When it comes to covering award season beauty looks, I normally have a simple approach. I prepare a list of Instagram handles from makeup artists and hairstylists who create beautiful looks every year; then I sit back and hit refresh as their behind-the-scenes coverage rolls in. This year, however, when Cynthia Erivo hit the red carpet at the BAFTAs, I was totally unprepared. ICYMI, she looked drop-dead incredible in a Vera Wang princess grown, lavender hair and a shimmering purple smoky eye with a perfectly glossy lip. Honestly, it was my favourite beauty look of the night, and I immediately went on the hunt to track down the artist behind the makeup, Giselle Ali.
The wonder of Instagram is that I dropped Ali a line on the night because I just had to know what was on Erivo’s eyes. She was only too happy to indulge my inner beauty junkie. (FYI, it was a mix of MAC eye shadows in the shades Parfait Amourand Indian Ink, in case you’re curious too.)
Ali’s Instagram is bold, bright and full of colour—a real antithesis to the natural makeup looks currently filling my feed. A specialist in black and ethnic skin tones, Ali has a way of creating vivid editorial beauty looks while letting her clients’ skin shine through. It’s a truly modern way of experimenting with makeup, and I couldn’t wait for another chance to talk with her.
Luckily, she was kind enough to pencil in some time to chat with me about celebrity makeup, the best beauty brands for women of colour and what she thinks about representation within the beauty industry.
A tangerine and hot-pink makeup look for Tania Nwachukwu.
Let’s start with the beauty look you created for Cynthia Erivo at the BAFTAs this year. How did you decide on the makeup for that night?
I loved that look. Cynthia has been my client now for three years. I actually had to fly into London from Ghana early to do this job, and it was totally worth coming back to the cold. The look was stunning! I love working with Cynthia. She’s a dream [and is] always pushing me to go as far as I can creatively. More is more!
Cynthia Erivo in all her purple-eyed glory at the BAFTAs 2019
How did you first get into makeup?
I started getting into makeup when I was 18. I had a Facebook account, and I would post images of makeup I’d done on myself. Back then, Facebook was more similar to Instagram—creatives used it to network and showcase talent. One day, a photographer asked me my rates. I was so shocked. I told him a price, he agreed, and the next day, I was in a studio on my first shoot using makeup I’d bought that morning from a drugstore—and I turned it out! Everyone was pleased, so I didn’t look back.
My earliest beauty memory is watching my mother apply lip liner. I always watched her do her full face, but the lip liner was my favourite part. Sometimes she would use brown or even black eyeliner and fill it in with a bold red or a glittery gloss. She’d wear relaxed hair tied back with a black scrunchy, chunky gold hoops and perfectly matte skin—very Crystal Waters.
What have been your career highlights so far, and have you had any standout clients?
I’ve had so many career highlights. I loved working at MAC. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, but the techniques you learn from the other makeup artists there are invaluable. I really loved working at ITV’s This Morning. The call times were crazy, and I’m not a morning person, but it really taught me to work fast.
Music videos are so much fun. I worked on Drake’s “Nice for What” video, and that day was so empowering being surrounded by so many talented women of colour. Great tune, too! I love doing press kit days with celebrities—I feel that’s when you really get to know them.
Working with SZA was lush. She dealt with the busy schedule so well—I’m not sure I could cope with answering repeated questions for five hours a day, so hats off. I’ve recently started working with the artist Seinabo Sey, and that was a blessing because I was (and still am) a huge fan, so when the email came through I was shook! She’s a fashion and beauty icon, and a heartfelt songstress. It’s great when artists on your wish list come to you.
My standout clients are black women. Celebrity or not, they’re my biggest cheerleaders. When I decided two years ago to make the switch to specialise in black skin, I was worried some wouldn’t understand it or that I was closing myself off to other jobs, but it had the opposite effect! Music labels and production companies wanted to hire someone they knew their clients could trust to get it right.
Glowy skin and gold eyelids for models behind-the-scenes of Drake’s music video.
Have you faced any work challenges you weren’t prepared for?
I didn’t realise starting out how difficult it can be to manage creative friendships. At the end of the day, people hire their friends, which is a harsh reality for a sensitive crab Cancerian like myself. Looking back, I’m happy things worked out the way they did, as I may have never started my photography. Collaboration is a must and imperative for growth, but self-sufficiency has allowed me to push out content quicker and experience full creative control.
Giselle Ali leads on makeup and photography for this beautiful coral and pink eye look.
How would you describe your style as a makeup artist? Your Instagram is vibrant and full of colour. Do you like to experiment with brighter, bold hues as a rule?
Yes! My heritage is Jamaica and Dominica, so colour is a must. I’m a little more reserved in my own appearance, but I’m a dancehall queen at heart. The bolder the better, but I do like to choose a focus area. That’s me exercising my self-control before my work turns into a Pollock painting.
Green eyes and terra-cotta cheeks make for a dreamy colour combination.
What advice do you have for women who are afraid to experiment with colour?
That was me! Oh, I can’t wear red lipstick; my lips are too big. I think there are so many beauty myths fed to women of colour (black women, in particular) that force us to tone it down, but I assure you, colour is for us! Whenever I’m blessed with a dark-skinned model, my first instinct is to grab the brightest pigments because the contrast is so stunning.
If you’re a little intimidated by colour, take baby steps. Glossier Generation G lipsticks and Lime Crime Plushies are great options for an opaque buildable lip colour that won’t overwhelm. But if you want to go straight in the deep end, buy a good lip pencil (MAC’s Chestnut is a staple), and use it with any bold lipstick to help balance the intensity.
You’ve been in Africa working on your makeup and photography. What has your experience been like there, and how does the industry differ from that in the UK?
I travelled between Lagos in Nigeria and Accra in Ghana for two months for work, and it was amazing. Nigeria has been on the map for art, culture and fashion for a while, and Ghana is soon to follow. I think we’re in the middle of a black renaissance. Creative energy is spreading all over the continent, and the wider diaspora are getting ready to reconnect with a precolonial beauty aesthetic. I was very impressed with the young people of Lagos and Accra. They’re championing Afrofuturism—expressing the way they wish to live through art and thought-provoking dialogue, so watch this space!
Editorial shoot with Ijeoma Agwu in Lagos, Nigeria.
How do you perceive the representation of women of colour within the beauty industry in general, and what should journalists be doing better?
Representation is a buzzword at the moment, and we, as a beauty community, need to make sure the sudden influx of dark-skinned models online is not just a trend.
I must also take this opportunity to remind dark-skin models to charge top coin for their services! The underpayment of black creatives is still a thing. So many brands have clocked on late to the ever-expanding market of black women and are scampering to churn out inclusivity campaigns, and it’s so transparent. I can only imagine how it must be for women of colour in the majority of white workforces in this climate.
Beauty journalists have to seek alternative information from alternative beauty sources, and not be afraid to centre black women every now and then. You might not want to do an article on how to style 4C hair so as to not upset your white readers who won’t relate, but does anyone have the opposite concern when publishing tips for white hair? Hardly ever. Take a risk.
Do you have any words of wisdom for makeup artists who are just starting out in their career?
I would say for any artist that it’s to stay consistent. You have to keep creating to find out what makes you happiest. Make sure you invest the time to get really good at glam makeup—I’m lucky enough to be paid for my creativity now, but glam always brings the money in.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I have a lot of exciting collaborations happening in 2019. I’m excited to expand my brand beyond makeup artistry, but I’ll never stop painting faces. That’s all I’m saying for now!