Deja Smith was in New York City on a ballet scholarship when she first learned the techniques of stage makeup. Smith, who was male-presenting at the time, helped with the female dancers' makeup before performances put on by the school, never expecting her passion to go beyond the stage.
That was until her best friend in college — the late Antoine Ashley, better known by the name Sahara Davenport from RuPaul's Drag Race — introduced her to the party scene, and makeup took on an entirely new purpose. "[My friend] started putting me in drag, and then it started a whole avalanche of the desire to do my own makeup," Smith tells me over the phone.
Smith's newfound passion inspired her to leave her dance career, where she witnessed a glaring lack of inclusivity, and get a job at a MAC Cosmetics counter instead. "Gender expression today is a whole new thing," Smith says, adding that she didn't see a reality where she could transition and maintain a career as a dancer back then. Smith soon found herself working as a freelance makeup artist, recalling her first job for a bride. "I did a terrible job on that makeup, but she was so happy," Smith says. "That experience of being able to help somebody see their beauty became my passion."
As Smith began booking more freelance jobs, she soon knew that it was time to leave retail for good and decided to launch Double D Productions (DDPRO), a concierge hair, makeup, and image consulting company, with her hairstylist friend Dee TrannyBear in 2013. The pair held a party to celebrate their new endeavor and invited friends like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, who were two rising stars in Hollywood at the time. During the party, Cox casually asked Smith to work with her on an upcoming project. Little did Smith know that it was for the premiere of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix's third-ever original series that lasted seven seasons. "That was my big entry into the wonderful world of makeup," says Smith, who went on to become Cox's go-to makeup artist.
Seven years later and Smith is now a two-time Emmy-nominated makeup artist who has worked on award-winning shows like Pose and an extensive roster of celebrities, including Cox, Angelica Ross, MJ Rodriguez, and Jill Scott. Soon, Smith found that her work took on a much greater purpose than the way her clients looked on the outside. In collaborating with stars like Cox, she felt called to create a safe, positive backstage experience for members of the transgender community. "Ultimately, what everyone on set for projects featuring Trans people wants is the same expectation of excellence that is required on any creative project," says Smith, who considers herself a "buffer" between the talent and other departments. "My unique position is to ameliorate triggering circumstances so that featured Trans talent can perform at their highest level."
Simultaneously, Smith's clients gave her the community she needed in Hollywood, where she was having a difficult time booking jobs following her transition. "I realized that my entire existence changed in people's perception," she says. "People are looking for a level of comfort when they're hiring beauty professionals. Trans people are assumed to be deceptive." Smith struggled to find resources and consistently faced insulting fees and substandard on-set practices. "As my career kept growing, I realized that so much of [my success] came from my community," she says. "I felt like I had no choice but to give back."
Now, Smith invests the majority of her time off-set supporting the transgender community. She's been involved in campaigns like #EveryoneWelcome to speak out against anti-transgender laws. She also serves as an advisory council member for the Gender and Family Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, which provides gender affirmative services, training, and research.
As delighted as Smith is to see all the transgender representation in media at the moment, she stresses that there is still a lot of work to be done. "I find that there's so much superficial change-making happening," she says. "People are just taking advantage of the conversation around diversity to elevate themselves, but not doing the work to elevate the communities that need help."
On that note, Smith urges those in power to reevaluate their definition of 'opportunity' and put their money where their mouth is. "It's encouraging to know that there are spaces available, but it's also tricky to figure out who's a gatekeeper on the side of right and who's the gatekeeper on the status quo," she says. "People use this word 'opportunity' like a weapon. When it comes specifically to Black and brown folks, and especially when it comes down to queer Black and brown folks, an opportunity is not an opportunity if it is not helping the person to advance their social-economic status."
Smith says the media and networks hold a responsibility to accurately reflect this community in projects and storylines. "It's so important for us to insert more positive images of Black and brown Trans people," she stresses. "We don't get to be nuanced. We don't get to have levels. When it comes to the Trans community, we're still just getting prostitute roles."
With a second Emmy nomination under her belt for Pose (Outstanding Makeup For A Single-Camera Series in 2019 and Outstanding Period And/Or Character Makeup in 2020), Smith hopes that younger transgender people can look to her and feel inspired by her story. "For young kids finding out that I'm a two-time Emmy-award nominated makeup artist who's had to do any and everything just to survive — if I can be a light for them, that would be my greatest achievement."