Hey babes. Thank you so much for the overwhelmingly positive response to the first post — I’m so glad that more people can see the exhibition now, especially those who have been following the project and couldn’t make it to the opening themselves (which is still up, by the way, at American Two Shot in NYC). Today, I want to talk to you about two other sitters for the project: the Beccas. Well actually: Becca, and Rebekah. Tayler plucked them for this week for the name association. I like them because they speak about the importance of queer relationships in our approach to our work. Considering it’s Pride month, I think it’s timely.
Becca is the designer behind the Beyonce-approved brand CHROMAT, which is this amazing brand made by a bunch of amazing queer babes in NYC. She looks terrifying in this picture; now just imagine it blown up four feet high! Imposing. I asked her to be part of the project straight away because of the positivity she weaves into the NYC design & queer scene. She’s fresh and talented and started off as an underdog in the industry and blew up. Becca already uses makeup in a decidedly queer way, and I remember one of the first time i ever saw her she had a Maybelline mustache drawn on her face. Paired with choppy baby bangs and a PVC choker, she looked a vision of queer utopia, a little bit, and it’s reflected in the thoughtful dreams of design in her work. Interviewing her was fun because of our shared language of fashion and sexuality — these things intersect, all the time, you knit your identities and desires together always, like patchwork.
But back to her portrait and why and how. She has a history with blue eyeshadow in her family (an idealized dream of watching a mother, for sure), she loves the color gold. She likes pairing differing versions of femme together, fucking shit up. And so a dainty Maybelline mustache — nod to John Waters, our favorite trash king, paired with red lipstick is a look du jour. I kept all these part of her in the story, and just began messing them up. Becca is a self-made young gun who is thoroughly in control of her vision and what she needs from her team and herself. For her role in Ugly, it was important to shatter the neat pairings of femmes and butch and just mess them up. Sometimes pairing the two can be very calculated in a way that stabilizes the expectations around them. Glitter and beards. Lipstick and leather. So on. These are fine — but they can be tropes, too, and I don’t like the predictability. I like to push past that. So instead of giving her neat makeup, I purposely messed up the control of the signals her makeup gave off. Her Maybelline mustache in homage to John Waters — smeared. Her lipstick over applied to the point of absurdity. It wasn’t really about the colors at the point, though they were part of her story, but the process of destabilizing the method of makeup as defense. Makeup is armor, sometimes it’s a crutch, sometimes it’s a weapon, often it’s all three. It was important to test out the utility of all options. So I put on her makeup and then a CHROMAT PVC gimp mask, and asked her to scream and lose control. She’s has always been a mellow person around me, so I asked her to dig down and be as vicious as her designs, which take up so much space, which demand visibility, which consume. It was pretty hellish — in a fun, daring way. How would you react when you were given your tools of armor and they were all knotted together and corrupted? She got really anxious having to navigate this new challenge of self discovery. That was the point.
This is actually the first option we chose of her shots; she looks like she’s going to murder Tayler. I think at some points she’d have liked to. She was totally out of her element! It was a difficult shoot for a few minutes, honestly, and I was wondering if something was missing or if I went too far, and asked if she was okay. Vulnerability without safety implied is violent business, and I don’t want to do that with makeup. I thought about stopping it all and sitting her down and redoing the makeup, or something. Thankfully, her girlfriend swung by at the crucial moment and we all felt an invisible weight being lifted. Immediately, the photos became a collaborative effort between Christine and Becca — they’d kiss and laugh and she’d go back into the very vulnerable state I put her in, and become a monster. Before Christine came it felt too lonely being totally transformed into another version of herself — now she had an anchor. It was really beautiful to watch, actually. There’s this line from my friend Trisha Low’s book, A Compleat Purge, that I think about all the time in relation to how I build queer relationships of all kinds, friendships, work relationships, and more: “We have to be careful with each other so we can be dangerous together.” So it goes.
Skip forward a few months — Rebekah’s one of the last muses we shot, and you can tell the progression in the project. The earlier photos are more messy and pretty tied into influences like Sherman, Pat McGrath, general messy makeupping, but later on, everything just got more weird and alien. These particular photos from Bekah — we have so many that are more editorial and cold and peaceful and cyberfantastic, simply because I was moving on from the original chapter of monsters and makeup into a new one of robots. It bubbled up in my work, which I consider kind of a failing, not to be able to stick to a story, but oh well.
For Bekah, she was always teased in her Korean American community and had this general preoccupation with double eyelids and difficulties fitting in with the other Koreans in her neighborhood in Queens. Fashion was an escape for her, but it also meant being alienated from family and friends who thought they knew best for her. She grew up with a lot of anxiety and pressure about eyelid surgery, about her mole, about dyeing her hair, so forth. She ended up getting her mole removed at the behest of her family and her own decision. She didn’t tell me this until after I did the rest of her makeup, though, and I cackled, and drew it right back on and her personality went from being super excited about how pretty and strange she looked — strange in a good way, one that wasn’t familiar and therefore not entirely her — right back into a place where she remembered getting harassed. I did purposely trigger her into a state of confrontation about her past, and she had been avoiding that by giving me generalized answers to the interview questions (which is totally fine, and they did help, but we hadn’t found her ugly yet). But then! She slipped up, and it all came together.
Her mole is part of her Most Important Ugly, or the ghost of it, anyway. It’s strange how little things can hold so much meaning, right? I wiped it off, put it back on, we played with it and the ideas of masks and expectations. The tiny details — building and changing the mask color from red to purple because the historical significance of red in Asian beauty is very specific and I don’t want to be inaccurate about it, the gold flecks, the mole… it all leads up to a larger story of resistance and acceptance of change. You can take makeup off or pile it on, and it can mean so much to you and how you see yourself. That’s powerful. That’s very potent. That’s witchwork.
What kind of setup do you usually use for these shoots?
I love your work and both Rebekahs’, especially the homage to John Water’s moustache.
I don’t think the evolution from monsters to robots is a failing – queer identities (in particular) aren’t static or consistent, and I think that your work highlights this changeability. It’s also important, I think, to see a variety in expressions of vulnerability, strength, anger and peace, which the discongruity of monsters and robots helps to achieve. More people are able to see their struggles, development and ideal forms represented, in this way.
These photographs are fascinating, and the stories behind them even more so.
Thank you so much for putting this project online.
(PS: If you ever make a book out of it, I will buy it in a heartbeat).
I second this! If there are ever prints for sale, I would also buy them in a hot second.
i have never read anybody write about makeup how you write about makeup and i’m obsessed with it
potent witchwork. amen.
Thanks Arabelle, Tayler, Becca, and Bekah! This is truly great and I am excited to see the rest.
I started following you on tumblr and I’m becoming more and more ready to explore makeup for myself.
Theories change and shift for us. I keep seeing the ideas I see for myself in my expression changing and shifting. They are coping mechanisms and they help me deal with the world and then I move on to whatever’s next. Yes.
This is (continues to be) wonderful.