“Celebs—they’re just like us!” is a phrase we collectively toss around in jest, but every so often a celebrity reminds us exactly how human they are, and awe is replaced by empathy. Lately, actress and activist Taraji P. Henson has been that celeb, pulling back the curtain on her Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award-winning life to crusade for mental health in the black community by creating the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (which she’s previously discussed with The Root).
As the cover star of Self magazine’s December issue, Henson’s even more transparent. In addition to elaborating on her mental health focus, she gets real on the experience of being a maturing woman—though at a fit and fly 49, she’s helping redefine the term.
And yes, Henson also gets candid about her relationships with controversial Empire costars Terrence Howard and Jussie Smollett, the latter of which she says “I love like a mother.”
There’s similar maternal energy when Henson recalls her pre-fame days as a substitute teacher in underserved schools—or post-stardom, the anxiety that grew as the murder of Trayvon Martin drove home the fact that her celebrity wouldn’t save her own son from being targeted as a young black man in America. Speaking on the more benign but still insidious microaggressions black people face daily, she tells Self:
“This moment in history is another ‘Here, take this’ to us, again reminding us that we are nothing, that our lives do not matter. Constantly, every day, we’re reminded…and we’re supposed to be okay. It’s a lot.”
It is a lot—and those of us who grapple with similar anxieties are generally familiar with its equally evil twin, depression. “It’s hard to climb up out of it,” Henson admits—and girl, don’t we know it.)
Despite the many strong women she’s played on screen, the “strong black woman” trope is one the actress continuously rejects, admitting, “There are some times where I feel absolutely helpless. That’s human. Everybody feels like that. Just because I’m a black woman, don’t put that strong-superhero thing on me.”
“The shit we been through, the fact that we’re able to put on a smile and be a friend. Girl, that’s [a] superhero,” she later says.
Henson’s coping mechanism? Therapy, which “came into play out of necessity,” she says. “It was [a] time where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m just not feeling like myself anymore.’” Empire costar Gabourey Sidibe graciously shared her therapist—a black woman who possessed the cultural competency to help Henson navigate the specifically intersectional issues and disappointments fueling her angst. “When you find that right person, oh my God, the sky cracks open,” she now says.
But for us aging female Gen X-ers now living in a
millennial Gen Z-focused world, there’s more to relate to in Henson’s cover story. Take, for instance, the very real and steadily encroaching inevitability of menopause, which came as a rude awakening to the star.
“I was just starting to feel heavy a lot, [like] suffocating,” she tells Self. “It just came out of nowhere.”
Again, Henson’s therapist was a source of comfort—as were the women in her circle.
“Find you a group of women that are going through the same thing,” she says. “Talk and laugh about it...If you sit on that toilet and you don’t flush that shit, it’s going to consume you.”
Not that age is slowing Henson down; she’s currently engaged to former NFL cornerback Kelvin Hayden, 6 feet tall and 13 years her junior. While Henson admits putting up significant resistance to the relationship, “He had to suck in his pride and he still didn’t stop,” she says, sharing that she was holding out for enduring, unconditional love—and found it. “I said, ‘That’s my husband.’”
For those of us navigating our own relationships, Henson reassuringly disputes the notion we have to have ourselves figured out to let the right one in. Instead, she poses the question: “How do you maneuver and do the work with this other person involved? That’s the real work.”
What else is Henson working on? In addition to acting, producing, and planning a wedding, we can also look forward to her joining contemporaries Gabrielle Union and Tracee Ellis Ross in launching her own haircare line, TPH by Taraji, reportedly due early next year. It’s a full plate, with responsibilities and visibility most of us can’t begin to comprehend—until Henson once again makes it all relatable,
“I’m a whole black woman, whatever comes with that,” she says. “All the emotions, all of the rage, the anger, the love, the hurt, the hope, the despair, the strength, the vulnerability. I’m all of that.”
Self’s December issue is available on newsstands and online now.