Tanika Ray

"I embraced the poof." - Tanika Ray

Tanika Ray, TV host and pop culture specialist extraordinaire, is On the Couch! She dishes on how she came to discover her curls, her different "hair phases," and how she's wearing her hair today.

CN: Your hair is stunning! Have you always been a curly girl?

TR: As a kid, I would wash and go—I think because I grew up in Los Angeles. The only pressure to get a perm was from my mother, who was from Ohio. Other than that, I was in the pool almost every other day so it didn’t make sense to spend much time on my hair. That’s actually where all of my dreams kind of came to life. [Laughter] It was like this little magical world under there, and I felt like the Little Mermaid, or Diana Ross! I used to love swimming, and my hair was really, really long, I mean I was probably sitting on it at the time, and I loved to get it wet, and feel it move with the water.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Diana Ross on television. I was like, "Oh my gosh, that’s what I look like!" I embraced the poof and I embraced the largeness of it all. I think that’s when I discovered the power of my hair.

CN: That's so cool! For me, when I saw her daughter Tracee, I wanted her hair, which definitely inspired me to start experimenting with my curls.

TR: What’s funny is that when I was young, I never knew my hair was curly. My mom doesn’t have the same hair that I have. My dad’s hair is very straight, and my mom has very coarse hair. So the combination of the two made my hair. My mom was old school and only knew that when you get out of the shower, you comb or brush your hair. She never knew that that would disrupt the curl pattern. So for a long time I didn’t even know I had curly hair, until I was a preteen and took control over my locks. I got really lazy one day and didn’t do anything to it and was like, are those curls? Wow, that’s kinda cool. And realized the magic of NEVER EVER brushing your hair outside of the shower.

When I started high school, I remember my hairstylist, who had been trimming and conditioning my hair since I was 3, said, "You know, your edges are a little rough. How about we start a little mild relaxer on your edges, just the new growth?" I allowed her to do it, but after a while, of course, my whole head was permed, because new growth becomes your length as it grows out. My hair didn’t curl up as much as it used to, but I was okay with it because it was actually a little easier to manage. It was straight with a slight wave and I rocked it like that for a while. So much so that folks thought my hair was naturally straight. I had a lot of people in my head at the time. They would say things like, "It’s so pretty straight," or "I like it better that way"... you know all the pressures you get from people who are conditioned that black women should wear their hair a certain way.

Tanika Ray

"Big and curly... this is me!" - Tanika Ray

So I did that for a while—I even went to college that way. And then I got sick of putting chemicals on my head. But I did want to experiment with color. And I knew with my type of hair, perm and color was a dangerous combination. It wasn’t worth me having hair break off, or me living in the hair salon to keep it conditioned. It’s not my favorite place to be. I’m going to be perfectly honest, I feel like there’s another way to spend 8 hours of your day than sitting in the hair salon. And this hair salon was social central. She would do 3 people at once, so you’d sit, and you’d talk, and it was your whole Saturday! I loved being outside, I wanted to do things, I wanted to go see my boyfriend... whatever it was, I didn’t want to be stuck in the hair salon all day. So I had to pick one or the other. And I picked hair color over perming.

CN: Did you transition out of the relaxer, or big chop?

TR: I went through a transition where I was kind of sick of the hair thing. Everybody else was like "your hair is so pretty," "so long," it became everybody else’s thing, versus mine. It became the thing that everyone wanted to talk about except for me. It became the thing that everybody put so much pressure on me about, and at the end of the day, I was like, it’s just hair. I realized that I had to take my hair power back... reclaim it. So I chopped it all off. I don’t know if you’ve ever been short before, but there is nothing like a woman finding her beauty, her self-esteem, and her sexuality, sans hair, and I loved it. It was powerful.

