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If you watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, you’re probably questioning the “inspired” in the title. It’s pretty apparent the miniseries isn’t your standard biopic, but that doesn’t make the real-life Madam Walker any less bold or audacious.

Adapted from On Her Own Ground, a biography by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, Self Made tells the rags-to-riches tale of Sarah Breedlove, a former washerwoman who became a beauty tycoon after creating a line of hair products for black women. There are two facts you need to know about Walker: She was real, and she was a powerhouse. A century later, you can still see her influence on the beauty industry, and Sephora even released a series of Madam Walker-inspired products.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker

Scribner

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker

Her story in Self Made is a fierce call-to-action for any hopeful entrepreneur, but that doesn’t mean viewers won’t walk away with questions. Below, we assess what’s fact and what’s fiction in Netflix’s newest series.

(Spoilers for Self Made below.)

Was Walker orphaned by seven and married by 14?

Yes. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were formerly enslaved people freed before her birth in Louisiana in 1867. According to History.com, Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) was their fifth child and the first in the family born free. Her parents died before she was seven, and she went to work in cotton fields, according to PBS. To escape her abusive brother-in-law, Walker married Moses McWilliams at age 14. Their daughter Lelia was born when Walker was 18, but McWilliams died from unknown causes by the time she was 20. She married twice more, to John Davis and then, of course, C.J. Walker.

Were Sarah’s three brothers all barbers?

Yes, and she learned hair care through them after her first husband died, according to On Her Own Ground and the National Trust For Historic Preservation (NTHP).

Madam C.J. Walker Portrait
Madam C.J. Walker circa 1914.

Michael Ochs ArchivesGetty Images

Was Addie Munroe a real person?

Yes and no. There was never an Addie Munroe (she is apparently a composite of several characters from Walker’s era, according to the NTHP), but there was an Annie Turnbo Malone.

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Carmen Ejogo as Addie Munroe in Self Made.

Amanda Matlovich/Netflix

Malone sold her own hair care products, which Walker depended on when neglect, bacteria, pollution and lice caused her to develop a scalp disease, according to Biography.com. But, unlike in Self Made, Walker did actually sell Malone’s products. In the show, Addie refuses to let Walker become one of her saleswomen, telling her that she doesn’t have the right “look.” In other words, she wasn’t a black “Gibson Girl,” a turn-of-the-century advertising icon drawn to personify the ideal female. This cruel comment launches their rivalry, as Walker rightfully believes women of color should not have to aspire to a white standard of beauty.

But in reality, this exchange likely never took place. Walker sold Malone hair care products in St. Louis and Denver, according to Bundles’ biographical blog, before marrying C.J. Walker and launching her own line.

Were Malone and Walker actually rivals?

Yes, though the events around their feud are not as clear as Self Made makes them out to be. Bundles writes that, not long after Walker and C.J. married, “there was a rift of some kind…that caused Madam Walker to sever ties with Malone.” There are few clues as to what exactly happened, though Bundles believes they were never close allies. “I’ve come to believe that the relationship with Malone was an important catalyst that helped Sarah Breedlove McWilliams escape St. Louis and a troubled second marriage,” Bundles writes. “But I’ve also come to think the relationship was more transactional than collaborative.”

There is also no evidence that Malone recruited Walker’s son-in-law to gather her secrets, nor that she poached Walker’s workers.

Did Walker steal Malone’s formula to create her “Wonderful Hair Grower”?

This is also shrouded in mystery: Was Walker’s hair grower a copy of Malone’s? According to Collectors Weekly, Malone wrote a letter in a Denver newspaper accusing Walker of stealing her recipe. Although Walker’s hair grower was indeed a tweaked version of Annie’s, it’s difficult to say whether it was directly copied. Several other women sold similar “secret” formulas at the time, according to Bundles, so it’s unlikely they all came from the same source.

Madam C.J. Walker Driving
Madam C.J. Walker driving a car circa 1911.

Smith Collection/GadoGetty Images

Was Sarah’s son-in-law the actual worst, like he is in the show?

Lelia Walker’s first husband, John Robinson, did indeed seem to be…not great. He was a hotel worker whom she divorced in 1914, according to Bundles, and there’s no evidence he ever opened that legendary juke joint he promised in Self Made. Considering Lelia went on to marry twice more, he might not have been the worst of the brood, however.

Did Walker also marry more than once?

She married three times. Her first husband died, and the other two (including C.J., ugh) both cheated on her. She deserved better.

Was Booker T. Washington that sexist?

Early in Self Made, when Walker tries to get Booker T. Washington to endorse her product, she interrupts his speech in an effort to corner him. He later tells Walker, “The negro man needs to be lifted first.” As in, black women come second. Oh, and he thinks cosmetic products are frivolous.

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington.

Interim ArchivesGetty Images

The reality of Walker’s exchange with Washington was a little different. According to an article by Bundles, Walker did wish to speak at the 1912 National Negro Business League, where she tried to connect with Washington, at the time one of the most powerful African-American men alive. He ignored her at first, like in Self Made, in part because he believed her products spurred black women to try and look like white women.

At the convention, Walker stood up and addressed him from the audience. He was indeed annoyed by her performance, Bundles writes, though there’s no evidence of a contentious exchange afterward. Instead, Walker eventually became something like an ally to Washington. He visited her home during the dedication of the Indianapolis YMCA; she contributed money to the Tuskegee Institute, which he founded; and a year later, at the next NNBL convention, he brought her on as a keynote speaker.

Did Lelia really move to New York and run the Dark Tower salon in Harlem?

Yes. But there’s much more to Lelia’s story than in Self Made. Bundles, who is writing a new book about Lelia titled The Joy Goddess of Harlem (due in 2021), writes that Lelia, later known as A’Lelia, was a patron of the arts, an eccentric and flamboyant hostess, a fashion trendsetter, and even a defining voice of the Harlem Renaissance. When she died in 1931, Langston Hughes himself wrote it was “the end of an era.”

A'Lelia Walker Getting a Manicure
A’Lelia Walker gets a manicure at one of Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty shops.

George RinhartGetty Images

Was Lelia gay, and was Esther a real person?

Although Self Made hints at A’Lelia’s sexual orientation, there’s no definitive evidence that A’Lelia was gay, and the real-life Esther did not exist. However, we do know that Lelia was incredibly progressive for her time, and Bundles told OprahMag.com that she believes A’Lelia might have dated a woman after her third marriage ended.

A’Lelia’s lavish parties were known to be safe havens for people of all sexual identities. Mabel Hampton, a lesbian activist, dancer, and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, remembered the parties in a 1983 interview (via NPR): “There was men and women, women and women, and men and men. And everyone did whatever they wanted to do.”

A'Lelia Bundles is a descendant of Madam C. J. Walker, who was the first black woman millionaire in the United States.
A’Lelia Bundles.

The Washington PostGetty Images

Was Walker truly America’s first self-made female millionaire?

This is an argument that continues to this day. Madam C.J. Walker is credited as the first self-made female millionaire in the Guinness Book of World Records, though some have tried to argue that Annie Turnbo Malone was, in fact, the first. Bundles has an excellent breakdown of this debate on her blog, concluding that it’s impossible to know the value of Malone’s estate because those records are lost to history.

Did Walker die of kidney failure?

Yes, from kidney failure and hypertension, in 1919. Her daughter, A’Lelia, died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1931. Their legacies live on through Bundles and the millions of men and women they’ve influenced.

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