Debra Messing is best known for playing Grace Adler on NBC's "Will & Grace," a show so popular that it got rebooted 11 years after its original finale. The actress chatted with TODAY Style about sexism in Hollywood, why she originally turned down "Will & Grace" and learning to love her curly hair as part of her work with T.J.Maxx's "The Maxx You Project," an online community and series of workshops that aims to connect women with one another and encourage individuality.
When I was growing up in Rhode Island, I felt like I was literally the only girl in the school with curly, kinky hair. I hated it.
I tried to straighten it and that was really tragic. I wanted softer curls, and so I thought that getting a perm might help that.
That was probably my low point. I looked like a poodle!
For the longest time, I just felt like it made me stand out too much and that everyone else had silky, straight, flowing hair. And then I started working as an actress and all of a sudden people were like, "You've got great hair" and "How unique!" All of a sudden I realized that the thing that made me feel like I was standing out too much was the thing that made me an original. So I no longer try to straighten and iron my hair. I fully embrace it.
To my younger self I say, the things that make you different are the things that make you beautiful.
The turning point for me, I think, was learning about products and trying to make it not frizz. That went a long way to making it look more presentable. I found that the ponytail on top of the head at night was a miracle worker because it would kind of start to loosen the curl a little bit. So in the morning when I took it down it would be a looser, beach-y look instead of such a tight curl. I also learned about curling irons and doing just the top layer of it. Those are my tricks.
My hair has been every color. I'm not exactly sure what the real color is. I look back at my baby pictures and I had dark brown hair. But by the time I was in kindergarten, I was a strawberry blonde. Like, really light red. As I got older it became more auburn. So I have no idea.
To my fellow redheads — fake or real — I say, embrace it. I mean, you stand out. There are not a lot of us, so instead of trying to hide, open up.
It isn't always easy — especially in the entertainment industry.
My first film on set, the director stopped a scene because he hated my nose and asked how quickly a plastic surgeon could come in and fix it. That was shocking. Later on, I had my first TV show and I was asked to wear these silicone cutlets in my bra to make me look big breasted. I just looked in the mirror and I was like, "I look dumb." But it was a formal request. I think that is standard, unfortunately, for most actresses because someone has an ideal of what beauty looks like.
It's the weird thing about being an actor because you're transforming into another character, but it's still you. So men can put on 50 pounds for a role and take it off, and that's seen as being really committed. But if a woman puts on 50 pounds for a role and doesn't get right back to a size 2 afterward, people are not going to be interested in working with her until she is. And that's just sort of the sad reality.
Aging in Hollywood is harder than it should be. I actually feel more beautiful now than I did 30 years ago. I am embracing the changes that come with aging and I wish that Hollywood looked at aging as the beautiful process that it is.
I know that there are a lot of celebrities who don't like to take positions because they're scared they're going to lose followers on Twitter or something. For better or for worse, I'm not concerned about that because I'd rather not be silenced. I've been given a privilege with being given a platform, and I want to use it for good.
As told to TODAY's Emily Sher. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story was first published July 2, 2018.