IDENTITY, IMPROV AND BEING UNAPOLOGETIC
ETHNICITY: IVORIAN & CHINESE
COKO ON HER CONNECTION TO BEAUTY AND HAIR
Oh man, I have a one-woman show just about my hair. Because I grew up with a Chinese mother, my relationship with my hair was slightly different in the sense that there was a lot of self-navigations. However, luckily, I also had connections to black females via friends, my friends' mothers, when I lived in Ivory Coast, neighbours, and so I kind of got to know my hair that way. But my hair was also different, so then I was treated differently. When I used to go to black hairdressers, I was treated differently.
Then I met one hairdresser maybe a little bit over 10 years ago who wasn't mixed but had the same hair as me, and I started having a good relationship with my hair because she was able to experiment with me, meaning I used to bleach my hair, colour it purple, pink, whatever, and she was able to do that while still maintaining my curls. If liked a cut and I saw it on a white person, she would be able to modify it so that it fit my curls, and I've had a really good relationship with my hair. Ever since, I've cut it, grown it, cut it, grown it out. I just do what I want now. Makeup. Makeup to me, I love makeup, but I'm not a daily makeup person. I know a lot about it, but I have to use it for stage and for auditions. That's mainly when I put makeup on, but I love it.
COKO ON TAKING MAKEUP CLASSES
I'm very lucky to have met the people that I did. My teacher was a black makeup artist. She worked for Revlon, and she was, I think, in her late 40s or 50s at the time. This was a while back. She taught me just how to be practical with it, and that made me love it even more. There was this kind of distance for me where I was like, ugh, brushes, and you have to know all of these techniques. You do, but for example, I know how to put most of my makeup on with my fingers, so I was like, boom, I'm good.
Do you think the fact that YOUR teacher was black had any kind of impact?
Had everything to do with it because, first of all, she knew I was Asian, as most black people do. Then she also assessed our beauty products before we did our makeup. For example, a lot of magazines, it's a little different now; it's 2018, but 10 years ago, magazines, books, blogs, that kind of rosy-dewy feel, we only saw it on white people. Having a black makeup teacher, same thing with having a black hairdresser who understands your hair, you can go to them and be like, "I really like this look, but it's on a white person. Can this exist for us?" And them being like, "Yeah, this is what you do." "These are the colours that you choose." It was that thing, even on TV before, the makeup that we used to see on black folks was caked up. We didn't get to look as if we're walking in the field with that glow. We didn't get that look unless you were super light skinned, but now you can do it whatever shade you are, which is bomb. Having a black makeup teacher enabled me to understand that we can actually do whatever the f*ck we want!
I love colours, I just like to make myself pop! That's the best way I can describe it, Fenty Beauty, I'm all about it. On a day to day, I don't wear foundation. I only wear foundation when I'm on camera because closeups. When you're on stage, nobody's looking ,"Oh, I see that dot on the side of her face" Nobody looks at it like that. I just like to wear makeup to just give that extra glow, I love highlighter, mascara, and lipstick. Oh, I love lipstick.
WHAT SHE TAKES ON SET
When I first started, I used to carry all my foundation and my hair product. When it comes to blush and stuff, that doesn't really bother me, but when it comes to foundation, I don't want to look grey. If they put a tint that's too light, then I can look grey, but I haven't had an issue with it. In fact, there was a white hairdresser who used this hair product on me, and I was like, "What is this?" I took a picture and sent it back to my personal hairdresser.
MEDIA REPRESENTATION & NAVIGATING IDENTITY
At this point, I would say I'm on the cusp of just not giving a f*ck.
I'm not quite there yet. I want to say I'm there, and there's a lot of things that I'm just like, I don't care about this, but I'm not quite there. Our social beauty standards actually oppresses everybody, and I believe that everybody has something that they don't fit into, and they're trying to. For me personally, I think what I've tried really hard to do is I try to see beauty in everybody, and I've tried to understand why my eye goes towards certain things and determines that as beautiful. I'm a very curvy person, and I had a lot of conflicts with that. For a really long time when I looked at people, I preferred a boyish figure, until I didn't. I had to unlearn. I think one of the things that I had to also unlearn is the idea of it's a preference and trying to understand, well, why is that a preference? I grew up liking a boyish figure, wanting a boyish figure, never going to achieve a boyish figure. When you have boobs and you have hips, that's just not your reality, and just thinking to myself, why do I like that and trying to understand that. Then when I came to understand that, then I was able to be like, oh, actually, I'm okay with the way I look just as well.
COKO ON HER PIECE ABOUT HAIR
I had a show called Mixed Chick in 2015, and it was a one-woman show about my childhood and teenage years growing up mixed. Part of that is there's a whole 20-minute section just about my hair journey. It's about obviously growing up with a Chinese mother who doesn't understand your hair. She did the best that she could. I wore pigtails for a good eight years of my life, but also, I'm not of Afro-North American descent, so I grew up partially in Ivory Coast. There I was the lightest girl, and my hair was the softest and the loose curls. They loved braiding my hair, so that was fun. Then coming here and then being like, "I don't understand my hair," and then just trying to find connections within black people that I met in North America, but their hair journey is also very different. For example, when I was in Ivory Coast, we didn't perm our hair. You either kept it short, or if you had "good hair," you braided it. Here it was like everybody permed their hair. When I wanted to perm my hair, my mom was like, "No," because she knew. She didn't know-know, but she knew just from observation. She's like, "You don't need to perm your hair. I can blow dry your hair straight." I did it anyways. I begged her, and so I did it.
I think I've permed my hair maybe 10 times all my life, and it was literally just a waste of money, time and effort because it deadens your hair to a straight point, but there's no volume. What did we do all through high school is we just put it in a bun. We did that "professional look." Also, I didn't need to perm my hair as often as everybody else, so I permed my hair once a year or once every six months. Then on top of that, I used baby perm, so it was a weird thing where I slowly got to recognize that this was just not a product I needed in my life. My hair is the type of hair that when I pull it back in a ponytail, the front strands straighten. When you brush it with that boar brush, it straightens, so I was like, I don't need to perm; I don't need to straighten it. Also, I don't look good with straight hair.
Do all of your pieces often reflect your identity?
I am an improv actor, so it kind of has to. Simply because I am constantly just using what's in my brain at that moment to move scenes forward. I will say that I work with another black performer. Her name is Daphney. We have troupe called Coko and Daphney. Working with her has elevated my game to a completely different level.
Before that I was pretty straightforward and honest, but getting to banter and play with someone who gets exactly what you're saying, for example, we can do a scene just about hair. We can do a scene just about dating black men from a black female perspective. We can do scenes about being black queer women. We can do scenes about growing up listening to Dru Hill.
Ah, man. I don't know. You know what, my smile. My natural face just says, what is that? It's because I'm a very curious person, and I'm always thinking. I'm always unpacking, processing, unpacking, processing, and it shows up on my face. What I notice is when I smile, people's energy change around me. It took me a long time to get here because we've had those men be like, "Can you smile?" You're like, "F*ck off." For a long time, I resisted it, but when you're in an industry where your physicality is your tool, you have to know how certain things affect people. I got to understand how smiling can just change energy, and I started smiling more.