Self Made Shows the Rise of America's First Female Self-Made Millionaire

The entrepreneur, her husband (played by Blair Underwood), and her daughter (played by Tiffany Haddish) soon settle in Indianapolis, where she turns her home into a makeshift salon and business. “She ended up in an opulent home, because at the time many rich, stately homes were abandoned and sold for cheap,” Doughty explains. “So she invented this amazing place and started developing her company.” Filming was done inside “a very beautiful house” in Cambridge, Ontario, with era-appropriate furniture brought in from antique markets. “We wanted to make it look warm and full of life, because it’s an extension of her character,” she notes.

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“We start off with these moments where she’s dreaming about this colorful new life and business,” explains Doughty. “That’s how we developed the houses—we gradually brought her into the beautiful, vibrant world she’d always dreamed about.”

Photo: David Lee/Netflix

Indeed, no matter the setbacks, Walker never lost sight of her goal of a full-service hair-care factory. In the show, she dreams about her own space in fantastical singing-and-dancing interstitials, which, Doughty explains, “we wanted to make as bright and colorful as we could because these are her thoughts.” (Think pink, and lots of it.) When Walker eventually opens that first factory, it looks super-stark by design: “She’s starting with a blank slate. Then we added in vanities with ribbons and boxes to show a theatrical contrast because she had all these whimsical ideas.” The factory’s offscreen location is a decrepit building in the community of Dundas.

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The Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, Ontario, served as the stand-in for Villa Lewaro.

Courtesy of Netflix

By the time Walker uproots to New York in 1918, she’s a bona fide mogul thanks to her Wonderful Hair Grower, Oil Glossine, and Hot Comb Kit, plus her salons across the country. Only a one-of-a-kind mansion will do—and that would be a 34-room Italianate-style estate complete with pool and fountain, dubbed Villa Lewaro. The real home still stands in Irvington, and was declared a National Treasure in 2014. Interestingly, its current owner is Riche­lieu Den­nis, the head of Sundial Brands—the parent company of Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture. Doughty was able to look to the property as inspiration for the show’s version, filmed at the lush Parkwood Estate attraction in Oshawa.

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Vintage cars are indicative of the time period. This one is parked outside the home which served as Walker’s Indianapolis house.

Photo: Amanda Matlovich/Netflix

Walker’s pièce de résistance, however, was her palatial salon and residence, i.e. the Dark Tower, located in the heart of Harlem. “It’s my favorite piece because it represents the pinnacle of her success,” Doughty says. The location was constructed inside a studio, and the art design team even custom-made the vintage light-purple wallpaper. The set was so extravagant, Doughty says, “Octavia walked into that and went ‘Oh yeah!’”

The Madam herself would likely approve of the finished pieces—not to mention all the hard work and attention to detail. “It was certainly a challenging project,” says Doughty. “But everybody was passionate about it and it really came through in the end, which is always wonderful.”