Rihanna's Henchwoman Talks About Brown Beauty & Cultural Appropriation

Imagine this scenario: You're scrolling through Instagram one day when you get a notification that Rihanna has started following you — no, not a dupe account, but the bad gal herself. Do you freak the fuck out? Do you screenshot it for the world to see? All of the above? Now, imagine getting a DM the next day asking if she can talk to you — you'd probably start hyperventilating at that point, right? Well, take it from 24-year-old Sanam's buzzed-about story: When RiRi comes DMing, you come running.

The Desi goddess' life changed when the mega pop star drafted her to, quite literally, ride shotgun with her in the new "Bitch Better Have My Money" video. The Internet quickly became obsessed with the plant store employee turned right-hand henchwoman. What first caught our eye — and Rihanna's — were her dope-ass beauty looks. She's garnered a loyal Instagram following because of her unapologetic selfies and captions, her inspiring messages about self-love, and her ability to just not give a fuck.

We spoke with Sanam about her "BBHMM" experience, brown beauty representation in the pop culture space, the damaging effects of cultural appropriation, and — the most pressing topic of all — that lipstick she's wearing in the selfie that got Rihanna's attention.

Judging from your Instagram, you seem to switch up your look pretty often. What appeals to you about constantly changing things up, rather than sticking to a signature look?

“I don’t know that I necessarily do it intentionally. I like to just change it up a lot, because having the same look gets boring for me. There’s so much shit on the Internet that’s inspiring, and I’ve worn the same, basic makeup for a really long time — like, since I started wearing makeup — and the last couple of years I’ve gotten even more into [it], wearing eyeshadow, and experimenting a lot, which I never used to do. I work so much that I don’t really have time to do anything else, so if I want to find out about something, I just go online. The majority of [my inspiration] definitely comes from Tumblr and just following really cool girls on Instagram.”

Why do you think it's important to show different types of beauty, specifically brown beauty?
“Because you don’t really see it at all. I think this year has been a little different, where a lot of models of color have been speaking out against the racism in the fashion industry. I think this year and into last year has been a waking-up period for a lot of people in terms of what’s going on — not that this stuff hasn’t always been going on, but it’s more visible now.

"I can’t remember a single movie, music video, TV show, or anything that I saw growing up that had an Indian girl or a South Asian girl in it. When M.I.A. came out, I think all of us were just so fucking hyped to see a brown girl — she helped to put so many of us on the map. I think that’s the same for any woman of color; we just feel so underrepresented, especially dark-skinned women. Even in India, you don’t see dark-skinned actresses or models. And there are so many advertisements for whitening creams, and I just think it’s so fucked up.

“It’s nice to have the platform now to talk about this stuff, because I feel like it needs to be talked about and people need to listen. Because you see thin white women everywhere, but how often do you see a chubbier brown girl in a music video that’s on the same pedestal the other women in the video are on? I just think it’s really important to speak for body positivity and women you don’t see very much.”
What would you say are some of the most damaging beauty stereotypes about Desi girls out there?
“I think the most damaging thing is telling us that we’re ugly for the features that are most common in our culture — like having big noses and thick eyebrows. I grew up and was made fun of for my eyebrows my entire life, and now it’s so trendy and in to have these full, luscious brows.

“And that can be said of most races. Women are made fun of for having big lips, and now women draw their lips on — it’s looked at as ugly on us, but not on white women. And that’s the most damaging, to be told that one feature is ugly on you but not on another person. I think a lot of it is also just about self-love and looking past the 'ideal' standard of beauty, and realizing that the kind of beauty you represent is important, too. I’ve had so many girls message me, especially Indian girls, and be like, ‘I don’t know how you do it; I hate my nose so much and I hate my skin,’ and all of this shit, and I’m just like, 'Honestly, you have to not give a fuck about what the world tells you is beautiful. And that sounds so fucking corny, but it’s true. We’re told from such a young age that we aren’t beautiful and our type of beauty isn’t the ‘right kind’ but to me, women of color, our type of beauty is the best beauty there is.”

You don’t get to [wear a bindi or henna] until you realize what a big deal it is to wear that proudly. It’s not a fashion statement — it has cultural significance; it has religious significance. It’s not funny to just put on a bindi and go to Coachella.

Cultural appropriation is a major issue in the beauty world — how do you deal with it when it comes to people co-opting Desi style?
“Our culture isn’t really respected unless it’s things that people want to pick and choose. Growing up, I was made fun of for everything from my clothes down to what my lunch smelled like — to the point where I would throw it out before I even got to school, because I was so embarrassed.

