"Allow Yourself to Take Up Space": Tracee Ellis Ross Tells Us Her Hair Journey

Updated 09/12/19
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Tracee Ellis Ross and I may not have a lot in common—she’s a Golden Globe winner, the daughter of Diana Ross, and style icon to many; I’m a journalist sent to interview her about her new haircare line, Pattern—but at the moment, we’re both sweating profusely. It’s an unnaturally hot September day in New York and of course, the air conditioning has stopped working in the airy, $40,000-a-month loft space chosen as the spot of our meeting. Ross, who arrives in a cinched gray pantsuit (“It’s actually a ‘shortsuit,’ because, look, they’re shorts!" she exclaims, gesturing to her cropped bottoms), seems unperturbed by the increasingly sauna-like condition of our meeting spot. In fact, I’d say she’s positively beaming.

“Is that Pat McGrath on your eyes? I love it!” she declares, kindly overlooking the fact there are visible beads of sweat dripping down my face. (For the record, I am, indeed, wearing Pat McGrath.) We agree it makes sense to shoot the Polaroids before our interview to avoid further accumulation of shine/sweat, and Ross gamely hops in front of the camera, smiling jubilantly in one shot, grabbing her curls in another. Her makeup artist Matin stands by to offer touch-ups in-between shots, but it’s Ross herself who pulls off the ultimate beauty hack by grabbing a Dyson hairdryer and aiming it at her chest to cool off. “It is hot,” she laughs, finally acknowledging the heat. “Here, you need some of this too.” She points the dryer at the photographer, giving her a shot of cool air.

Ross is not acting like someone who’s been awake since 4 a.m., even though she has (she shot a segment on Good Morning America earlier that day). Ross is also not reacting to our current sweaty situation like I’d imagine most celebrities would (as in, displaying even the slightest twinge of visible annoyance). Rather, she’s radiating warmth (beyond just the literal sense) and exuding a joy-filled wonder you might expect to see from someone who had just given birth—and in a way, she has. “I’ve been dreaming of launching a haircare line for so long, because there is a community of extraordinary people—a big, bold, stunning community—that has unmet beauty needs that have not been addressed, not been serviced, not been understood, not been cared for, not been celebrated,” she says of her 10-years-in-the-making haircare line, Pattern. “Moving my attention to an area that people don’t know of me and that was new for me, as a CEO and founder—everything from packaging and the creative vision and all that kind of stuff to the formulas—I feel a little weepy about that part.”  

Tracee Ellis Ross
Emily Soto

Pattern, which launched on PatternBeauty.com yesterday and will be available in Ulta beginning 9/22, is a tightly-curated collection of conditioners, leave-in products and a shampoo, all specifically created for 3b to 4c curl types with Ross’s personal touch seen clearly throughout. The conditioners, for example, come in a larger size than the shampoo (“It’s for me and the rest of the community of people that don’t use a quarter-size amount”), the trial-sized products are easily refillable, and the plastic used for both the caps and tubes are the same, so you can recycle without removing the top. “These are all the things that I kept mentioning over and over again that ended up coming to fruition that, again, as the CEO and founder, makes my heart feel so happy,” says Ross, who refers to herself as an “eco-friendly curly.” As someone who has played multi-dimensional, well-loved roles for over two decades (see: Joan on Girlfriends and now Bow on Blackish), Ross has used her influence to actively promote representation, dispel the notion that empowered womanhood is reliant on marriage or mothering, and serve as the living embodiment of a modern woman living, breathing, and guiding the way in the 2019. And the rest of us are here, just waiting for her to point the hairdryer on us when the right moment arrives. Keep scrolling to learn more about Pattern and read Tracee Ellis Ross’s hair journey in her own words. 

On the natural hair “movement” 

“It’s not that the natural hair movement is such a new thing; it’s that the world is paying attention in a new way. This is a community I have been a part of my entire life as a natural-hair girl, and I’m so happy to not only offer and bring these products, but also to share the light of this community with the world.”

On her own hair journey

 “It’s really interesting, because I think the general public has taken notice in the last couple of years because a revolution has been occurring, but Girlfriends was on twenty years ago almost. We didn’t have social media during Girlfriends, and I wore my hair naturally curly. It was right when Girlfriends finished that I wrote my first pitch for a haircare line in 2008. It’s taken me ten years to get this to happen, and truthfully, I’ve been logging hours in the trenches of my hair, and becoming my own experimental expert, like many of us, for the last 20 years.

As a kid, I relaxed my hair, I went and got blowouts every Saturday at a salon, I tied my hair so tight into a ponytail trying to make it straight and slick like everybody else—trying to make it look bouncin’ and breezin’ and ‘easy breezy’ like all the commercials said. There was a black hair salon called Joseph’s that was four blocks from us. We would go every Saturday. Even though in my family I had examples of many women who wore their hair in its natural form, and it was around in our world and community, I was a teenager—so, I’m not looking to my mom for what’s cool. I’m looking to magazines, and music, and television. There were so few examples. I could count on my hand. I remember Rae Dawn Chong, Neneh Cherry, Lisa Bonet, Lisa Nicole Carson, Cree Summer…there were a handful of women that I saw, but it wasn’t a general thing, so I did all the things I thought I was supposed to do to try and make my hair cool, make me loveable, make me pretty, make me likeable by guys—the whole thing. So, when I started the journey of understanding and loving my hair and my curls, it was a process.

