FOR YEARS, Countess Vaughn made us laugh in her role as Kimberly Parker on "Moesha" and "The Parkers" spinoff.
But there's nothing funny about about the real-life health problems she got from a wig, of all things. After years of wearing front-lace wigs - realistic-looking hairpieces typically glued or taped to a person's skin - Vaughn suffered a severe allergic skin reaction that left her scarred and shaken.
Now, she's warning others about the styling technique popularized by entertainers such as Beyonce, Ru Paul, Naomi Campbell, Shakira, and Mary J. Blige. Last month, Vaughn appeared on CBS's "The Doctors" to share what really is a cautionary tale, given how wildly popular front-lace wigs are.
"I'm not going to say don't wear lace-front wigs," Vaughn told me during a recent phone call. "I'm saying, be responsible with them. Not wearing them all the time. Letting your hair breathe. Be natural sometimes.
"Otherwise, you're going to pay for it in the end. I got off really lucky. I've seen women who have these big boils all over their head the size of baseballs. When I saw that online, I said, 'You've got to speak out about this.' "
Judge her if you want. But let she who has never fried, dyed or laid her hair to the side make fun of Vaughn. She speaks for a lot of women.
I may never have glued a wig onto my head, but over the years I've had my share of hair madness, ranging from attempts to pick my hair into an Angela Davis-style 'fro to becoming overly dependent on chemical straighteners.
Braids, hair extensions, natural hairdos. Been there, done that.
About the only thing I skipped was the Jheri curl. In a way, I blame our hair schizophrenia on certain beauticians. Because just when you think there's nothing else new under the hair dryer, they whisper in your ear, "Girl, have you tried . . .?"
The book on hair
There's always something new, which is why the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America decided to update and rerelease their book.
The original, published in 2001, doesn't mention the Internet, which has since exploded with black hair-care blogs and do-it-yourself YouTube videos. Also, Black Twitter wasn't around, with its hyper-critical lens focused on Olympian Gabby Douglas or sports commentator Pam Oliver. Nor were the mega successful female black-hair entrepreneurs, such as Lisa Price, of Carol's Daughter.
"It can feel like a pathos that we are so obsessed with our hair looking good, but we were told our hair was inferior," said Lori L. Tharps, an assistant professor at Temple University and co-author of the book, with Ayana D. Byrd, a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.
"It definitely comes from a place of historical oppression and racism," she said, referring to slavery and its aftermath. "We never had group therapy to undo all of that brainwashing and trauma."
Is it any wonder why so many black women are fixated on having long, flowy tresses? For some, it's all about convenience or getting a certain look. For others, something deeper is going on.
Love - and loss
In Vaughn's case, she was trying to get ahead in Hollywood. Back in 2004, while filming the "Parkers," she cut her hair short, which didn't go over well with the show's producers. A stylist introduced her to her first front-lace wig.
"When I saw that on camera, I went crazy. It was beautiful. How it was shiny," Vaughn recalled. "It looked like it was coming out of my scalp. It was love at first sight."
Five years in, it was high time for a change, but Vaughn wasn't heeding the warning signs. There was redness and pus. Washing didn't relieve the symptoms. It wasn't until she had an extremely bad reaction while performing that she took action. "When I got under the hot lights, I felt my skin burning uncontrollably," Vaughn recalled.
A dermatologist helped her understand the connection between what was glued onto her head and the sorry condition of her skin. Vaughn began a course of antibiotics and applied a topical cream to her skin, which had become discolored.
"I think she was keeping them on too long," said Yolanda Keels-Walker, owner of Suite Extensions, in Germantown, which specializes in hair extensions.
"You can't get dependent on hair pieces or extensions," Keels-Walker said. "She just did the same thing over and over again."
Vaughn's skin is healed now but still discolored. Makeup covers light splotches under her eyes from the allergic reaction and fills in the bald spots along her hairline. When she's not working, Vaughn wears her hair in a short afro. Looking back, Vaughn admitted that she was hiding behind her wig and not celebrating her own unique beauty. "It's about getting back to self love," she told me.
That's a beautiful message.
Kudos to her for bravely speaking out. A whole lot of people wouldn't have opened themselves up like that.
"She's like a walking public-service announcement for people," said Byrd. " I think it's going to save a lot of women from the health problems she's had."