Stranded: Model Khadijha Red Thunder Tells Us Her Curly-Hair Love Story

When Khadijha Red Thunder was a little girl, all she wanted was curly hair. Her Native-American aunts and uncles had thick, glossy strands, but there was only one person whose hair she lusted after: her mother’s. “She had these amazing curls down to her butt,” Khadijah says. “She would put my hair in braids and pull it out to try to make it curly, but no matter what she did, my hair wouldn’t get curly.”

During this time, Khadijha turned to what she calls “water styling,” where you style your hair into twists, braids, and buns when it’s wet, and then allow it to dry overnight for curls in the morning. After years of experimentation, the hair gods finally answered her prayers. “I remember getting out of the shower and looking in the mirror and thinking, Am I going crazy, or is my hair going curly?” she laughs. “It was a miracle. I woke up with big boobs and curly hair.”

Nowadays, the doe-eyed Spokane, Washington, native lends her face to campaigns for Marc Jacobs Beauty and Free People, “bodacious” curls intact. When I ask if she could ever picture herself with different hair, her answer is definitive. “I try everything, but I would never permanently change my curls,” she says. “They are my life. I love them.” And would you, if you finally had something you’d been dreaming of since childhood?

Especially in a society that has pushed one idea of “beautiful” hair (namely straight or, at the very most, acceptably wavy) for so long, Khadijha’s love story with her curls is refreshing—and one that will hopefully be the rule, not the exception, in years to come. Ahead, find out Khadijha Red Thunder’s hair routine and strand story.

How has your Native-American heritage affected the way you perceive beauty?

Beauty with a really important thing in my household. I grew up with a lot of women. I was raised by two strong, beautiful, independent women, and they all wanted me to make sure I was healthy and took care of myself and taught me that being healthy started from inside. I started doing my hair when I was 5. I think it also started because of my heritage. Growing up, getting ready for powwows and getting the barrettes and all the different type of stuff I would use to accessorize my outfit—my home was really about being beautiful and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

What’s your earliest hair memory?

I will never forget the day. It was the first day I did my hair in a perfect ponytail. It was the ’90s, and having your hair in that sleek, low ponytail was everything. When you’re a little kid, you don’t really have the strength to use a hair tie. I remember when I secured my hair back into a perfect low ponytail, and it was 6 in the morning, and I immediately jumped in my mom’s bed and was like, “I did my hair!”

Then another time when I was 6, I had this auntie who was so phenomenal at doing hair; she would do my hair at pow wows and braid it. And she was doing one of my little cousin’s hair, and I was like, I don’t know why I can’t braid! Then I was like, this and this and this and bam, I was braiding. I’m super girly and also a really big tomboy. My mom is one of 11, and I grew up with six uncles and four aunties. So I’ve had a big influence of both. When I learned how to do makeup and how to pluck my brows and do my hair, those are monumental moments in my life. Those are things you never forget.

Did you always embrace your curly hair? Did you ever go through times when you wished it were different?

Growing up, my hair was straight. It was not curly at all. All I wanted was curly hair. When I was 13, I cut it shorter (I had always had my hair past my butt), and bam, it just got super curly literally overnight, in the matter of a week. I was so happy! My hair has changed dramatically. My body did too. Everything changed dramatically once I became a teenager. Each year it just gets curlier and curlier. It’s pretty crazy.

What does your hair look like when you feel most like yourself, like most confident?

I feel myself in my hair is just when I do it. I can’t roll out of bed and leave the house. If my hair is “done”—whether it’s in an updo, natural, every other state of my hair other than when I don’t do it—is when I feel most like myself. I like wearing my hair slicked back when I’m not working, just to keep it out of my face and protected.

How do you get your curls to look the way they do currently?

It’s a process. I shampoo first, but then I rinse it out by brushing [the shampoo] through my hair with a comb. I also really scrub my roots to exfoliate my scalp so that all those dead skin cells and product buildup come off. You really have to get in there and scrub, scrub, and scrub. I switch between one from Biolage and Nexxus Caviar Complex—they’re my favorites and make my hair so soft, so shiny, so supple. Then I condition my hair. I start at the root and brush the conditioner through my hair, and then I start at my tips, then brush from the bottom up. It’s the best way to brush your hair without losing so much.

Usually, because I brush my hair when I shampoo it, I’m good to do it from top to bottom then bottom to top. I brush my hair a bunch—I use three different brushes and one comb. It’s not confirmed, but I find that it helps with split ends. I’ll use a regular brush with plastic balls on the tip, then a combination brush with natural bristles and plastic bristles, then I’ll use just a bristle brush and then a comb. I use them in the shower and out of the shower while my hair is still damp.

Once my hair is dried, I can’t brush it at all. It’ll make my hair look frizzy. I can only brush my hair and comb it before it dries. You know that saying, brush your hair like it’s gold? I honestly feel like it really helps with your hair follicles and your split ends come back together and all that good stuff. So I do that, then when I get out of the shower, I use droplets of vitamin E oil and just put it around my scalp and massage it in while my hair is still damp so my scalp really absorbs all the oil. I also like to apply a little on the tips. Just a little bit, not too much.

