by Katy Jalili
Their makeup skills have graced many covers, and they have worked with esteemed artists like Mykki Blanco and Travis Alabanza. A recent highlight has been Umber’s beautiful portfolio series with Eivind Hansen which showcases trans women for feminist movement UN Woman.
We spoke to Umber, founder of Brown Beauty Standards, about their work so far, and how the beauty industry can become more inclusive.
gal-dem: What does Brown Beauty Standards mean to you?
Umber: It is the subversion of white or European beauty standards; I like the idea of people of colour (PoC) seeing themselves as the beauty standard.
When did you first realise you wanted to do makeup?
Probably when I was around seven because I wrote it in my diary in a list of things I wanted to achieve when I grew up. But I totally forgot about it for ages and came back to it in my early 20s when I realised I really didn’t want to do anything else.
How/when did you realise there was a gap in the beauty market for inclusivity?
I think I always knew because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was brown, and when I didn’t know white was more beautiful. But I think it was also when people laughed at me when I first started trying complexion products – they were always the wrong shade and I was really embarrassed that my peers who were white could wear makeup and look good, whilst I just couldn’t seem to get it right. I remember looking at the top-selling concealer, Hide The Blemish by Rimmel; everyone else at school was using it but it was just way too pale for me. I kept seeing it marketed as the top-selling concealer in the UK and I just felt invisible.
Your style is quite bold and colourful – is this your normal choice or something your clients ask for?
That is actually what my clients have asked for a lot of the time. I feel that my job is to collaborate with the client and make them happy. I love working with colour though because for PoC we so often are made to feel that we have to blend in, or that we look silly when we try to be artistic and bold. I think it’s fantastic that a lot of people I work with want to stand out and take up space.
You’ve recently worked on an amazing editorial with Eivind Hansen, how did that come about and what did that editorial mean to you?
Eivind approached me after Kuchenga recommended me. Kuchenga is an amazing writer and activist who I’ve known for some time (and was featured in the campaign). I was immediately excited about it because it was for such a mainstream feminist campaign – and those are so often exclusively about cishet women.
At the core of my work, and of many activists’ work, is survival. That sounds odd coming from a makeup artist, but survival is achieved in many different ways. So that campaign was about ending violence against women – and of course, trans women, particularly trans women of colour – are targets for violence globally. I loved that Eivind wanted to represent these women in a way where they felt confident and beautiful – the opposite of the way trans misogynists see trans women.
“Every single time Travis Alabanza looks in the mirror and screams ‘YOU FUCKED ME UP’ I feel like I’ve done my job well”
Also, my work is really about helping people feel powerful, so it was a perfect job for me. I am so proud that beautiful work like this is being made about trans women like Kuchenga who don’t always fit the mould of white cis beauty standards, who refuse to be quiet, small and apologetic. Women like her are the brown beauty standard!
You’ve worked with the amazing Mykki Blanco, how did that first start?
It was quite random, someone who attended a trans makeup workshop I did told a promoter for Mykki’s gig in Bristol that they needed someone to do his makeup. So of course, I said yes! We hit it off and more than a year later I’ve worked with him maybe a dozen times, we’ve travelled around the UK together, and I feel like I’ve made a great friend and collaborator.
Where do you see yourself going with Brown Beauty Standards?
I see myself continuing to work with amazing creatives of colour to produce groundbreaking work. I see myself bringing on board other makeup and hair artists, stylists and designers, so Brown Beauty Standards can be a team, because there’s only one of me, and there’s a lot of work to be done! I see myself and my collaborators changing culture, changing beauty.
What is your favourite work you have done?
I can’t choose! Every single time Travis Alabanza looks in the mirror and screams “YOU FUCKED ME UP” I feel like I’ve done my job well. So I kind of live for that, or when Mykki can’t stop taking selfies!
“Every single makeup job is a trial for the next job, the bigger job”
What are your go-to products?
I use Milani Conceal and Perfect on basically everyone, as a foundation, as a concealer. Sacha Buttercup Powder is amazing for medium-deep skin, I also use House of Lashes glue for performance. I use a lot of Fenty stuff like Killawatt’s Ginger Binge – Moscow Mule is also amazing on dark skin – I’ve not found anything as beautiful to highlight dark skin with. And the Viseart Contour Kit! It’s the only good powder contour I’ve found for dark skin.
What is the question your clients ask you the most on your one-to-one make-up sessions?
I guess they ask about things they are insecure about, like “my skin is terrible, are you sure you can make me look good?” They also ask me what to buy – usually they ask about foundation. They ask a lot about skincare too. I’ve made full skincare routines for a few people!
Do you think the beauty industry can ever become fully inclusive?
I think as long as the people making the most money from beauty are white/cis/het/born rich/abled, then no.
Do you have any advice for young black and brown people that want to get into makeup?
You have to practice so much and take photos of your work, just keep learning, be interested, be detailed! And the most important thing is you have to learn professionalism and hygiene – don’t give anyone any infections or you’ll never be hired again! And don’t talk shit about people or act like you’re not at work. Every single makeup job is a trial for the next job, the bigger job. People have to like being around you.
“I’ve literally forgotten to bring eyeliner before and had to use wet matte black eyeshadow – but no one even noticed because I acted like everything was great”
Also, fake confidence – if someone asks you to do something you’ve never done before, within reason, you have to believe in your skills enough to go for it. I’ve literally forgotten to bring eyeliner before so I had to use wet matte black eyeshadow – but no one even noticed because I acted like everything was great.
Do you have any advice for young black and brown people dealing with self-esteem issues?
Try new looks alone at home, or with your friends, play around with your look and take a bunch of selfies, look at yourself as someone who has not only survived whatever shit you’ve been through, but someone who is iconic. Look at your role models in history, if Maya Angelou had pimples she was still Maya Angelou. If someone hated her she was still Maya Angelou. Know that one day someone will look at you as their role model, someone will look at you and be amazed.