I cut it to like about an inch and a half, and rocked a really short 'do for a while… for nearly 8 years. I've always been interested in hairstyles that I could visualize and clearly describe but according to hairstylists are a little tricky to execute. I went to all the top black salons in L.A. and said, "I want a short, cute, rock 'n roll, spiky ‘do." Most of all, I wanted it be low maintenance. Can you believe I was turned away?! Every hair salon was like, "No, no, you gotta get a perm, gotta do this, gotta blow dry it, gotta use a curling iron." It seemed so daunting, and I all I wanted was a cute, spiky ‘do—I wanted to wash, let it get spiky, and go. I wanted to be like 30 seconds, in and out of my bathroom. So I finally succumbed, and returned to the relaxer, thinking it would be easier. And let me tell you, I hated it! Hated it, hated it, hated it! It was so stringy and thin. The perm was too strong, and proved too much for my poor strands. I actually shared this on the "Today Show." We were talking about worst hair styles, and that was the picture I showed—with my hair short, really, really straight, and spiky. On top of it damaging my hair, it still was too much work, and wasn’t the easy wash and wear style I was hoping for. It was time to move on.

CN: So you decided to stop perming and grow it out?

TR: I’m a curly girl, I know this... I always knew this. It just sucked that once I was out of the short, straight hair phase, that I had to wait for my hair to grow back out. I wanted to just snap my fingers and have my curls back. But you have to be willing to be patient enough to go through a year and a half of bad hair days, and just embrace it and work with what you have. And eventually, it will evolve into something beautiful! Big and curly... this is me! And luckily as the perm grew out, my curls came back in. And that’s the hair that you saw me on "Extra" with.

Tanika Ray

Tanika Ray with a blow-out

Then I found the right person to cut it. A Japanese phenom who is really great with razor cuts. My other stylist was about maintenance. So she would trim the ends, and he would cut it for the shape. He kept it choppy, no two strands were the same length, and it worked wonders. That is the only way to rock your fro—disheveled, asymmetrical, and choppy! I’m no "perfect fro" girl. His cuts changed my life! So fierce!

I rocked my hair like this for 6-7 years and I loved it. It got blonder and blonder and at some point, I got bored, even though I got so much love, especially from the sistas, which was so unexpected, and so appreciated. It was an amazing hair style, but you just can’t keep doing the same thing over and over. I was ready to grow my hair out, and that’s what I did! And maybe I’ll go back to that style one day.

CN: How do you feel about the natural hair movement?

TR: I love that so many people are experimenting with their natural hair because they’ve seen me on a television show, or Kim Coles, who I love and who just went natural, or any of the other natural hair celebs. I love that we’re inspiring each other to go outside of the box and know that you can look beautiful and at your best, without listening to the masses saying you have to be or look a certain way. So the natural hair movement thrills me to no end—we are empowering each other, rooting each other on and celebrating the results.

CN: How are you wearing your hair today?

TR: These days I'm wet-setting my hair. I'm working on a couple of projects and wanted versatility. I love embracing a more glam look but refuse to use heat in the form of curling irons and blow dryers if at all possible. I'm frequenting Dominican Hair salons. They have mastered the wet-set and my hair is looking awesome, awesome awesome!!!! It seems that wet-setting my hair is the healthiest way to preserve my hair color and health. I'm so excited to hear what the viewers will have to say about my hair when the shows air. Stay tuned! All I can say is that I'm having a total blast with my new projects and I can't wait for everyone to see them and my hair!

CN: Tell me how you style your hair when you’re not working?

TR: I wash and go as often as I can. If I’m not working, I am "hair in a bun." I’m talking right out of the shower, put a little product in it, Moroccanoil, Aveda Be Curly, roll it up in a bun to generate those curls, and put it on top of my head and go. That’s kind of my everyday look. And it can be chic from time to time, with the right earrings and lip gloss! [Laughter]. In the winter, I love letting my hair dry this way. Sometimes I’ll wash my hair the night before and sleep with my hair in the high bun, and in the morning when I let it down, it’s gorgeous. This technique works for me because it straightens the back and the sides so that the curls hang a little looser. It’s little tips like this that I’ve picked up along the way that really help. For the most part if I’m not working, I am curly wash and go. I’m talking the easiest possible process ever.

CN: I heard you say you like Moroccanoil and Aveda Be Curly. Any other must-haves?

TR: Another must have is Living Proof. It seems to lock in the curl and keep the frizz down. I really like it. It’s not too expensive, so you can experiment with it. I recommend everyone try it at least once. Which reminds me—us curly girls, we’re all so different. What works for some doesn’t work for all. No two curlies are alike! And it's so funny, when we see each other, even complete strangers will touch each others' hair and share product tips. It's an easy conversation that will perk up our day!

Follow Tanika Ray on Twitter @tanikaray.