Beauty Advice From Motown's Diana Ross Look-Alike

When we first saw actress Allison Semmes saunter onto the stage during a performance of Motown the Musical, it was immediately clear she was born to play the role of Diana Ross. From her mannerisms to her voice, Semmes nailed it.
Of course, playing one of the most legendary songstresses in music history several times a week can take a toll on a gal's skin and hair (read: heavy makeup, hot stage lights, and multiple wig changes), so when we caught up with the Hyde Park native at the Oriental Theatre in between shows, we had to find out about her beauty routine off stage. While she uses a hearty mix of products, you'll be pleased to know Semmes favors a lot of drugstore finds — which is something we can all appreciate. So, even if your best performance is singing in the shower, there's no reason why you can't look like a superstar, too.
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
How did your regional theater experience help prepare you for Broadway?
"No matter how long you study something in school, there is nothing like actually doing it. Regional theater is hands-on theater experience. Performing in different sized theater houses with different scaled shows taught me flexibility and consistency. It doesn’t matter how you feel that day, the show must go on! Regional theater prepared me mentally and physically to do a show eight times a week, regardless of how I felt. It also taught me what routine I needed to prepare my body and my mind for a show at the end of a day."

You nailed your performance as Diana Ross in Motown the Musical! How did you prepare for the role?
"Thank you! When I was preparing for the role, I read through Diana Ross’ autobiography Secrets Of A Sparrow to learn about Diana’s story and experience. YouTube is also an amazing resource for studying her concert footage and interviews, and I watched her movies Lady Sings, The Blues, and Mahogany for her mannerisms. Since there is only ONE Diana Ross, I wanted to capture her essence, as opposed to attempting an impersonation of this icon. I also love to listen to her music throughout the course of the week to keep her signature sound and style fresh."

What is the most challenging song to sing?
“'I Hear A Symphony' is one of the two songs where there is a quick change happening onstage. (The other one is 'Remember Me.') This song begins as an intimate song sung in bed in a nightgown and morphs into the Supremes concert at the Copacabana. In a sense, I am traveling through space and time during this song!"

Free People dress, Nine West vintage collection shoes, New York Company hat, vintage Reed & Barton necklace.
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
We were at opening night when Berry Gordy was in attendance. He mentioned how he was talking to Diana Ross about your role in the production. How surreal was that moment?
"That whole moment felt like a dreamy haze and time slowed down! Meeting Mr. Gordy in rehearsals was so thrilling; he is a living legend. His memory is filled with so much wisdom and clear memories, I just loved listening to him relive those magical times with details and humor!"

If you ever got to meet Ross in person, what would you say/want to know about her life?
"I’d love to grab tea with her and talk about what it means to be a woman in the arts, growing up and performing through the decades, finding love, advice on the music industry, everything!"

What is it about Berry Gordy that inspires you the most?
"Mr. Gordy was a great visionary for his artists and music. The way he forged forward with his vision with such passion and conviction during times of resistance and through all sorts of obstacles is most inspiring."
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
Your costumes in the show are amazing! What is one of your favorites?
"All of the gowns are just so stunning and fun to wear! Recently, the long-sleeved, white-sequined gown with the deep V-neck and shoulder pads has become one of my favorites. That style is like the epitome of ‘70s glam! It’s the lightest gown in weight that I wear in the show, as well, so I feel free to run and reach out to the audience in it."

You played the role of Florence Ballard on Broadway before moving into the role of Diana Ross for the national tour. Was the transition difficult?
"The transition wasn’t difficult at all. Right before joining the Motown family, I was a swing in The Book of Mormon. That experience as a swing was so valuable in that I was required to learn multiple characters in a show. When I first joined Motown on Broadway as Florence Ballard, I was also understudying Diana Ross, so I was very familiar with her lines and story. When I was offered the role of Diana Ross on the tour, I was elated because that was a dream role for me! However, I am grateful to have played Florence Ballard because it expanded my perspective and deepened my experience in The Supremes."

We read that you grew up with Motown playing in the house. What are a few of your favorite songs/artists?
“'Stop in the Name of Love' was one of my favorites as a little girl, but for some strange reason, I thought the lyrics were 'stop in the neighborhood!' [Laughs] I also loved Marvin Gaye and Smokey’s love songs. Their voices are so silky and sexy."

Zara top and trousers, BCBGirls shoes, H&M necklace.
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
What are a few of your favorite spots in the Hyde Park neighborhood where you were raised?
"I loved growing up in Hyde Park! I spent a lot of time either on 53rd, Harper’s Court (which is now a new condominium/hotel/restaurant/shopping space), 57th street at Medici or the bookstore, biking/running around the Museum campus and lakefront at Promotory Point, or strolling through the University campus. My absolute favorite would be any of the music fests and art/book fairs that were held in the neighborhood."

