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Talking about black beauty with Clara Amfo, NAO, Ray BLK, and more

We caught up with the panellists at Africa Utopia x Indaba X’s Beauty: It’s a Shady Business event – featuring a host of black women curated and chaired by Clara Amfo

The world of beauty has always been hostile towards black women, despite us often being industry drivers. The UK’s annual spend on hair and beauty is £5.25 billion, with black women accounting for 80 per cent of total sales, while further studies show that Afro-Caribbean women are reported to spend six times more than other ethnicities within this market. 

However, in spite of these staggering figures, many of us have never felt considered or catered to. As we face a wave of beauty brands expanding their ranges and the rise of black-owned beauty brands, what does this mean for the black female beauty consumer and has anything actually shifted?

To talk about all things black beauty, we caught up with the panellists of Africa Utopia x Indaba X’s Beauty: It’s a Shady Business in partnership with Vero conversation which happened on Saturday night. The line-up, curated and chaired by presenter Clara Amfo, included author Candice Carty-Williams, singer-songwriter NAO, music artist Ray BLK, Glamour’s executive editor and beauty director Funmi Fetto, and make-up artist Mata Marielle.

What’s your first memory of using any kind of beauty product?

Ray BLK: I remember stealing my sister’s Maybelline foundation because I wanted to look really cute for some guy at school. My teacher said to me, ‘Go and wash off your face, it doesn’t even match your neck.’

Candice Carty-Williams: I remember this fancy Touche Éclat thing, it was in gold packaging and when I used a darker shade, it didn’t suit me. But the fact that it was French and gold, it was a marker of beauty and luxury so I stuck with it even though I shouldn’t have. I remember going into an airport and asking if they had it and then said, I remember being bluntly told, ‘We don’t have it in your shade.’ On another occasion, I went to the MAC in Brighton and for some reason, NC45 was the shade burned into my brain. I remember the woman putting it on me and I felt paralysed knowing that it didn’t suit me. I felt so vulnerable.

Mata Marielle: I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up before I was 16, my mum just wasn’t having it. No make-up, no lip gloss, no nothing. But, every time I took a bath, I would bring my mum’s make-up into the bathroom, lock the door and make looks in the mirror. I wasn’t going anywhere but I just wanted to make myself look really different, plus there was the mission of trying to scrub myself off before my mum could come in and tell me off.

Funmi Fetto: This wasn’t actually a beauty product but I wanted it to be. I always had this image of Janet Jackson when I was a little girl, I just wanted to be her and she had these dangling little twists that I also wanted. Because my hair doesn’t fall that way, I used fabric conditioner on my hair and let’s just say, it didn’t work well.

“I remember trying a foundation and I thought maybe I could blend it to suit me but obviously that didn’t work. It was a moment where I thought to myself, ‘There’s nothing here for me.’ It’s like we had been completely deleted from the beauty conversation” – Funmi Fetto 

What are some hard lessons you learned pretty early on as a dark-skinned black consumer of beauty products?

Clara Amfo: I learned that this industry wasn’t entirely for me – it was only for like 80 per cent of the time. Popping eyeshadows, eyeliner, mascara, lipsticks that I was a little afraid of, those were there. Everything else but foundation.

NAO: For me, it was having to go to different shops to the high street stores, but then also having the stigma of being a black woman when in those shops. You go to shops selling afro hair and beauty products and you get followed, the owners are constantly watching you, they assume that you’re a thief and want to steal things. It’s always been a negative experience and still happens now.

Funmi Fetto: I definitely remember going to a chemist, which is where you’d go for beauty products when I was younger and you’d just look at the racks of beauty products. I remember going with some school friends and everything I tried was either grey or ashy on my skin. I remember trying the foundation and I thought maybe I could blend it to suit me but obviously that didn’t work. It was a moment where I thought to myself, ‘There’s nothing here for me.’ It’s like we had been completely deleted from the beauty conversation.

Candice Carty-Williams: I learned that you do not have to take what a white woman behind the counter is telling you to be true. When you’re young, you trust the women around you – you trust them to do what’s right for you. I’d be getting all these wrong shades and would think that maybe the problem was me. I don’t wear foundation because the thought of going into a shop is too traumatising. We’re taught that being good looking is everything so the impact of these experiences are huge.

Mata, as an MUA, what are some lessons you’ve learned so far during your career?

Mata Marielle: No matter how much we claim that things are changing with beauty and brands, it’s still always going to be a mission for me to find products that I like. As black women, we have to mix so much and make whatever is there work for us. 

One time, I wasn't able to find the right shade of brown in an eyeshadow so I started using my lipliner to create it. A white girl would not have to do that. We’re always forced to settle for less. I started creating my own beauty products out of pure frustration. For example, looking for a brown nude lip gloss felt like I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

As you’ve all become more visible and increasingly in the public eye over the last couple of years, has that complicated your relationship with beauty?

NAO: I think I’ve just learned to trust myself more. I’ve been doing my own make-up for 20 years now and it’s such a personal thing – sacred in a way. The way I put myself out is very true to me and if someone bumped into me on the street, I don’t think I’m too dissimilar from what you’d see on my Instagram or Twitter.

Clara Amfo: I had to educate myself. I sought out make-up artists who know how to work with black skin. When I first started out, I accepted just anyone doing anything to my skin. When you enter white spaces at a certain level, you feel like you’re just happy to be there, but the reality is that I’m being paid to do a job and I should receive the same amount of respect. Now, I feel no way about bringing my own make-up artist with me because she makes me feel my best on camera, especially when you work on national TV. 

Ray BLK:
I guess I just pay more attention to detail because I can’t get caught slipping which happened a few times in the early days. When I do my own make-up, I find it exhausting because honestly, by the time I’m done, I’m tired and no longer want to go to the event. I do find it fun though because I love make-up and playing with colours so it’s also a time to be artistic.

“I can’t wait for the day when I can stop having this conversation. There’s a misconception that we want to stay mad about make-up and diversity. I don’t want to talk about any of this but we have to. We want to feel completely catered to” – Clara Amfo

Clara, as someone who is literally on all our TVs all the time, how do you deal with the pressure to constantly be presentable?

Clara Amfo: I deal with the pressure quite well actually – I’ve got my team, they know what I like and I feel safe with them. But also, when I’m not on job, I do want to feel cute. I’m never without a hand cream, shea butter, lip gloss, a balm, and mascara. As long as my brows are sweet, my eyes are open and I’ve got gloss, I’m good. You’ll also never see me without some pot of moisturiser. I can’t be caught ashy in these streets.

Do you feel like there is a shift taking place now that we’re seeing more brands who seem to be catering to black women more?

Candice Carty-Williams: I think Rihanna showed them all what they needed to do. I think, at a financial level, it was them realising that they needed to cater to us. The fact that a black woman made them do it is notable and I don’t know if I can trust them because we know why they did it.

Clara Amfo: We exist and we want to use make-up. I can’t wait for the day when I can stop having this conversation. There’s a misconception that we want to stay mad about make-up and diversity. I don’t want to talk about any of this but we have to. We want to feel completely catered to.

Funmi Fetto: Fundamentally, all these companies are driven by money – that is the basis of their work, they’re not social enterprises. They’ve seen an opportunity and they’re taking it and I do think for many brands, it’s just a box-ticking exercise. We need to see how things filter down into the business. 

We don’t just need products for black and brown women but we also need those black and brown women in decision-making positions. If you want to change the narrative, you need to change the people driving the narrative. Thanks, we’ve got our foundations now, but what else is there?