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What Nana Mensah Can’t Live Without

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Stephanie Diani

If you’re like us, you’ve probably wondered what famous people add to their carts. Not the JAR brooch and Louis XV chair but the hair spray and the electric toothbrush. We spoke with Ghanaian American actor, writer, and director Nana Mensah about the silk-lined caps that protect her hair, the podcast that instantly lowers her blood pressure, and the do-it-all diaper bag she never leaves home without.

I came into this podcast over the pandemic, and he has really amazing guests. He had Brittany Packnett Cunningham from the Black Lives Matter movement on, and he has a really great episode with Holland Taylor, whom I know and love. And he most recently reissued one with George Saunders, who wrote Lincoln in the Bardo. Sam has this amazing gravitas and smooth voice. Listening to his dulcet tones on a rainy Sunday while going for a walk is like a warm blanket — it feels so lush and just stimulates your heart and your mind and just feels like a safe place, too. As soon as I start hearing the smooth-jazz opener, my blood pressure drops by half. Initially, when you see all these luminaries, you think that it’s gonna be about “How did you get to be who you are?” But Sam’s not interested in that. He does incredible research, but really he’s just connecting with his guests as human beings. I don’t think it’s an accident that I discovered it during the pandemic when I wasn’t allowed to connect with anybody. Hearing two tender people, without their armor, connecting on this podcast is really special.

Unsun is a really great Black-owned brand that makes mineral sunscreen that does not give you that crazy Casper the Friendly Ghost white cast like tinted mineral sunscreen does. I use the medium/dark shade. If I’m doing a Zoom or I’m being photographed in any way, sometimes the flash will bring out a little bit of a white cast, but then I just add a little bit of powder over it and I’m good to go. I feel like I’m doing my thing to prevent premature aging and cancer and all those terrible things. I discovered Unsun through the spa and skin-care retail shop Heyday, which was started by one of my best friends from college. Heyday has a very curated retail section, and it doesn’t push you to buy stuff. My Heyday esthetician was really well versed in Black skin and darker skin, which does not age in the same way as lighter skin, and taught me so much about my skin and skin care. I started getting compliments from makeup artists on set, which is like the highest compliment. I feel really grateful that I got into skin care in this very roundabout way. I started going to support my friend, and then it developed into a love of skin care on my own.

New York has great-tasting water, and you don’t really think about the petrochemicals, but in London, it’s a little bit more front of mind because the water doesn’t taste so good. A friend of mine put me onto Berkey. Its carbon filters last for ten years, so I love that the company isn’t trying to get you to rebuy something every couple of years. It’s stainless steel and sits very subtly in your kitchen. Every night before I go to bed, I just dump a bunch of tap water in there. And then I wake up in the morning and the chamber is full, and that’s the water that we drink for the day — 2.25 gallons is basically enough for my husband, me, and a guest.

I learned about these from my acting coach. I have almost everything on the website — the Weekender hat, the warm knitted hats — and everything is lined in satin or silk. And I have the Slaps, which I sleep in. “Slap” stands for satin-lined cap. My curly hair is more prone to breakage and, especially during the winter months, there’s a lot of friction and that causes more breakage. You wrap your hair in silk because it reduces the amount of friction and reduces the amount of breakage. My hair has been so much healthier since I started sleeping with these Slaps and swapping out my winter hats for Grace Eleyae winter hats that have satin or silk on the inside. The turban is also one of my favorites. People don’t realize how unbelievably drying air travel is, so instead of wearing my hair out on planes, I will throw one of these turbans on and wear black, and that is my traveling outfit. They’re chic. They’re stylish. You feel so luxurious.

We have two bathrooms in our home, and nobody else uses my bathroom, it’s my space. I have my Byredo soap there, and the smell is so intoxicating. It takes rose and elevates it. It’s spicy. I just feel really rich when I use it, and I love that. I noticed when I wouldn’t invest in the lotion and just got the soap, I wouldn’t want to cover up my scented hands with something else, like Vaseline lotion or something cheap. So I wouldn’t moisturize. Buying the soap and the lotion forces me to moisturize and make sure that my hands are moist. I’m doubling down on this aromatherapy.

