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Pose make-up artist Deja Smith is paving the way for trans MUAs

The Emmy-nominated creative has been a trailblazer as well as supporting upcoming talent with her company DDPRO

Since it debuted on our screens back in 2018, Pose has captured a fanbase obsessed after two seasons and eagerly awaiting a third. We have laughed, cried (still not over Candy’s death, TBH), and picked our jaws up off the floor every time Elektra has done reading somebody for filth

As equally captivating as the storylines and the characters – that show the depth and nuance of trans women of colour like we’ve never seen before – are the fabulous costumes, hair, and make-up transporting viewers back to the fabulous New York City ballroom scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Responsible for the latter is make-up artist Deja Smith – a self-desribed “multifacted creative” originally hailing from Long Island.  

After pursuing a career in dance, Smith was enticed into the world of make-up by her late friend, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Sahara Davenport. Starting out at a MAC counter and working on freelance jobs on the side, the creative wanted to make entry into the industry easier for other trans artists. 

“The need to support the LGBTQ+ community is still pressing. The fact remains that many of us are being exploited to enrich the public gaze of people, organisations, and brands” – Deja Smith 

That started Double D Productions (DDPRO) with her friend and hairstylist Dee TrannyBear, a concierge company for hair, make-up, and image-making that has worked with the likes of Fluide and Gay Times and features a roster of talent such as Alok Vaid-Menon, Kehinde Wiley, and Laverne Cox – who Smith also works with as her MUA. “The need to support the LGBTQ+ community is still pressing,” Smith says on the need for DDPRO in 2020. “The fact remains that many of us (DDPRO included) are being exploited to enrich the public gaze of people, organisations, and brands in the pursuit of the great American dream.” 

Despite navigating tokenism, Smith has had an incredible career that has seen her receive two Emmy nominations and worked with Ivy Park, Lanvin, and Dazed 100 alum Aaron Philip and Chella Man. After working in the industry for so long, the make-up artist has learned to find her voice and not be limited by boxes she may be put into. “I have learned to be less of the silent server and more of a reflection of the team,” she explains. “I carry that sense of self-worth with me at all times and I seek to honour my client by revealing to the world the beauty that comes from within.” 

Here, we speak with Smith about her Emmy nominations, her advice for breaking into the industry, and how the beauty can be more inclusive for trans people. 

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

Deja Smith: I have a very vivid recollection of myself around the age of 10. I had just been cast as one of the munchkins in the local high school’s production of The Wiz. Being so young, I had no concept of the history of the show but my mother’s vivid recollection of the excitement surrounding Stephanie Mills’ portrayal of Dorothy in the Broadway version sparked so much excitement in my little heart. Once mom rented the movie version for me to watch my pride was impossible to contain. 

One day while outside playing, the neighborhood kids someone suggested a game of kickball and a lightbulb went off. This was the perfect time to reveal my munchkins costume!! I wasn’t ready for the reaction of my neighbours as I burst out of my house in a neon yellow catsuit with an intensely patterned neon short set overlay, but the roar of laughter, pointing, and jeers burst my bubble and taught me my first lesson about self-expression. That was my first time being conscious of my appearance and other peoples reactions towards it. The Wiz is still my favorite movie though!

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Deja Smith: Growing up in my grandmother’s house, beauty and identity was an amalgam of positive exposure, internal strength, and the movement towards Black excellence. Grandma’s house was home-base for all nine of her children, her younger sister and my two older cousins. All of whom were the rock stars of my youth. My mother worked at a Fashion Fair counter and often did kitchen table makeovers until she joined the police force and redirected her trajectory. I grew up in that house with beauty being a reflection of how we treated each other, while make-up was a luxury that was reserved for special occasions like church and graduations. It was the expression of reverence not vanity and so I’ve always approached my work as a make-up artist in the same way.

My upbringing also occurred amid the conflicting realities of the crack epidemic which affected our working class community greatly outside of our home. Meanwhile, inside we absorbed community growth and education and family nights watching The Cosby Show and A Different World. My grandmother passed down the tradition of exposing her children to better with the expectation that we would be ready for any opportunities that presented themselves. That expectation is ingrained in my nature.

“(Growing up) make-up was a luxury that was reserved for special occasions like church and graduations. It was the expression of reverence not vanity and so I’ve always approached my work as a make-up artist in the same way” – Deja Smith 

Why are you a make-up artist? What made you want to become one?

Deja Smith: I’m a make-up artist because I understand the power of make-up to change someone’s self-image and life. The first time I found Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces I was infatuated with the ability to reimagine the way a person presents themself to the world. Artistry has always been in my veins and the medium of make-up provides me a way to create and question our society’s assumptions about personal presentation.