Then I go through and brush that through, and then I part my hair and scrunch just a little bit of leave-in conditioner throughout—or I’ll even use normal conditioner diluted with a little bit of water. It makes for a really fluffy, weightless curl. I don’t like too much product. Sometimes I’ll use Garnier Fructis Curl-Sculpt Conditioning Cream Gel ($4), but that’s it. Then I go through and define some of the curls. Sometimes I’ll have to go back and re- brush the back part in the bottom [near my neck]; it’s the part that gets the least moisture because we focus so much on the front around our face. So I always go back there and re-brush it, re-wet it, put a little extra conditioner. That’s my secret.

Then, I let it air-dry. Because of my job, I’ll have to wash and condition my hair sometimes daily. If I’m not working every day or shooting, then I can typically wash my hair once every other day. It’s real work! It takes time and consistency and persistence. But since I started doing my hair when I was so young, there’s no other way to get around it. I’m not the kind of person who can straighten it and leave it straight for so long. You can half-ass it and know it’ll look decent, but for it to look really good, you have to put in work.

What’s a memorable hair experience—either good or bad—you’ve had on set?

My worst shoot experience was because of the hairstylist. He was a wonderful hairstylist, but he didn’t know how to work with my kind of hair. My hair is a combination of fine and coarse. It was my fault as well; we both of kind of played a role in this. Usually I do this thing where I deep-condition my hair with baby oil and wash it out. I wash it out twice if I’m working or once if I’m not working. I didn’t get confirmed until the night before, so I washed my hair only once; I didn’t wash all the oil out of my hair.

When I got to work, what he should have done was wash my hair out. I told him to. He wanted to straighten it, but for my hair personally, if I have product in it, it won’t straighten properly, and there will be too much moisture in my hair. I told him if we rinse my hair out and go through it with a blow- dryer, it would be straight. He said we would have to shampoo it. I wasn’t trying to disagree with him, because he was a professional, but I know I knew my hair best. He kind of embarrassed me because instead of listening to me, he just blow-dried it, and because there was oil still in my hair, it was kind of evaporating in the air and making it smell bad. It was a really bad experience.

All day he was making snarky remarks and comments about my hair. It felt like something more than what it actually was. It made me never want to work with that brand again, and it was all because of how the hairstylist handled it. Just take input. It’s not that anyone is telling you you’re doing your job wrong. It’s just like, my hair is this way—everybody is different.

What’s your advice to hairstylists to avoid making others feel this way?

Empathy. Just be more empathetic. Compromise, even though you’re a professional and you may have been doing it for so long. Hairstylists should take into account the details people are explaining to them. And don’t make them feel like any less of a person just because their hair is a little bit more difficult than the next person’s. To be empathetic can go a long way and can make the shoot so much better.

What’s the one product you can’t live without?

Conditioner. Nexxus Humectress Caviar Complex Conditioner ($13) or the Biolage Ultra Hydrasource Conditioner ($19).

One word you’d use to describe your hair:


Tell us more about your admiration for your mom’s hair:

I grew up around Native Americans. My mom was the only one who was Black, so she was the only one who had curly hair. Seeing my mom with her big, bodacious curls played such a big part in how I perceive hair. Just how a parent, in general, affects everything. She never complained about her hair being curly; she was always embracing it. She was just so beautiful and carried herself so elegantly. I don’t know—seeing a woman so strong and beautiful and natural, to me, all she has to do is wash her hair and bam, she’s just the amazing entity, this phenomenon. It’s what I’ve always felt since I was younger.

Straightening her hair was a rarity. She taught me from a young age that it was damaging to apply heat to your hair. I wasn’t allowed to use heating tools. My mom always was like, It’s such a waste of time. You look more beautiful with the hair that’s on your head rather than forcing it to go this way or that way. That being said, it’s still fun to change it up. She just really showed me the best route was to be your natural curly self. I used to call her curls “curlies” and be like, “All I want are curlies!” Seeing her really made me love curly hair.

Compared to my other friends who are also mixed who grew up with two different cultures and saw beautiful women on television everywhere with straight hair, it totally affects and hinders their outlook on having curly hair. It would be seen as “wild” or “sexy”—they kind of sexualize curly hair. It wasn’t an elegant thing. But seeing my mom being so elegant and ladylike with curly hair, feeling like she was embracing her true self, I’ve always liked that. She’s always taught me that.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your mom?

We are the creators of humans. If we start loving ourselves more and starting from a young age and teach our children that as women, it’s just such an important thing. Self-love is where world peace will stem from.

Do you agree that switching up your hair can also be empowering in its own way?

I look at every other girl who has naturally curly hair, except for some, and I think we look ridiculous with straight hair! It looks like we’re forcing ourselves to be something we’re not. But I still do it too. [Laughs.] It’s still fun to be a different girl. But I love my curls. I’ve always wanted curly hair. It’s a piece of me.

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