Tracee Ellis Ross
 Emily Soto

On deciding to go natural

“I lived in Europe for 8th and 9th grade, and then in 10th grade, I came home to the States, and I stopped relaxing my hair. From that point on until I was like 27, I went on this journey of trying to understand, get to know, and make sense of my hair. I tried every product in the world. Between the sports, and sweating, and the amount of showering that I was doing, not living near a salon, and the convenience….It wasn’t like, I was like, ‘I’m going to do a big chop.’ It just kind of started. Then I started figuring out how to do my hair quickly, because between running track and having to wake up at five in the morning to do my homework, there wasn’t time to be getting blowouts and worrying about my hair, which, honestly, is the same thing now. Wearing my hair naturally, I have complete freedom. I work out, I can swim…I have freedom to wear it. I’m not locked down to the blow out.

On figuring out her hair routine

"I had access to my mom’s pocketbook, and I was able to go try every product, to which my mother responded, ‘Little girl, I don’t know if you think money grows on trees in my backyard, but I haven’t seen it, and I do not work this hard for you to spend all my money on hair products.’ She was like, ‘There is shampoo in the shower. You can use that.’ I was like, ‘Mom, this is my hair!” I tried everything.

In that journey and during that time, something that was really cool was that I really started to determine, like, this product works for this reason, this one does this, if I go to this it does this, if I mix this, this is what happens. I really started to dive in on all that stuff. Then, in the last ten years, I’ve been able to take my knowledge of my hair, and look at everybody else in the community and the landscape that’s out here, and what we’re all struggling with, what we’re all looking for, what we’re all wanting, and the things that we’re all doing.

On how Pattern almost didn’t come to be

 “There were a lot of attempts that didn’t occur. One of my favorite ones is that I had a manager who I gave the haircare pitch to that I had already written, like, three years before I met her and she was like, ‘This is amazing…we should do a line of wigs!’ [Laughs.] I swear to God, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think you got it.’ She was like, ‘People want your hair.’ I was like, ‘I don’t want people to want my hair, I want people to have healthy, nourished hair on their heads!’”

Tracee Ellis Ross
 Emily Soto

On the #1 game-changing hair tip she’s learned

“For me, the game-changer is the shower brush. I’ll be honest. I know it doesn’t necessarily work for everybody, but I really do suggest that people try it. I come from the old-school myth growing up where they were like, ‘Never brush or comb your hair when it’s wet; only do it when it’s dry.’ It’s the opposite for me. When I brush my hair when it’s dry, it breaks. There’s a lot of breakage I see across my countertop.

I lose so much less hair when I use the shower brush combined with a really good conditioner that has good slip. That’s when my curls are developed. In the shower, I can tell from that water moment—in the shower with those two things—if I’m going to have a good curl day.”

On her mom’s reaction to the Pattern

“She’s so supportive. I keep reading everybody all of my mom’s texts, because they’ve been so sweet. She just keeps checking in. She’s like, ‘What’s the plan today? What are you doing today? Who’s with you? How are you wearing your hair?’ I think she’s in love with the packaging. I think her favorite thing so far, number one, is that a dream she knows I’ve had for so long has come to fruition. She loves the smell. I wanted it to smell fresh. The conditioner and everything else has a powdery-fresh scent…it’s not floral, and it’s subtle. It smells clean and pretty. Eh, pretty isn’t the word. How do you describe a smell? That’s so interesting. I mean it’s fresh and powdery. I don’t know. I love the smell. I LOVE the smell.”

On her skincare secret

“I’m 46, so I take a lot of care. I’ll tell you the biggest thing: I really work on getting my sleep. I’m really diligent about not eating sugar and drinking alcohol, especially when I’m on camera, and I drink so much water that it’s absurd. Those are the things. Yes, I use wonderful products, but those things—sleep, minimal or no sugar, and water….that’s the secret.”

On new chapters

“You know, I’ll be honest. The story of Pattern is the story I’ve been telling through all the women I have portrayed, and the humanity I’ve been really conscious and clear about sharing with the world through my work and my platform: embrace your pattern, embrace your true self. Love it, nourish it, and it will serve you. You can defy gravity. I feel like Bow on Black-Ish is that. Take up space. Be who you are. I think that’s so much of what Pattern is about. Allow yourself to take up the space that you take up. If you love and nourish those parts of yourself, they will give back to you. I feel like all my characters, the women that I play, exemplify that. It’s really important to me that we’re whole beings, and this is an extension of that, as you said—another chapter of the same story.”

Shop Pattern products at ThePattern.com and at Ulta.com on 9/22.  

Photographer: Emily Soto

 

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