I was visiting a friend in Abidjan, and she was like, “Let’s go to Nanawax.” So we went to this boutique, and I spent all my money. That was my introduction to the company. Afrikrea is another online hub pulling together artisans and designers from all over the continent, so that’s how I get my Nanawax delivered. I love the diaper bag. I take it with me everywhere. It’s great for travel and can be carried on its own, which is what I would probably transition to once I don’t need to carry a bag for my baby. It’s got its own changing mat in it and lots of little compartments. It does all the functional things that you want a diaper bag to do but then also looks chic. It holds a lot more than I was expecting. My son needs a change of clothes in case of a blowout; he needs diapers, wipes, a bottle. I can put it all in this container and still feel somewhat like my Virgo neurotic self. There’s a little leather clip thing that I always hook my keys to and just throw in the bag because I hate rummaging for keys.

I’ve been using the Jasmine and Henna treatment for years now. If your hair is curly and frizzy or prone to frizz, it really does help saturate the strands and gives you that perfect little S curl. It smells great. Lush has a bunch of other products that are really good for Black hair, especially Renee’s Shea Soufflé, which is good for giving yourself a scalp massage, and it smells really yummy and makes my hair really happy. With Black hair in general, I think that we’re taught that it needs to be scorched and pulled and twisted into submission. Tamed. But really, curly hair is prone to breakage, so it needs to be wrapped in silk and bathed and finger-detangled and treated like a precious thing so that it can be strong. Existentially, I realized, Well, where else am I bringing a hatchet to a situation that I should be bringing, like, a duvet? That was a big aha moment for me in terms of hair care. Lush products are also really natural. I want to patronize companies that are doing good work, and I think that it’s doing good work in tandem with really great products.

I love so many beautiful things on this site. It’s an online retailer, but it also has a blog where they talk about new, awesome African designers. I remember somebody asking me, “I really like this African designer — if I wear it, is it cultural appropriation?” No, designers want you to wear their stuff. It’s so reductive to think that you can’t wear an African designer unless you’re African. I love Christie Brown. They’re a Ghanaian designer, and the tailoring is really high-end. I have an embroidered wide-leg pant similar to this from a previous season. You can wear it with anything, but then you look at the pocket, and there’s a little bit of wax print detailing that jumps out. I gravitate toward that sort of thing on Industrie Africa. The website is also very easy to navigate. It’ll convert to dollars and pounds. As somebody who’s grown up going to the continent, I know it has not always been that way. To be able to have this elegant, seamless experience that is specifically featuring the continent really makes me excited and proud to share it and say, “Look at the work that we’re doing and the great talent that is in Africa.”

I noticed when I was working continuous days on set, I would use the makeup remover wipes they have in the makeup trailer, and eventually my skin would start overproducing oil. And then I would come to set, and somebody’s gotta stay by dabbing me every time we do a take. Then I got this tip of using coconut oil instead to remove the makeup, and that’s helped balance my skin. If you use the coconut oil in the jar, when it gets cold, it will get solid. And that’s not what you want because it will clog your drain. So whenever I’m wearing makeup, I use fractionated coconut oil as my makeup remover, and it comes right off. I’ll run a makeup washcloth under the water, make it nice and hot, and then do a little facial massage to relieve some stress, especially around the eye socket — get that all off. It doesn’t strip your skin of oil, so when you continue on with your cleansing, it doesn’t make your skin super-dry.

You can go to the beach in Ghana, and it is kind of heartbreaking in some places because you’ll see sneakers and unwanted clothes wash up on the shore. We do our best to keep the beaches clean, but because of the trade currents, a lot of garbage will still end up there. So to see a pair of Nikes that will never decompose … it’s really kind of horrifying. I love Cariuma because the company uses natural rubber and products in the construction of the shoe and the canvas, and it has a big reforestation effort connected with purchasing the shoes. They feel like they’re molded to my foot. They really keep their form and are easy to keep clean. I love dressing up from the ankle up but then wearing my Cariumas so I still feel like a cool kid, you know? On top of that, I know I’m not hurting the planet too much.

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What Nana Mensah Can’t Live Without