Meet the trans make-up artist teaching empowerment

A testament to the transformative potential of make-up, Grace Oni Smith is unleashing the confidence within her clients

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Grace Oni Smith
Grace Oni SmithPhotography Marco Cerrone

Few understand the transformative potential of make-up better than Grace Oni Smith. The Manchester-based performer and make-up artist spent her childhood experimenting with theatrical looks and unconventional costumes, experimentation which led to her embracing her identity as a trans woman. Smith has spent a decade honing her artistic skills and puts them to good use in her role as style director at Born, an organisation which offers various services to trans women looking to find their inner confidence.

A meeting with managing director Paul Keaton convinced Smith that her abilities could be used to inspire; she now offers bespoke make-up classes which teach feminisation techniques as well as the art of creating elaborate theatrical looks. Smith’s credentials are strong – she is a respected performer on Manchester’s renowned drag scene, often using her trans body as a canvas to explore gender and identity.

Crucially, Born aims to deliver more than mere aesthetics – the company offers confidence classes, vocal coaching and a bespoke styling service as well as staging social events which encourage the trans community to unite and support one another. These services are delivered by trans artists and allies who aim to create a safe space for clients looking to explore their identity. The result is an inspiring organisation which seeks to aid, empower and support trans individuals on the journey to self-discovery.

When did you first develop an interest in make-up as a creative expression?

Grace Oni Smith: I realised early in my life that I wasn’t like the other boys and girls. I became increasingly fascinated with anything that had a fantasy element, that could transport you to another world; as a child, my favourite films were Splash, Legend, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, I loved the fantastical characters and the far-away lands. Bowie was a key part of my childhood too – I remember asking mum if he was a man or woman, so she replied by explaining that some men choose to wear make-up. She never policed my gender – if anything, she encouraged me to experiment with a pretty extensive dressing-up box!

I started playing with make-up when I was around 13 years old and was immediately fascinated by its transformative power. I was never attracted to pretty make-up; I used my look as armour from the homophobia and bigotry of my hometown in Cumbria. It was a way for me to explore my gender at a time when I had no idea what dysphoria even meant. I’ve always been a punk and had that ‘fuck you’ mentality, so my appearance became the ultimate ‘fuck you’. The more I was bullied, the more extreme I went with my looks.

“I’ve always been a punk and had that ‘fuck you’ mentality, so my appearance became the ultimate ‘fuck you’. The more I was bullied, the more extreme I went with my looks” – Grace Oni Smith

How did your position as style director at Born come about? 

Grace Oni Smith: I’ve been working in the industry for nearly ten years, so I felt the time was right to put my skills and experiences as a trans woman to better use. I met the managing director, Paul Heaton, and we quickly discovered a mutual passion and a drive to create something new and positive for the trans community. Being trans can be incredibly stressful, so Born aims to help people unlock their confidence and walk with their heads held high.

We’re focused on helping people express themselves, so we offer various services. There’s obviously make-up and styling, but we also give confidence training and stage social events where people can come, feel comfortable and tap into support within the community. As trans people, we all go on a journey, so our services are extremely bespoke – what’s right for one person may not be right for the other. 

What do the trans women that come to you take from their sessions?

Grace Oni Smith: Everything we do is about empowerment. I draw great strength from being trans and went on my own journey of self-discovery which led to the realisation that I’m not a binary female and don’t want to be. I’m proud to be queer, and this is reflected in our staff at Born – we’re proud to employ trans people and trans allies, we want clients to come into a safe and welcoming environment where they can express themselves freely. We feel confidence is the most powerful tool in anybody’s arsenal, so everything we do is designed to help people find their own and unleash it.

Why do you think Born’s services are so important?

Grace Oni Smith: Many trans people use hair, make-up and styling to present themselves in the way that they feel, yet there’s no representation in the industry at all. We live by the mantra ‘Turning Heads, Turning Minds’, so (it’s about) not only changing the mind of society, but also the mind of trans people. There’s a term in the trans community called ‘stealth’, which is when you’re unclockable. I’ve always stood against this concept; I truly believe that for anything to change in our society, trans people need to be visible and we need to be proud. We aim to help people to be proud of this incredible journey.

Where did your love of performance come from?

Grace Oni Smith: I’ve always been theatrical, from a young age I would jump at the opportunity to be on stage. I think that’s a major factor in my personality – as a youngster I was bullied mercilessly as the weird kid, but when given the opportunity I could be the loudest person in the room. I left home on my 16th birthday and moved to a city, finding myself for the first time in a gay community. I started performing in clubs at around 18 and was truly encouraged to be myself for the first time. Performing became the ultimate catharsis; I was able to express myself using my trans body as my canvas. I’m now celebrated for the things I was once persecuted for.

“I always say the most important thing is to transition your mind before you transition your body” – Grace Oni Smith

What inspires your performances?

Grace Oni Smith: I always try to challenge myself to do something new. I like to explore gender and identity through performance – a lot of what I do is holding a magnifying glass up to my own identity which is both cathartic and sometimes self-indulgent, but I try and tackle themes that people wouldn’t expect. I’ve had some incredible experiences. I’ve danced naked in a fountain at the Manchester International Festival and even thrown the opening party of Guy Garvey’s Meltdown festival, but I’m proudest of a performance I did at Cha Cha Boudoir (a respected Manchester drag night) two months after my gender confirmation surgery. I probably shouldn’t have even been on stage, but my community really rallied behind me. It was a really proud moment.

What advice would you give to any trans individuals struggling with dysphoria?

Grace Oni Smith: The thing with dysphoria is that it will always be there, no matter how much surgery you have. What changes is how you respond to it. I always say the most important thing is to transition your mind before you transition your body. People like to fixate on the physical transition, but we at Born believe that happiness comes from within. It’s our personal mission to help people in every way possible to unlock it.

See more of Grace’s work on the official Born website here

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