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Cheerleader by Hazel Gaskin

High ponies and hairspray: Exploring the beauty rituals of cheerleaders

Photographer Hazel Gaskin shoots Goldsmiths Lions as they prep and perform on competition day – go Lions!

Rituals is a monthly column that looks at the obscure beauty routines and sacred acts of self-care different professionals practice as they prepare for a typical event. Cheerleading is a friend-making, confidence-building, extracurricular activity for Goldsmiths university students Lorena, 21, Rebekah, 19, Annabel, 21 and Isabella, 21. Training and competing together as part of the national championship-winning Goldsmiths Lions squad, their collective highlight, here they each share how they discovered cheerleading, the hidden pressures of competition hair and make-up, and the rollercoaster of emotions the sport puts them through.

Isabella: I have been cheering for three years, from having absolutely no knowledge and experience to being president of the Goldsmiths Lions: running the team and leading conditioning sessions. I joined university still living at home and needed to figure out another way to make friends! I am a flyer on the team – the one who gets thrown up in the air by the stunt group. I do it because I am quite outgoing and extroverted. I bring a lot of sass to my performance and routine which is super important for the performance score.

Lorena: I discovered cheerleading thanks to Vine in year 11 (aged 16) and was totally hooked on a YouTube series called Cheerleaders which follows the California Allstars Smoed team to the cheerleading world championships. Then I found a drop-in cheer class in Islington where I learned the basics of stunting and made Unity Allstars’ level one team. The downside is that it is very expensive but my weekly tutoring job paid for my monthly fees. (Since joining the Lions) I’ve been team social secretary and was elected vice-captain of the team. I have been cheering for four years altogether.

Annabel: I previously did dance from the age of three to 18, but when coming to university I wanted to try something new and challenge myself. Originally, I went to the society fair to sign up for the dance club, ended up signing up for cheerleading as well and quit dance. When starting cheer, I was very nervous as I thought it would be similar to dance but it is actually very different – I did have to practice a lot. I’ve now been cheerleading for three years and love it!

Rebekah: When I was about 15, my secondary school dance coach invited me to join the cheer team which sparked an interest. But I never had the confidence to go to tryouts until I joined Goldsmiths. I have been cheerleading properly for almost two years now and I’m currently a base. I originally joined because I was finding it hard to meet other people. I do it because it pushes me to be better, I like to push my limits and take myself out of my comfort zones. 

Isabella: On competition day, you’ll find me in full glam with highlighter, contour and a lot of eyeliner on. Hair slicked back into a high pony and all the hairspray! Can’t be letting those baby hairs run free on the comp floor. Also, if you have a uniform that rides up, hairspray can help it stay in place if you spray the area and then pat it down. On days where I am not competing, the most make-up you’ll find me in is some eyebrow gel, eyeliner and mascara.

Annabel: At practice, I don’t tend to wear any make-up as I will be sweating, and my hair will be up. When I perform, I like to put purple eyeshadow on with a thick fake lash and blinding highlight. I love doing my make-up for competitions as it’s a chance to make yourself look extra beautiful. I use hairspray to stick my makeup to my face as sometimes it can transfer onto other girls on the team. We flyers cannot moisturise our legs on the day of competition because it makes them super slippery and soft for our bases when they catch us. 

Rebekah: I always straighten my hair when we perform as it has to go into a high ponytail which does not suit my curly hair. For competitions, my makeup is ‘stage make-up’ – old sparkly eyeshadow, eyelashes, very contoured and then hairspray. The make-up is very much a part of the costume. It pulls the whole look together and I would say gives you that extra bit of confidence. I personally hate performing with make-up on because you’re sweating and I can just imagine how clogged my pores are getting but I would not perform without it. However, when I get home I make sure to really cleanse my face to avoid spots. 

Lorena: Long (false) nails are a no-go as it’s a safety hazard. I rarely wear make-up but when it comes to competition days, I can always count on my teammates who are more talented on the make-up front than me to help me go full glam. You’ll find that flyers’ white cheer shoes do not tend to stay white from where make-up rubs the shoes when they are being held in the air. The girls’ make-up varies but everyone tends to variate the team colours: gold and purple. It’s important that everyone looks the same at competitions, which includes the same hairstyle, and you must take out all piercings before going on the mat or you get points deducted from your score.

Isabella: Being a representative for a sport that not a lot of people know about is really challenging and rewarding. There is nothing better than feeling like you’re part of a family whilst you’re trying to create and produce a routine and product. At times cheer can be quite mentally challenging because you have to push yourself to keep going and keep trying. Sometimes things can get a little frustrating when stunts don’t go up and formations don’t work, but you can always come back with a new mindset, fresh eyes, and go again. 

Lorena: You’ve got the performance aspect which is so adrenaline-inducing and, on top of that, I get tossed in the air which makes it two-fold. It is really challenging at the start of the season when you first meet the people you have to trust to hold you and catch you when you fall from the air. It takes time to bond but the feeling you get when a crazy stunt that seems impossible finally clicks is incredibly rewarding.

Annabel: The unity and performance of the team excites me as I love a team sport. Having such energy on the mat brings me so much joy and happiness, so regardless if we hit the routine or not, just having everyone try their best and being happy is good enough.

Rebekah: The most challenging thing for me was the uniform. I’ve been anxious wearing tight clothing or revealing clothing from a young age and as a base, you’re sometimes in some very compromising positions It can be so tempting to yank down a very small uniform that rides up but cheerleading for Goldsmiths has taught me that most people don’t care what you look like in the costume. It’s about your technique and what you can bring to the team.