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Alicia Keys, the no make-up campaigner

Grammy-Award winner’s empowering movement has been met with words of praise and some backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash

  • FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2016 file photo, Alicia Keys performs on NBC's "Today" show in New York. Keys wrotImage Credit: AP
  • In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, Alicia Keys poses for a portrait in New York, to promote her sixth album, "Here." Image Credit: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

It was the Friday before Labor Day, and Alicia Keys, the 35-year-old pop star, was on the Today show performing for the programme’s summer concert series — she was about to release a new album Here, and she wrote the theme song for Queen of Katwe. There was a lot to talk about. But instead, Keys spent most of her time talking about make-up (and not wearing it) with anchors Tamron Hall, Billy Bush and Al Roker, who were doggedly wiping the pancake off their faces.

“You’re all crazy,” said Keys, swabbing Hall’s cheeks. “This isn’t even what it’s about!”

“It” is #nomakeup — a meme, a movement, a cri de coeur — that has been roiling social media for months. If you missed the kerfuffle, it started in May, when Keys wrote an essay for Lenny, Lena Dunham’s online magazine, about the insecurities she felt being a woman in the public eye, and the roles (and make-up) she put on over the years to armour herself. She wrote about the anxiety she endured if she left her house unadorned: “What if someone wanted a picture? What if someone posted it?” And then, when she went without make-up or styling for an album portrait, she felt liberated, and the act became a metaphor. “I hope to God it’s a revolution,” she wrote.

In the months that followed, Keys was seemingly everywhere — always without make-up, always beautiful — performing at the Democratic National Convention, on The Voice and the MTV Video Music Awards, at the Tom Ford show during New York Fashion Week.

That’s a nice story, right? Inspiring and kind of sweet? Ugh. “Makeup-gate 2016,” as the New York Post and others called it, has grown only weirder and louder, as Twitter was at first ignited with Alicia Keys supporters and then flooded with a backlash against her. And then with the backlash to the backlash. #Nomakeup was empowering and brave. No, it was annoying, incendiary and invasive. Keys’ (mostly female) detractors howled at her disingenuousness (surely she had spent thousands on skin care?) and her deceit (surely she was wearing tinted moisturizer?); some slammed her for not looking pretty enough (although they used coarser words than those).

Late last month, Swizz Beatz, Keys’ husband, took to Instagram with a video defending his wife: “This is deep,” he said, clearly incredulous. “Somebody’s sitting home mad, because somebody didn’t wear make-up on their face?”

Don’t be surprised that this is news, said Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the second-wave feminist activist and author. “It’s all so familiar,” she said. “Alicia Keys could be taking a page from the no-make-up orthodoxy of the women’s movement 40 years ago. I’d never heard of her before this brouhaha, but now I’ll follow her anywhere. What she’s doing is pop-consciousness-raising. She’s not just talking about the tyranny of make-up. She’s talking about female authenticity. She’s challenging the culture’s relentless standards of feminine conformity and the beauty industry’s incessant product hype.”

(Pogrebin said that while she was reading Keys’ essay, an ad popped up for some kind of skin cream.)

Why is it, wondered Linda Wells, founding editor of Allure magazine, that fashion is considered self-expression and make-up is self-absorption? Or something more pernicious? Wells recalled The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book in which she argued that contemporary ideals of beauty, proposed in large part by a male-dominated cosmetics industry, were enslaving women and holding them in thrall to all manner of restrictive practices, from make-up to surgery to eating disorders. “I get the argument, but I don’t agree with it,” Wells said. “To me, we’re not all passive victims. Make your choice, like Alicia Keys. Decide what makes you feel confident and enjoy it.”

Furthermore, Wells said, Keys’ gesture is coming at a particular moment, when the internet is flooded with YouTube videos on how to best present yourself ... on the internet. “It’s tutorials about contouring and highlighting, except now it’s called strobing, and there’s something else called baking, which is basically a thick coat of powder,” Wells said. “It’s a very extreme look — we haven’t had highlighting since the ‘80s. It’s this sort of extreme grooming geared for the selfie culture, and then someone like Alicia Keys comes out and says, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ and people are losing their minds.”

Simple beauty

Whose make-up is it anyway? In the late 1980s, Andrea Robinson, then the president of Ultima II, recalled the response of her male bosses at Revlon when she proposed an extension of her brand called the Nakeds, nude-toned make-up designed for women who didn’t want to look as if they were wearing any. As Robinson remembered: “They said: ‘Why would a woman want to wear mud on her face? Make-up is about fantasy, it’s about colour.’ What they didn’t say was that it was about their fantasy, their sense of colour. The idea that women would want to look like themselves, and wear make-up for themselves, was crazy to them.”

Once introduced, the Nakeds broke all sorts of sales records, she said, and sold out over and over again. Hundreds of women wrote her in gratitude, Robinson said, including Jean Harris, who wrote her from prison: “She thought we had the right idea, that women should not overpaint themselves, and use their simple beauty.”

For the record, cosmetics executives aren’t worried that #nomakeup will have women hurling their lipsticks into the dumpster. “It’s a make-up moment,” said Jane Hertzmark Hudis, group president of the Estee Lauder Cos, adding that her industry is experiencing “explosive growth,” with “prestige” make-up sales up 13 per cent last year, according to the NPD Group (sales driven in large part by concealers, as it happens). Sales of all beauty products reached $16 billion (Dh58.7 billion) in the US in 2015. Nude colours are consistent best sellers, Hudis said.

Just ask Bobbi Brown, the make-up artist turned cosmetics mogul who built a company, as Robinson did, around nude make-up, and whose corporate manifesto right now is #bewhoyouare.

“It takes a lot of guts to face HDTV without make-up,” Brown said of Keys. “But I get it. It’s all fine. Choose who you want to be. Personally, I like to have a little concealer. But obviously it’s more than about make-up. I don’t think people understand how difficult it is for women like Alicia Keys to worry about the way you look every second. It is the ugly internet we live in. Let’s be nice to people and not be so judgey.”

Gail O’Neill, a journalist and former model, said that for some, Keys has become a Rorschach test, and the disapprobation for the singer’s personal choice comes from women who are measuring themselves against it. “When women start applying make-up as preteenagers,” she said, “by adulthood, that mindless habit can result in a mask we don’t even know we’re wearing until someone like Alicia decides to remove hers in public.”

People who do things outside the herd scare people who are in the herd, said Anne Kreamer, a journalist who stopped colouring her hair at 49, and wrote about her experience in her 2007 book, Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Matters. “It was the women who were the most critical,” Kreamer recalled, as if by doing without herself, she was taking something away from them.

In her book, Kreamer noted that in the 1950s, fewer than 10 per cent of women dyed their hair, as compared with 40 to 75 per cent in the mid-2000s; she also surveyed some 400 women, of which 15 per cent said they’d had some sort of plastic surgery. As she wrote, darkly, “Extrapolate the trend line, double the available technologies, and imagine the choices and pressures our great-grandchildren may face.”