Opening up to strangers, sharing your insecurities and facing rejection in front of the nation makes finding love on reality TV no easy feat. However, when Cynthia Taylu entered the Love Island Australia villa on Monday, there was a critical part of her identity that she wasn’t showing off.
The 23-year-old, who was born in Liberia, west Africa and moved to Australia at age seven, has been vocal about the challenges she’s faced with her Afro-textured hair, admitting showing her natural hair leaves her feeling “vulnerable” as “it’s letting the world know who I really am, and stripping off the layers is confronting.”
Promos for the Channel Nine program show the model from Brisbane sporting shiny brown locks with a bold front fringe – a very different look to her naturally curly black hair which she’s presented in a previous blog post.
“Growing up in Australia, I always envied my Caucasian friends’ hair – the texture, the length, and the ease of maintaining their hair,” she wrote for Ascension magazine in 2017.
Cynthia initially came to Australia with her biological father before moving in with her aunt, and it was during her schooling when she experimented more with her hair. She wore her hair braided with extensions or clip-ins up until high school, before wearing a “full set of weave” or “relaxing” her natural hair, which involves chemical straightening.
“Extensions were always the easier option, and from a young age I associated long hair with beauty. I couldn’t see the beauty of my natural hair; it was like a rebellious child I could never quite tame,” she wrote.
“Growing up in Australia, I always envied my Caucasian friends’ hair”
Earlier this year UK Love Island contestant Yewande Biala came under fire for not showing her natural hair on the show or on social media. She subsequently defended herself on Instagram and shared an image of her natural hair.
“I’m aware and I’ve seen all the comments that I should have had my natural hair out for my last post,” she wrote to her followers, explaining her hair is 4C, a term used in the natural hair movement to refer to particularly dense coily hair that can be very fine and soft, or rather course.
“My hair is 4c and I PERSONALLY find it hard to manage without heat!” she said. “I don’t like putting heat on my hair ! my schedule is busy and protective styles suits ME! I love my hair and I’m not ashamed to have it natural… my black is beautiful!”
Before going on Love Island, Cynthia was signed with Neon Model Management, and also worked hard to build up her acting portfolio. When appearing in Triple J Unearthed artists SS Sebastian and Clovr’s music videos, she sported straight hair on screen.
Cynthia previously said she would have felt more comfortable displaying her natural hair if she knew exactly what to do with it. Whether it were a lack of salons and supermarket products catering to afro-textured hair, or seeing black contestants on Australia’s Next Top Model getting their heads shaved, Cynthia said there were roadblocks to her learning how to maintain and embrace her natural hair.
The apparent shortage of hair stylists educated in afro hair maintenance in Australia is what led 34-year-old Rumbie Mutsiwa to open her own hair salon in Sydney’s Chippendale four and a half years ago. After moving from Zimbabwe to Sydney’s Bass Hill in 2004 at age 18, it didn’t take long for Rumbie to discover she and her sister couldn’t access hair care like they could back home.
“I went to scout for hairdressers and I really couldn’t find anybody who was qualified to do our hair,” the Rumbie & Co founder told HuffPost Australia. “There were a lot of braiders but not hairdressers.
“At a lot of the salons we went to we were never serviced. The response from them would vary and were what I would say is rude. It would go from just stepping in and getting someone telling you, ‘We don’t do your type of hair’, to then sometimes people just allowing you to sit down and then they just do your hair and it’s a whole mess.”
After taking matters into her own hands quite literally by styling her sister’s hair and then her sister’s friends’, Rumbie realised she could service a greater African population by opening up her own salon.
“People don’t know what to do with our hair unfortunately because it’s a thing that hasn’t been researched well and it’s another reason I got into this,” she explained.
Rumbie believes Love Island’s Cynthia may not show her natural hair on the TV show because maintenance on set could be difficult.
“I think that’s one of the reasons Cynthia would actually be wearing a wig, because at least if it’s a wig then her hair is not going to be damaged. She can always buy another wig,” she said.
