Tatyana Ali: 'I Created My Own Standard of Beauty'

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Actress Tatyana Ali talks confidence and her career. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the 90s, a peppy Tatyana Ali sashayed down the Fresh Prince of Bel Air staircase and into our hearts/living rooms. Even before then, we were learning our ABCs with her during Ali’s stint on Sesame Street.

Fast forward into the new millennium. Now 36, the former child star has released music, modeled, continued to act, and graduated from an Ivy League school (…Hey Harvard!). This year, Ali has worked on two short films: Samaria and Teachers, in addition to completing a pilot for a TV series.

She’s also involved with P&G’s My Black is Beautiful (MBIB), a community of more than 2 million. Since the organization’s start nine years ago, more than 3.2 million women and girls have been reached and educated through the Imagine a Future program. More than 2.5 million have seen the MBIB Imagine a Future Documentary, featuring Ali.

Yahoo Beauty: Tell us about the MBIB campaign. How did you get involved?

Tatyana Ali: I got involved a few years ago through the MBIB Imagine a Future Documentary. Beverly Bond [founder of Black Girl’s Rock] asked me to take part in the interviews. I love the message and the call to action. I wish I could have heard these stories when I was younger.

What did you learn from the other women featured in the documentary?

I learned that we all have gone through battles where our self-esteem is concerned. For me, the greatest take away from the documentary is the idea of the people in our lives being mirrors of affirmation. That’s why I love this movement. It has created a community of women and girls who are re-defining black beauty as self-love, responsibility and community action.

One of the first topics is about loving yourself. How do you love yourself?

Loving yourself is all encompassing. Firstly, it starts with how I care for my body. I became a vegetarian around the time that I began working on this campaign. I didn’t expect it to also change the way I interact with my environment and our consumer culture, but it has – completely. Secondly, taking time for myself through meditation is essential. Thirdly, giving and accepting only the best in all of my relationships has built a deeper self-love than I’ve ever felt before.

When do you feel most empowered and beautiful?

I feel most empowered and beautiful when I’m walking in my purpose. That’s different for everyone. For me, it’s my art. When I’m acting, singing or producing I feel aligned with my calling.

How do you create personal self-esteem?

In so many ways, and I practice everyday. I’ll share my first step, which was the toughest but consequently the most important – especially for someone like me who used to believe that love was reciprocal by nature. I had to disconnect myself from bad influences: people who didn’t support me or really care about me. I had to learn my own value and draw very bold lines in the sand in terms of the types of behaviors I would allow in my sphere. I realized that my greatest work of art is my life, and my life is a gift far too precious to be shared with just anybody.

What were things you wanted to change about yourself when you were younger?

I wanted to change my hair. I wanted to change my height. I wanted to change the way I spoke. Basically, all the parts of me that others ostracized or made fun of me for.

Who are your role models?

I surround myself, very deliberately with people I admire. Everyone in my life is a role model for me. I am attracted to kind, creative, intelligent and caring people. At a young age, my grandmother was a huge role model for me. She’s a survivor. She hasn’t let anyone break her down even though life threw some of its most terrible axes at her. She never stops fighting. Even now, suffering through dementia and Alzheimer’s, she’s determined to enjoy life’s blessings.

What are your favorite beauty products, and what does your regimen consist of?

I keep things pretty natural. Cocoa and Shea butter for my body, argan oil for my face and hair. I try to always use a sunblock. I occasionally get facials, but my mom always taught us that simpler is better.

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Tatyana Ali behind-the-scenes.

You have two diverse family backgrounds [Panamanian and Trinidadian]. What was that like growing up? What did each side of your family teach you about beauty?

I was forced to create my own standard for beauty, because I wasn’t exactly the same as any one side of my family. Growing up in a mostly white community in Long Island made things difficult as well. To be truthful, there are a lot of prejudices in the Caribbean and in Indian communities about hair type and skin color. So, I heard the good, the bad and the ugly and had to decide that I didn’t believe any of it.

What was the most important lesson you learned form working at such a young age?

I learned the value of hard work. I learned at a young age that there are ups and downs and that the only thing you can really rely on is your own consistent effort.

Did you ever feel pressured as a child star?

There was pressure but I was lucky to have a mother and father who kept things in perspective. If I was pressured to do anything, it was to do well in school.

Why did you decide to leave the Hollywood spotlight to get an education?

It’s not really complicated. I always wanted to go to college. When my sisters and I were younger, our parents took us on tours of colleges. I always dreamed of going to an Ivy League school. When the time came, it wasn’t even a choice for me. I was extremely determined to go to Harvard, and I did.

The My Black is Beautiful’s documentary. 

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