Growing up as a Black and Latina teenager in a mostly-white private school in Baltimore, I was self-conscious about my thick hair, bushy eyebrows, and strict parents who wouldn’t let me buy the heavy makeup many of my classmates were already wearing. For one “casual dress” day in the eighth grade, when we were allowed to venture outside the confines of our plaid and khaki uniforms, I chose to wear baggy Gap jeans, a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, and my brother's Yankees baseball cap backward, with a swipe of MAC lipglass, gold hoop earrings, and my hair slicked back with a slight swoop. That morning in homeroom, I heard a (yes, rich, and yes, blonde) girl in a pastel polo shirt, with a full face of foundation and tweezed brows, whisper loudly to her friend, “I guess Arianna’s mom still isn’t letting her do her eyebrows.” I piped up cooly: “Actually, if you knew anything about makeup, you'd know this look is in right now. Just look at Aaliyah.”
I surprised myself with my confidence; for once, I wasn't just the lonely, awkward Black girl in the room (shout out to Issa Rae) who didn't have a clue about Tiffany's or Lily Pulitzer. Finally, I was the cool girl hip to a level of stylishness they only wished they could emulate. When my comment was met with blank stares, I went a step further: “Yea, I figured you guys didn’t know about Aaliyah. You should check her out sometime.”
Just two years later, Aaliyah Haughton died tragically in a plane accident while filming the video for her single “Rock The Boat.” She was 22 years old. As it goes with most great artists, unfortunately, it was only after her death that her genius was fully appreciated; her self-titled album Aaliyah skyrocketed to number one in the weeks after her passing, and you can now see her style reflected in the work of many singers today, including Rihanna, Drake, and Beyoncé.
But for me personally, the R&B star’s influence went beyond music. In eighth grade, I had no idea that Aaliyah would set me on a lifelong path of embracing a carefree Black girl aesthetic, long before that term would become a hashtag. While Aaliyah did experiment with makeup (her video for “We Need A Resolution” featured futuristic smoky eyes and orange-striped lips, and her final visual for “Rock The Boat” included an iconic pair of gem-stoned lashes), she was known, first and foremost, for effortlessly toeing the line between tomboyish and girly, reminding her fans that you don't have to pick one or the other. In a time when most female singers never left the house without high heels, heavy eyeshadow, and wigs and weaves for days (think Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Madonna in the '90s, and Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child in the early aughts), Aaliyah was a tomboy in a girly girl's pop diva world, a rising talent whose makeup was an accessory, not the star of the show.
So, when MAC recently announced that, after two years of online fan petitioning, they plan to release a collaboration inspired by the singer next year, Aaliyah superfans and Black women everywhere cheered. It took 16 years, but Aaliyah is finally getting her due as the Black beauty icon we desperately needed. “She showed so many Black women that it’s ok to embrace our natural beauty,” says beauty blogger Raye Boyce, whose YouTube tutorial recreating Aaliyah’s slicked back ponytail has nearly 400,000 views. “We don’t have to cover up our skin or features. We look bomb and beautiful as we are.”
While there’s no word yet on the exact products MAC will be releasing for this collaboration, Boyce personally thinks Aaliyah's signature bold brows and penchant for nude hues will likely be the main inspirations. Catherine Bomboy Dougherty, Senior Vice President of Global Communications for MAC Cosmetics, tells me that the company did indeed collaborate with Haughton’s family to choose products that "celebrate some of Aaliyah’s most famous looks from her iconic images, music videos, and award show performances." The business plan sounds similar to last year's Selena x MAC collection, which sold out online in just minutes; the “Dreaming Of You” lipstick is currently going for $60 on eBay.
"There is a certain something about each of our collaborators that inspires MAC, and with Aaliyah it was the incredible passion from her fans that was everywhere we turned," says Dougherty. "We admire Aaliyah because she was not only an exceptionally talented artist, but a risk taker and innovator who still influences the worlds of music, fashion, and beauty. We are honored the family trusted MAC to bring Aaliyah and her fans’ vision to life. We made a lot of people really happy, and that feels good."
One of those people is Jennifer Risinger, the Aaliyah superfan who launched a Change.org petition in 2015 asking for MAC to create an official Aaliyah collection — with Aaliyah's brother Rashad’s blessing. Back then, Rashad confirmed to Risinger via Twitter that Aaliyah loved MAC. Her makeup artist, Eric Ferrell, added that Aaliyah was “obsessed” with the brand’s Paramount, Chelsea, and Cherish lipsticks, as well as MAC's chestnut lip liner. To Risinger, an Aaliyah x MAC collection was a no brainer, especially considering that the Haughton family has long had legal trouble getting the rights to Aaliyah’s music (the reason the majority of her catalogue still isn’t available on online streaming services). A makeup collection was just another way to ensure Aaliyah's memory stays alive.
"I think people connected with her because she has a really humble, angelic spirit. But I wanted to do something special that would make sure the world saw that her artistry and impact went further than music," says Risinger, a graphic designer based in Downey, California. "That 90’s look that everyone’s wearing these days? That's because of Aaliyah. We can’t forget what she gave us.”
Though Aaliyah was, indeed, one in a million, she meant a million different things to a million different people. But, like so many other fans and particularly women of color, Aaliyah taught me that my face, my skin, and my beauty are enough; that my features are something to celebrate and show off, not cover up. Thank you for the lesson, Baby Girl. And MAC: I hope you do her proud.
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