Big Brother Hostess Stands Firm About Her Hair And Quits

by Anya of Iheartmyhair

“As a black woman with curly hair, I’ve faced pressure to go straight. But it’s who I am, and my Trinidadian parents backed me”…


I was 24 years old. I was working at a now-defunct TV station in Ottawa and had just been promoted to entertainment/weather anchor for the evening and nightly news.

I hadn’t wanted to return to the often soul-destroying intensity of daily news after a year of reality TV in Toronto. But news is where I started my career in TV, cutting my teeth reporting local news for CJOH-TV during my third year as a Journalism major at Carleton University.

And though I had been enjoying my semi-obscure job as a creative producer at a different local TV channel, I was young, and the $17,000 raise offered to promote me back into news was hard to refuse. In the end, I had a blast. The staff was young, energetic and we got no sleep but worked really hard and made lifelong friendships doing it.

After the three-month probationary period was up, I had a customary performance review with the news executive. And the bomb dropped.

“You’ve worn your hair straight from time to time, we’d like you to wear it straight on the show.” I could feel the heat rising in my body. Ears buzzing.

“I’m not interested,” I replied without a beat. I was told the request wasn’t optional “if I wanted to keep my job.”

I wasn’t clutching my pearls, I was seething.

Arisa Cox Hairstory

Courtesy of: ArisaCox.com

I remember raging to my mother over the phone right afterwards, floored that a middle-aged white dude had the balls to tell me, a modern black woman, in a country as diverse as Canada, how to wear my hair. My stubborn streak exploded. I didn’t care about corporate desires for me or my appearance. My hair — and all the identity and self-worth and cultural baggage attached to it — was not up for debate. I refused to allow my image to be controlled in some boardroom that I was not also in.

What those not in the film/TV industry often don’t know is that there is a built in clause in many on-air contracts that puts control of personal appearance in the hands of the employers. But just as my managers had a contractual right to demand I change my hair, I had also had a right to find a new job.

Which is the advice my wise mum gave me. She suggested I take that furious energy and put it into a job search. Canada’s media industry was small, after all. Both parties would benefit from saying I was simply moving onto another opportunity. By the end of the week, I had a new job that would move me back home to Toronto that was better paid and at one of the most diverse places I’ve ever had the pleasure of working at. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. Requests to wear processed hair for on-camera work is more common than you think — and not everyone is able to walk away from a job so easily. Sometimes the work is so great a journalist or performer must swallow their pride and surrender, no matter how irritating it may be. And it’s definitely not exclusive to black women.

The pressure for on-air types to go blond is well documented, and long hair is even better, since short hair tests poorly, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Remember when Keri Russell chopped off her signature curly mane during the Felicity years? Outrage! Ratings free fall! Chaos! And applause from me.

Kerri Russell

Kerri Russell

Like the vast majority of women, I can track my life story through my hair. Every different hair style or colour is a milestone that we can recall with ease — the significance being not so much the hairstyle, but how it made us feel. But for black women, our personal hair journeys have an additional layer of complication. Our hair is farthest from the European standard of beauty that you can get.

Until the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s when afros began to appear in earnest as a symbol of pride, every black woman’s right of passage was getting a perm. For those in the dark — that means using a highly toxic compound to chemically straighten kinky hair. You would still have to endure an hour of blow-drying and hot iron action after washing it, and be allergic to rain and swimming pools, but that’s the tradeoff. As a teenager, I tried it too. The goal is “good hair” — hair that moves, that shifts in the wind. To have natural or nappy hair meant looking like a slave.

Luckily, my Trinidadian-born parents — my mother with good hair and my father with long dreadlocks — had both worn afros in their pasts. They had long fostered my confidence in my smarts over my appearance, which was lucky, because my ugly duckling years were not kind. But being an outsider builds character. You learn to see not fitting in as standing out. And it frees you from traditional rules, especially those of the bajillion-dollar beauty industry. So I’ve tried it all. Braids until I was 16. Long and straight at 18. The afro came in at 22. At 25 it was short and mostly blond, at 31 the fern was much bigger and back to black to match my daughter.

By 2014, natural hair had made a massive comeback. Now there is an alternative theory that women who feel forced to wear long straight weaves are the slaves now to an ideal of beauty it is impossible for us to naturally attain. The head nod that we afroed women and men shared 15 years ago as strangers hardly exists now, in Toronto anyway, since there are so many of us. I routinely get mistaken for other TV personalities with big hair — Opera Singer Measha Brueggergosman, Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown, former Much Music VJ Sarah Taylor. And we are all grateful for Angela Davis and Diana Ross and Pam Grier — the famous afros that came long before us.

Working on Big Brother Canada has been a bit of a big deal for the natural hair scene as well. With so many international fans of our show, I have heard more than once that my hairstyle has been inspirational for many women and their daughters — struggling to fight the tide of weaved-out pop stars and celebrities. It’s humbling.

