For some, a lipstick is just a lipstick. But for others, it's a source of strength, creativity, and expression. In our series Power Faces, we'll explore the relationship between strong people and the makeup they choose to wear — or not. Our latest subject is 24-year-old non-binary artist, model, and musician Merlot. This story was told to Rachel Lubitz and edited for length and clarity.
I struggled with acne a lot, and it came at a really bad time. I was living in Bradenton, Florida, and it was the acne on top of the queerness and being in a small town with nobody that looked like me. I did Accutane going into my junior year in high school. It worked instantly, but you can't have direct contact with the sun, so I was walking around my high school with a black umbrella. I was a target for bullies.
For a long time, I didn’t even think I could wear makeup. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school in Florida, and it wasn’t something I was trying to associate myself with. When I got to college, I became more of a social butterfly and that's the first time I ever wore makeup in public. I suddenly felt like I had the power in my hands to change how I looked.
When I got to Berklee College of Music in Boston, I was experimenting with a girlfriend’s makeup kit and playing with eyeshadows and bronzers and highlighters. At first I thought, Oh just a little rosy cheek and that's it. But then I got more into drag makeup and I loved how it allowed me to play with my look; it was like picking out a great outfit.
But back then, I was upset I wasn’t better at it. I remember one time when I was doing drag, my friend gave me a Nars highlighter that looked like white setting powder — and I put it all over my face. It was one of those things that you can’t really see until a flashbulb goes off, and I looked crazy. My whole entire face was a reflection.
Through watching makeup tutorials, I got better. I found them very therapeutic and cathartic; they’re my ASMR. I didn’t realize that makeup could transform so much on your face. I was shocked by that. Makeup was more powerful than I ever gave it credit for. I’ve been wearing makeup pretty regularly now for four years. It’s empowering to decide how you’re going to look every day.
In Boston, I also got a job at a little skin-care shop and I learned so much. Skin care became a way of taking back control. I could rely on my skin to do what I wanted it to do. I felt like, As long as my skin's good, I'm good.
One day in college, I was looking at my features and I thought my face was bare. I was like, What’s a little thing that I can do to just enhance my features? I couldn’t afford a lot. I wasn’t going to go out and buy all this makeup.
At the time, my biggest influences style-wise were Erykah Badu and Zoë Kravitz, who have freckles. That was the look that I wanted. I was like, Let me try that out, and it just stuck. They’ve been there for four years now. A lot of people don’t know my freckles are fake, but I never lie. I don't know if this is related to being a brown and queer person, but a lot of people ask to touch them. And I’m like, ‘No, don’t touch my face.’
I was doing the freckles with brown eyeliner at first, but it was just so dark and opaque that it didn’t look natural. Over time, I tried different products and pens and I finally found an eyebrow product that worked for me. Every morning, it probably takes me 10 minutes; I do it so often that I just flick my hand really quickly. At first, they were to just add dimension and an accent to my face. In the grand scheme of things, that’s what they still represent to me: The freckles are the sprinkles on top.
It’s through the exploration of makeup that I was really able to find out more about myself, and even how I should identify. When you sit in front of the mirror for so long, using all these different colors to change and enhance things, it gives you a greater appreciation for yourself and who you really are. I can attribute makeup to a lot of the confidence I got as a young adult. That feeling of looking in the mirror and thinking, Yes, you look good cannot be beat.