How the U.K. Film and TV Industry Could Get Closer to Hair and Makeup Equality Through Upcoming Equity-Pact Contract Negotiations

In the coming months, British actors’ union Equity and producer trade body Pact are expected to kick off negotiations to thrash out new contracts that will cover the vast majority of U.K. TV and indie film. There’s going to be several major sticking points on the table, many that are near-identical to those that dominated the lengthy and fraught talks between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP in the U.S. last year, not least secondary payments and the hot-button topic of AI. 

But while these may be the headline grabbers up for discussion, a group of actors have been campaigning for another issue to be part of the negotiations: hair and makeup equality. 

In her 2023 documentary “Untold Stories: Hair on Set,” British actress and filmmaker Fola Evans-Akingbola (“The Night Agent,” “Black Mirror”) brought to light how Afro hair had been shockingly overlooked by the U.K. industry in terms of on-set provisions and knowledge. As the film revealed, for years many Black British actors — including some of the most in-demand stars working in Hollywood today, such a Nathalie Emmanuel (“Megalopolis,” “Fast X”), Naomie Harris (“No Time to Die,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”) and Naomi Ackie (“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Mickey 17”) — have been turning up to shoots to find hair departments without the necessary skills to handle Afro-textured hair as compared to their white co-stars. In many cases, they were forced to arrive hours earlier to do the hair themselves or even send over their own video tutorials to explain certain processes. In some situations, ignorance led to hair being left damaged and broken. 

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Essentially, what “Hair on Set” underlined was that, rather than being able to focus purely on their performance — the very reason they were hired — many Black actors were having to deal with additional burdens. But it wasn’t simply in terms of time and energy — talent also felt the impact emotionally while they were supposed to be preparing for a role. As Emmanuel noted in the film, “It makes you feel like your needs don’t matter.”

In late 2023, Ann Ogbomo (“Justice League,” “The Sandman”) and Cherrelle Skeete (“Hanna,” “Danny and the Human Zoo”) — both of whom appeared in the doc — set up HMU Equality Now, a network aimed at helping “improve the landscape of hair and makeup in British TV and Film.” It’s also been pushing for it to be written in the contracts now up for negotiation. 

When Pact’s TV deal was updated in 2021, a paragraph was added that stated: “Where the provision of hair and makeup is being provided by the producer, the producer shall use reasonable endeavors to provide hair and makeup support of suitable skill and standard to all artists, regardless of ethnicities and cultures represented across the cast.”

As Ogbomo notes, the issue with this clause is over the somewhat open-ended use of the words “reasonable endeavors.” 

“Essentially, as far as we understand it, that means, ‘what’s possible for the average person,’” she explains to Variety. “And at the moment, what is possible for the average person is something that we want to improve, because the average person does not necessarily know what is required.”

The hope is the new agreements sees “reasonable endeavors” replaced with a line insisting that producers “ensure” that provisions are made. “The onus shouldn’t be on the actor in any way,” Skeete says. 

While this contractual tweak may appear minor, it’s one that obviously carries some significant weight when it comes to productions. But Ogbomo and Skeete insist that it’s not something that should be daunting, with the two having spent months researching and consulting with the industry to draw up detailed guidance for those working across the board. 

Key to their suggestions is the proposal that, should a producer not be able to ensure suitable hair and makeup provision themselves, they “engage a highly-skilled consultant who can work side-by-side with their selected hair and makeup head of department.” This consultant can help consider the characters, the potential casting and the hair and makeup requirements to ensure that needs are met. 

HMU Equality Now has numerous of other proposals to go alongside this, including that agents advocate for their clients to producers, hair and makeup artists engage with employers and unions to seek training, and producers speak to their performers to create a culture of dialogue. “This is something that all of us need to be working on, talking to each other about and supporting one another,” Skeete says. 

The hope is that where there had previously been what Ogbomo describes as a “culture and climate of fear” when it came to speaking up about this issue becomes one of collaboration and communication. And it’s something that her and Skeete claim has been welcomed by the key stakeholders they’ve been speaking to — including production companies, producers, commissioners, hair and makeup artists, designers, heads of department and training providers — many of whom put forward guidance of their own. Indeed, they say that many stakeholders, especially those further up the chain, simply didn’t know about the situation before. Yet it has been something with far-reaching implications across a production. 

“There are consequences when things go wrong,” notes Ogbomo, pointing to undue pressure on hair and makeup designers, plus financial impacts on producers, not to mention the emotional effect on actors. “We’re all dependent on each other.”

It’ll likely be many months before the final contracts between Equity and Pact are ironed out. But Skeete and Ogbomo say there’s now a willingness from the industry to change when it comes to hair and makeup. They insist many producers are already doing great work, but with HMU Equality Now — which now boasts a network of more than 200 performers — there is a central point for those who need support that hadn’t existed before. 

And while hair and makeup equality may be one specific issue, it obviously taps into a far broader subject, one that has become hugely important across the industry and further afield.

“It feels like this is a microcosm for actually having a conversation about something that none of us started,” Ogbomo says. “We are not responsible for the legacy that race has set for us. But it feels like a massive opportunity. Because if this is a little dot and you can do it here, imagine how that can ripple out.” 

This post was originally published on Variety

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