But reality exists in the grey areas. There’s Beyonce, but there’s also Whoopi. Not all black women who wear straight hair are self-hating, just as not all black women who wear natural hair like afros, twists and dreadlocks have transcended vanity. Any woman should feel the freedom to wear whatever hair makes her feel good. It takes all kinds, and self-esteem as it relates to our hair comes in many forms. Most women are on a never-ending quest to find the hair that perfectly expresses who they are at that moment in time. We live in a visual, often superficial world, and we can’t see personality from across the room. But we can see hair.

I will never forget that breakthrough moment when my fabulous hair stylist Romeo Lewis said: “You know if you layer your hair, you can probably wear it curly all the time.” Sweeter words were never spoken. I have never looked back, and my hair remained a positive for the rest of my career in television.

People want to touch it, people want to understand it, people ask me questions about it on Twitter. It’s simple for me — I rock this hair because it’s low maintenance, because it’s a nod to my ancestors, because it’s hard to forget, because it feels like a celebration, like who I am on the inside showing up on the outside.

It’s all a matter of perspective. I am not a size 2, I don’t have big boobs and I don’t have long hair that blows in the wind. But I do have a wicked sense of humour, curiosity for days, a big laugh and BIG HAIR.

So I didn’t lose my job. I won a sense of self-respect. I love a happy ending.

Arisa Cox is the host of Big Brother Canada. She commutes to Toronto from Edmonton where she lives with her husband and two children.

About The Author

I have a love affair some call it an obsession for Natural Hair and I’ve combined my own hair experience long with product reviews and v-blogging mix it all up and you get – http://iheartmyhair.com Watch and subscribe to my YT Channel

About Jenell B Stewart

Jenell Stewart MS, the founder and editor in chief of the award winning website KinkyCurlyCoilyMe.com dedicates most of her free time educating and uplifting women with natural hair by way of her extremely popular website and YouTube channel. Jenell has been featured in Essence Magazine, Black Enterprise.com, and starred on the Dr.Oz television show as a Beauty Expert. In 2012 she was named one of Essences top Instagramers and that same year KinkyCurlyCoilyMe won an award for “Favorite Website” of the Natural Hair Community.
  • Christian R.

    This is an awesome story! Blend in for what????? I applaud you, my sister.

    • lilkunta

      Christian : when I read your answer I read it to the tune of that lil jon sound
      turn down for what…so yeS DEFINITELY

  • lilkunta

    wow i didnt know managers could regualte hair.
    this was years ago right ? is it still like this ?

    • queenbee9

      Managers in a certain industry–like media, acting, modeling and finance and in some firms, pharmaceuticals this is because image sells or kills–so they have to make sure their poster child stays on the straight and narrow.

      NO this is not years ago, it has been the case ever since TV which would be the 1930s and it is still the case which is why actors will gain weight for certain roles, shave their heads (did you really think Demi wanted to be bald?) lose weight even if it is detrimental for them, will allow their hair to be dyed crazy colors and allow toxic chemicals be applied to their faces –for Sci Fi roles–it was ALWAYS about the image… haven’t you noticed that stars RARELY look in person like they do no TV or a movie and that news anchors or anyone in front of the camera is selling what they look like?

      • lilkunta

        wow alot to respond to.
        first, acting is very different than broadcasting. in acting if you are expected to gain or loose weight, shaveyour head, grow it long, dye your hair…this is all temporary, you are well paid, and you work with a dietician and nutritionist. For a news reader to be told to straighten her hair but the news stations isnt going to pay the hair stylist is wrong, as this is permamant and news reasders earn waht 430 a year to start? then have to hope for a contract renewal.

        pam grier wore an afro in foxxy brown!
        lonette mckee i have always seen with her hair curly.

        aint NOTHING natural about diana ross so she is a bad example. MEN AND LADIES in the 50 60 70s wore wigs, supremes, tine & ike, dolly parton, the beatles..it was for a uniform look.

        second, i use to think straight hair was to conform to european standards of beauty and represented self hatred. i dont fee that way anymore. some ladies like their hair straight. it is their choice. IT DOESNT MEAN THEY HATE THEMSELVES. First Lady Of The United Stated Michelle Obama relaxers her hair..she hates herself ?

        • queenbee9

          When it comes to image, television or movie presence is the same–both can be dictated to by what a person says or does and both often have clauses in their contracts which allow Producers and Directors to not only dictate what a person wears or how they look but how they act–if they fall short they can be fired.

          This is not only in the music industry but also in many Professions. I worked as a scientist for Big Pharm and image was everything. If I did not maintain my behavior and image in or outside the job and it was found out I could be fired. Right now, if a nurse engages in behavior including getting drunk or snockered in public even if she is not driving, she can be fired. Not much has changed.

          Michelle Obama uses relaxers as do many ladies–we have a very convoluted view of ourselves including our hair–I don’t know how Michelle Obama feels about herself but she may have issues with her looks what is important is to know where we got our standards and why–we got them from white women who then laugh because they know we are steadily copying them–people can wear whatever they want.

