"Don't Fight the Curl, Girl" : as told by Harry James Hanson aka Amber Alert
‘No matter what you do with your hair, it’s always something extreme’ a trusted friend once observed. She was right. As a teenager, my hair was extremely straight, colorful, and damaged. At one point, I was spiking it with Elmer’s glue. Later on, I went bleach blonde and added neon highlights using washable markers. My penultimate look during this era featured navy blue weave tracks glued in at my temples, creating a spiky silhouette like an anime character. I was determined to let the world know that I was different from the other boys, and my flat iron was the key to my liberation. It was a rebellion of sorts, though thankfully my mother took no issue with my look until the dye started staining all her towels. After one particularly brutal marathon bleaching, it finally happened: my hair started breaking off. It was in one spot on the side of my head, where I laid on my pillow at night. Clearly, this was not sustainable, but after years of fighting against my natural color and texture, where do you begin?
Today, I’m thrilled to report that I’ve gone from fried and damaged to luscious and healthy, but it took a lot of patience and experimentation to get here. Putting down the flat iron was especially scary. I had to reassess my beliefs that straight hair was easier to manage, more fashionable, and simply just cooler. As an Aries, I don’t shy away from a challenge, so that’s what gave me the motivation to embrace my curly hair: a new styling challenge to conquer. I had proven I could master the stick straight emo boy look, so why not expand my repertoire? I could still go straight sometimes, but there are obvious benefits to versatility. As I began to let my curls coil freely, I soon found myself battling an enemy well-known to any curly girl: the frizz.
I observed that my hair was less frizzy the less I washed it, but it turns out simply not washing it creates a different set of problems-- namely scalp build up. I turned to anti-dandruff shampoo once a week, which then made my hair feel like straw. Begrudgingly, I accepted this tradeoff for several years, never satisfied with my routine no matter what products I used to coax my follicles back to life.
By my junior year of college, I decided to start growing out my hair. I had grown weary of having a ‘men’s haircut,’ and, not coincidentally, was no longer identifying as a man, but rather as a non-binary person. Not only was the idea of longer hair gender affirming, but it served another purpose as well-- drag! I’d been doing drag since high school, but I’d always worn wigs. Around this time RuPaul’s Drag Race w as gaining huge momentum, and I saw queens like Alexis Mateo using their own hair as a base for clip-on ponytails, buns, and half-wigs. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
However, If I was going to transform myself into a beautiful long-haired mermaid drag queen, this drugstore anti-dandruff shampoo would simply not do. There must be a better way, I told myself. And so, one day I googled ‘how to clean scalp without stripping oil from hair.’ Why did that take me so long?! The answer had been there the whole time, on a women of color hair forum, naturally. The formula was simple, a scalp scrub made entirely of kitchen ingredients: salt and sugar to exfoliate, honey to nourish, and a bit of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice to clean house. I added a few drops of tea tree oil just to be fancy.
I so wish I had taken note of the individual who shared that recipe, or even the forum it was on, but alas it’s been buried in the annals of the interweb. Instead, I’ll give credit to women of color everywhere, especially Black women, for their continued research and innovation in the field of natural hair care, and their willingness to share that knowledge openly so that this white curly-haired non-binary person doesn’t have to walk around looking like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. Sincerely, thank you.
Equipped with my new anti-shampoo recipe, I finally had a happy scalp and happy curls. Once every week or so did the trick. Ten years later, I still use it! However, I’ve recently added the amika reset pink charcoal scalp cleansing oil to my routine as well. Right in the description it says ‘remove product build-up without stripping hair.’ Music to my ears! I’d never tried a ‘pre-wash’ product before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. You apply it to a dry scalp, then rinse out in the shower. Immediately, you can feel a minty menthol tingle. Once you get your hair wet, the product thickens slightly into a foam, which you massage into your scalp. I used this on a day when I’d normally use my anti-shampoo, and I was seriously impressed. It left my scalp feeling totally refreshed, and no residue or build-up in sight!
