Lana Condor. Liu Wen. K-Beauty. Crazy Rich Asians. We’ve come a long way in Asian representation, especially in the mainstream media. These days we’re (almost) everywhere, including movies, TV shows, the covers of magazines and major ad campaigns. We’re even running for office. To see faces that look like mine featured across all industries seems so normal nowadays, it’s almost easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this. Not even close. And not that long ago.
Growing up, I was one of the few Asian Americans in my predominantly white neighborhood in Southern California. For me, feeling different (and not in a special way) was the standard. I had accepted my fate as being less than and not as attractive as my blonde, blue-eyed friends around me. And the world seemed to agree. I never saw myself in any of my favorite sitcoms or teen rom-coms. There were no girl groups or singers that had my small eyes or petite frame. Even worse, I was too dark and round to be accepted as pretty in my own culture. And yet 20 years later, I’ve grown a career as a beauty editor. I spend my days talking to others about what makes them feel most beautiful. I share my face and my advice with readers. It’s not lost on me how ironic this is. I’m also not alone.
For so many of us who went into beauty, our experiences growing up were the same. We felt “other.” We wanted to look like someone else, confused about where we fit in the world, let alone this industry that exclusively featured supermodels and actors who looked nothing like us. But it was through beauty that we ultimately learned to embrace how we look. Our differences empowered us to use beauty not only to help understand what makes us unique, but also to help others find their beauty.
To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I spoke with 11 Asian Pacific American makeup artists, hairstylists, and a nail artist about their relationship with identity and why they decided to pursue a career in beauty. Celebrity makeup artist Daniel Martin and "dewy dumpling" virtuoso Nam Vo are among those who shared how beauty changed their perspective on themselves and their lives.
Daniel Martin, Makeup Artist & Honest Beauty Chief Color Consultant
When I was a kid, I used to get inspired by my grandmother’s Avon catalogs and color the face charts that were in them. Then when I was in middle school, I was fascinated by my Korean stepmother’s skin-care rituals, in the mid-’80s, while living in Seoul. Now as an adult, I realize that I've always been around [beauty] but didn't pay it any mind until I got into the business of it all. I got into beauty because it was something I was finally passionate about. Without passion for something, it's hard to get “excited” about work. Beauty is inclusive and always evolving too. It’s never stagnant.
Kara Yoshimoto Bua, Chanel Makeup Artist
I grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains [in California] in the '70s as a fifth- generation Japanese American. I was surrounded by all kinds of beauty, brought up with animals, music, nature, gardening, art, and my beautiful artist mama. She showed me the beauty in everything. My introduction to makeup and hair was watching her apply her makeup every morning, and once a week, she would wet set her whole head of hair. It was a ritual for her. It wasn't even like she was looking at herself, but more like painting and sculpting.
My auntie Janet Kaneko Loo was a big influence too. She was a wearable-art designer in the '80s, and her pieces were in the front windows every fall at Bergdorf Goodman. She pieced together old kimonos in a new way, creating a new form with big shoulder pads — very ’80s. Many celebrities at the time wore her pieces, including Diana Ross, the Jacksons, and Fred Astaire’s wife. She opened my eyes to another world of fashion.
I studied art my whole life. While putting myself through school, I worked in a department store and ended up at the makeup counter. It was challenging, being shy and feeling intimidated by all these women of all ages and giving advice on makeup, but it forced me to overcome my fear, and also use all kinds of products and colors that I would not normally go for. I learned so much every day, working with so many different faces. I realized that I loved people as much as I loved creating an expression of them that [allowed] them to shine through and beam out even more!
