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Mercedes-Benz ‘How To’ by Rina SawayamaCourtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Rina Sawayama on Drag Race UK, Pat McGrath, and rejecting Kawaii

The artist enlisted Evanie Frausto, @sweetmutuals, and Lyle Reimer to transform her for Mercedes-Benz’s ‘How To’ project in Mexico City

When I meet musician Rina Sawayama, her eyelids are smoky and glittered and she has a single kiss curl snaking down her forehead. “It’s a look inspired by Gothy Kendoll,” she says, inspired by the RuPaul’s Drag Race UK contestant. Her personal faves? The Vivienne and Sum Ting Wong. It might sound out of the blue, but she goes on to explain that her inspirations – both for music and eclectic sense of style – come from all over the place. 

“The concept of queer culture and drag, in general, is so inspirational,” she explains. “I see it a lot as satirising your pain and trauma – there’s an inexplicable power in that. Queer culture – it’s ridiculous, funny, smart, vibrant, and a lot about people who are trying to find themselves in it. It’s amazing!” 

Rina is in Mexico City as part of Mercedes-Benz’s ‘How To’ project, investigating what the future of beauty is with a roster of young creatives – hairstylist Evanie Frausto, make-up artists @sweetmutuals, and Lyle Reimer among them, handpicked by the musician herself. The result highlights Rina’s ability to transform herself into whatever she wants – one minute wearing a cropped wig with finger waves and the next looking like a make-up bot from the year 3019. 

Here, we catch up with Rina on everything from her tattoos to why she always tried to reject the Kawaii aesthetic. 

Do you remember when you were first conscious of your appearance? 

Rina Sawayama: I was honestly living in such a comfortable life in my little bubble, in my state school in London surrounded by a majority of POC students; there were all these different religions too. I really never thought about it but then when I was forced to find myself when I went to Cambridge. 

Being faced with a complete lack of diversity, stereotypes, and toxic masculinity. I saw that in its infancy because a lot of people in Oxbridge go and work for the government and hold positions of power. It was a lot of baby Boris’s and baby David Cameron’s and that honestly gave me such a life lesson.

How did you deal with that?

Rina Sawayama: I became severely depressed. I nearly dropped out but again I found my weirdos at Queen’s College. It was a group of people who were starting this drag night called ‘Denim’. Until I found them, I was at my lowest – my mum was trying to prevent me from dropping out and just get me through it. 

It was halfway through my third year and I went with them to the only gay club we had in Cambridge and they were hosting this night called ‘Denim’. They were like my chosen family, I was so happy and I was able to finish University. Queer people saved me – I will never forget that. This was the core of why I need to honour our truth all the time.

When did you start experimenting with your hair and make-up?

Rina Sawayama: I really think it was really my adult life when I was able to explore, it’s something about when you know who you are you can then go and break the rules. If you don’t know who you are then you can’t really break the rules. That was definitely the process for me, I was fully in denial of my ‘Japanese-ness’ and I was fully in denial of being bi. Once I got to grips of that in my mid-20s, I was then to be able to say, ‘Cool I have a corner’ and can be who I am. 

Can you talk us through your tattoos? 

Rina Sawayama: I have this favourite artist called Tati Compton who does my tattoos. One is a Ren Hang photo. I was really sad when he died because I feel like he captured Asian sexuality in a way that no one else has. It was all about skin contact in Asian culture – there’s not really much of that and the love language is not the same. We don’t give each other hugs, it’s like they’ll throw you a plate of food and that means ‘sorry’. They’ll criticise you and that’s their compliment. It’s a completely different language. So I felt here is the portrayal of sexuality and skin – his way of capturing beauty was is amazing. Then I have my dog and a little Stegosaurus guy which was one of my first tattoos. 

How did your ‘How To’ project with Mercedes-Benz come about? What made you want to participate? 

Rina Sawayama: Obviously I knew Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t know the extent of how they help designers – I knew they sponsored fashion week though. It was obviously exciting when we first started talking and when I saw who else was going to be involved like Samuel Ross, Jazelle, and Lena Waithe.

It’s not very often you get a really genuine project like this, where you not only honour your process but they also want to really work with your interests. It lead to something bigger and when you meet creatives and you think ‘Oh, you’re great’, it’s so easy. 

How did you come up with the idea for each shot? 

Rina Sawayama: I really wanted the creatives to do their own thing. For me, the essence of collaboration isn’t about shutting other people’s ideas off. I lay out some specific boundaries, I’m not super self-conscious because I’m trying to remove my ego from the process, but I’m not trying to look Kawaii. 

When it’s the right collaborator they get it and having the right people around you – the rest of it comes naturally. It’s more about letting yourself go and just be fascinated by the process.

Have you found yourself being pigeonholed into a Kawaii or anime aesthetic often? 

Rina Sawayama: It’s difficult for sure. I still get a lot of questions about Japan all of the time; although I’m really proud of being Japanese, I want people to ask me questions about my uni experience. I’ve lived a really interesting life! Ask me about my parents, what my Christmas plans are, and shit like that. I’ll always be true to what I write about and my album is all about me trying to figure out my place in the West as a Japanese woman.

I felt that by being truthful and actually calling out things that people go through it definitely highlighted my mum when she moved to the UK in the 90s. She would get so much abuse because there’s this thing called V-J-day (Victory Japan day) which was the commemoration of the end of the World War. So you can imagine my mum walking around in the streets that day people would pull their eyes.

Even though it’s not like that anymore, I need to honour that truth and honour the trauma that she went through. I feel like that now we have a better relationship I’m catching up for lost time. Politically and my identity is about honouring her and she is so happy now. My mum now also really supports what I do.

What does your mum think about your hair and make-up looks?

Rina Sawayama: There’s this phrase in Japanese which translates to: ‘Wow, you actually did that’ and she keeps saying it. It’s a bit like, ‘You did that’ but also just... ‘Wow’. 

Do you have a favourite look from the project?

Rina Sawayama: The look created by Lyle (Reimer) was so fun. He works as he goes, so he had already cut up the pieces that were attached to my face. I never said I didn’t like anything, I just went with the flow. He’s also a very calm person and has such a great etiquette with people – that was the best. 

Why do you think we’re seeing young creatives coming to the forefront like this more?

Rina Sawayama: I will sound old when I say this, but it’s definitely a generational thing. Generations are growing up with high-speed internet and social media – whereas for me, I had Facebook and Myspace and there were more restrictions. 

Now, those restrictions have lifted and I was thinking specifically about Ali (@sweetmutuals) – she’s so young and as a black woman to feel she can actually create on her face really comes from the ability of having a great base and base make-up. Back in the day, there was no colour foundation that wouldn’t make her look ashy, but now because of Fenty Beauty and the importance of having a good base it’s literally about having a good canvas. 

For me, it’s like having good software to make music. The advancement of technology and beauty on this level means that POC are able to actually get creative from that point – because why would you want to put all of this amazing work if the base isn’t the right colour? You’re just going to be discouraged from the start and I think that has been a huge thing. As a teenager, she’s grown up with base make-up and before maybe our age we’ve just discovered foundation which I do think has been a huge thing and a huge part of young people using the face as a medium to explore things and flourish. It’s a huge testament to how things are changing.

What is the future of beauty?

Rina Sawayama: AI! And more creativity, fully realised. I just want make-up looks on the catwalk to go back to when Pat McGrath was working with John Galliano for Dior. I want people to really create concepts. I don’t want make-up to be an afterthought on runway shows, I want it to be an integral part of the whole look.