August 1966 was a complicated time in the United States. Across the American landscape, leaders emerged, convictions solidified and movements progressed around highly-charged civil rights issues such as voting, education, and worker rights. It was also host to a range of less visible currents that touched the lives of African Americans.
Frances, the daughter of West Tennessee sharecroppers and devoted parents, grew up in this time of tectonic social and political shifts. She started school in the messy period of legally mandated integration and practically administered segregation. As a six-year-old, Frances stood at the heart of the long-abandoned “no man’s land” of cultural engagement between races in America.
“When I was in first grade, one thing I remember on that first day is that mother started styling my hair with a pressing comb,” she recalls. “After she pressed it for the first time I remember she said ‘Now, don’t you look pretty? People will like you more if your hair is nice and straight when you go to school.’”
Walking into the classroom with the nervousness, excitement, and curiosity felt by all six-year-olds, Frances was also aware of deep, prejudiced conceptions of race. “The girls with straightened, wavy hair were certainly sometimes treated better than girls with natural textured hair,” she remembers. It was a difficult lesson at the start of elementary school.
For the next fifty years she would keep the straightened style. Frances would experience significant damage of the heat and chemicals as well as bear the financial cost for maintaining the look that would be a fixture of her life, but her daughter Wakeema would choose another path.
Though the historical depth of the social narrative around natural hair for women of African heritage is as far reaching as it is complex, the most recent facet of that story began to take shape in the early 2010’s. It was around that time that a movement towards a broader embrace of natural textured hair began to empower a younger generation of women in subtle but significant ways.
Perhaps a small page of that latest chapter started in theatre class at Jackson Central-Merry High School in Jackson, Tennessee, when a teacher with an eye for talent and a sense of possibility introduced Wakeema Hollis to her first agent and helped grow her confidence on stage.
“As a fifteen-year-old focusing hard in school and cheerleading, Becky Fly’s theatre class was a moment in my day to both transform and be transformed,” Wakeema recalls. “It was a space to ‘try on’ the lives of the characters in the plays we practiced and add our own little touch to the image that the playwright had in mind.”
Indeed, it is this ability to seamlessly transform into and out of a character while remaining grounded in one’s own unique identity that would serve as a base for Wakeema’s magic both on the runway and on set.
Building on that first introduction to Becky’s agent, Wakeema stepped into the world of modeling. That soon took the shape of photo shoots over weekends and holidays in Memphis, Atlanta, and Miami. “Aside from the part-time modeling with brands like JCPenney, Nordstrom, Target, and Avon, those last years of high school were pretty normal,” she says.
Reflecting on that time Wakeema continues, “I did what you are supposed to do as a good student, president of the senior class and ‘girl next door’, I went to college. I knew though that my passion for that stage of my life was to pursue my early dream of high fashion.”
Finding a niche and establishing a standout image on the pages of world-renowned magazines and stages in New York, London, Paris and Milan proved difficult. The girl-next-door appeal, sense of relatability and easy familiarity that graced the aisles of local stores, it was argued, didn’t allow her to “jump” into a world driven by bold edginess.
At the end of her first semester of college, Wakeema’s agent called to tell her she was going to be dropped.
“That transition from the aisle to the runway was challenging,” she recounts. “It was the first time that I was told I wasn’t good enough. When it has to do with something as intimate as how you look, it can really affect you. So, in the same way an entrepreneur sleeps on a couch to have enough money to live or an athlete trains to make it to the pros, I cut my hair short and natural to find the unique look or ‘edge’ they said I needed to continue the career I wanted to pursue.”
In the world of professional modeling direct bookings are awarded to the holders of world-class portfolios. It is in these rare cases that the model’s portfolio from previous shoots are enough to get the job without going through a lengthy casting call or interviews. In early 2013, Wakeema found herself in the highly sought after fashion market of Cape Town, South Africa, at the southernmost stretch of the African continent. She had found her edge.
Sometimes, however, edges can cut.
“It was a direct booking for one of the most well-known women’s fashion magazines in the world,” Wakeema recalls. “As I walked in, the stylist stepped back, bluntly saying he couldn’t do anything with my hair, that it wasn’t sleek and it didn’t represent that magazine’s feel.”
