"I needed to put on my face to get ready to be harassed on the street, to deal with the world," Cox, the actress and activist who became the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her role on Orange is The New Black, tells Refinery29. "I always needed makeup to feel safe. When you are a trans woman and you walk down the street and get called a man, it can be a mind fuck. I felt like a failure — like people weren’t seeing my womanhood."
In those early stages of her transition, makeup was how Cox learned to connect with who she really was. "In 1997, I was invited to take part in a pageant at the Pyramid Club in the West Village," she says. "That was the first time I was fully femme, with a full face of makeup and blown-out hair and a dress and high heels. It felt like a release. It’s just who you are."
As Cox experimented with her look, she gained more confidence in expressing her own femininity. "Going blonde for the first time in the late '90s was a pivotal moment for me," she says. "It was a Beyoncé in Destiny's Child–type of look. The beast was unleashed."
But 20 years later, Cox's relationship with makeup and beauty has radically changed. Now, it serves as a tool to enhance, rather than to hide. "On a day-to-day basis, I always want the makeup to be about celebrating what I look like," she says, adding that it's just as important to her to embrace what she looks like without it. "I’ve gone on dates with no makeup on. I’ve gone to auditions. I never would have done that a few years ago. I’ve evolved how I feel about myself through my transition."
I’ve gone on dates with no makeup on. I’ve gone to auditions. I never would have done that a few years ago.
According to Cox, her decision not to undergo facial feminization surgery — a series of procedures aimed at adding traditionally feminine features to the face — has also helped her feel more comfortable in her skin. "What I know now is that if someone can look at me and realize that I’m trans, then that’s a beautiful thing, because trans is beautiful," Cox says. "Transition is about making your outsides and insides match... Sometimes it’s not about going to the plastic surgeon to fix things. The plastic surgeon can change what’s on the outside, but you still need to do work to improve the inside."
That sense of self-assurance can also be seen in her on-screen work, especially with her role as Sophia Burset on OITNB. To play that character, Cox was required to spend hours on camera without makeup, which was a real tipping point for feeling more comfortable in her skin. "When I auditioned for Orange, I just wore some pressed powder and that’s it," Cox says. " With acting, stripping off makeup for a character is for the character and it’s for the truth. Orange was the manifestation of the work I had done on myself up to that point."
For as much confidence as she radiates, Cox is quick to admit that she's constantly working on her own self image. So, when Olay approached her to take part in the brand's Two-Week Moisture Ribbons Body Wash Challenge, which called for her to use the brand's Moisture Ribbons Body Wash — and no other moisturizers whatsoever — it definitely gave her pause.
"When I was a kid, my mom would tell me, you need to put a lot of lotion on or you'll be ashy," Cox says in an interview to promote her brand partnership. "Because of that first memory, I do spend a lot of moisturizing my body. I'd be running late, putting moisturizer on... but with the Olay body wash, I don't need to do that any more. I'm shocked."
Cox, who says she took part in the challenge to prepare for her appearance at the World Pride opening ceremony in New York City this weekend, wants to do her part to keep the spirit of the event alive long after the parade. "For me, Pride is something that is year-round," she says. "There’s going to be something that comes up every day that's going to make us doubt our existence, but feeling good about yourself is a daily practice. "