Curled up on the couch one rainy afternoon I devoured TVNZ+ web series Hui Hoppers all in one go and became very jealous of Tomai Ihaia (Ngāti Awa, Te Whakatōhea, Te Whānau A Apanui and Ngāi Tūhoe) who, alongside Roimata Fox, lights up the screen as playfully sparring siblings working out their differences in the kitchen of their local marae.
I was envious of Ihaia's comedic chops, her incredible wardrobe (especially her custom Mackenzie Knits Tino rangatiratanga jumper) and of course, that gloriously thick head of jet black curls.
I asked the actor, who also works as a teacher in Tāmaki Makaurau, to school us on life as a curly girl. She says as much as she embraces and appreciates her curls now, the road to this 'proud' position involved a process of unlearning.
"Choosing to embrace my curls is not only an act of self-love but also a celebration of my identity and a recognition of the strength and beauty of my culture."
Read more about Ihaia's journey to curly pride, and tips for embracing your own below.
You have lovely hair – how is it so great?
My journey with my hair hasn't always been smooth. It took me some time to fully embrace and appreciate my natural curls and learn how to manage them effectively.
The current state of my hair is a result of the guidance and expertise of wonderful teachers who have taught me how to style and cut my specific hair type. Their knowledge and support have been instrumental in helping me achieve the look I have now
How come you haven’t always embraced your amazing curls?
I regret to say that I did not always embrace my natural curls. The education system I was a part of was heavily focused on Eurocentric standards, and the representation of Polynesian hair was lacking in both the school's population and overall context. Consequently, I never felt that my natural hair was considered "normal".
As a result, I resorted to straightening my hair daily and even chemically straightening it. This prevented me from understanding how to properly care for and nurture my curls.
More generally, how would you describe your relationship with your hair? Today, and in the past?
There is a Māori whakatauki, a proverb, that resonates with me: "Ka whakatōmuri te haere whakamua," which can be translated as "I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past."
This proverb encapsulates the significance of my past experiences in shaping who I am today. Regardless of whether those experiences were positive or negative, they have provided invaluable insights and knowledge.
My hair journey has not been without challenges, and it holds a deep connection to my heritage. Similar to my Māori culture, our representation in history has often been inaccurate and unjust due to the dominance of a different culture shaping historical narratives.
Accepting my Polynesian curls proved to be difficult, as it mirrored the times I was growing up, where societal norms and beauty standards were largely influenced by a different cultural perspective. However, I am mindful of the sacrifices made by my ancestors, which have paved the way for me to be where I am today. Their struggles and resilience have instilled in me a sense of pride and appreciation for my heritage.
Choosing to embrace my curls is not only an act of self-love but also a celebration of my identity and a recognition of the strength and beauty of my culture.
How often do you get your haircut? Who does it? Is there any colouring involved?
Typically, I have my hair cut around twice a year, or sometimes even once a year, depending on whether I'm aiming for length or a specific style. When it comes to getting my hair cut, I usually visit either Curly Bar in town or Commune in Grey Lynn. These salons specialise in working with curly hair and have provided me with great experiences.
As for my hair colour, what you see is its natural shade. I haven't applied dyes to alter its colour. This is my hair in its pure, unaltered state.
How did you learn about your hair? Who taught you about hair grooming? What were the lessons?
In my journey of understanding and embracing my natural curls, I have found great value in seeking the expertise of professionals. By observing their techniques and asking them questions, I have gained valuable insights into how to best style my curls.
One of the most important lessons I've learned is to work with the natural curl pattern rather than trying to fight against it. This approach has allowed me to enhance the beauty and texture of my hair.
Furthermore, I've discovered that my curls thrive when provided with ample moisture and conditioning. Taking care of my curls involves prioritising hydration and nourishment. This includes using appropriate products and techniques that promote moisture retention and keeping my curls well-conditioned.
Styling days require dedication and patience as curls often require more time and attention. However, once I invest that effort, the results can last for days without the need for additional styling products or interventions. Ultimately, looking after my curls has become a routine of nurturing and cherishing them, ensuring they receive the care they deserve.
Does māoritanga play any part in your hair philosophy?
In the past, I may not have fully comprehended the significance, but as I reflect upon the legacy of those who preceded me, I now recognize that my hair holds immense importance.
It serves as a profound connection to my cultural identity and is often one of the initial aspects that people observe when they encounter me. With a deep sense of pride, I embrace and showcase my hair, understanding its power to convey and symbolise my heritage.
What products do you use to take care of your tresses?
I use Shea Moisture as my favourite deep conditioner and hair gel brand. They are committed to creating natural, ethically sourced products for diverse hair types, especially addressing the needs of Black women. I also prefer eco gels, which provide styling and hold while minimising environmental impact. Supporting businesses that align with my values is important to me.
Does the way you care for your hair change with the seasons?
Instead of following specific seasons, my hairstyle choices are influenced more by my moods and emotional capacity. On days when I lack motivation or energy, you'll likely find my hair pulled back, often in a bun, as I opt for a simpler and low-maintenance style.
Do you have a favourite hair scene from TV or film?
When I think about iconic curly hairstyles, my mind immediately goes to the character Baby from the movie Dirty Dancing. Her voluminous curls served as an inspiration for me. I was captivated by the way her hair was styled in different scenes, especially the unforgettable hair flicks. Baby's curly hair became a memorable symbol of beauty and individuality.
Where do you look for hair inspiration?
To be honest, as a millennial, I find myself turning to TikTok for hair styling tips and inspiration. The platform is a treasure trove of individuals sharing their creative and innovative hair ideas.
Exploring the vast array of content on the internet allows me to discover fresh looks and ideas that I may not have considered before. It's an exciting way to stay connected with the ever-evolving world of hair trends and expand my hair styling repertoire.