Strictly Come Dancing's Motsi Mabuse felt pressure to tame her hair

Strictly Come Dancing's Motsi Mabuse felt pressure to tame her hair

December 10, 2021

‘How I learned to love the hair I once had to hide’: Growing up in South Africa Strictly Come Dancing’s Motsi Mabuse felt pressure to tame her natural locks to ‘fit in’

  • Strictly Come Dancing judge Motsi Mabuse felt pressure to tame her natural hair
  • The 40-year-old star’s fabulous styles have deserved tens across the board 
  •  It takes five hours to create some of her dos, as they are pinned and primped

Never mind the contestants with their fancy footwork. Forget Craig and his cutting comments. There has been an unexpected stand-out star of this year’s Strictly.

Drumroll please . . . for judge Motsi Mabuse’s hair. If anyone is giving scores, the fabulous styles appearing on the top of Motsi’s head have deserved tens across the board.

One Saturday, she trooped down the stairs wearing a veritable tower on her head (‘some people have called that my Marge Simpson look’).

Another week, she was sporting cute-yet-fierce Bantu knots close to the scalp. But it was on the week she gloried in her biggest-ever Afro style that Twitter really erupted.

Strictly Come Dancing judge Motsi Mabuse, 40, (pictured) felt pressure to tame her natural hair

 If anyone is giving scores, the fabulous styles appearing on the top of Motsi’s head have deserved tens across the board

Should Motsi’s hair have its own show, I ask the woman herself. ‘Maybe it will get its own seat next year,’ she replies, hopefully. She confides that even fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood is a fan. ‘The week he was off, isolating with Covid, he texted to say: “Love the hair, darling”.’

Today, Motsi, 40, has agreed to let us tag along while she shows how some of her most iconic styles are created. This means five hours in the salon chair, with her tresses — real and fake — being smoothed, teased, pinned and primped.

For a hair novice like myself, the whole shebang makes for astonishing viewing. At one point, hairdresser Michelle Sultan talks about how the inspiration for the Marge Simpson look comes from Nefertiti, the Ancient Egyptian Queen. ‘The higher you go, the closer you are to God,’ she says.

There is a lot of squeezing. There is ironmongery (about 25 pins). There are elasticated bungee cords that wrap round everything. And at the end, as if by magic, the whole thing stands on its own.

‘It pulls her entire stature up. She’s quite a regal figure anyway, but now she’s a Queen — a goddess,’ says Michelle. It’s certainly making a statement, but what exactly are Motsi’s styles saying? This is where we go beyond the Strictly sparkle and into far more serious territory.

Today, Motsi, 40, has agreed to let us tag along while she shows how some of her most iconic styles are created. This means five hours in the salon chair, with her tresses — real and fake — being smoothed, teased, pinned and primped

Michelle is in no doubt that the statement made with Motsi’s ever-expanding hair is both political and cultural.

‘I’ve worked with women of colour on TV before, but Strictly is the biggest show and it’s a massive deal to have a woman of colour on here, showcasing her hair like this. Literally taking up space with her hair,’ she says.

Motsi, too, is well aware that the story of her coiffure is about more than just hair. This becomes clear later in the week, when we catch up again for an interview about her ‘hair journey’, and she tells me about being a little black girl growing up in a South Africa, adjusting to life after white minority rule.

Her childhood was spent with her mother trying to tame her ‘wild’ Afro locks. Hair styling — for Motsi and her sisters, Oti and Phemelo — was all about looking smoother, sleeker. More white, basically.

‘Hair like ours had to be made more neat, more tidy — we had to fit in,’ she says.

‘I just remember the pain, and our mother running after us to put our hair in cornrows or plaits, sometimes using wool or rope. When we were old enough we would say ‘that hurts’.’

Motsi’s own three-year-old daughter is with her today. ‘Her hair is different from mine because her dad is European, but the principle is the same and I want her to love the hair God gave her, accept it, love herself. I want her to have all the choices I did not have.’

It is also interesting that this off-duty Motsi is wearing a woollen beanie hat and no make-up. Underneath the hat, her real hair, which no TV viewer ever sees, is shortish and plaited in rows. When she goes out, no one recognises her.

All three Mabuse sisters famously waltzed into the very regimented (and very white) world of ballroom dancing. And their hair stayed dutifully ‘neat’.

Should Motsi’s hair have its own show, I ask the woman herself. ‘Maybe it will get its own seat next year,’ she replies, hopefully. She confides that even fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood is a fan. ‘The week he was off, isolating with Covid, he texted to say: “Love the hair, darling”‘

‘It was unspoken,’ she says. ‘That whole world was very European, which meant long, straight hair, worn flat to the head.’

In her later teens and 20s, Motsi discovered chemical relaxers, which break down the structure of the hair and de-frizz it.

