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Alex Aiono on curly hair secrets, vulnerability and Maori representation in Hollywood

Alex Aiono hasn’t cut his hair since quarantine began in March, but even on Zoom, it looks like he just stepped out of a Pantene commercial.

His signature curly hair is hidden under a baseball cap. Upon my request, he graciously takes it off. Bouncy, voluminous curls come cascading out from beneath his hat, seemingly unaware that he had made any attempt to stifle them. If this is his hat hair, I’m insanely jealous.

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“I’ll tell you my secret,” he says. “I don’t do anything to it. I just wash it and go.”

Of course – it’s just natural. Alex’s hair is thriving in quarantine and so is he. The singer/songwriter is getting ready to release his debut album, The Gospel at 23, His latest single, “Good Morning,” just dropped today. The album is a fully-formed reflection of Alex’s most pivotal year yet: his “Jordan” year aka 23. It’s simultaneously polished and raw, a feat made possible by Alex’s nearly ten years in the music industry combined with his brazen youth.

Alex started posting covers and mash-ups on YouTube when he was just 15. He quickly gained popularity for his unique sound and inventive versions of pop songs, including “One Dance” by Drake, which has over 70 million views. Alex still regularly shares mash-ups and covers with his over 2.2 million followers on Instagram, where he also posts regularly about important social causes like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA rights. (We love to see an active ally!)

In addition to his latest album, Alex is also set to star in an upcoming Netflix film, Finding Ohana, which follows two siblings on an adventure to reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage. Alex is Pacific Islander himself; his dad grew up in New Zealand before moving to the United States and is of Samoan and Māori descent. In this debut role, Alex will join the ranks of prominent Pacific Islanders in Hollywood, which include the legendary Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason Mamoa, and Dinah Jane, among others.

If singing, songwriting, producing, and acting wasn’t enough, Alex Aiono also just launched a podcast on iHeartRadio called “Let’s Get Into It,” where he’s joined by friends, sexperts, therapists, influencers, actors and comedians to discuss things like love, lust, addiction, heartbreak, grief, and more. The first episode dives into first times—and yes, it goes there—but it also goes way beyond *that* first time into things like the first time he knew he had a purpose. Sex and self-improvement? Sign me up.

We caught up with Alex Aiono over Zoom to talk about his latest album, the importance of representation for Pacific Islanders in Hollywood, and his surprisingly bougie skincare must-haves.

Tell me about your new album, Gospel at 23. What’s the theme of the album?

I wrote every single song when I was 23. It was almost like therapy, diving deep into my heart and trying to navigate every emotion that I’ve felt over the last 23-years of my life, from the struggles that I’ve gone through to the weaknesses I’ve tried to cover up. Especially living in today’s world, that took time to break down. I realized that music is my way of expressing myself, but I’m not even expressing myself with full transparency. That’s where the issue was. I made it a quest in all of my songwriting in 2019 to really try and push for the truth.

I started writing Gospel at 23 by writing about my love life, but there’s a lot of vulnerability and openness in my actual life—the other 80% of my life that I haven’t told yet. This album became a collection of the first wave of that real, raw, uncut storytelling. There’s no glamour in any of it. It’s just me, telling my story the way that it’s happened.

You feature a real-life Philadelphia gospel choir in Gospel at 23. How did that come about? 

The first song we wrote on this album was “These Emotions,” and as soon as we started putting it together, we knew we had to have a full choir. Everything about it fell into place so naturally. It just so happened that we ended up in Philadelphia recording in the studios that some of my favorite mentors recorded their first albums in. What I love the most about the choir is that these people have regular jobs. They had to call into work and take off so that they could work on this project. It was so real and so raw. There was no LA or Hollywood dust on top. For this project where we’re telling a real story about real experiences, we needed that type of energy.

You’re a singer, songwriter, actor, and producer. Out of all the things that you do, what would you say is your true calling?

You know, I think it changes every day. Recently, I want to say that my answer would actually be none of those things. I think my biggest calling—the thing that really makes me feel fully purposeful—is being an equal rights activist. I was raised to stand up against bullies, whether they’re bullying me or bullying other people. I’m very fortunate to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. Being the son of an immigrant, I’ve always fought for the rights of immigrants. Now most recently, obviously, I’m directing all of my energy and attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

I love music and I love posting on social media connecting with people, but what speaks to my heart the most right now is really how I use these platforms. It’s time for us, as us as the next generation, to really start calling the shots. It’s up to us to step up, and not allow inequality so that we can all actually be at a level playing field. That’s really kind of what has been driving my passion recently. So everything that I do—songwriting, singing, posting on social media, acting—are all now becoming ways that I can fuel that massive passion.

 

What is your experience growing up the child of an immigrant from New Zealand, and what is it like now that you’re one of the few Pacific Islanders in Hollywood? 

One of my fondest memories that I have as a young kid with my dad is learning the haka [a Maori war dance] and learning about this culture that he grew up in. When I turned 21, my parents, my sister and I went to New Zealand and I got to meet a lot of my family and connect with them. I got to learn more haka’s from our actual family lineage and eat things like kina, which is cut up sea urchin, which I actually don’t recommend [laughs]. So getting to just take that in and having that nostalgic experience with my dad was really special. I feel very fortunate to have a strong sense of culture and a knowledge of where I’m from.

There are some real trailblazers in the Pacific Islander community in Hollywood already, from The Rock, to Taika Waititi, who is a Māori native from New Zealand. I recognize that there is a responsibility to being a Pacific Islander in Hollywood. I just feel lucky to be able to look up to these massive icons and figure out how I can bring more of our culture into Hollywood.

Okay, this might be the most important question I’ll ask you. Can you please drop your curly hair routine?

I’ll be honest: I wash it, I put conditioner in, and that’s it. I wish I had some secret, but that’s literally it. I might add a cream to help moisturize it or I’ll do a hair conditioner mask sometimes. Since quarantine, I’ve just been letting it grow and let it do its own thing. Right now in my shower, I’m using Redken’s All Soft Conditioner.

What about your skincare routine? You have such amazing, glowy skin. Give us your holy grails. 

My skin was not always like this; I’ve been on Accutane three times. But for me, it’s been about learning what works for my skin. Having three sisters helps a lot because we all have different types of skin and they’re always trying out new products. I’m currently using the Tatcha Dewy Skin Cream, which is literally one of my favorite products. I bought this witch hazel toner on Amazon that I started using at night, along with a night cream by Sisley Paris. My hairstylist, Kristan Serafino, put me on Sisley stuff. You know whenever you forget to put moisturizer on the night before and you wake up and your skin feels like Frosted Flakes? That never happens anymore. I really rock with that night cream.

(Photos by Dylan March for Very Good Light)