Karyn Parsons

Karyn Parsons, loving being natural

If you're a '90s kid like me, then you vividly remember the gorgeous and fashionable Hilary Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I loved her care free curls and always assumed she was natural. I recently reached out to her and was surprised by her reaction - she wanted to know "Why me?" I explained that she's among the idols in our online natural hair world and that we'd love to hear her story and learn about her routine. She laughed and to my surprise disclosed that her curls were texturized up until last summer! She's a new natural and had a lot to share:

CurlyNikki: Tell us your hair story...

Karyn Parsons: As a kid, I pretty much had an afro. My hair was natural, long, and curly. I got it straightened occasionally, but not regularly like many of my friends. I had a girlfriend who every Saturday would be sitting on top of the yellow pages getting her hair done. That so wasn’t me. My mom wasn’t really one for that. I do, however, remember her cutting it all off at one point—out of sheer frustration because I was so tender headed. Everything was ‘ouch, ouch, ouch’, so I couldn’t really blame her. [Laughter]

Growing up in Santa Monica was great—it was a very relaxed beach community where everyone was chill and generally accepting of curly hair. I was a laid-back beach kid and my hair totally suited my personality. It got a little trickier as I got older… I was trying to find myself, find my look, and of course figure out my hair. This is about the time that I decided to get into acting. When I began looking for work, I think I leaned a little bit on the fact that I was suppose to have ‘neat’ hair. I wanted a mo-hawk [Laughter], but knew it would be unacceptable. I also came to the conclusion that my highly textured hair was unacceptable. I kind of let the unwritten rules of showbiz lead my life. When I landed the role of Hillary on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I decided to get a texturizer.

CN: I had no idea you were texturized on the show! Your hair was gorgeous and bouncy, I just assumed it was your natural texture.

KP: Thank you! I’ve always loved curls. I’ve never really cared much for how I look with straightened hair, and I certainly couldn’t keep it up to save my life. I like to get my hair wet, work out and sweat, and I’m not one for rolling and wrapping it every night. I’m a real low maintenance person in that regard, plus, straight hair never looked good on me anyway. I kept it curly and used the texturizer because it defined the curl, reduced frizz, and made it easier for me to manage.

On the show, literally everyday, they’d want to ‘tidy up’ my hair with a small curling iron. They’d say, ‘just a few curls,’ but it would turn into my whole head. By the last season, my hair was breaking off. A texturizer plus heat equals no-go.

This was around the time I was first introduced to extensions. Not a weave, but little individual extensions throughout my hair. I got those as a way of kinda filing it out because it was breaking, damaged, and thinning fast. The last time I sat down in the chair to have extensions installed, the stylist tied them wrong and they broke my hair like crazy. Total bummer. I was done with that.

Karyn Parsons

Seeing other gorgeous naturals inspired her

My hair was not surviving show biz… it just wasn’t having it, so at the suggestion of many colleagues, I got a weave. The weave situation didn’t do well for me because it itched and drove me nuts. I’d be sitting in restaurants looking over at knives thinking, that would feel really good right now. Looking for sharp pointy objects to scratch my scalp [Laughter]. It was hard because I like to work out and I sweat a lot. My roots were puffy under the tracks and itched like mad. Finally, at some point toward the end of the show and during the filming of Major Payne, they started putting wigs on me. They of course could never get those right either. But I was like, ‘you can’t fry my hair everyday! I won’t have any hair left!’ It was the last and most obvious option. I remember Nia Long taking me out wig shopping, to no avail.

Once I stopped doing the show and I was back on my own. I still continued the texturizing thing. And when I had my kids, I became even more relaxed about my hair. I wasn’t acting as much and I wasn’t thinking about anything but my family.

CN: Trust me, I understand. My hair has taken a total backseat to my new, chunky- cheeked obligation!

KP: In my opinion, my hair never (in any condition) looked that great. I had a couple of instances where I felt good about my hair, but in retrospect, I can see that now, it is so much fuller and healthier. The texturizer, the heat, the tracks… it was all taking a toll. But at the time, my gauge of what was healthy was still within the confines of being treated with chemicals.

CN: So when did you decide to go natural? Did you transition or Big Chop? What was your ‘aha moment’ or turning point?

KP: I decided to go for it last summer. The summer of 2010. I had a hairdresser that was trying to get me to agree to a Brazilian Keratin Treatment. All I could think was, ‘What happens if I don’t like it, or can’t get my hair curly again? What if it doesn’t look good on me?’ He was really pushing for it, and I was nervous and leery. I ended up not doing it and actually went in the total opposite direction. I began doing my own research, and came across your site and others.

The turning point came when I saw a girl working at the café near my house. Her natural hair was gorgeous, healthy, and so vibrant. It wasn’t long, and her cropped cut really complimented her face. I was like, ‘your hair!’ and she responded, ‘your hair!’ And I was like, ‘no, no, no. Your hair!’ I had on a cap, but she was going on and on about my Fresh Prince hair. I complimented her and told her how beautiful her hair was and how it looked so alive. That encounter really stuck with me. My meeting her was a big part of my decision to embrace my natural hair. There is nothing like seeing a pretty, healthy head of hair in person. Style wise, I felt like if my hair was like that, I wouldn’t feel so limited in my options.