How did you actually get into make-up? Where did you hone your craft?

Deja Smith: I’ve always been into make-up! It all began when I would sneak into my mother’s pink Fashion Fair compacts attempting to visualise the womanhood I felt but few people would accept. My training as a classically trained concert dancer gave me some entrée into self-expression. In college, I wanted to be able to BEAT like my drag mother Kelexis Davenport. 

When I started working in retail make-up, I wanted to have a skillset that could get me backstage at NYFW. When I became a freelance make-up artist I wanted to travel and work with A-list talent. As I transitioned, I wanted to protect myself with beauty and today I want to reveal a new level of perception. Every step sharpened my skillset and level of determination. 

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to ‘beauty’?

Deja Smith: Beauty is a concept that I wholeheartedly believe in. I’ve always obsessed over glamour and fashion, but over the years have felt excluded by the restrictive cisgender, heteronormative, thin and white-pleasing beauty paradigm. In rediscovering my relationship to beauty, the idea of beauty I want my work to capture is the power of beauty to re-educate our social constructs.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Deja Smith: My proudest achievement at this moment is surviving to the age of 39 as a trans woman of colour. There are also the obvious major achievements like the my two consecutive Emmy Award nominations for period make-up on Pose that are absolutely thrilling. However, my proudest achievements at this point surround the grassroots work that I’ve done during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine to elevate positive media reflections of Blackness and transness. I’m not often available to do work within community, but after months inside following safety protocols, the Black and trans and  queer community was the best reason to leave the house.

Beginning with a fashion commercial produced by my company DDPRO for Pose actor Dominique Jackson’s catchphrase ‘Get The Shoes Baby, Get The Shoes,’ I followed up with a multidisciplinary project by filmmaker Gia Love called ‘What’s Your Fantasy.’ In June, I was on the inaugural Intersectional Voices Collective planning committee for the nationally recognised ‘Juneteenth Jubilee,’ and most recently designed the make-up and assembled the make-up team for the historic first partnership between ballroom’s House of Xclusive-Lanvin and its couture namesake Lanvin, for the fashion film La Mère et L’Enfant. The final achievement is in its final stages of production before release and it’s my most passionate, personal work to date. These types of projects may not garner the acclaim of an internationally recognised honor, but these projects help me to achieve my ultimate life goal: to create the change I want to see in this world.

Why did you want to start DDPRO? Why was it important to support LGBTQ+ community members?

Deja Smith: When we started DDPRO, Dee TrannyBear and I felt that if we had a more professional marketing appeal clients would see beyond the face value of two trans people openly existing in public space. We wanted to be taken seriously for our talent and capabilities and at the time our genders were seen as attention seeking and salacious. As we began to amass credits we kept thinking that each big opportunity would be the big opportunity that would not only get us recognised but would also get us appropriately compensated. 

Seven years later, we are still fighting for trans equity. Our experience as industry professionals who happen to be openly trans inform that statement, so we’ve doubled down on our company’s mission, which is to provide a transparent, compassionate, service-based experience to all of our clientele.  

Do you think the beauty industry is representative of the trans community? How could it improve? 

Deja Smith: The beauty industry is not representative of the trans community today. The beauty industry is representative of cisnormative beauty standards and the people that fit neatly into them. I see change on the horizon with models like Jari Jones, Gia Love, and Fatima Jamal making significant strides. I just can’t put 100 per cent faith in the industry’s progress until trans representation is not just seen during Pride month and trans folks have a valued seat at the table.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry? 

Deja Smith: My advice is to never stop learning and working on your craftsmanship or networking with like-minded people. There is no such thing as a point when you have ‘made it,’ but the confidence to recognise where you are and where you want to be, is the key to achieving any goal. 

What are you currently working on?

Deja Smith: Thankfully I’m back at work on the new Shondaland TV production for Netflix. However, for my last quarantine hoorah I executive produced and conceptualized a beauty story along with four other amazing Black trans women creatives. It’s a love letter to our community; those who are living and those who have passed on. By us and for us. I’m very excited to see that work exist and influence today’s culture of violence towards Black trans femmes.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?

Deja Smith: I know many incredibly talented people but there is one young visionary woman who is multi-talented as well as a skilled producer behind the scene; Jonovia Chase navigates each project that she supports with incredible drive and vision. I know that she is preparing to spearhead her own major endeavor and I would love to shine a light on her effectiveness so she can secure the resources to engage in this pursuit with a realistic budget – the world is brighter because of her Black girl magic.

What is the future of beauty?

Deja Smith: I don’t know the exact details, but the future of beauty is a landscape where the beauty paradigm is broken open to provide safe space for all people to see themselves.