'Self Made' Changes Some Really Important Details About Madam C.J. Walker's Life

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Self Made tells the true story of Madam C.J. Walker
Amanda Matlovich/Netflix

Spoilers ahead for the Self Made miniseries. Self Made tells the remarkable true story of Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker, the self made millionaire who pioneered the modern hair care and cosmetics industry in the early 1900s. The show is inspired by On Her Own Ground, a biography written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. While the show does hit the major points in Walker's story, Self Made differs from real life by taking liberties with the details and dramas that unfold around Walker and her family.

Madam C.J. Walker's abusive husband

In the show, Sarah is brutally slashed by her second husband before he storms out and Addie walks in, kickstarting Sarah's journey. After Addie regrows Sarah's hair, she meets the well-to-do C.J. Walker and builds her empire with his name.

Per On Her Own Ground, Walker did have an abusive husband named John Davis. She eventually left Davis, but C.J. Walker started courting Sarah before her divorce, and he liked her before Addie (named Annie Turnbo in real life) grew her hair back — a fact the show implies would never have happened.

Madam C.J. Walker & Addie's relationship

Self Made takes the most liberties when it comes to Walker and Annie Turnbo's relationship. In the show, their rivalry is Sarah's driving force, and the two women repeatedly collide as Addie spurns Sarah as a sales agent, and then follows her from St. Louis to Indianapolis to antagonize her.

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Walker and Turnbo did indeed know each other, but the scene where Addie patches up a bloody Sarah is fabricated. Bundles wrote that how the two met is "unknown," and that Walker may have sought her out after hearing of her hair restoration reputation. They also could've met through Walker's sister-in-law, or "just as easily, their first meeting could have been the result of a fortuitous knock on Sarah's door," wrote Bundles.

The defining scene where Addie mocks Sarah's appearance and refuses to let her sell her Wonderful Hair Grower also never happened. Per Bundles, "What is not in dispute is that Sarah was one of Pope-Turnbo's earliest sales agents, probably joining her sometime during 1903."

Turnbo also never followed Walker to Indiana like in Self Made. Turnbo stayed in St. Louis and actually built her own hair empire there; she fought mostly with Walker via letters to the newspaper, accusing Walker of stealing her formula. "The proof of the value of our work is that we are being imitated and largely by persons whose own hair we have actually grown," read a Turnbo letter to The Statesman around 1906. "BEWARE OF IMITATIONS."

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Did Madam C.J. Walker steal the formula?

As it's revealed in the last episode of Self Made, yes, Madam C.J. Walker did steal the base formula from Turnbo before adapting it into her own Wonderful Hair Grower. Though Bundles noted that "speculation is required" for how it happened, she is honest about Walker leaving St. Louis for Denver in 1905 with several tins of Turnbo's "Poro" hair product. While Walker continued to sell Poro in Denver for Turnbo, she also worked as a cook, befriending a wholesale druggist named Scholtz. Bundles wrote that Scholtz may have offered to analyze Poro so Walker could replicate it as her own product.

Per Bundles, Walker later mythologized how her own Wonderful Hair Grower happened, saying she dreamed her formula for several nights due to divine intervention. "Perhaps she had," wrote Bundles. "But she had also intentionally chosen to omit Pope-Turnbo's role."

After Turnbo called out Walker in The Statesman, Walker severed ties with Turnbo entirely and started going by Madam C.J. Walker.

Did C.J. cheat on Madam C.J. Walker?

He did, and with Dora Larrie like in Self Made, though it wasn't right under Madam Walker's nose. Larrie was Madam Walker's Indianapolis representative; what Self Made doesn't show is how often both C.J. and Madam Walker traveled separately all over the U.S., and even the globe, selling the Madam C.J. Walker products. And Larrie was actually the second time C.J. cheated; he also had a long-running affair with a woman named Louise in Missouri.

Like Self Made shows, the main issue of their marriage was that Madam Walker's ambition far outstripped C.J.'s. Though real life C.J. was a more proactive partner in building the company than he was in Self Made, he was also known for being financially irresponsible, and content with settling.

Unlike the show, Madam Walker swiftly made the divorce final with the help of Ransom.

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Did Booker T. Washington yell at Madam C.J. Walker?

In Self Made, Booker T. Washington explodes at Madam C.J. Walker in a sexist rant after she storms his business convention. There's no evidence this exchange happened in real life, but they did have a frosty relationship that later gave way to mutual respect. Washington did ignore Walker's requests to present at his 1912 convention, and Walker did give an indignant speech from the audience that Washington outright ignored.

But by Washington's 1913 convention, he was saluting Walker as "a striking example of the possibilities of Negro womanhood in the business world."

Lelia Walker's girlfriend

Self Made adds a major twist to the Walker women story by introducing Peaches, a female photographer who Lelia is romantically involved with. This is entirely a show invention, as On Her Own Ground makes no mention of Lelia being interested in women. It's true that Lelia never had kids, but she did also marry three men during her lifetime: John Robinson, Dr. Wiley Wilson, and Dr. James Arthur Kennedy. Self Made does show John Robinson, but since Bundles wrote that little is known about Robinson, the scenes of him colluding with Addie and accidentally setting Sarah's house on fire are fabricated.

It is true that both Walker women adopted Fairy Mae Bryant, who became Mae Walker.

Madam C.J. Walker's philanthropy

Self Made doesn't show much of Walker's philanthropy and political outreach, which made her a much-respected member of her community. Per Women's History, Walker contributed to the YMCA, covered tuition for numerous students at Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and became active in the anti-lynching movement, donating $5,000 to the NAACP’s efforts.

How did Madam C.J. Walker die?

As Self Made shows, Walker was diagnosed with nephritis, an acute inflammation of the kidneys, exacerbated by her worsening hypertension. Walker passed away in 1919, and she left behind a legacy of being not only the wealthiest black woman in America, but someone who worked tirelessly to uplift her community.

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