Taraji P. Henson has been a major movie and TV star for more than 20 years. She has played strong roles in movies and on TV, like NASA scientist Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures” and Cookie Lyon on Fox’s “Empire.” The Oscar winner takes great care to keep his hair in good shape. TPH by Taraji, her new line of hair care items, came out in January at Target. There are items for all kinds of hair in the range.

The actress, author, businesswoman, and hair expert told us about shooting wet scenes in her college dorm room, making her own line of affordable hair products, losing her mentor, John Singleton, and how important it is to learn how to act.

When did you start working?

Taraji P. Henson: When I was young, I used to brag all the time. I did something funny during the song at my kindergarten graduation, and everyone laughed. I can remember thinking, “I like this.” I wanted to do something after that. It happened again in fifth grade. My fifth-grade teacher knew that the best way for me to use my wild, outgoing energy was through the arts. She put me in a class right away, and I did well there. I’ve always been interested in it, and when I was a teen, I went to the Miss Talented Teen contest in the nation’s capital and came in second. The next step was to try out for a place at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. After they turned me down, I thought I would never play again.

I was styling my hair and my partner’s hair with Marcel’s hot curling irons, stoves, and pressing combs to save money. So, I wanted to work in the beauty business. People knew me for my hairstyles and cuts. As soon as I made a change, everyone would yell, “Taraji got a new hairstyle, y’all!” and then run out to get a copycat. I tried to get into a beauty school, but I was a year too late. I think that was God’s way of stopping me from acting, since I would have been a much better hairdresser. After failing precalculus and thinking I would become an electrical engineer, I slowly found my way back to acting. I went back to Howard University to work on my acting skills. Everyone loved the wet setups I did when I was in college and very poor. I’ve always been interested in hair, so I used to charge $20 to do wet sets at my college room.

I knew that some people’s jobs caused them to lose the edges of their hair, so I decided that wouldn’t happen to me. I started wearing hairpieces because of this. When I realized how hard it was to keep my head and hair clean, I looked for a real solution, which I finally found. I chose that because it was what I wanted to do. I did it because I needed to fix a problem, not to market a hair care product. If my friends came over, I’d tell them to give it a try. Then they would be amazed and say, “Wow!” By saying “I know. I made it up myself. I did tell you, but I never planned to use that information in any way. After that, everyone on social media said nice things about my natural hair, and many of them said, “Oh my God, it’s so healthy!” How do you make sure it keeps running? I was shocked and said, “Wow.” I think I might be able to pull this off. When I went on vacation, my friends told me, “My scalp is itchy, it’s crazy!” I wasn’t totally sold on the idea yet. “Boy, do I have a surprise for you!” I shouted. They tried it and said, “Oh my God! I’ve never felt this on my head before. During that pause, I said “well.” I think I’ve come up with something helpful. Since then, I’ve spent all of my time trying to make this happen. After I met Maesa, the best friend, everything fell into place.

What does your typical day look like?

Every day is different, says Henson. From what I could tell, today’s sky was clear. When I go to the boxing school, it’s only because I have nothing else to do.

What do you like so much about your job?

People whose lives I make better because of what I do, Henson. I’ll be glad to give it to you. I wish I could give this to everyone for free, but I have to make sure this hair product is affordable for everyone. One of my goals was to make a line of hair care items that were easy on the wallet. It’s hard to live here. I have so many loyal fans that I didn’t want to make something that only a small number of them could buy. I feel like I have to tell people about a person whose work I admire. This is how I meet new people and tell them about myself. In fact, very much so. I will buy anything Fenty makes. I like her and what she stands for, and I like how kind and giving she is, so I want to buy her goods and give her money.

What do you think led to your successes?

Henson, have guts. I have the will to live, the will to encourage, and the will to fight for what I believe in. We all came here to talk about different things that interested us. I got here because they pushed me, so now it’s my job to push other people. Try to be a good model.

How do you plan your time well when you have work and other things to do?

Henson: I’m comfortable saying “no.” Putting your happiness and well-being in the hands of someone else is a bad idea. Because you don’t know enough, you have to make sure your own safety. They will keep putting you to work and paying you for it. You must shout out loud, “You know what? Right now, I can’t be around other people. Even if no one liked it, it wouldn’t worry me.

Tell me about some of the most interesting things that have happened to you at work.

Henson’s life’s highlights include the birth of his children, getting his Hollywood star with John Singleton, and taking his mother and grandmother to the Oscars with him the first time he was nominated.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your job footsteps?

Henson: Learn like I did and go to school. You’re talking about how to act, the art of acting, and the actor’s skill. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that this is a real skill. I think the number of talented people is going down because the idea is so new right now. If you want to make it as an actor like Taraji P. Henson, you should work hard in school. A big part of becoming a successful performer is being able to tell the difference between good and bad scripts. Reading great books can help you do this. You would, of course. Why not jump right in and learn as much as you can? I would get rid of, deal with, or give you anything you threw at me that had to do with acting. I know everything about it, from how the stage and cameras work to who is on TV. Try to learn as much as you can. This mistake probably makes people think that what we do is easy.

I know how to do it and can play it. You use your body as a tool. Your body is your trumpet, and if you want to sound your best, you need to know what notes to play, just like an artist does. In an orchestra, you can’t play the “note finder” part. It’s important to hit the right note. In the same way, my body needs this pleasure, and every second I have to wait is money out of my pocket. No one cares whether I show my feelings or not. When I get to the set, I see a piece of paper that says, “You know what to do, so you have to do it.” Have you made plans to make sure you get there on time? I’ve taken lessons and am now good enough at my instrument to do that. I might be told to do something during this call. We’re ready for you, Taraji, on set. I can put our conversation on hold while I deal with my feelings and pick it back up when I’m ready. “Oh my God, are you a robot?” say the executives. My real answer is “no.” I’ve been playing for a while, so I know every part of my guitar. I don’t have to be a good person, and how other people treat me doesn’t bother me at all. Every person has his or her own way of doing things. This is how I behave no matter what. Even though I don’t think it’s right, it keeps me from making anyone else unhappy, so it’s a win-win. I can’t keep doing things that way. The word “Cut!” I am Taraji once more.




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