What do you like to do/see/eat when you’re back in town?
"I think Chicago is the best city for the summertime. I love riding along the lake, strolling through Hyde Park, going to concerts in Grant Park, watching fireworks by the lake, and visiting my home church in Chatham. Also, I can’t leave Chicago without Garrett Popcorn, deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, and Harold’s Fried Chicken."

Do you do anything special/have any rituals/superstitions before each performance?
"First, I like to wake up my body with a quick Vinyasa flow on my yoga mat. Then, I clear my mind with my Tibetan singing bowl. Also, putting on makeup is very relaxing and mind clearing. I also dance to Motown music to refresh the style in my mind, and to get my blood pumping."
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
On the flipside, Motown is such a high-energy show. How do you like to unwind after a performance?
"There is so much energy used for so long, and so many quick changes that happen throughout the course of the show; it’s nonstop action. After the show, I take my sweet time coming out of costumes, wigs, mic, lashes, etc., and sit in the sweet stillness and silence in my dressing room to center and release the show. Sometimes, there will be a gust of second wind once I step outside the theater. And, almost always I am starving after the show, so occasionally I’ll grab food and a glass of wine at a late-night restaurant depending on our schedule the next day."

Have you picked up any beauty secrets/tips from being an actress?
"The importance of cleaning your brushes and exfoliation. Because I wear so much makeup in the show daily — much more that I usually wear day to day — my skin’s health and cleanliness has become the most important now."

How do you take care of your skin since you’re always wearing heavy makeup under hot theater lights?
"I make sure my skin is clean of makeup before I go to bed. I use Neutrogena Pink Grapefruit Oil-Free Makeup Wipes, Neutrogena Oil-Free Eye Makeup Remover, and jojoba oil to remove any leftover eye makeup and moisturize."

RA African Shea Butter, $6.95, available at House of Beauty Aveeno Protect + Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen, $10.79, available at Walgreens; NARS Pure Radiant Tinted Moisturizer, $42, available at NARS; SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie, $9.79, available at Walgreens; Trader Joe's Jojoba Oil, $13.29, available at Amazon; One 'N Only Argan Oil, $9.56, available at StyleBell; MAC Bronzing Powder, $25, available at MAC.
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
What’s your makeup routine like when you’re not on the stage?
"I’m a makeup minimalist. After I wash my face, I use Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel as toner, Aveeno Protect + Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen, NARS Pure Radiant Tinted Moisturizer, a little MAC Bronzing Powder, eyeliner, Benefit Badgal Lash Mascara, and Buxom Full-On Lip Polish."

You have incredible hair! How do you take care of it?
"I am truly a chameleon when it comes to hair! I love playing with textures and lengths, and since I wear so many different wigs in the show, my real hair remains conditioned and twisted away. My natural hair is thick, coily, curly, and wavy! It has so many different textures. I recently chopped it all off, so now I am in the process of growing it long. So, I don’t like to use too much heat on it. I make sure it is conditioned and moisturized with SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie, argan oil, and good old-fashioned raw shea butter — which also works wonders on face and body! A little goes a long way."

Madewell jeans, Target sandals, necklace is a gift from Clifton Oliver, who plays Berry Gordon in the show.
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Photographed by Heather Talbert.
Of all the ladies in Motown (real life, not the actresses in the show), whose beauty/style do you admire most and why?
"I have to say I admire Diana Ross’ style the most — and not just because I’m playing her in the show! Her style ranges from glamorous to classic to sexy to feminine, and has evolved through so many decades. Whatever look Ross was giving you, she exuded class, elegance, and freedom!"

What’s the best beauty advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it to you?
"My pastor’s mother, the late and fabulous 'Mother Johnson' would always come to church decked in stunning suits, hats, gloves, and lip gloss until her 90s. She was always so fabulous. I never forgot her words, 'If you look good, you feel good.' I’ve found those words to be true when I would be having a messed up morning or feeling under the weather. If I put on a flowing dress with a vibrant color or put a little more time and effort into my beauty routine, it automatically perked me up. Of course, I would say the same thing for the inverse: 'If you feel good, you look good.' True beauty comes from within. Inner joy and peace of mind is radiating!"

You’ve already been in a host of amazing productions, but what are a few others on your bucket list?
"What’s next on my list? I would love to originate a Broadway role and perform internationally. There is so much creativity to be shared, so many stories to be told, songs to be sung, and countries to visit. I believe this is only the beginning for me."