"People would make fun of our bindis and henna, saying that we were dirty, but I’ve literally seen some of those same people [since then] wearing bindis and getting henna and stuff. And it’s like, you don’t get to do that unless you’ve experienced what we’ve experienced. You don’t get to do that until you realize what a big deal it is to wear [those things] proudly. It’s not a fashion statement — it has cultural significance; it has religious significance. It’s not funny to just put on a bindi and go to Coachella — that’s just fucking stupid, why would you ever do that? They think they look great, but at the end of the day, to be honest, you’ll never look as good in it as an Indian woman would. It’s not meant for you.

“The whole thing with cultural appropriation is people don’t see where the line is drawn between appreciating and being disrespectful. If you’re going to a wedding and someone wants you to wear a sari and Indian jewelry, that’s one thing; you’re being invited to share in that. But you don’t come to something uninvited and just take whatever you want, and not respect the experience and the culture.”

Everyone seems to want to ask you questions about your experience with Rihanna, but what do you hope comes out of all of this other than having a cool RiRi story to tell?
“I can’t reiterate enough how meaningful it was to me that [Rihanna] found me out of nowhere and was willing to give me this chance — that’s crazy; that doesn’t happen to everyone. I think that’s why people are so enamored and curious about me and are like ‘what the fuck does she do?’ and I don’t really do anything (laughs) I’m just chilling and trying to figure out who I am.

“To me, it was just so important that she let me be myself, and that’s really what it was about. The first day we met to talk about the video, there was so much emphasis put on, ‘More than anything, I just want y’all to be yourselves; that’s why I picked you.’ And that’s so fucking cool to me, because that’s what my whole deal is with my Instagram; I’m not out here trying to be a model or anything. I just wanted an outlet to talk shit and post my selfies, and be myself."
How involved was Rihanna in the beauty looks, and did you have any input?
“Fuck yeah, we all had fittings beforehand and we tried on a million outfits, and took pictures. Everything was kind of tweaked before the shooting began — we were trying different makeup and hair looks, and they’d ask us, ‘Do you like your hair, do you like your makeup, are you comfortable?’ So it was very much a collaborative effort; I think everyone had a say in what the final product was.

“I didn’t even realize how much Rihanna knows before I did this — she’s so fashion-forward. You’d go [into her trailer], and she’s just looking you over, and you can see her thinking about your look — about what works and what doesn’t. And you’re just like, ‘Okay, this is just fucking weird and crazy.’ When they put my first outfit together, I was kind of like, ‘Eh, I don’t know about this,’ but then I tried it on, saw it on camera, and was just like, 'Okay, this is dope.' I don’t know how she comes up with this stuff, but she’s a genius.”

What are some of your favorite products?
“For my everyday face, I use Smashbox primer and foundation, and Anastasia brow stuff. I use any eyeliner that’s liquid, because eyeliner’s pretty much the same all across the board — at least to me.

"I have a lot of lipsticks, but the one that I’m most obsessed with — and everyone’s been asking me about — is [the lipstick] in that one selfie, which was the one that caught Rihanna’s eye. It's Urban Decay’s Naked lip pencil, which was discontinued like two years ago. They reformulated it, so you can buy Urban Decay Naked, but it’s not the same color, so apparently [the color I use] doesn't exist anymore. I’m literally on the last inch of that pencil, and I’m cherishing it with my life. I will tell you that I found a really good dupe, which is Milani’s Color Statement Lipliner in Nude — it’s almost the exact same color, maybe a little bit lighter — and it’s like fucking two dollars.”

when u have to flex on all the Whitegirls wearing bad henna and bindis 1 time

A photo posted by @trustmedaddy on

How long did it take you to perfect that flawless cat-eye?
“Oh my god, dude, like, this shit is still a work in progress. I’ve been doing winged eyeliner for a solid seven years now, and I still have days when I have to spend 45 minutes in the morning because I’m trying to make sure both of my wings are even. If I don’t do my makeup on my days off, the day that I have to put on makeup again I have like kinetic memory loss — my hands don’t work in the same way anymore. After the third day, my shit goes back to being perfect, but it’s just a fucking nightmare sometimes. Eventually, there will just be some type of technology that will do it for me.”

Seriously, when is that coming? Because we all need it.
“It’s 2015 — there are self-driving cars; there should be self-applying eyeliner. (laughs) That’s why we need more women in science, because you know they would be on top of that shit. I would pay a lot of money for that.”
Naked Truths: Sanam Sindhi

Rihanna's fierce sidekick removes her signature makeup

Posted by Refinery29 on Thursday, November 5, 2015

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