queer Eye, but he's really there to help people find confidence (I imagine producers thought “confidence expert” might be too cheesy-sounding; they wouldn't be wrong). In each episode, Brown is there to help the individuals work through their past issues, patiently guiding them to self-love and self-acceptance with his searching eyes and soothing baritone timbre (if his voice was a color, it’d be a liquidy, gold-flecked amber). Which is why it’s so surprising that, throughout two seasons of filming Queer Eye, Brown was secretly dealing with a self-esteem issue of his own. “As my hair started getting thinner and thinner, I started feeling more and more insecure—I started feeling more isolated,” he tells me, perched on a bench at the Terrace restaurant at the Times Square EDITION Hotel. “Even on season one and two of Queer Eye, people don’t realize I drew on my hair.” Come again? “It was all fake,” he laughs. “I drew it with an eyeliner pencil, no joke.”
It’s hard to picture the self-assured, Balenciaga sneaker-clad man sitting in front of me painstakingly drawing in hairs on his head to fit a societal definition of attractive manliness. And yet, the frankness with which he admits his own hair struggles and journey to accepting and embracing his baldness is as encouraging as it is surprising, and perhaps the first step in destigmatizing a condition that so many men start going through as early as their twenties. It’s for that exact reason that he started his new personal care line for bald men, MANTL, created in partnership with two Honest Company alum.
“Every message that I’ve been told from television, from people in my life, was, oh, you’re losing your hair, that means you’re going to be ugly, you’re not going to get the job you want. Every message was negative,” he says. “The idea of MANTL came about because I wanted to make sure that, first of all, we’re creating a community to help people’s self-esteem.” Unlike other lines targeted towards men experiencing hair loss, MANTL doesn’t promise an instant solution to magically jumpstart hair growth. Instead, it provides users with four streamlined products created to help men embrace their baldness: the Face + Scalp Cleanser, Face + Scalp Age Defying Moisturizer, Invisible Daily SPF, and No-Shine Sheets. Users can go to MANTLmen.com to purchase the four sleek products, as well as join an online community led by Karamo to encourage men (and women) to openly discuss their hair loss experiences. “We did our research and there are no companies that say to people who are balding and thinning to say, it’s okay and it’s natural,” says Brown. “So here we are. We’re the first.”
Ahead, Brown tells us about his personal journey that led to the creation of MANTL, the one thing he thinks all men should be doing for one another, and his secret technique to nurturing his mental health.
Congratulations on MANTL! This is exciting and necessary; there’s so much stigma and misinformation around baldness in today’s society. Can you tell me more about your own personal hair journey and what brought you to creating MANTL?
Brown: "I started to thin out when I was 23, 24 years old—the same age as my son is now, and he’s starting to thin out too. It happens to 30% of men in their 30s, and after men get in their 50s, it happens to 85% of men. It also happens to a ton of women. I was like, it’s happening to all of us, yet everyone is telling us that we’re all ugly and we’re wrong. Everything I’m doing with MANTL stems from, how can I affect your self esteem and make you feel better about who you are? If you can take away and have products that support you and are easy to use, you’ll start to feel more confident about yourself, you’re going to feel better, you’re going to realize you’re not alone. It’s what I wish I had. I’m creating what I wish I had."
Tell me more about penciling in your hair while filming Queer Eye.
“I penciled it in the first two seasons. [Laughs.] I shaved off my hair at the premiere because I finally got to the point where I was like, enough is enough. It was a running joke amongst the Fab Five that they would always know where I sat in the car because there would be makeup from my head on the roof of the car. And I love my brothers so much because they literally would keep this secret. None of them would try to embarrass me. At the premiere, I was like, I just helped all these people feel confident about themselves, and yet here I am with the one last thing in my life that I’m not confident about. I thought, enough is enough.”
So many men go through it and feel so helpless. It’s amazing that MANTL features products that actually take care of your head, instead of promising to make your hair grow back.
“Those products that help you grow your hair back—a lot of them have side effects, a lot of them don’t work. I know a lot of people who have paid the money and don’t see results. There’s no permanent effect. Eventually, you’re going to end up back in a place where you’re balding or thinning. I wanted to create a community where I’m like, let’s support you, and then offer this suite of products that are easy for people to use. The SPF is so great. People need SPF. All of our products work for our neck, scalp and face. It’s one and done."
I just helped all these people feel confident about themselves, and yet here I am with the one last thing in my life that I’m not confident about. I thought, enough is enough.
And what about the community aspect?
“The community on MANTLmen.com is to encourage people to talk about it. That’s really important. It’s easy to say, just feel confident about being bald. That’s not how this world works. We have never given people a place to feel confident and beautiful about how they look. I want to make sure that we can have a place where people can talk about it, no matter where you are in your journey. Whether you’re like my son right now, where he’s feeling sort of nervous, thinking, are people noticing this? Or someone like me three years ago where I literally was bald except for a couple of patches and I was painting on my hair to pretend. I want those men to know they’re not alone and supported. I really did the community as well as a call of action for women to know how to support the men in their lives. I notice when talking to all my girlfriends, when they talk about what they want in a guy, it’s ‘are you loving, are you financially supportive?’ Hair is never on that list. It’s not a dealbreaker. Most men don’t know that. They think that’s the dealbreaker. They’re putting on toupees; they're painting on their hair. That's the dealbreaker."
You’re someone who champions people to be confident in their skin, no matter what that looks like. What do you think men can do for each other to move away from the idea of toxic masculinity—that being a man means only acting and looking a certain type of way?
“I challenge men to compliment each other. A lot of it is based in this idea of, ‘I can’t express emotion, I can’t communicate what I’m feeling or thinking or going through.’ An easy way to break that down is to challenge someone to compliment someone. I do that with my homeboys all the time. Girls are always like, ‘You look amazing!’ to their friends. Guys don’t do that with each other. There’s this stigma around it. If you can challenge someone, like, hey, either I’m gonna say something nice about you, or you say something nice about me. Now you can have a conversation about something you feel insecure about. You can have a conversation about something that you’re proud of. It helps to build more confidence and community.”
One big part of going bald is the mental aspect of it—accepting that you’re losing something you’ve taken for granted your whole life. How do you take care of your mental health each day and what do you think others can do to ensure they’re in a good place mentally?
“Part of what I do everyday is I create a space in my life to sit and be quiet and feel. I don’t think a lot of people do this. It’s a physical space. I think that men try with this ‘man cave’ idea, of ‘let me lock myself away.’ But I don’t think that’s always as healthy as possible. I think it’s more important to do it in a space where you feel the most loved.
"So, for example, your family room where your kids and spouse spend time. Sit there and take a moment to reflect because there is where you’re going to look around and you’re going to appreciate that you have someone who loves you. Don’t lock yourself in a space where you’re only going to think about things that will add to the toxicity, or is filled with distractions.
Where's your safe space?
"For me, I sit around at my dining room table because family is important to me. I’m not eating in those moments; I’m just sitting there, and all of sudden, I start feeling good. I start thinking, wow, even though life might not always be perfect, I’m sitting in my home and in a couple of hours my fiancé who loves me is going to be sitting here and my kids who love me will be sitting here. And that’s a real big blessing for me and that helps me to feel good. Through thinking about them, I also think: what did I do to create that—the things that are nice in my life? I think, well, I created space for us to talk, I created space for us to have dinner. I think when men can carve out a time in a space that’s healthy to think about these things, that’s a good step to start building yourself towards more stability."
Head to MANTLmen.com to shop the four-piece collection.