The products she used did fry the scalp, though. ‘So painful,’ she remembers, rubbing at her head. ‘I still have some scars to this day, and issues with my scalp, dryness. These things are so harsh.’

She danced competitively, first in South Africa, then in Germany, where she met her husband, Ukrainian fellow dancer Evgenij Voznyuk.

When she moved to Germany, she struggled to find a hairdresser who had any experience with Afro hair, and would have to drive 50km to find one. ‘I didn’t know what to do. I bought chemical relaxers to use myself, but that was even worse. But I’d never ever be seen in competition with my own hair.’

She sounds ashamed of her own hair. ‘I was. It wasn’t something to be seen — not in public.’

Then, around the year 2000, she found a hairdresser who changed her life. ‘She loved my hair — much more than I did,’ Motsi recalls. ‘She was still straightening it, but was using my natural hair rather than just trying to cover it up. I started to experiment, competing with my hair in rows and knots.’


When she moved to Germany, she struggled to find a hairdresser who had any experience with Afro hair, and would have to drive 50km to find one. ‘I didn’t know what to do. I bought chemical relaxers to use myself, but that was even worse. But I’d never ever be seen in competition with my own hair’

At the same time, Motsi was experimenting with wigs and weaves, which are hugely popular in the black community. She hoots with laughter about wigs flying off in the middle of competitions.

‘It didn’t happen to me but it did happen to one of my sisters in the German Open,’ she laughs. ‘Her hair flew off and she just walked away from it. We were shouting: ‘Pick up your hair!’ ‘

Motsi joined Let’s Dance, the German version of Strictly, as a professional dancer in 2007. Four years later, she was promoted to the judging panel.

Although she had stopped relaxing her hair, and wore it naturally when she wasn’t working, she continued to wear mostly wigs on TV.

She cites an incident at Pretoria High School in 2016 as a gamechanger for her. Pupils at the school protested, deeming the rules on hair presentation racist because they did not allow for natural Afro styles.

‘Those girls made a stand and said ‘This is how God made us’ and I thought: ‘Wow. These young people are fighting for their hair.’ It made a big impression on me, these people willing to stand up for our type of beauty.’

For the first time, she questioned her own hair choices. Could she ditch her wigs and go natural? She says the arrival of her daughter three years ago further complicated her thoughts. ‘I did think: ‘How am I going to teach this girl to accept her beauty, to love herself if I can’t love myself.’

Motsi could have thrown away all the wigs, but it wasn’t that straightforward.

She says she did tell her hairdresser at the time that she did not want to wear one-piece wigs, which ‘disguised all the real hair’.

Instead, she wanted to work with her own natural hair, and build on it.

Since then her confidence has grown — as has each successive hairdo. ‘Some people say ‘throw away all the wigs’, but I want to use them — on my terms — and showcase how versatile black hair can be.

‘I can have hundreds of looks, depending on what I do and how big I want to go.’

But when Motsi started on the British Strictly shows, she had a wobble about how ‘statement-y’ she could be about her hair. ‘Hair can be quite triggering; I didn’t want to shock anyone,’ Motsi says.

‘I’d also had experience in TV, early in my career, where people wanted me to look a certain way. I wrote to one of the producers and asked: ‘Is the UK ready for this?’ and she replied: ‘You go, girl’.’

The first few times she did indeed ‘go’, she was astonished at the reaction. ‘People loved it. I got so many letters, particularly from little girls. It’s opened up a debate about women of colour and their hair. It’s something people who aren’t in our community don’t know a lot about.’

All three Mabuse sisters famously waltzed into the very regimented (and very white) world of ballroom dancing. And their hair stayed dutifully ‘neat’. ‘It was unspoken,’ she says. ‘That whole world was very European, which meant long, straight hair, worn flat to the head.’ In her later teens and 20s, Motsi (second from left) discovered chemical relaxers, which break down the structure of the hair and de-frizz it

And now? Well, her hair love has continued to grow. Motsi’s wigs and hairpieces (‘Can I count them? No way! I have no idea. Hundreds’) now have their own cupboard in the Strictly make-up department. She’s had hairpieces, which are mostly made using real hair, flown in from all over the world.

She’s at pains to point out that the base for all of her elaborate styles, often on view, is very much her own hair, ‘which would never have been the case before’. She tells me that they filmed the Strictly Christmas special this week, and in the car afterwards she whipped off her wig and plonked it on her lap.

She duly forgot about it and when she got out of the car, it fell on to the pavement.

‘This very big, very British, man picked it up and said: ‘Madam, you have dropped something . . .’ How was I going to explain this situation?

‘I didn’t. I just took it off him. I don’t think he recognised me, which is maybe a good thing.’

I ask which of her dozens of astonishing hairdos her husband likes the most.

She laughs again. ‘He likes me completely natural,’ she says.

‘We wake up in the morning and he will say: “You are beautiful.”‘

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