Gabby Douglas's Mom Takes on Her Daughter's Hair Haters: 'If She Feels Good About Herself, Who Are You To Criticize Her?'

LONDON--Gabby Douglas, our new gymnastics golden girl, is arguably the biggest star in town right now (yeah, even bigger than you, Ryan Lochte). Aft
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LONDON--Gabby Douglas, our new gymnastics golden girl, is arguably the biggest star in town right now (yeah, even bigger than you, Ryan Lochte). Aft
Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

LONDON--Gabby Douglas, our new gymnastics golden girl, is arguably the biggest star in town right now (yeah, even bigger than you, Ryan Lochte).

After helping Team USA handily win gold at the women's team finals, she went on to become the first African American woman in history to win a gold medal in the women's individual all-around finals. And she's not done yet! She has one last individual apparatus final to go this week, and her supportive family is still in London to see her through to the end.

I caught up with Natalie Hawkins, Gabby's mom, at the P&G Family Home in London (the home is a refuge for athletes and their families as no family members are allowed in the athletes' village) where she gave me the biggest warmest hug ever. Hawkins famously let Gabby go to train with coach Liang Chow in Iowa at the age of 14, where she lives with a host family (see their incredible story here). Here's what this fierce mama bear had to say about Gabby's hair controversy (she's been attacked on social media because her hair wasn't "done" enough), her personal style, and fighting with her daughter over wearing high heels.

Fashionista: Gabby’s a teenager, is she into fashion? What are some of her favorite brands? Natalie Hawkins: She loves Aeropostale. I think she has every one of their shirts and their jackets. And she’s so tiny {Ed. Note: She’s 4’ 11”}, we actually have had to shop at the Limited Too for shorts. She wears a child 12 in bottoms because she’s just so tiny.

Does she have a hard time fitting into clothes? 
Her waist is very tiny. Trying to find clothes that accommodate her waist line is difficult and she’s broad somewhat up top. We want [her clothes] to be age appropriate. You don’t want to buy a dress made for an 8-year-old even though she could probably fit in it. It’s very difficult to find things that a 16-yr-old would want to wear. We usually go into five to seven stores before we find a dress.

Do you ever fight over what she wears? Actually no. She likes to keep her clothes very classy, very tasteful. I pick out a lot of her clothes–I shop for her. Her host mom shops for her also, and I’ve never picked out an outfit where she’s said, “Oh I don’t like it.”

That’s pretty amazing, actually. I wouldn’t have let my mom pick out my clothes! The shoes are the big thing. She’s not a little girl anymore. She’s 16, she wants to wear heels now. Now I say, “Those are too high” and she’s like, “I am 16 now.” And I say, “But they’re too high can you even walk in them?” and she says, “I can balance myself on a four inch beam and do things that shouldn’t even be humanly possible, so I can navigate some heels.” [Ed. note: Fair enough.]

So did you let her? What are the highest heels she’s worn? I have. Probably about three and a half inches.

OK now some leotard questions. For other competitions where she doesn’t have to wear a team uniform, what’s the process for choosing a leotard, and does she ever repeat a competition leotard? We try not to. We try to have a different leotard for every competition. We actually design our own leos. At the Secret Classic and Visa Championships we had to design three leos and that’s very challenging because you have to get the right color combinations, the right Swarovski crystal patterns, and it’s just hard to make it all work.

What do you do with them if she doesn’t re-wear them?
 She just saves them all. She has a special little cubby that she keeps them all in. Now we joke, “We’re gonna put those things on eBay!”

A lot of the girls go all-out with their makeup. Does Gabby do her own makeup?
 Mostly at competitions I do it. She’s locked away in the athletes village here so she’s been doing her own makeup. I understand they had someone there helping them with their makeup, too. She likes a really natural look, she doesn’t like anything over the top.

So let’s talk about this hair controversy now.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

So let’s talk about this hair controversy now. I started hearing about [her hair] earlier this year actually. I started trying to be proactive about her hair before all of that happened. What is funny is I had someone come do her hair before the Olympics. We put all this effort into getting her hair done and they still didn’t like it!

Was the issue about flyaways or something? She didn't have flyaways! When you look at pictures it’s tight back just like everyone else’s, and all of the girls had the messy ponytails which is just their generation. Most of the women who were commenting I think are a little bit older.

Did Gabby hear about it? That’s probably the last thing she needs to hear about while she’s competing in the Olympics. She did.

Was she stressed out about it? She said,”Really?! I won two gold medals and made history and my hair is trending?” So we laughed about it. We made a huge joke out of it and I was quick to try to diffuse that situation. Because I thought, “How ignorant is it of people to comment on her hair and she still has more competitions to go. Are you TRYING to ruin her self confidence? She has to go out there and feel good about herself, and if she feels good about herself on that floor, who are YOU to criticize her? What have YOU done to help contribute to her dream, that you felt it necessary to put it out there so that she could see it."

At this level in her career, hair is somewhat secondary. It was actually her coach who told me that. I was trying to get her into a hair appointment and I wanted to move her training schedule around and he said to me, “She’s beautiful. You don’t need to change her hair. We need to focus on training. Hair is secondary. We make time for that after training. Don’t mess with my training time.” And then too, I don’t think people realize sometimes that she doesn’t live with me. She lives with a white host family and they don’t know anything about taking care of her hair. And there’s no black salons in their area [in Iowa]--not one. We had to work really hard to find a stylist to come and do her hair.

What does she get done to it? She gets relaxer but we try not to relax it too much. It’s really been African American women that have come out and attacked her. They don’t know about gymnastics. She has to keep her hair in a ponytail 28-30 hours a week. In gymnastics you’re tumbling around on your hair. You’re falling backwards on it. You’re doing “timers” and your hair is constantly snagging on the mat, and for our hair that’s very detrimental. You’re going into foam pits--and any hair stylist will tell you that foam on African American hair is destructive. It breaks the hair horribly. We had to come up with creative ways to keep [Gabby's] hair looking good. We’ve tried the short hair style, we’ve tried long. We grew her hair out because she preferred long hair. I’m not going to make her cut her hair just to please someone else.

So what have people been saying to you about it? Across America the hair stylists have been coming out--and I have to thank them--because they have come out in unison and said, “What was wrong with her hair? She’s an athlete.” To see that the number of people supporting her is much greater than the number of people speaking out against her really gave us a lot of comfort and it really comforted my daughter to see that it was only a small number of those women who for whatever reason thought it was OK to comment. Gabrielle Union and Serena Williams both tweeted and supported Gabby. She hasn’t given it another moment’s thought.

Disclosure: I am a guest of P&G at the Olympics. The brand provides perks like free laundry service, unlimited Budweiser (so American!), meals, and a pretty amazing full-service salon at the P&G House where athletes and their families can get their hair and makeup done (with Pantene and CoverGirl products, obvi). Most of all, the house, it's a safe haven where families can congregate with other Olympic families. Hawkins and her family have been regulars there.