“People have told me I’m not black enough.
I was born to Bangladeshi parents in Jos, central Nigeria, and we experienced civil war. That’s why they left and came to the UK. Life is complicated, and so are our histories. We must assess what has happened and what is happening now in an intelligent, sophisticated way. It can’t just be distilled into one hashtag. Take for example the recent furore around one of the members of the Estée Lauder family and who he votes for. Does it make sense to boycott that whole company when they employ so many women and people of colour?
I have always been positive, inclusive, and encouraging of diversity in every sense.
In business, you can combat prejudice in two ways: with excellence, but ultimately with funding. To start, you have to be able to pay to open certain doors, no matter what you look like. You need money to pay for resources in a lab if you want new colours made. Of course, this can ultimately be recouped because the more a brand is able to reflect each of us, the more custom they will get.
Change needs to happen at every level, from the lab, to marketing, to who sits on the board.
When I was doing Ruby & Millie [Ed note: this was Hammer’s very successful late ’90s-early 2000s makeup line that was sold through Boots, the UK pharmacy chain], we had twelve shades that went right across spectrum, from darkest to lightest. They asked me to sign off on the formula, and I asked “well, who have you tested this on? It looks like to create the darker shades you’ve just added straight black pigment to the lighter shades, and it’s coming out grey. The Boots store in Nottingham employs 1000 staff, surely some are black and could test it for you?” They were embarrassed to say they had only tested it on the hand of one black security guy. I was so angry. I told them, “I have no respect for you, because you clearly think of me as a silly woman who doesn’t know what she’s doing, but it’s you who has no integrity. If you’d shown me you had tested it on 30 people of colour and it was fine, then I would listen, but now I spit on you. You have no respect for me or my skills.” It was a huge turning point, and a major lesson in how to work together, a big corporation with me and my skills. They realised I really knew what I was talking about, and from there we built mutual respect and then mutual success.
I know that if you don’t see yourself reflected back at you, you don’t exist – perception is a reality.
In social media now we see a little more diversity than we did in old school advertising, but I have really walked the walk my whole life. It’s not new for me to fight for equality of opportunity. It’s in my blood not to be fighting for one cause, but for everyone. I was raised Muslim, but I am very open minded – I have a guru, and I meditate. I am respectful of all faiths because I have faith in a divine power. We need to focus on inclusivity and merit, and not discriminate based on religion, race, size, gender, sexuality, or age.
On social media I get these amazing DMs, “I saw your face, a brown face on TV, and it mattered”. As an immigrant MBE, it means a lot.
I thank God that my mother was alive to see me recognised in that way, though sadly my father was not. I was born in Africa but intellectually, my home is in Britain. I was raised here from the age of 12. When my parents died here in the UK I didn’t send their bodies ‘home’. People on the street here have told me to “go home” – where do they think I am fucking supposed to go? I pay my taxes, I abide by the law, don’t you dare tell me that!
Becoming a makeup artist was never my plan at all. I just grabbed the opportunity when it came my way, and ran with it.
I was a product hound with a summer job at Harrods when my then boyfriend, eventually first husband, George Hammer, and I became involved with Aveda. I think I have always been lucky to be a person with their finger on the pulse, often without quite realising it. For instance, I didn’t know it would be a great idea to have inclusive shades when we did Ruby & Millie, just like I didn’t realise having my brushes with their individual lids would be a perfect fit with our COVID hygiene needs. I just knew that our market needed something beyond Thalgo and Clarins, and so we became the exclusive distributors for Aveda in the UK, and broke a lot of ground.
As a makeup artist you need hundreds of brushes, and that has somehow filtered down to the consumer now, many of whom own loads themselves. When it came to me making my own range and working on my Magnetic Brush Set, I wanted to edit it down to only include what any woman would need.
The brushes contain vegan hairs, so they’re all cruelty-free, and then they’re magnetic so you always have access to your three options and everything is kept hygienic. I had to sit down and think, which three brushes would see me through everything? And I realised it was one with a slanted head (for brows and liner), a small smudge brush (for using near the eyes, blending pencil, and using on the lips), and finally a crease tapered brush (for concealer and shadow blending).
