How Viola Davis Learned To Walk The Red Carpet On Her Terms

After watching her touching tribute to Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, I imagine heaven is a place where Viola Davis says kind things to you. The actress, who is the first Black woman to win five Screen Actors Guild Awards and the first to be nominated for three Academy Awards, is also a motivational speaker by trade. And, after just a few minutes alone with her, it's clear why. Davis zeroes in, making you feel like the only person in a room full of hundreds, and doesn't end the conversation without sharing her convictions — and at least one life mantra. It's the reason she's so beloved as an individual and an actress, and why every encounter with her — whether on the screen, stage, or in an interview — leaves people feeling so empowered.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Davis to discuss a topic close to her heart: beauty. The actress, who is an ambassador for the Vaseline Healing Project, shared her early struggles in the makeup chair as a woman of color, her decision to go natural on the red carpet, and why she dedicates her free time to helping those less fortunate. Read her words ahead and prepare yourself: It's hard not to feel inspired.

How important is self care to you?
"You know what? Especially with women, we are usually the caretakers of everyone except for ourselves. If I don’t take care of myself and I'm taking care of my daughter or my husband or whatever — I’m running on fumes. I have nothing left to give. Nothing. But when I take the time to take care of myself, to go to the doctor, go to a spa, get a deep tissue massage, get adjusted by chiropractor... I feel like I can face life with a renewed vigor and renewed passion."

What’s the best thing you did for your skin when you were younger?
"I would say the best thing I ever did for my skin was I didn’t wear makeup. I never wore makeup at all. That was just not my thing. The only thing I used growing up was Noxzema. I never really had skin problems."

When I take the time to take care of myself, I feel like I can face life with a renewed vigor and a renewed passion.

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Your natural hair scene in HTGAWM was groundbreaking. Why was it so important to you?
"Here’s the thing: When I signed onto this show, one of the stipulations was that I wanted to show a real woman. I didn’t want to show an extension of male fantasy... I wanted people to be let into a real woman’s world. Even if it made them feel uncomfortable. I felt it would be disingenuous if I did not do that. And I did feel like it was making a larger statement."
You walked the red carpet for the first time without a wig at the 2012 Emmys. How did that feel?
"I would not say that I was 100 percent comfortable until I walked onto the carpet. And I'll tell you why: Number one, I felt like I had to be. Number two, I just wanted to be me. Every time you walk that carpet, the pressure to be your authentic self, but at the same time not stick out... That balance is something we are all trying to reach when we walk out the door every day. How do we fit in, but be ourselves and be true to ourselves?

"But you get to a point in your life when you realize it's not an option to sacrifice your authentic self to get by, because after a while it’s not you. That’s what I reached at that point. How all the women were standing, what they were looking at, the 'it' color... It was way too much pressure to me. It was liberating to be on that carpet on my terms."

You still alternate between wearing wigs and showing your natural texture — and wearing makeup and not wearing makeup. Do you feel both make a statement?
"However you want to express your authenticity is fantastic. I don’t think it has to be in you taking your wig off; there’s a lot of disingenuous people who wear their natural hair. That was how I wanted to make my statement, but there’s all sorts of ways to make a statement. Sometimes we make it in a very internal way. Whatever floats your boat."

Many Black models and actresses talk about the pain and micro-aggressions they face in the makeup chair. Do you identify with that?
"Oh my god. I cannot tell you how many makeup sessions had to be canceled when I was doing television shows because as soon as I got in the chair, they realized they couldn’t do it. At first I was just quiet because I felt I had to be or I’d lose the job. But now I’m at the point that I can't let people off the hook with that. You just have to learn how to do my hair. It’s different, it requires different products. I’m not trying to insult you. I’m not calling you a racist. But when I’m sitting in your chair, I have a different set of requirements than a Caucasian woman or an Asian woman.

However you want to express your authenticity is fantastic. I don’t think it has to be in you taking your wig off; there’s a lot of disingenuous people who wear their natural hair.


"I know this is not a good thing because you should always feel like you have a voice, but as soon as my status started rising, I felt more able to speak up. I started saying, 'This is the makeup I use, this is the shade, this is the number, these are the brushes.' The first time I did it, I was like, ‘Oh that was easy.’ And then it sort of stayed like that."

Do you have a glam squad you work with regularly now?
"That’s a difficult question because sometimes you shoot a movie out of town and you can’t bring the person. But what I find is that if you tell them the sort of makeup you like to use — for me that's the Make Up For Ever Mat foundation, I absolutely love it — then usually if it’s a makeup artist I don’t know, then at least they have my shade. And I also learned how to do makeup myself so I can tell them how it’s done. And I bring my own wigs. Not every character that you do is a natural hair woman. It depends on the character. It’s easy for someone to manipulate a wig, and curl it and wash it and blow dry it as opposed to your natural hair."

What are your views on aging in Hollywood?
"The only thing I think about in terms of aging is not being there for my daughter who’s just six years old. And the other thing I feel about aging — and this is a big, big, big thing — is my past not counting for anything. When you get older, especially in this culture, you don’t have as much value in terms of your past. People don’t understand: I’ve put in work, I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and all of a sudden... When your past doesn’t count for anything… I don’t mind if my career goes down the drain, it doesn’t bother me, it just doesn’t. But I would not want to feel like I’m not valued."

You dedicate a lot of your time to many admirable causes. What drew you to the Vaseline Healing Project?
"The whole idea that it’s an initiative to bring medical supplies to threatened areas of the world — I felt like that was enough, because I understand what it means to have an advocate for oneself, especially when you’re poor. To have someone who sees you and fills the need… And because I love Vaseline products. I love them. My mom used it. We used it on our skin and on our hair. It was the first word I learned how to spell."

I hear you have a pretty intense morning hot tub habit. Tell me about it.
"That part of my day is about me and my husband. We talk and talk and talk. We did it this morning and we’ve done it as long as we’ve been together. When we first met, I was in an apartment that had a Jacuzzi and I really think that made me more attracted to him. He was over at my house all the time. It was a huge part of our relationship. [Laughs] It’s meditative for me."
Are you an early riser?
"You know what? I am an early riser, but I hate it. I’m an early riser because I have to be. I’m always up by 5:30. [My husband and I] work out together. Then we get in the Jacuzzi and soak. We love it."

What do you hope to teach your daughter about beauty?
"I don’t care how stereotypical it is, beauty has got to come from the inside. It’s got to come from owning her story — all of it. Her failures, her insecurities, her strength, her joy, all of it. There’s not one thing she can leave on the side of the road and not claim. That’s all I want for her.

"That’s the worst part of Facebook. And I LOVE Facebook, I love Facebook, I stay on it all the time, but if I had one negative thing to say about it is everyone is the best mother, parent, father, daughter... Everyone has the perfect life on Facebook and that has contributed more to the depression of people because everyone feels like, ‘My life is not like that. I’m doing something wrong.' But no! Life is about all of the mess-ups and failures and getting back up and loving yourself through all of it."

Your mantra from
The Help, "You is kind. You is strong. You is important," means so much to so many people. Do you have a mantra you tell yourself every day?
"My mantra, my favorite, favorite, favorite thing is, 'The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.' That you are the event. I love it. I feel like it says it all."
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