Octavia Spencer on Playing Madam C.J. Walker: "It's Daunting"

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

You may have heard the story of Madam C.J. Walker (or you will when you watch Self Made), but it likely was not in a textbook — Black women often don't make the cut. Walker was born on a plantation near Delta, Louisiana, in 1867. She worked as a laundress until she was 38, when she began selling a hair-care product she'd developed to treat her own scalp sores and hair loss. (It was made largely of petrolatum and sulfur.)

The Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture brand (now 15 products strong) is no longer family-owned, but Bundles still acts as its historical consultant and is looking forward to introducing her great-great-grandmother to the streaming generation: "What I think is the core of Madam Walker's story — what's really important to me — is how much she empowered other women."

ishonest No.222 - Fine Lines & Wrinkles

No.222 - Fine Lines & Wrinkles

— As told to Cotton Codinha

I had known of Madam C.J. all my life. I think for people who don't know her legacy, it's going to be shocking to hear that she was the first female self- made millionaire in our country, and she was a Black woman whose family members were slaves. In fact, she was the first in her family who was not born a slave.

Of course, it's daunting to play her because in the Black community, we look up to her. But it's daunting any time you have to tell the story of someone's real life — you don't want to make a mistake. At the same time, I'm excited that I get to tell her story and the story of what she meant to me. She was one of the people that my mom used as a standard-bearer for us, to teach us that anything that we ever dreamed for ourselves could happen.

One of the first beauty tricks I learned was from watching my mom get dressed. She wore very little makeup, but she would always brush up her eyebrows. It was just a really pretty, natural look. And she would draw in a beauty mark above her lip with an eyebrow pencil.

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I think of makeup as an enhancer; it should enhance the beauty already there. My makeup artist, Valerie Noble, has done my makeup so well that I've forgotten how to do it on my own. We're old, old friends. She's been doing my makeup for 15 years. We make sure to do just enough that I don't look so different when I'm wearing makeup than when I'm not.

The majority of the characters I've played were women from a different time period. They were relegated to pink or red lipstick, and I don't like red because it dries out my lips. I like to keep my lips neutral. Some colors might thrive in nature, but I'm like, "I don't need to put them on my face." Green doesn't look natural on my face. I love it when my eyes are done with eyeliner and mascara, and very minimal eye shadow, in browns and purples with a little hint of iridescence, but that's it. I did lash extensions, and they were beautiful. Beautiful. And then all of a sudden, when they started dropping out, I was like a bald man. Bald! I did it for six months, and then I said, "No. No more of that." I looked like a dandelion once the petals had been blown off. I break out with oil of any type on my face. So after I cleanse my skin, I put on ice-cold water from the faucet to tighten up the pores. And then when they settle down, I use Olay as my night cream and my day cream. It's the only thing that keeps my skin smooth — and takes off my eye makeup. It's sort of my catch- all. My mom's first cousin taught me the ice water move.

Today she'd be 100. Her skin was this beautiful dark chocolate and her pores were super-smooth. She looked like she was 40, and she was 70-something! She used Dove soap, Oil of Olay, and ice water. So I thought, well, let me catch on to ice. I wouldn't do anything else to my face. People are starting to look very alien with all the injections.

Over the past few years, I've learned that I have to protect time on my calendar for me: just being home, going to get a massage, or walking around my neighborhood. Something that is quiet enough. My job requires me to be an extrovert, but who I am as a person, not so much. When I get to know you and I get to know that I want to have you in my life, then I let you in. But otherwise, I'm pretty introverted. For a while, my job kept me away from home and my loved ones and friends for so long that I started to hate it. And what made me love it again was finding a bit of joy for myself in every day. That could be anything: sitting watching birds, lighting a candle and just feeling refreshed from the scent.

ishonest No.501 - Frizzy Hair

No.501 - Frizzy Hair

Nest has beautiful [floral] candles that I take everywhere. If it's raining, and it hasn't stopped raining for four weeks, and it's cold and blustery, I go to my trailer and my Nest candle is lit. I could just sit and go, "Okay, I have this beautiful scent. It's taking me places." I try to find the beauty in my day, [like] taking walks, especially if it's a place I've never been. I love seeing new things. And for me, when I'm centered, I find this joy that's pervasive throughout my body. That brings my inner beauty out, I think.

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More stories from the magazine:

  • The Dixie Chicks on the Price of Being Genuine
  • How I Changed My Skin-Care Routine During Pregnancy
  • Lili Reinhart Never Had a Backup Plan

Now, watch these makeup artists turn a model into Mona Lisa:

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