Actress Moreblessing Maturure moved to Australia from Zimbabwe in 2004, and said that Cynthia shouldn’t be shunned if she doesn’t wear her hair naturally on screen.
“That’s still dangerous, uncharted territory to be like, ‘I would like to go [on Love Island] with my natural hair’,” Moreblessing told HuffPost. “Because the way that she looks on that show is never going to be seen as the fault of the production. It’s going to be seen as more often than not, a character flaw or in some way reflective of how she sees herself or how she values herself or her professionalism or her hygiene.
“That’s still dangerous, uncharted territory to be like, ‘I would like to go on Love Island with my natural hair'.”
“That is how that’s going to be rendered if the producers of Love Island aren’t going to be the ones called to task. Like hey, why don’t we have the equipment, materials, the products, team, expertise on set to do that?”
Channel Nine confirmed to HuffPost that all Love Island contestants will do their own hair and makeup on the show, after receiving a tutorial from a cosmetic brand.
Moreblessing, who was one of the writers on web series Afro Sistahs which explores African women’s relationships with hair, says she also struggled with her curly locks when she arrived in Australia at the age of eight.
Living in Sydney’s Chatswood on the North Shore, she faced discrimination at her local school when she wore her hair in bunched knots like she did back in Zimbabwe.
“As I started going to school here, I remember it being a problem or an issue. I got some negative feedback from other students and I remember telling my mum about it and then we stopped doing that hairstyle,” she said.
Moreblessing began wearing her hair in braids during high school, before going natural throughout university. One thing she remembers is people’s varied reactions to different looks.
“People interact with you differently with different hair,” she said. “There’s a ratio of how many compliments you get when your hair is in braids or you have a weave in, versus when your hair is natural and it’s moisturised and healthy, and you see the types of comments you’re getting, the way people treat you.”
It’s this comparison that she says “builds a picture of it’s just probably easier” to not wear your hair naturally.
“Within the natural hair movement, wigs and weaves and braids are still great, fantastic ways of presenting black hair,” she explained. “They are not any less or more assimilative.”
Rumbie agrees, saying some African women choose to hide their natural hair to avoid unwanted attention, something that has happened for decades.
“People will probably wear wigs and extensions because it has been a part of our culture, with obviously influences from the fact that they wanted to assimilate and this is from way back. If you wore your afro, you’d get criticism from work, or even if it wasn’t criticism, you’d get people putting their hands through your hair, and not respecting your personal space or just drawing attention to you. I think sometimes people have just done that to try and move away from the attention.
“Also as part of our culture, we change our hair all the time so it’s absolutely natural to us and we just enjoy the versatility.”
“Hair is an expression of your personality”
As Cynthia wrote in her blog post, hair is very personal and intrinsically linked to self-identity for many including her.
“There’s something about it that’s almost like your hair being your crown and in some ways it’s also like an expression of your personality,” Rumbie agreed.
“It’s incredible, it serves so many functions and there are so many possibilities that afro hair can fulfil,” said Moreblessing. “There’s so much story and culture. African hair is a very intimate thing.”
The actress recalls sitting in between her mother’s thighs during childhood as her hair was tended to.
“That’s just like ‘you’ time. Stories are told through those six hours you’re sitting there. You pass so many people. There is a community and a world that bonds over hair across the diaspora,” she said.
“I don’t recall mum ever doing my hair,” Rumbie said of her different experience while growing up.
“I do remember Sunday being specifically hair day. Either my nanny would do it or we’d go to the salon and every week you would get your hair done and ready for school… it was very hurtful sometimes because people would really tug at your hair. You’d just be told, ‘Hang in there, beauty is pain’. So you’d just grow up thinking beauty is pain.”
As Moreblessing has put it, “The natural hair movement is great in that the person who has the hair determines how they present their hair.
“The choice is in the hands of the person, it’s not being imposed on them.”
Love Island premieres on Monday at 8:45pm on Channel Nine.