So, yeah, I started browsing through sites. But it wasn’t until recently when I got on Twitter, and started seeing all the pictures of gorgeous naturals, that I hit pay dirt. It kept me inspired and going and faithful that I was on the right track. It also was a constant reminder that at some point, I too would be comfortable with my natural texture. I’m so glad there is a support system out there.

Unlike some, I’ve always wanted big, wild, and curly hair, which is why people probably thought I was natural. I was using the texturizer as an excuse-- thinking my natural hair would be difficult to manage, hard to detangle, and constantly knot up. I was so wrong.

Karyn Parsons

Karyn Parsons as Hilary Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

CN: How did you feel when you first chopped?

KP: I had a moment when I felt like ‘I’m gonna have to get some texturizer up in here’ because it was so frizzy and my hair couldn’t find a curl. It was totally different from my texturized hair and I was feeling a bit discouraged and a little insecure. I honestly felt that I couldn’t do it. But I stuck with it and enjoyed some good hair days. My girlfriend was a source of support too, she told me my hair looked 'happy', and that felt good. My hair likes this so much better. I have happy hair!

CN: What is your current routine?

KP: When I was still texturized, I’d moisturize and braid it every night in order to wear a defined braid-out the next day. That’s something I’d like to get back to- moisturizing, braiding, and tying it up- but my life is different now. With the kids, it’s been really hard for me when it comes to bedtime... I just pass out!

Right now, if my hair gets wet, it gets conditioned. I’m not a shampoo’er. My hair rarely ever gets suds, but it does get wet just about everyday. When I’m working out regularly, I have to shower and rinse my hair. I condition my hair every time I do that… sometimes a deeper conditioner, sometimes lighter.

During a wash session, I wet it, condition it, and finger detangle. If I have the time, I do try to keep the conditioner in for a while and put on a plastic cap for a deep treatment. I own a heat cap, but haven’t pulled it out in over a year! Kids. I then rinse and put in a leave-in conditioner. I like Mixed Chicks or Miss Jessies. Mixed Chicks is lighter and Miss Jessie’s is a little oilier (Curly Buttercreme). But I like them both for different reasons. I do my best to listen to my hair, giving it richer, heavier creams when the situation calls for it. If I can avoid a dryer, I do, and try to air dry. But unfortunately I find myself very often diffusing it. That’s about it!

I try to sleep on satin pillowcase and there is a huge difference when I don’t. I don’t do anything like wrapping or braiding it, but like I said earlier, I'd love to start that again. It’s been easy because of the shorter length, but now that it’s growing out, I need to develop a more stable night routine. Sometimes I’ll rub an oil in it (rosemary) especially on the scalp and ends, but that’s only if I’m thinking about it, and thanks to the kids, usually I’m not.

CN: What would you tell a woman who has yet to embrace her natural hair?

KP: For me, I’d say if you’re thinking about it, go there! And definitely before you do it, go online and look at pictures and testimonies of people like crazy! That helps a lot. You’ll become inspired when you see so many people that look like you, or have hair like yours. I think we often find ourselves saying, ‘well that looks good, but I don’t have that kind of hair... my hair is not like that', or whatever. But the bottom line is, highly textured hair, of all types, is beautiful!

I think a lot of people assume that because I am bi-racial, I have a looser curl, but that is not the case. I have a very tight, kinky curl. So I think as you go and take a look and see more and more people who have hair that looks like yours and see people with similar face shapes rocking flattering cuts, you’ll become so excited. I’d look at pictures, print them out, and pin them up for inspiration—looking at the person’s texture, their style… man, I just got more and more excited. I like a fro, I really like it. I love my fro! It’s taken me a while to realize that. I'm just happy that I'm finally there.

Karyn Parsons

Karyn Parsons looked to the internet for pictures of curlies for inspiration

I have to say, I advocate sticking with it for at least like 6 months (once you chop or transition). After 5 months, even with the negative feelings I’d been battling with, I knew that I wasn’t going back. I was like, ‘are you kidding me, this is me. I’m never going back.’ The first few months I was like 'oh God, I made a mistake!’ So it’s a process like you said, and I’d really like to reinforce that with people. I had heard people say that before, but I didn’t believe them. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. So when I started having my doubts and negative feelings, I told myself, ‘my hair is different… my situation is different,’ feeling like I was the first to go through this. But I was wrong.

CN: Tell me about your current projects.

KP: I’m very excited about my non-profit organization SweetBlackberry.org. I started it a few years ago and focused our mission on bringing little known stories of African American achievement to kids, in the form of light animation. We share the stories that risk being lost. There is little emphasis on the fact that Black people helped build this country. I want to inspire children because the obstacles our ancestors overcame were unbelievable. I also want to help and foster a sense of unity and help children to realize that we’re all much more alike than we are different. I want to show them how we’re all in this together and that we helped forge this place and this culture.

The first story was about Henry Box Brown- the slave that literally mailed himself to freedom in a box. I had never heard of it, but my mom is a librarian and she would call me with random stories, and this one stuck out. It was the impetuous for the whole thing. We’re on Twitter and Facebook now and have a lot of stuff in store. Please check us out!

CN: Any final words for the CN community?

KP: I'm just so thrilled that there is such a supportive community out there. Thanks for offering that!