Mai Quynh, Giorgio Armani Beauty Makeup Artist Collaborator
I grew up with older sisters, so the ’80s and '90s fashion trends were really prevalent in our house. I was obsessed with ’90s supermodels and loved how different they all were. It was exciting to see women of color (Naomi Campbell, Yasmeen Ghauri, Jenny Shimizu, Veronica Webb) being represented on the runway and in magazines. Although I didn’t get to see too many faces that looked like mine in these magazines, I was still able to see some sort of representation on different ideas of beauty. And yes, I tried to do my makeup like I was in a George Michael video! Honestly, I didn’t know I could ever do this as a job. I’ve always been fascinated with fashion, beauty, and art so much that my dad wanted me to do something that I genuinely loved. So being a makeup artist blended all the things I love while still being able to make a career out of it.
Patrick Ta, Makeup Artist & Founder of Patrick Ta Beauty
My parents always told my sister and me that they immigrated our family to the United States so that we could have a better life and opportunities than were available in Vietnam. So much of my childhood was spent going to after-school tutors and piano lessons — they wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer, or dentist. But I was secretly very interested in clothes, makeup, hair, design, anything where I could be creative and express myself. I always knew I was gay, but I was afraid to let my parents know because I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I kept that side hidden. It wasn’t until I was 21 and after I came out to my family that I finally felt free, and I could start playing with makeup. That’s where my love for the beauty industry started. Once I started expressing myself as an adult and fell in love with makeup, I knew that this was the career I wanted to pursue. Throughout my life, my friends were girls, because they allowed me to be myself around them and made me feel safe. So it was a combination of working with women and being creative that created a match made in heaven for me. I genuinely love my job, and I feel so lucky to do something that I love every day.
Nam Vo, Makeup Artist
I think it’s very interesting that Asian American women spend more money on beauty [than the rest of the U.S. population, according to a 2015 Nielsen report]. As little children, we’re obsessed with beauty. But what’s even more interesting, and a little bit twisted, about all of this is that more Asian women define their beauty by a Western standard. For example, when my niece came out of the womb, the first question [from the family] was, "Is she healthy? Does she have 10 toes and 10 fingers? Great." Next questions: “Does she have a double eyelid? Is she light-skinned? Does she have a tall nose bridge?" Since I was a child, that’s all I’ve known.
We think that Amerasian women tend to be more beautiful because they look more Western. I’m the only one in my family who has a really tall nose bridge. My mom was a Tiger mom, but then she’d look at me and be like, "You hit the lottery; you’ve got a tall nose bridge." It was like her pride and joy. But I have a dumpling face. Another universal thing in Asian beauty is that everyone wants a smaller V-shape face. But I’ve embraced my plump, “dewy dumpling” face. I think it’s worked in my favor. Early on in my makeup career, I used to do a lot of makeup on Asian brides and they would always say the same thing to me: “Don’t make me look too Asian. Make my eyes rounder. Contour my nose, and make my skin look lighter.” Now that I’ve grown up, I think it’s such a shame because Asian women are some of the most beautiful women in this world.
My parents are like old-school Vietnamese people. When they came to America, the ultimate thing that you could do in life, for my parents, was to become a doctor or lawyer or marry one. They never wanted me to have anything to do with artistry. I rebelled against them and moved to New York with $35 and a dream (like Madonna), and I learned the tough way. I started [doing makeup for dancers] at the strip club, and then I would do brides on the weekends. Now my parents see that I’m very self-sufficient and I’ve made a career for myself. It took many, many years for them to finally embrace it. I think that it’s a part of my come-up story. I think my hard Asian upbringing has really worked in my favor because my skin is really tougher these days.
Marc Reagan, Makeup Artist & Hourglass Cosmetics Global Director
Ironically, my mom rarely wore a stitch of makeup, and still doesn’t to this day. My grandmother, who helped raise me, did a bit more with her look, but it was still minimal. She had a lipstick handy just to add a touch of color, and always made sure her hair was on point. That was the extent of my exposure to beauty as a young boy. I grew up loving the arts, though, and always knew I wanted to be a professional artist of some sort. It just took me a while to think beyond the traditional artistic mediums of ink and paint, and to recognize the beauty world and the artistic inspiration it had to offer.
