Beauty and culture journalist Ateh Jewel is a force of nature. Even still, although she has the qualifications (she studied History at Bristol and has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Media by Solent University) and the experience (she has written for every serious paper and glamorous magazine in the UK for twenty years), it wasn’t until the BLM movement began in 2020 that her attributes were recognised on a wider scale. Now, in the last twelve months, she has collaborated on a collection of skincare with famed UK retailer Space NK, been named as a columnist for Marie Claire UK, become a regular on British television, and is about to launch her very own beauty line aimed at people of colour. In a wide-ranging interview, the searingly honest and utterly delightful Ateh explains the complicated feelings of knowing your worth but only seeing it identified in the light of a global shift in race relations, the deep connection she feels to her lifelong nickname and how it ties her to the world of beauty, why she appreciates accessible brands but has an undeniable love for the luxury market, and how the best sick day of her life was the impetus to the career she now has and loves.

“I always wanted to have my own beauty line. It was a secret dream, because I didn’t have the belief it would ever really happen. I was told for years that ‘the computer says no, what you’re envisaging won’t sell, it won’t work’.

Middle aged white chemists and marketers told me people of colour don’t want radiance, that we can’t afford beauty at a luxury price point, that we’re not interested in green or clean beauty… it was absolute racism and misogyny. And they tried to blame data! The whole thing is absolutely rigged from the ground up. I mean, who are you asking these questions of? Beyoncé?

PRESENTING ON UK TV SHOW ‘THIS MORNING’
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

The Black Lives Matter movement has really empowered me to not give a shit about the negative noise.

That movement, combined with lockdown, has helped me hone my voice and purpose, and to just go for it without caring what other people thought. Factories threw their doors open to me in the wake of BLM. I could have said ‘stuff you’ after the previous responses I’ve had, but instead I thought yes, let’s do this, I wanted to crack on and be productive. I have a blush in the works, lip balm, foundation, all of it.

HOSTING AN EVENT FOR HAIRSTYLING MAG ‘CREATIVE HEAD’
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

People are starting to see invisible things that they didn’t see before. Barriers inherent in our society and the justice system are being seen now by others, not just by people of colour. A light is being thrown on all the microaggressions, too.

It feels like now I have finally been allowed to get on with who I have been for twenty years! My ambitions, my aspirations, and who I am hasn’t changed, but now I’m really able to have what I always wanted. I want to take full advantage of all of the opportunities that are now kicking off for me, to honour all the other people who came before me who never got the chance. I have to work really hard to be my best self to honour them. It’s exhausting.

There’s a lot of pressure being a black woman: I’m always scrutinised more and judged more. Being the only black person in a room is traumatising when it’s happened for your whole life and your whole career. I’m only just starting to realise that. I’ve been a beauty journalist for two decades and have never been on a masthead. I’ve never had that visibility or recognition or respect in that way. It’s real gaslighting in the industry. I’ve written for so many different people, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, The Guardian, Financial Times, Sunday Style, The Observer, Vogue, Red… all the big glossy mags. I’d tell myself, it’s them, not me, but that doesn’t always help. Being named as a columnist for Marie Claire last year was a level of recognition I needed for my mental health, after this long. I have finally gotten here after 22 years of hard work, and not because I’m ‘lucky’!

BEING RECOGNISED BY THE CEW (COSMETICS EXECUTIVE WOMEN) UK IN THEIR 2020 ACHIEVER AWARDS
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

I’ve always been obsessed with beauty. When I was three, I stole a palette of my mum’s, tucked it into a handbag, and got caught dragging my treasure across the floor.

Growing up, I loved the saturated colour in old movies, the glamour, the light, the aesthetics. One of the reasons I love both history and beauty is for their storytelling aspects, and what they tell us about how we live, what patterns we follow, what makes us tick, what makes us human.

WITH THE LEGENDARY MAKEUP ARTIST DAME PAT MCGRATH
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

I felt quite lost once I graduated from uni. I would have loved to do more study but couldn’t afford to do my MA. I took an advertising course but I just hated it – even doing beauty campaigns! I just kept thinking, ‘why am I here?’, so I quit.

A friend told me she was working on counter for Estée Lauder, and those ladies were like the Charlie’s Angels of beauty to me, the absolute pinnacle, so I swooped in to join her. I still found myself thinking, ‘what am I doing with my life?’, though. My mum’s advice has always been to make your hobby your job, and I already knew I loved beauty, but got to thinking of what I was able to actually do with that… I knew I could bang out an essay, but was that a job? I politely stalked my way into InStyle, calling them every day for two weeks until I wore them down and they agreed to a quick interview. I went in and straight away we started discussing Chanel makeup, and I just could have cried. I had found my tribe! I kept thinking, ‘is this real’? Afterwards, I took a sickie from my job on counter because I was so depressed, wishing I could go and be in magazine land, and it turned out to be the best sickie of my life – InStyle called me, and asked me to please come in and stay for a year!

IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

I think I’ve worked on 24 titles since then. I knew I’d never get the big jobs, though: I didn’t have the right face, body, or hair for that.

It wasn’t necessarily the places you’d expect to have a dismissive attitude that did. For instance, the people at Tatler didn’t have a chip on their shoulders: there were a lot of double-barrel names and certain types of upbringings, but I did fit in that respect. I find people at the extreme ends of high and low are fairly unbothered; the attitude problems seem to be in the middle. It’s a problem here in the UK as soon as you open your mouth, because people hear one word and know what school you went to and which car you drive.

IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

My daughters and I are the only black people, not only in our village, but for half a county.

There’s no diversity whatsoever, but it’s a lovely lifestyle, all about the woods and walking. My white, Nordic husband wants to go back to the city. He can’t stand the microaggressions and bullshit we experience, but I’m not too fazed. I mean, I acknowledge it, but I don’t let it affect my life. Racism is not a black problem, but we’re made to feel like it is. In the wake of BLM it feels easier to see that it’s not my problem, it’s the world’s.

ATEH’S TWIN DAUGHTERS OLA AND ADANNA, AKA “THE LADIES”
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

Whatever sparks my interest now is what I want to spend my time doing. I don’t pigeonhole myself.

In my parents’ era, if you had multiple interests you were very much considered ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. It’s the opposite in 2021, where it can feel like you had really better be doing it all, all the time, or you’ll somehow suffer. I’m writing books, working on products, talking about diversity, doing podcasts… we have to remember that we are mortal, so we don’t have the time to stuff around. The time is now!

APPEARING AS GUEST JUDGE ON BBC REALITY MAKEUP ARTIST SEARCH SHOW, ‘GLOW UP’
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

I’m 42, which is an empowering age for a woman. A friend told me, ‘once you hit 40, it’s like a switch is flicked, and all of a sudden you just have zero fucks’. 

I think when you sprinkle in a killer virus, it’s taken away any fucks I had left to give. COVID is helping us do the figurative dusting, getting everything all cleaned out. Maybe we knew there were some cobwebs there, and we didn’t think we were troubled by them, but now we have to deal with them. You have to figure out what we’re going to do about it. You can be angry, negative, and shouty, or you can try healing. We have a choice. If there’s shame in our lives, we need to deal with it, and move forward with strength and honour. I believe shame kills people. It might take the form of drink, drugs, depression, but shame is at the root of it. This is a really interesting way that beauty comes into how we feel about ourselves! ‘How do I see myself?’ ‘What does world think of me?’ We have to work towards having a positive self-identity, and beauty can absolutely be a part of that. People who say beauty is superficial are ignorant. Beauty is such a basic, fundamental way into our society; how we all discuss and deal with makeup and beauty in general tells us everything about how misogynistic it still is.

THE LADIES EXPLORING THEIR COTSWOLDS HOME
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

I love to snoop into what products other people use. Whatever you’re using every day becomes an extension of who you are.

I quite like the natural side of things, and I’m quite bougie, I’m not going to lie! Aurelia London, Votary, and Chantecaille are all favourites. I also like Fresh, Dr. Hauschka, and REN (particularly the Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask). I love good quality products, though I do also believe in beauty democracy, and think anyone can enjoy a lovely scented candle, body wash, facial and body oils, or essential oils. I really like those by Tisserand, Aromatherapy Associates, Neal’s Yard Remedies, and Balance Me. Some of my favourite candles are Diptyque classics, Figuier and Feu de Bois. I am also really enjoying candles by a Cornish company called St. Eval. These sorts of products give us happy vibes… they’re like a cuddle in a bottle. I’m obsessed with comfort, so lip balms are another a favourite of mine, as they’re so cosseting. I find comfort in food, and something like a lip balm feels like a healthier way of dealing with that, haha. Beauty is so entwined in our psychology!

IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

I like to focus on healing and wellness from the inside out. My lifelong nickname is Obeah, which was originally the word for a Nigerian witch doctor, but over time the name was blackened and connected with dark magic because people didn’t understand it.

I am half Nigerian; my mum is from Trinidad, but the concept and practice of obeah is from Nigeria, where my dad is from. The people from Nigeria took obeah with them to the places where they were sold. I have done some DNA testing and found I am 59% Nigerian, so this name connects me with the stolen part of my family. And I’ve been told the Nigerian women who were slave rebellion women were all obeah, so it is very meaningful to feel connected to a line of women who were truth tellers, justice makers, and healers.”

IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @ATEHJEWEL

Interview and story by Zoe Briggs. Images, including main image, via Instagram @atehjewel.

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