Culture Trips

‘It’s sheer! It’s queer!’: redesigning and diversifying beauty ads of the past | Photography

Long before makeup moguls like Jeffree Star and Kylie Jenner were selling lip kits and mystery boxes on Instagram, there was the old-fashioned way of selling beauty products – in the pages of women’s magazines.

Thin white women posed alongside phrases like “Lashes” or “Great look, great body, great mascara!” while donning blue eyeshadow and bright bursts of pink blush.

These ads are now being reshaped for 2021 with a diverse range of models in the spotlight, from queer to trans and non-binary. Prim-n-Poppin is an online exhibition featuring faux beauty ads shot in an old school style – bright eyeshadow, cheesy smiles and of course, updated phrases that reflect today.

The series is co-created by New York photographer Julia Comita and makeup artist Brenna Drury and aims to challenge outdated beauty standards. It shows how far we’ve come over the past 50 years, and how far we still need to go.

“We asked ourselves: ‘What would the future look like today if these advertisements had been the standard of the past?’” asks Drury. “As creatives, we want to challenge the industry to take responsibility for their marketing and diversify their talent pool.”

The images riff on vintage ads promoting Sally Hansen nail polish, Maybelline eyeshadow, flavored lip balm and frothy face soap alongside racially diverse and LGBTQ models. Each ad is shot in hues of cool pinks and pastel blues, with phrases like: “It’s sheer! It’s queer!” and “Colors that scream ‘I’ll probably leave your text message on read.’”

Coral Johnson McDaniel and Ava Trilling
Coral Johnson McDaniel and Ava Trilling. Photograph: Julia Comita

“They’re supposed to look like vintage ads, we tried to be authentic as we could with graphic design and photography from the period, which normalizes the talent that’s in it,” said Comita. “If you’re only accustomed to one standard of beauty, that’s awful. It had a negative effect on so many people growing up. It shouldn’t be like that.”

One shows trans model Maria Rivera posing with a rainbow palette of eyeshadow, accompanied by a radiating smile. She explains that she always had a dream of working in the beauty industry while growing up in the Philippines.

“I have always been a believer of sincere inclusivity regardless of your race, color, gender and body size,” said Rivera. “Beauty doesn’t come only in one size or color or in one shape of a box, it is universal, and everybody is beautiful in our own way.”

One of the biggest problems, says Rivera, is tokenism from brands who want to use trans models, for example, only during pride month in June. “To eliminate tokenism in the mainstream, we need to go out and take up our own space,” said Rivera. “We need not be afraid or scared to be rejected, rather we need to embrace our differences and accept our uniqueness. Only then others will see the beauty within us.”

Comita and Drury wanted each model to not only be seen but heard. They’ve included the voices of each model on the project’s website, as the project aims to show the diversity that was missing at the time, and hear what each model has to say about the past, present and potential future.

Cory Walker
Cory Walker. Photograph: Julia Comita

The duo reached out to different modeling agencies that focus on diversity and ones that represent the trans community. “Moving forward I hope more agencies expand their talent pool,” she adds.

This kind of project calls to mind the story of Tracey “Africa” Norman, a transgender model who worked for Clairol, Avon and Balenciaga in the 1970s – but had to hide it. She only told her story in 2015 about how she made history as the first black trans model, and how dangerous her life was back then.

“Now, people have models who look like them, showing possibilities are a lot wider than what they’re accustomed to,” said Drury. “It’s great people are represented more but there’s still so far to go.”

Other models featured in the series includes Cory Walker, who says that old school beauty advertising made them “feel invisible in a lot of ways,” as well as Kaguya, who wants to see the beauty industry be inclusive of size and age range. “The public in general is still very fatphobic and close-minded,” said Kaguya.

Cecilio Asuncion, the scouting director of Slay Model Management, says that employment is always an issue in the trans community.

“It’s important to highlight and underline many definitions of beauty, not just the cis-het, eurocentric kind that has been served to us for decades if not, centuries,” said Asuncion, who represents Rivera.

Kaguya
Kaguya. Photograph: Julia Comita

He says projects like Prim-n-Poppin are important as a form of social commentary. “Once people start conversations about beauty diversity, companies and brands take notice,” he said, “which will turn into more opportunities”.

Comita says they hope to expand on the project and hopefully have an exhibition down the line, “that’s the dream”, she said.

The 1970s were used as inspiration, as it was a time which was somewhat relatable, according to the photographer. It wasn’t the stiff 1950s, where many ads catered to housewives, or the 1960s, which were still conventional, and had overt racist and sexist overtones.

The pictures do have something dreamy or heavenly about them, be it the pastel palette or the pensive gaze of each model. Yet they use the past to show us a potential future of the beauty industry.

“For me, this project represents all the young transgender dreams of having freedom to choose,” said Rivera. “And to live their lives without any prejudice or need to fit the society’s mold and norms.”

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