Why NBC’s Tamron Hall’s Hair Is News

She isn’t the first journalist to sport natural hair on air, but it is still a rare enough occurrence to make headlines

@TODAYshow tweet: @AlRoker wants to know, should @TamronHall keep her hair natural?

@TODAYshow tweet: @AlRoker wants to know, should @TamronHall keep her hair natural?

It shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is. On Friday Tamron Hall unveiled her new, short and sassy natural hairstyle on NBC’s “Today” show.

Natural hair blogger Nikki Walton, aka Curly Nikki, blogged about the news and tagged it #TodayShowHistory on Twitter; and Ebony Magazine played it up on the home page of its website. Even the ‘Today’ show itself published a blog post about Hall’s hair, and made it a topic of discussion on air.

“It’s my first time wearing natural hair in my life,” Hall announced in response to prompts from fellow hosts Al Roker and Carson Daly.

Hall, anchor of the third hour of the ‘Today’ show and host of MSNBC’s “News Nation,” isn’t the first woman to wear natural hair on television. She isn’t even the first journalist. But it is still a rare enough occurrence to make headlines.

In terms of network news, it’s important to note that ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts wore her short, natural hair on air last year, but only after she underwent a bone marrow transplant. Roberts had previously worn a wig when she returned to the airwaves in 2007 after battling breast cancer.  Two women journalists are pointed to as trailblazers when it comes to going natural on air: NPR host Michel Martin, who wore a short natural Afro as a correspondent for ABC News, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who wore braids as a correspondent for the “Newshour” on PBS. Martin still wears short natural styles, while Hunter-Gault now often sports her long locs in curls, waves or twists.

But it hasn’t always been easy for professional women to sport natural hair styles in the workplace. This is especially true for journalists who work on camera and have to be particularly sensitive to how viewers respond to their appearance. In 1971, management for WABC-TV in New York threatened to keep correspondent Melba Tolliver off air if she didn’t change her Afro or cover it with a hat or scarf. The station reversed its decision after public outcry. In 1981, award-winning reporter Dorothy Reed of KGO-TV in San Francisco was suspended for two weeks for wearing cornrows on air. Nearly two years ago Rhonda Lee, a weather woman for a Louisiana ABC affiliate station, was fired after she responded to a viewer’s complaints about her natural hair.

An inability to wear hair in a natural style is one reason A’Lelia Bundles said she preferred to work behind the camera when she joined NBC News in 1976. “I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do with my hair,” Bundles said. “At the time I still had a very large Afro and I knew it potentially would be enough of a problem for some members of the audience that I didn’t want to fight that battle or have to fight that battle with my employer.”

In contrast, on Friday Hall praised the ‘Today’ show team on Twitter for supporting her natural look.

Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o may be making short naturals more fashionable but Bundles, a black hair historian and former TV news executive, said Hall’s unveiling is not necessarily a sign that times are changing when it comes to black hair and women journalists who work on air.

Hall, Bundles said, likely had to make sure she had secured her position as a full-fledged member of the “Today” team before she could unveil her natural hair.

I’d say it’s more a confirmation that one has to have ‘tenure’ before one can do this,” said Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of hair care industry pioneer Madam C. J. Walker and author of The New York Times best-selling “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.”

“Now that (Hall) has the signed contract and has proven herself to be a part of the team with internal and enough external acceptance, she’s secure enough to be able to take the wig off and put away the flat iron,” added Bundles. “I’d be curious to know the conversations with her executive producer and other NBC execs before she did this.” 

Hall tweeted that she was out late and only got four hours of sleep before she had to wake up and get ready for work. “Simply too tired to blow dry and flat iron my hair,” she posted in response to a slew of inquiries on social media shortly after 7:30 a.m. Friday.

Most, if not all, of the feedback Hall received on Twitter was positive, including tweets from fellow women journalists.