Being born and raised in San Francisco, I had a skewed reality of Asian American normalcy as it related to the rest of the country and the representation that Asians had in mainstream media. It was only through my early adult years that I realized how little I saw of my own ethnic heritage onscreen and in magazines. Thank goodness for The Joy Luck Club, All-American Girl, and Jenny Shimizu, otherwise, I may not have seen anyone in fashion or entertainment who shared a similar background with me. Although representation has come at a slow pace in my lifetime, I can only imagine how much slower it felt for the generations before us.
In my final year of college, I was finishing up a fine arts degree in printmaking and saw no clear path on where to go with it. So I got a part- time job in the beauty department at a local Macy’s, and it was there that I recognized how much I was gravitating toward makeup and the artistic expression that could be achieved through that medium. Makeup felt tied to the art prints I was creating through limestone and paper. It became clear to me that it was a vehicle to both explore my creativity and connect with people. I was immediately hooked.
Being Asian American though, I quickly came to terms with the fact that there was very little education available on the topic of makeup for different ethnic face structures and features. Through trial and error, and tons of experimentation, I developed my own lens for Asian features and made it my personal goal to grow into a makeup artist skilled at working with any age, skin color, or face structure. I have found beauty in everything I’ve done throughout my career as a makeup artist, and it’s inspiring to see how far we have come in embracing the differences in unique features as the pillar of beauty, rather than something we need to conceal.
Jenny Cho, Hairstylist
As a culture in Korea, to be different or anything unordinary had a negative connotation to it. You had to be like everybody else. I came to America when I was 10. It was a pivotal age where everything I did, even when I spoke Korean at the market with my mom, I was really embarrassed, because all I ever wanted was to be normal. My name was [changed to] Jenny because I had to fit in immediately. Being different was not a choice. It was a survival instinct for me. I tried to shed my Asian culture, Asian everything. When we were 16, we would cut out tape and put it on our eyelids to create a double eyelid. I just wanted to be an American girl.
I didn’t have any type of role model doing what I did. It was just me, doing what I loved. I just wanted to do me. And being different and unique was so praised in America. Ordinary meant you were just like everyone else, and to be an artist meant you had to stand out. Asian American girls were supposed to go to college, and do all these other things to do what your parents [wanted] or the norm of what success meant, which was becoming a doctor or lawyer — not a hairdresser. I begged my parents. I still had to go to a junior college and even take an EMT course because it was in the medical field. Ultimately, they came to America because they wanted to give us an opportunity that they didn’t have, which meant that if I wanted to go to hair school, they provided that for me. I’m so grateful for that gift. I’m so grateful for them trusting me.
We’re embracing our traditional beauty more than ever. The possibilities are endless now in all races and cultures. My child’s generation is going to have a completely different perspective — that everyone comes in different shapes and sizes and colors. I love it.
Joyce Platon, Makeup Artist & Groomer
I was already exposed to beauty at an early age. My mom would bring me with her on trips to the salon, and while waiting I was able to get a manicure and pedicure. For as long as I can remember, I always watched her get ready and how she would do her hair and makeup. The majority of how I take care of myself right now is based on my mom's beauty tips. Beauty pageants are part of our culture as well and I grew up watching Miss Universe. I learned how beauty queens prepped for the big night and was influenced by the entire process from start to finish. I ended up in the beauty industry by accident. I had a corporate job out of college and did not know how to apply makeup on myself at all, so I decided to take personal makeup courses with Make Up For Ever. I got hooked and ended up taking all of their beauty and fashion makeup courses. Eventually I became part of their Pro team, after a few gigs working on fashion shows and editorials, until it became my full-time job.
