Cancer survivor with world’s longest dreads hopes to inspire others

theGRIO REPORT - Asha Zulu Mandela, who holds the record for the world’s longest dreadlocks, says her life is finally taking a turn for the better...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Asha Zulu Mandela, who holds the record for the world’s longest dreadlocks, says her life is finally taking a turn for the better.

The 48-year-old Guinness World Record holder, also referred to as the “Black Rapunzel”, has overcome ill health to become a savvy businesswoman and successful entrepreneur.

“I want to inspire people to encourage them that nothing is impossible,” says Mandela. “It’s about being a survivor and being determined.”

At a particularly dark time, Mandela was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s. Bouts of poor health also lead to two heart-attacks and more than a dozen surgeries.

The Clayton County, Georgia resident says she finally conquered years of illness by maintaining a healthier diet and the use of natural remedies.

“My body healed itself not with conventional treatments but homemade herbal remedies that helped cleanse my body,” says Mandela.

In fact, the idea for one of her businesses – Zulu Earth Solutions – was conceived after her locks started falling out during chemotherapy. She couldn’t find products to stimulate growth so decided to make her own.

After experimenting with various natural ingredients, Mandela began making items from the comfort of her home, with the help of a secret formula from Kenya.

Two years ago she turned her passion into a viable business and made the decision to sell her own natural hair product line.

Within 6 months tubs of shampoo and jars of hair oil were flying off the shelves. She could not keep up with the demand and outsourced manufacturing.

In her first year of business Mandela says she made about half-a-million dollars.

“I can’t keep up with orders and am always out of stock. Every day I get at least 100 orders not just from the U.S. but also abroad. I have made a lot of money.”

Still, every dollar of a sale goes towards charitable causes in Kenya. The tenacious businesswoman also has a handmade jewelry collection as another string to her bow.

Mandela says she started wearing locks some 25 years ago following a move from Trinidad & Tobago to New York. Over the years her locks grew beyond expectations and friends suggested she approach Guinness World Record.

Her dreads were officially measured to be 19ft  6in long by Guinness World Records in 2009. Though, later Guinness withdrew its “dreadlock” category citing difficulty in judging this record accurately.

“To be honest when I first started I knew nothing about natural hair, locks or braids,” says the married mother-of-one.

“My journey started as a spiritual awakening. I had no idea I would end up in the Guinness World Records or my hair would grow this long.”

Today her crowning glory weights an incredible 40lbs on her 5ft 5in frame. She says the easiest way to cope with her mane is to “carry her hair on her back like the way African woman carry their babies.”

A recent measurement found one of her locks over 55ft.

Still, Mandela’s unusually long hair comes with its own challenges. When she washes her hair it takes up to two days to dry. The extra weight of her hair has also caused doctors to be concerned about the health of her spine.

Although there are still barriers to wearing dreads, especially in Corporate America, the natural hair movement has come a long way in the past decade, says Mandela.

More than anything people are “intimidated” by confidence to wear natural hair, she adds. It shows strength of character to go against the norm.

“It’s not that you are rebelling but it shows people you are confident in yourself, your race, culture, and naturally proud.”

Mandela’s inclusion in the Guinness World Record has been a brilliant platform to market her brand. She is often inundated with requests, from demands for public appearances to bookings on radio and television talk shows.

Indeed, last weekend Mandela was a judge for a natural hair competition at the World Natural Hair, Health, & Beauty Show at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, Georgia.

The biannual show is considered to be one of the largest natural hair events and draws crowds of up to 40,000. Mandela says she is now busy working with the organizers to participate in future events.

“It provides a platform for consumers to get more information about different choices they have about natural hair,” says the show’s founder Taliah Waajid, who also has her own hair line.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti