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Nathalie Nguyen catfish look

3D artist Nathalie Nguyen’s alien digital beauty looks defy reality

The creative shares how she’s photoshopping her self-portraits to push the boundaries of beauty and process her relationship with Instagram

Digital make-up isn’t a totally foreign concept in today’s world. After all, there are Instagram face filters, virtual hair and make-up apps, and even digital fashion brands who make clothes and accessories just for the virtual world. One such brand is Happy99, a company that makes virtual sneakers that look like they belong in the future, which was co-founded by New York-based creative Nathalie Nguyen – an artist who has also created a whole new beauty aesthetic by blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not using technology.

In addition to running the brand, Nguyen creates virtual self-portraits, applying 3D flowers to her nails and alienesque make-up to herself using computer software like Photoshop, then sharing it on Instagram. 3D rendered spirals and bulbous shapes curl across and protrude from areas of her face that are traditionally decorated with make-up, and she’s dabbled in transforming herself completely, digitally, into avatar and cartoon forms. “I just want to bring to life what doesn’t exist and 3D software removes the limitations of the physical world,” she previously told Coeval Magazine regarding her approach.

While she’s also experimented with putting real objects like toy robots and actual flowers on her face (with the help of @cupidsvault, of course), for Nguyen, beauty is all about framing or adorning your face even if you’re not using real make-up. It’s a radical concept that makes one reconsider your definition of “real,” and how you present yourself to the world both on and offline.

It was an early anime obsession that sparked Nguyen’s interest in design and, ultimately, beauty. Her cousin first put her on to it, starting with Sailor Moon, Arina Tanemura, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, which fed her passion for character narratives and compelling stories. Immigrating to California when she was six from France, Nguyen only spoke Vietnamese and French. Quickly, she found herself struggling to communicate with other kids so she started drawing and doing illustration. After studying 3D animation and visual effects in San Francisco when she was 18, and switching majors to pursue illustration in the hope of working for Pixar one day,  the creative moved to New York two years ago.

Nguyen has found herself more drawn to anime subculture than mainstream culture, and attended her first anime expo in 2004 when she was only 12 years old. “I saw all these costumes,” she reminisces. “It was my first time witnessing cosplay and it just threw me into that world for the next 10 years.” From there, she began exploring costuming and beauty, which allowed her to replicate her favourite anime characters by employing “really crazy wigs and really crazy make-up.” Her most notable costume was Catherine from a video game of the same name – the look featured a blonde, giant spiral wig. 

In September 2018, she began experimenting on herself, adding virtual nails to her fingers that looked like twisted glass, abstract icicles, and others that included metal screws and rings. Later, she took inspiration from a catfish, a play on the idea of catfishing, putting whiskers on her eyes as eyelashes. Using shapes that look like floating metal or glass objects as opposed to ‘traditional’ make-up, Nguyen found herself interested in pushing the boundaries of what make-up is, creating looks that are physically impossible to make people think.

“You're editing your hair, you're editing your face,” she explains. According to the creative, beauty is inherently like editing, using the 3D medium via Photoshop, which she considers an experimental approach that gives her a way of processing her relationship with Instagram. With the rise of beauty fillers and plastic surgery thanks to social media, Facetune, and the desire to be popular, Nguyen believes society is moving towards a “perfect face” (she calls it the Kardashian face and credits Kylie Jenner for the aesthetic). By this, she means a lip lift that makes the distance between your lip and your nose smaller, which makes your lips look bigger, and your nostrils look smaller. 

In a selfie-obsessed world, using her own face as the backdrop of 3D designs has helped bring Nguyen some closure, allowing her to take the focus off her own facial features and not get so caught up in societal pressure to look a certain way. “My problem with make-up for so long was that it was my escape into feeling better about myself,” she reflects. “I would buy a product to make myself feel better, but it would never make me feel whole because, without the make-up, I'm just myself again.” 

When she was younger, Nguyen used to think beauty was meant to enhance what was already there, but now that she is a little older, she considers “beauty to be more about art beauty instead of a representation beauty.” By this she means that in the past, her approach was more focused on how she looked and presented herself online, wanting to look pretty by editing her appearance. Now, she says, “I'm more focused on art beauty, not to say that make-up isn't art, but to say that my 3D creations have become an outlet for me to adjust my own perception of beauty.” This shift in mentality has led her to want to share things, including pictures of herself, in which people find the 3D design beautiful, not just her appearance. In the future, she hopes to continue expanding her rendering skills learning more about how she can incorporate VR/AR into her practice.

“In the past, even after doing some really cool make-up, I would Photoshop it to perfection so it would look the way I wanted it to,” she explains further. “But now with 3D, the attention is on the medium itself, so there’s less pressure on me to look like a supermodel or Bella Hadid.” From her standpoint, the focus is just on the make-up now. So far, people have responded positively to this shift in which she blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s not. “It's about the concept of the make-up and not about me looking cute. Now, I've become more of an artist and less of a model.” 

Nguyen doesn’t think that society’s beauty obsession will end anytime soon along with the gratification of doing it to yourself, which is especially true with the advent of face filters. One thing she hopes to see in the future is that the consumer cycle of make-up will become revolutionised in terms of less wasteful packaging and non-toxic ingredients. “Maybe there will be a new medium or non-traditional application methods that can allow you to put things on your face.”