Standing in that room with her natural textured hair, this was a defining moment.
“There were a lot of subtexts, but at the heart of it was an idea that natural hair is looked at as dirty or unclean, and if you wanted to be seen as sophisticated, then you need to have straight hair.”
In South Africa, the context, challenges, and history of the country where she found herself were eerily similar to that of the recovering, post-1960’s America. For Wakeema, the prejudice inherent in the stylist’s exchange had both everything and nothing to do with her hair. It was her identity, her heritage, her statement of authenticity to the world.
Over the course of her early modeling career, by opting to not treat her hair, Wakeema was establishing herself both in the fashion world but also helping lay a foundation for women of African heritage by saying that natural African hair and African women themselves are beautiful.
It was one of the first times an up-and-coming star of Wakeema’s stature had chosen and committed to that look, that path. It was also one of the first times on that path she had faced such blatant prejudice.
Walking the elite fashion runways and standing as the face of some of the world’s most recognized brands and designers including those of Marc Jacobs, Paul Smith, Yohji Yamamoto, and Ralph Lauren as well as gracing the pages of magazines such as Glamour and Essence, Wakeema has mastered the projection of an authentic beauty on the world’s stage.
In doing so, she has served as a leading face and voice for women of African heritage to have chosen to consistently commit to not chemically treating or heating her hair. As much a statement of identity and health as one of style, Wakeema’s decision to forgo chemically treating her hair was an exception among African American professional models in a time when straightened hair stood as a common standard for beauty.
Wakeema soon received a contract to be the face of one of the first mass-marketed hair products for African women to style their hair naturally without harsh treatments.
“Again, the hair was a small part of it,” she says. “In the cases of the women that would use it, it represented a little bit more ability to be who they were. It said, that it it was ‘wonderful to be you.’”
In 2014, Wakeema began pursuing a career in acting where she found early roles in Girls, Black Box, and Laura’s Mysteries.
“Going back as far as Ms. Fly’s high school theatre class, it had always been my dream to be an actor and one that my mother had always encouraged me to work towards.”
Stepping away from modeling two years ago to pursue acting full time, Wakeema has continued a confident, fast-rising career based in New York where she has most recently played a top recurring role as Monica Colby in the hit Netflix series Dynasty, as well as her role as Harriet on Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
“As I think about what has opened these opportunities, I can honestly trace it back to those people in my life such as my mother and committed teachers who gave me the space explore my skills, my identity, and my confidence,” she says.
The line between image and identity is as thin as it is often blurred. In a generation driven by the desire for authenticity and in the context of a culture laden with options for constructing both, the dollar value of “unique” and “natural” is the extent to which that authenticity can be commercially scaled. Such is the ironic interplay between the elite runways and the accessible shopping aisles; the bright production sets in New York, and the rickety high school stages; the unique and the relatable.
The idea and power of one’s natural image, or identity, is that it requires both a confidence and a courage to embrace the distinctness of oneself. In her own way, Wakeema has demonstrated both the power and beauty of her unique presence on the page and the screen. More importantly, however, she has contributed to laying a foundation of confidence for a generation of women towards a fuller, healthier embrace of themselves.
Sitting back, Frances smiles.
“You know, it’s funny. It wasn’t until I saw my daughter take a stand and go natural at the height of a high-profile, international, professional modeling career that I decided to do the same.”
In the space of social, cultural, and political healing, the cadence of progress is generational. For Wakeema and Frances, it was the strength of a young girl walking to school in the rocky era of integration in the American South that provided the foundation for a daughter half a century later to support others in the strength and beauty of natural.
A native of Jackson, Jon Mark Walls is a social entrepreneur, lecturer, and speechwriter who is driven by the idea that better communication can lead to better politics. Having worked for the United Nations as well as various governments and NGOs, he co-founded GovFaces which aimed to improve interactive communication between citizens and representatives. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jon Mark has sought to blend traditional communications approaches with new technologies and develop ways of delivering ideas across all levels of society.
Photography by Nuru Kimondo.