Daphne Chantell del Rosario, Makeup Artist & Groomer
Growing up as an Asian American girl in Los Angeles was really quite tough. I often compared myself to the lighter-skinned, lighter-haired, and lighter- eyed women, and most of the time I felt like I did not fit in. It didn’t help when I really found next to no familiar representation in magazines. There were hardly any models or famous faces that looked like me. In my early 20s, there was a point when I actually thought about cosmetic surgery to make my eyes look more Americanized, but fortunately, through my family and friends’ support, I found an admiration and understanding for my culture, and now I fully embrace my ethnicity and see my true beauty.
In the 2000s there was a real lack of diversity in makeup color ranges, so I often found myself mixing up my own exact color matches in my kitchen and sharing them with my friends. Strangely enough, we discovered making our own shades helped us build confidence, confidence that reminded me of my grandmother. She was always confident, and she always wore a bright poppy-red lipstick. For me, seeing her in that beautiful color represented the essence of feminine power, and even today, when I’m feeling a little insecure, I put on her shade and raise my head and remind myself that I am a beautiful Asian American woman. I believe that my grandmother and her endless love for our culture taught me self-love. That love inspired my career goals of creating more space in this beauty world for women that look like us.
Anh Co Tran, Hairstylist & Milbon Global Creative Director
My parents were in an arranged marriage, and they had all of us in Vietnam. I was the 10th child, born the year before the Vietnam war ended in 1975. We escaped Vietnam in 1978. We were one of those families on a fishing boat. They knew that there wasn’t any future in the communist country and they risked it all. It was a very courageous move on my parents' part and I’m forever thankful for them.
I grew up in Austin, Texas. I didn’t have an idol or someone I looked up to, except maybe Bruce Lee, but that was the only choice we had. I wanted to look more like Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, or someone with a Western background. I figured my look was more exotic and they looked more “normal.” I felt like I was an “other.”
My parents definitely wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer, but I wanted to do fashion, and they said fine. Maybe it was because I was the 10th kid. I went to fashion school, graduated, and then worked for a sportswear company. I was doing pattern making for a year. It was the '90s, and there were all of these supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss and Linda Evangelista, and I loved their hair — so I decided to go into hair. Everything kind of fell into place. I went to a really good salon, Toni & Guy, and here I am now. Almost 20 years of doing hair and I’ve finally gotten to a stage where I’m very comfortable with who I am and what my brand is. I’m really happy with where I’m at. Now I realize that I am who I am and I’m happy with who I am. But there’s still a lot more growth I want to do.
Amy Le, Nail Artist
To be completely honest, I didn’t find any beauty in being Asian American growing up. I was born and raised in Maine, and there were what felt like only 10 other people of color in my whole town. There were no Asian toy dolls growing up and nobody that looked like me on TV. I remember a time in the second grade when we all sat down in a circle and had to share what we had for breakfast. I got made fun of for answering “fish and rice.” Everyone laughed at me, my teacher included, so I quickly added that I had pancakes too, like everyone else. Of course, that just made it worse because now I had fish-and-rice- flavored pancakes. I remember throwing out my lunches because everyone would make fun of how they smelled, or how my mom would have to wait at the bus stop with me because other kids would tease me for my frizzy and ugly hair. I never fit in, no matter how hard I tried, and grew up hating the Asian part of me the most. I spent the first 12 years of my life hiding my culture, trying to fit in. It wasn’t until we moved out of Maine that I learned to love and appreciate being Asian. We moved to another state where I was surrounded by POC and finally felt comfortable in my own skin.
Many immigrant parents leave their home country so their kids can have a better life and live the “American Dream.” My parents worked in a blanket factory, and would tell me how important it was for me to do well in school so I didn’t have to work in a factory like them; instead, wear a suit, with an office that had AC. Being a nail artist wasn’t supposed to be my forever job. It was supposed to be something I did in the meantime to “just get by” while I figured out what I wanted to do when I got older. I took a year off of school to figure out what I wanted to do with my life — something that would make my parents proud. One year turned into two years, and then three, four, and five. I grew to love nail art and now I can’t picture myself doing anything else.
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