They’re very travel-friendly, for when we can do that again, and when we do go back to work, I’d say have one in your handbag, and one at your desk. That way if you’re going out, you don’t even have to think about it. It’s such a staple, and my first hero item. It’s in my signature shade, ‘Ruby’ red, of course, that really has some life in it. I bought a little tin of lip gloss in Japan over twenty years ago in the exact shade I love, and kept it all this time – I was determined to replicate that colour one day with my own brand, and I am thrilled we were able to.
I like to take care of my skin, and it doesn’t hurt that doing so provides the ideal canvas for beautiful makeup. Irrespective of what products I use, cleansing, exfoliating, hydrating, and adding sun protection are the pillars of my routine.
I love trying all the new products that have launched or been sent to me, but generally only products within those categories. This allows me both the pleasure of experimenting with new things and the ability to return to my favourites, without harming my skin.
I love a product that functions well, with no gimmicks. Everybody should be able to use a product without having a huge list of instructions.
I don’t often use a full face of foundation, but always use a mixture of a couple of concealers. My favourites are NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer, NARS Soft Matte Complete Concealer, and Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage. I love Beautyblenders for applying face products, fine-tuned with my fingers. I use all different sizes, whether it’s for concealer or brush. And if you need to apply base quickly and evenly, I like a flat ended brush, and most often use the Anisa Pinnacle Foundation Brush, which has a triangular shape.
I use a thin gel pencil for tightlining my eyes (watch this space for something special in the pipeline from my own range!) and cannot do without mascara. So many brands make such excellent ones; I love trying anything new but can always rely on any by Lancôme. I use a defining one for the day for a simple, clean look, and then in the evening I add volume and drama. For night time, I add a bit more drama to my eyes with either a touch of glitter or by loading up more liner and mascara.
My approach to my hair is very simple. I just wear it naturally most days.
I have it cut regularly, and I colour it now for my greys. I usually air dry it and often use masks. I really only style it for shoots or when the occasion demands, and never anything too elaborate.
My parents both inspire my overall approach to beauty and grooming.
My mum showed me how makeup can change your whole personality. She would wear a different look and I would see how it can completely change how she was perceived. My father was fastidious about grooming and cleanliness, which was tied up with hygiene. He was always freshly showered, and kept his nails short. They both taught me to do little and often, and make sure you have a regime in place.
I encourage experimentation with makeup. It’s easy to remove and start again. You have to be more careful with hair, though, as it doesn’t always grow back!
When I was first allowed to pluck and tidy my eyebrows, I went into turbo drive and every day would remove more until I was left with one tiny strand of hair. I looked constantly startled. I think we all make these same mistakes, and they often seem to be when it comes to ill-advised hair removal. If you get makeup colours wrong, that’s much easier to fix next time!
When it comes to personal maintenance, I believe there is a lot that you can do for yourself, and need to do for yourself, and then there are other times where you must go to the experts.
I like to see someone who really is experienced in facials. I also get my nails done, have my hair cut and coloured (and styled when needed), and massages are 100% on my list of regular treatments. I used to have my eyebrows done regularly but I now maintain them myself. I like to do what I can myself so that when you do outsource something it is that much more of a treat. Of course I go to my daughter Reena’s spa, Urban Retreat, and then other specialist spas and facialists such as Vaishaly, Nichola Joss, and Anastasia Achilleos.
I like to take care of myself, to remain healthy and curious, and to have fun. I am very down to earth and very interested in those around me.
I take Lumity Day & Night Nutritional Supplements, Altrient Vitamin C, Altrient Vitmain B & Mineral Complex, omega-3s, and Symprove, which is an excellent prebiotic that you take on an empty stomach. I also meditate, read and watch films, box sets, or TV series. I love a good Bollywood movie!
I think it’s important to be both cautious and intelligent in your approach to life, but also to sometimes take a leap of faith and when you do, do it with all of your heart and your soul. Though if something feels off or funny, don’t just ignore it. People ignore their gut and thoughts and intuition all the time. I often wonder, ‘why don’t you have faith in yourself?’ You have to learn to listen yourself. Positivity and bravery are key. Life is not a song and dance all the way through – hard times come along to teach us life. One never learns when things are blissful and easy and obvious. We need to bask in and cherish those times, not be thinking ‘why am I happy?’ or ‘why is this so much fun?’, and just give into them, enjoy them. Then the time for learning comes during the crises, that teach the bitter lessons. If you pay attention, then you stand in good stead for what comes in the future.”
Interview and story by Zoe Briggs.