Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
Taraji P. Henson has been a mainstay on both the small and big screens for well over 20 years, dominating movies and TV as multifaceted characters like NASA scientist Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures” and the powerful Cookie Lyon in Fox’s “Empire.” The award-winning actress also has a huge passion for hair care. She recently launched her line TPH by Taraji, which hit Target stores on January 29 as a product line for every type of hair.
USA TODAY caught up with the author, entrepreneur, hair maven, and actress to talk about everything from doing wet sets in her dorm room and creating her own affordable hair care line to the pain of losing her mentor John Singleton and the vital importance of studying and living out the true craft of acting.
Question: How did you get your start?
Taraji P. Henson: I was always a ham as a kid. I felt the acting bug bite me when I sang at my kindergarten graduation – I did something funny, the audience laughed, and I said ‘I like this.’ It happened again in the fifth grade. I was so rambunctious and outgoing, like baby magic, and my fifth grade teacher was smart enough to channel that energy into the arts. She put me in my first class, and I just took to it. I kind of dibbled and dabbled with it all of my life, and as a teenager, I auditioned for the Miss Talented Teen pageant in D.C. and I got first runner-up. Then I auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts, they didn’t accept me, and that’s when I thought acting was over for me.
I tried to get into cosmetology school because simultaneously I was doing my own hair, doing hair, doing my girlfriend’s hair, and I was working with Marcel hot curling irons and stoves and pressing combs – I had a full-on salon in my room, what I could afford at the time. I was known for hairstyles, haircuts, and it was always known “Taraji got a new hairstyle, y’all!” and then next thing you know, somebody was running to the mall trying to get the same hairstyle. I tried to go to cosmetology school and I went a year too late, and I think that was God intervening – because had I gotten accepted, I’d probably be a world-renowned hairstylist and not an actress. I finally found my way back to acting when I failed precalculus, thinking I could be an electrical engineer, and then I went back to Howard for acting. While I was in college, I would do wet sets for money because I was broke, and everybody always loved how my wet sets came out. I would do wet sets for $20 in my dorm room, and I just always had a thing for hair.
Even as I got into the business, I heard these tales of losing edges in your hair because of work and I thought, ‘I’m not doing that,’ so I started wearing wigs. I noticed that I had an issue keeping my scalp and my hair clean, so I had to find a solution to a real problem, and I did. That was something that I did for me. I never got into it to make a hair care line, I did it for my own problem – girlfriends would come over and I’d be like, ‘try this!’ And they’d say, “this is amazing!” I was like, ‘I know. It’s my concoction.’ I explained it, but I was never trying to do anything with it. Then social media came along and people started seeing my real hair and they were like ‘oh my God, it’s so healthy! How do you keep it healthy?’ and I was like, wow. There may be an avenue for me here. I still wasn’t serious about it, and then I went on a vacation and my girlfriends were saying ‘my scalp is itchy, it’s crazy!’ and I said ‘boy, do I have something for you!’ They tried it and were like, ‘oh my God! I’ve never felt this scalp feel like this!’ and that’s when I was like, well. I think I may have something here. From that moment on, 10 years straight, I’ve been trying to put this in the works. It came to fruition when I met the perfect partner with Maesa.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Henson: Every day is different. Literally, today I thought I had a clear day, and I’m like yes! I get to go to the boxing gym – because I only get to go to the boxing gym when I have nothing to do – and, lo and behold.
Q: What is your favorite part about your job?
Henson: The people that are inspired by the stuff I do. Sharing it is what makes me happy. Sharing the gifts, and sharing my knowledge, and even though I can’t give this hair product away for free, I think I made it very affordable for everyone. I was very adamant about having a hair care line that the masses could afford. It’s hard out here. I know my fans really have love for me, and I did not want to create a product that they couldn’t all afford. If I’m looking up to a celebrity, I want to share them. This is my way of sharing myself with my fans. I love Rihanna. I’m buying everything Fenty. I love her, I love what she’s about, I love how inclusive she is, and I’m going to support her and buy her stuff.
Q: What do you credit your success to?
Henson: Tenacity. I have a fight in me – the will to survive, the will to live, the will to inspire. As people, that’s why we’re here – to inspire each other. Somebody inspired me, that’s why I’m here, so I gotta turn around and inspire, turn around and inspire. Be an inspiration.
Q: How do you balance work, life, and such a busy schedule?
Henson: I’ve learned how to say no. You can’t put your happiness and your well-being into anybody else’s hands. That’s up to you, to take care of yourself because people don’t know. They’re gonna keep putting you to work. You have to speak up and say, ‘You know what? I need this time for myself. And I don’t care if no one likes it.’
Q: What have been some of your biggest career highlights?
Henson: Getting my Hollywood Star with John Singleton by my side; when I took my mother and grandmother to the Oscars the first time I was nominated and being a mother.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Henson: If you’re gonna do what I did, go to school. You’re talking about acting and understanding acting and the craft. I think people forget that this is an actual craft. It’s such a novelty these days that I think the craft is getting lost. So, if you want to follow in Taraji’s footsteps as far as being an actress, I would study. That’s how you get to decipher between a good script and a bad script – because you read incredible literature while you’re studying the craft of acting. Just, why not? Why not immerse yourself and be fully knowledgeable? There is not nothing you could throw at me that is acting-involved that I can’t demolish, that I can’t handle, that I can’t deliver. I have studied it inside and out – every aspect of the stage, the camera and the one behind the camera – just immerse yourself in knowledge. I think people think that it’s easy what we do.
I know my instrument. Your body is your instrument. Just like a musician has a trumpet, and they’ve gotta fine-tune it, your body is your trumpet and you’ve got to know what note to hit. When you’re in the orchestra, you can’t try to find the note. You’ve gotta hit the note. Same thing with my body – I’ve gotta hit this emotion, and time is money. Ain’t nobody gonna wait for me to hit the emotion. It says it in the paper when I show up on set – you know what you’re supposed to do, so you gotta do it. Now, have you done your work to be able to get there when you need to on a dime? I can do that because I’ve been trained and I’ve been doing it and I know my instrument. I can literally be on this call, they can yell “action! Taraji, come to set, we’re ready!” and I can stop this conversation, go hit my emotion on point, and then come right back to you and talk. Directors look at me like, “oh my God, are you a robot?” And I’m like, no. I know my instrument, and I know how to play it. I don’t have to stay in the character, and I’m not judging anybody’s process. Everybody’s process is different. This is my process. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s right for me because I don’t want to be living in nobody else’s shoes with their misery and their problems. I can’t stay that person. When they yell, “cut!” I’m back to being Taraji.
I live in between takes because otherwise, I will go nuts. I won’t know who I am. But, that’s how I work. Again, I’m not putting down anybody who has to work like that. That’s how I work, and I’ve been doing this for 20-something years plus, and like I said, I know my instrument.
• What’s your coffee order? A chai tea or a vanilla latte with almond milk
• What’s your favorite book? “The Science of Mind” by Ernest Holmes. Once you learn the science of your mind, you can do anything in life. That book was groundbreaking for me
• What’s your favorite song at the moment? My favorite ratchet, turn-up song when I need to turn up is “Baby Sitter” by DaBaby. Pretty much anything by DaBaby right now
• Who’s been one of your biggest mentors? John Singleton, and that’s why I was so hurt when he passed, and I’m still not over it. I would call him on things about the business; I would call him on things about managing myself in the business, and personal life. He was just literally my brother, and he was my insight to this crazy business. He and Tyler Perry.
• What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done? Start my mental health foundation. To me, that’s cool because it broke the barrier and people are now talking about it more often than they were before, and I’m going to take the credit for that. I just am.