Jennifer Saayeng

“What much of society believes to be beautiful isn’t really in line with bald Black women”: Jennifer Saayeng on her alopecia journey and the importance of representation

The actor discusses her latest role in HBO Max’s Raised By Wolves and the significance of playing a bald woman on screen amid her alopecia journey.

The first time Jennifer Saayeng noticed signs of hair loss was while appearing in Hairspray thirteen years ago.

The Capture star was on the final leg of the tour in Edinburgh when she remembers sitting in a chair and spotting a tiny bald patch on the corner of her head.

This one small patch that Saayeng discovered marked the beginning of her difficult journey with alopecia – a type of hair loss that can affect just about any part of your body.

“I assumed one of my extensions must’ve been pulled out and not realised,” she recalls. “But then gradually, I would lose bits and it would grow back until eventually I lost more and it never returned.”

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This pivotal moment changed Saayeng’s relationship with her hair, which began with the difficult lack of representation and global acceptance of afro hair to losing it all without having the choice.

“I really didn’t appreciate my hair until it fell out,” Saayeng tells Stylist. “I’d give anything to just have that back no matter how tough or curly or dry or whatever it was. I think that has been the biggest lesson, just appreciating what you have along with the reality that none of this was a choice.”

The actor’s journey with alopecia has coincided with her rising stardom, which began as a young musical theatre student at The Brit School of Performing Arts and the London Studio Centre and has since seen her star in a variety of theatre and film productions from The Color Purple and Death of a Salesman to TV drama Cursed and her latest role in sci-fi drama Raised By Wolves.

“During lockdown, I was lucky enough to get the audition for Raised By Wolves,” says Saayeng. “I did a self-tape which I sent off and it was successful. Once I got the part I just loved that the world was so different to anything I’d seen before and one of the immediate thoughts I had was that I can play this role bald and that my look is perfect for this world.”

The HBO Max show, which is executively produced by Ridley Scott, follows two androids who are tasked with raising human children on a virgin planet after earth has been destroyed.

In the second season of the series, Saayeng plays the badass character of Nerva, who is not only a fiercely independent and resilient leader but a character who embraces all aspects of herself and allows Saayeng to as well.

“This role really gave me the opportunity to embody that sort of power on the outside. It’s really difficult with alopecia to find that daily, let alone on screen or on stage, but being able to immerse myself in that world by putting on that big leather jacket and those belts and having the tattoo down my neck was really empowering. I was able to embrace all the good sides of what this look might say to the world.”

Raised By Wolves is significant not only as Saayeng’s first venture into the world of sci-fi but also as the first role she has played bald.

Jennifer Saayeng
Jennifer Saayeng

“I took a long time to not accept it [alopecia] but give myself time to almost mourn the real loss of my hair,” she says. “It’s really mixed up in your identity and what you look like, especially with beauty ideals and what I think much of society believes to be beautiful or sexy or cute isn’t really in line with bald Black women.

“So being able to play this role where they were rubbing dirt on my nails was just so raw and not polished.

“And in this show, there is no comment on the image and what you look like it’s not even secondary. People are just there, they look the way they look and It’s not part of the story. But really, I think to the audience, it says a lot. The fact that we’re not commenting on it I think is really powerful.”

Over the years, the entertainment industry has served as an important backbone for Saayeng along her alopecia journey.

Jennifer Saayeng
Jennifer Saayeng

“I feel like it’s been a brilliant industry to deal with alopecia as all these people that I’ve come across have expertise that I can draw from,” she says.

“I was lucky because at the time I was able to cover up what was going on underneath the wigs. The bald patches that were appearing, nobody would know about and that’s because along the way I met all these amazing hairstylists who would teach me how to bandage my head or how to secure a wig and so on.

“I lost my eyebrows and some of the makeup artists would teach me how to draw my eyebrows. It’s been amazing to play with hair and makeup as a result of playing a real plethora of characters, but now just being really unapologetically me in this show is so freeing.”

Starring in Raised By Wolves – in all her bald glory – represents not only a progression in Saayeng’s journey but also the ability to provide representation for other women dealing with similar struggles – particularly for Black women where hair can often become political.

“It’s great to see more people represented on screen, in magazines, on catwalks and so on.

“Just being a presence on those mediums can affect change and to be a representation for people as a dark-skinned woman on-screen is great to be a part of.”

Raised by Wolves is available to watch now on Sky Atlantic and NOW

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