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Keke Palmer's Natural Hair Texture Journey Was Tough, But Made Her Feel "So Free" — EXCLUSIVE

Just like everyone else, Keke Palmer is on a journey. And just like everyone else, Palmer's overall journey is compromised of a bunch of smaller ones: journeys with acting, with self-care, and even with haircare. At an event celebrating her as the newest face for Olay's Ultra Moisture Body Wash, I had the opportunity to chat with Keke Palmer about her natural hair texture journey. Rest assured, her journey with her hair has been a big one — one that's still ongoing — but it's one that, now, has her feeling "free."

Obviously, Palmer is no stranger to the spotlight — in fact, she's having a pretty freaking major moment in it right now. Aside from an impressive rolodex of acting roles and awards already under her belt, the 26-year-old also walked for the first time in New York Fashion Week, for designer Christian Cowan's SS20 show. Just before that, she dazzled on the 2019 MTV VMAs red carpet in a sparkling gold dress on her golden birthday. ("You know, this [was] the perfect moment when the universe and you align, and when God is just like, 'Baby girl, I got you,'" she says of wearing a gold Yousef Al Jasmi dress on her golden birthday. "It timed out perfectly. When I was holding the phone on the carpet, I was talking to God saying thank you.")

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She also scored a hosting spot alongside Michael Strahan and Sara Haines on Good Morning America's Strahan, Sara, & Keke talk show. Oh, and she casually starred in the recently-released movie Hustlers alongside the likes of J.Lo, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, and Lizzo. It's cool. No big deal.

"I feel like we're all trying to make our stuff look like how the magazines said it should look, or how this person said it should look."

Of course, with the spotlight (and, you know, generally existing) comes intense, unfair pressure to look and act in whatever way society and Hollywood deems most desirable at any given moment. This pressure can quickly and easily warp our own self-image and drive us to take some drastic measures just to achieve a look someone else thinks is "beautiful." Palmer knows this all too well.

"You know, I feel like we're all trying to make our stuff look like how the magazines said it should look, or how this person said it should look," she tells me when asked about what she wishes her younger self would have understood about beauty. While she knows that we, as a society, shouldn't feel pressured to adapt to any sort of preconceived image about what is or looks "beautiful," she says she didn't always feel she could step outside of that rigid box — especially when it came to her hair.

Palmer says that, as a black woman, and one who works in the entertainment industry, she felt particular societal pressure to succumb to what others deemed "acceptable," "professional," or "pretty." "I’ll say, as a black person — even in the history of black hair — it's always been a thing where, in order to work, you know, oh, the 'fros? It’s not tamed. Oh, the braids? They don't look clean," says Palmer. "There’s always been this connotation that our hair, for whatever reason, is not professional."

Palmer says these prejudices, naturally, affected how she viewed and subsequently treated her hair. "You get into the habit of, OK, it's a weave. OK, it's a press. OK, it's a relaxer," she says. Eventually, so many treatments pushed Palmer's natural hair to the point of serious damage. Because she then realized her natural hair "wasn't getting the love and the care that it deserved," she began her journey of embracing her natural hair texture. And one of her first steps in doing so was incredibly symbolic of a fresh start.

"I was trying to always manipulate it [my hair] to look like something else, but I finally get to see what it can do on its own."

"I did the big chop when I was 21 or 22 ... We chopped it all off, and I felt so free, because I felt like, OK, I can have fun with this stuff. I can have fun, I can straighten my hair sometimes, I can have a wig," she says. As her hair grew back, Palmer took care to really limit the amount of harmful treatments, tools, and products used on her hair. However, she still makes sure to have fun with her hair using protective styles and wigs, all while ensuring she "spends time" with her natural hair via things like hair masks and oils, scalp massages, really brushing out her hair, and, of course, giving it time to rest.

Learning to embrace her natural hair was a huge part of Palmer realizing that "there's only one you" — a piece of advice she wishes she would've really understood a long time ago. "I was trying to always manipulate it [my hair] to look like something else, but I finally get to see what it can do on its own," she says. "You miss out when you always are trying to change."

Of course, Palmer is quick to clarify that, for her, balance is important. "Of course, try trends, have fun, [and] enjoy, but never allow the things you're enjoying and playing with to overshadow what you naturally are."

Courtesy of Olay

It's clear — to both Palmer and to her fans — that she's at a pretty pivotal moment in life. She says this is part of what inspired her to align herself with Olay. "I think I'm going through this very transformative phase," Palmer tells me. "We go through a lot in our lives, but this is a very current one. And they're [Olay is] all about transforming the skin." Among the products and brands that have been so transforming for Palmer that she would buy them in bulk for the rest of her life are Olay's Ultra Moisture Body Wash ($9, Amazon) for her body, Tata Harper for her skin, and, because she's always prioritizing care for her natural hair, Cantu products. "You gotta make sure everything is getting touched," she says. "Don’t leave nothin’ out."

"If you learn how to rock you to the fullest, then you're going to be next level."

While her journey with her hair wasn't always an easy one, it's one that Palmer is "very happy about" thanks to the love and appreciation she now has for her natural texture. Of course, her journey with her hair — as well as all her other journeys in life — are still ongoing and will bring with them many more lessons along the way. In the meantime, there's one lesson Palmer knows now that, in my opinion, can and should guide everything any of us do. "If you learn how to rock you to the fullest, then you're going to be next level," she tells me. I think it's safe to say Palmer is already on that next level — and she's soaring to the next next one at lightning speed.