          As for wigs and stars wearing them–they still are, but black women have made them de rigeur, so much so that many people when seeing a black with long hair automatically dismiss this as a weave or wig, even blacks are starting to be so ignorant that they think another black (especially a dark skinned black) with long hair is wearing hair that is not her own.

          I personally do not care what people wear, but it behooves us to be aware of the IMAGE we project and WHY. We never learned to love our own hair–we were not allowed to–there is a difference in what we are free to do and like and what mind control for centuries has ensured we are “trained ” to do and like.

          • lilkunta

            More of you opinion!

            Honestly it depends. Just because a nurse gets drunk or a DU doesnt automatically man she looses her nursing license. She’ll probably get probation, suspension, a change to get herself back on track.

            Hair is a CHOICE. G d gave us the smarts to create things that straighten hair ( both chemcially and with flat iron or chi iron or hot comb) , highlight it, dye it, and more, so why not take advantage of those products and tools ?

          • Tasha Gregory

            She didn’t have to do all that for a job. Its not worth having if you can’t be yourself

        • queenbee9

          When we wear straight hair we are copying or biting white women’s style–they know it and we know it–it is not natural to most blacks and white women smirk at what we are doing-

          I have even had white women ask me or tell me that ALL black women can’t grow hair and ALL black women wear weaves and ALL black women secretly wished that they were white

          this mindset comes about -because we are fake when we copy others and eschew our own natural selves and they know it. Straightened hair that has to be chemically treated to be so means we always play catch up–it may not mean that we hate ourselves but it certainly DOES mean we are not exactly satisfied or happy with what God gave us.

          • lilkunta

            queen bee : I think this is YOUR OPINION and not fact.

            You failed to answer, so first african american first lady of the united states of america and lawyer First Lady Michelle Lavaughn Robinson Obama hates herself?

            I am not a film critic so I dont know. I do know hair was diverse in the 60s 70 80s from afros to wig afros to short wigs to long wigs. everyone–not just afr am, men and women –wore them for the uniform look not because of self hatred : beatles(ANGLO from england) wore wigs, ike turner wore wigs, temptations, tina turner, supremes, andrew sisters(of greek and swede descent, ANGLO from Minnesota), bette midler, barbra streisand, dolly parton, kenny rogers …so they hate themselves ?

            I think this is YOUR OPINION and not fact.
            The anglo ladies YOU KNOW smirk, that isnt the truth for every anglo lady.

            What about the reverse ? When anglos get perms to have curly hair are they self hating ? Aspiring to be of afro descent ?

            Hair is a CHOICE. Unless you hear that particular person say ‘i hate my hair i hate myself i want straight hair like an anglo person’ it is wrong and stupid of you to make the blanket statement that you just did.

  • vickiana S

    I remember last friday when I got my ends cut. The lady straightened my hair and kept making nasty comments how I should straighten my hair to make it “softer”. In other words she was pretty much telling me to heat damage it (there’s no such thing as heat training). It made me furious. Recalling what I had done to my hair before, constantly passing the flat iron to be “pretty”. It looked like I had gotten a perm. I’m really glad you stood up for your beliefs! I’m 14 and tired of closed minded people telling me that my hair isn’t good enough or it’s a “problem that needs to be fixed”.

    • queenbee9

      Great thoughts- Now to make those thoughts -Action: When the flat iron comes out–tell the “lady” you need a moment, then get up, give her what you owe her (including a tip if you think she deserves it) and thank her for the trim, then tell her you have another even more valuable tip: “honor what the client wants and keep any other opinions about beauty to herself”

      We and our hair were never the problem but by letting others control or dictate to us, then we LET their problem/hangup/racism become our problem by validating their position by what we do or do not do.

  • queenbee9

    LOVE, LOVE this article, very well written, entertaining and inspirational as for the “now defunct” tv news network? Defunct says it all–God don’t like ugly!!

  • Adeola @ *The Mane Captain*

    great write up. I read this story on huffington post.


  • Cathy

    I am still stuck as “good hair”….is everything else not good? Perhaps I may have misinterpreted the statement.

    • queenbee9

      The author was speaking rhetorically–she pointed out what the standard USED to be then used it to describe her mom’s hair. We all know what people mean by “good hair” and so while we all can “rearrange” what is meant by that, the old meaning still stands.

      Healthy hair is good hair (we know) but when I go into places people often reach out to touch the back of my hair and ask “how come you got that good hair in the back and the top is so nappy?”

  • Sharless

    I love this story it was very inspirational it made me want to snatch this wig off my head and run outside lol

  • http://claireshegoes.com/ Claire

    Regarding where this article is from, I have no idea about Anya’s connection. However, it was written by Arisa Cox, and first appeared on the Toronto Star’s web site: http://www.thestar.com/life/2014/08/05/i_stood_firm_on_my_hair_and_won_selfrespect.html

    • http://claireshegoes.com/ Claire

      Sorry, Jenell, for my anonymity. I posted this comment about the article’s source, then became shy and removed my ID.