As far as conditioner goes, I try to keep a few in rotation so that my hair doesn’t get bored. I’m always looking to pump up the volume, especially my roots at my hairline, so I’ve really been loving the amika 3D volume and thickening conditioner. It has a super rich texture that saturates every strand, and a truly intoxicating scent with notes of honey and vanilla. Really work it through your ends, and let it sit for a hot minute before you rinse. I always play music when I’m in the shower, so I use that as a timer: one dance remix while the conditioner works its magic. As I rinse it out, I feel like a baby unicorn cleansing my mane underneath a mystical waterfall (the true litmus test of any good conditioner) . It’s great to have a volume boosting conditioner, so you don’t need to rely completely on styling products to get a luscious, full look.
When it comes to styling, I try to keep it low maintenance. After showering, I gently wring out my hair with my hands, and gently blot with a towel. My curl type is a 3A, so depending on which products I use I can get big, well-defined 90s Mariah Carey style curls, or looser, relaxed waves. Allure has a great guide to finding your curl type, if you’re not sure. When my hair is freshly washed, I like to use a product that gives me a little more hold and definition, like the amika curl corps enhancing gel. I scrunch it in with my head upside down, and it holds my curls without the crunch factor! To maintain the integrity of my curl structure, I don’t comb it after I get out of the shower, and avoid running my hands through it. Then, throughout the week, my curls relax a bit on their own. If I do a mid-week co-wash (conditioner only wash) or simply dampen my tendrils to freshen up the curl, I like to use a lighter product like the amika curl corp defining cream. Thie cream still provides definition, but creates a softer effect. Both the gel and the cream smell heavenly: light, fresh, botanical. Nearly every time I take my hair down, someone remarks on how good it smells.
Once I scrunch in a curl product, I put it in a high pony with a velvet scrunchie, and let it air dry. There’s a lot of heat protectant products out there, but there’s no doubt that air drying is the safest way- if you’ve got the time! For long curly hair like mine, it can take five or six hours. As it’s drying, I take out the scrunchie periodically and whip my hair around, side to side and back and forth. This isn’t just for the sass effect, it helps give me some lift at the roots as well! The scrunchie itself is also key, it’s lower impact on your follicles and less likely to create creases or snag than a typical elastic.
When I’m prepping my hair for a drag look, more often than not it’s about smoothing and setting rather than defining my natural curls. My go-to drag style is my drawstring ponytail, it’s truly an instant fantasy. I put my hair in a smooth, high, tight bun, place the sewn-in combs around the bun, tighten the drawstring, and voila-- I’m Ariana Grande! The amika velveteen dream smoothing balm helps create that perfect base, and then I spray it down with the headstrong intense hold hairspray. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll add some face-framing tendrils or ringlets using my real hair. Depending on how tight I want the curls, rollers can come in handy. Yes, they make you look and feel like a grandma, but grandmas know a thing or two about setting a ‘do! And, rollers allow you to set a curl without using heat. The trick with rollers is to use small sections, and put them in when your hair is about 85% dry. For extra hold, apply a bit of the curl corp enhancing gel to each section before you roll it up. Once the rollers are out, brush through to create structured waves, or leave them as is if you’re into the Shirley Temple look.
Occasionally I still wear a full wig, but I love the illusion I can create by incorporating my real hair. Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m not a ‘female impersonator’ type drag queen, that’s not the illusion I’m going for. I am known as the Bearded Lady of Bushwick, after all! Rather, I love embodying that liminal space between man and woman, fantasy and reality, glamour and trash. As a non-binary person, I’m no stranger to the expansive potential of gender expression. Deconstructing my own ego and transforming my appearance into an elaborate, high camp spectacle is immensely freeing. Not only do I feel unrestrained by societal expectations surrounding gender, but also like the embodiment of the farce of gender itself! It’s simply divine, and deliciously empowering. *hair flip*
As I said earlier, it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out the right regimen for your hair, and even after 10 years of growing mine, I’m still experimenting. Thankfully, gone are the days of marathon bleaching and daily ironing. I’m no longer fighting against my hair, and both me and my curls are happier as a result. I used to say I would grow it out ‘until I got sick of taking care of it,’ but safe to say that’s going to be approximately never."
By Harry James Hanson
Find them on their personal IG: @skirtsuit
Their current photo project: @lengendsofdrag
Find more of their work at harryjameshanson.com