As Rihanna and Lady Gaga keep fans on standby for albums to focus on their respective beauty brands, their message of inclusivity draws from an unexpected pop pioneer.
In September 2017, Rihanna unveiled her Fenty Beauty line and had the entire industry rethinking its approach to beauty. In her choice of exclusively casting women of color for the brand’s debut campaign, and in the 40 different shades of foundation she pushed, Rihanna launched a broader conversation about diversity and inclusivity -- and raked in an estimated $570 million in revenue last year, according to Forbes.
On Oct. 1, Lady Gaga will carve out her own nook of the business with Haus Labs, which will be available globally. Drawing inspiration from her early days of applying drugstore cosmetics that would shape her dramatic persona, Gaga and longtime makeup artist Sarah Tanno’s line marks the first major beauty brand to sell exclusively on Amazon, and also Gaga’s first independent business venture.
They also have revealed an unorthodox campaign whose diverse cast includes men, such as identical twin models Jake and Joseph Dupont, and reimagined the application process through “tools for self-expression” (e.g., metallic color for the eyes -- or, really, for wherever).
Pop stars using makeup to reshape gender and racial boundaries is nothing new. Just look at Madonna, or Mick Jagger’s lip-stained pout, or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. But perhaps one of the earliest and most critical figures to set the tone for today is Little Richard. What the Georgia-raised pop visionary -- whose pancake foundation and overt eyeliner were inspired by underground drag bars in the South -- did differently than, say, Elvis Presley, who was also wearing makeup in the mid-1950s, “was secretly bring out queer culture by putting things right in the public that people didn’t realize were coming from queer spaces,” says Stephan Pennington, Tufts University associate professor of musicology.
Gaga is on a similar, yet more explicit, mission. “We are celebrating everyone,” says Tanno. “At the forefront [of the brand], as much as the products, were questions of how we were going to spread messages of bravery and kindness and inclusivity.”
Adds makeup artist James Kaliardos, who helped launch Fenty as a resident artist: “Women are smart enough to see an eye shadow and not have to see it on a blond person for them to want to buy it, but we’ve been fed that marketing analysis. Fenty proved it was complete bullshit.”
What Gaga and Rihanna are also proving, in the process, is that pop stars choosing to run their own brands rather than front someone else’s wield more power on a global scale. And they can do this -- and stay connected to fans -- without releasing music. Rihanna and Gaga haven’t delivered new albums since 2016; Selena Gomez, whose company July Moon Productions filed a trademark in July for her own beauty line, hasn’t put out a full-length in four years.
As was the case with Little Richard, timing -- the emergence of TV as a platform -- helped bring the underground into public visibility. But it was the music itself that aided acceptance. In Charles White’s 1984 biography The Life and Times of Little Richard, the singer’s sister Peggie explains how he wouldn’t wear his pompadour around their father. “Daddy didn’t want him to,” she says, but it became acceptable once he understood “that it was part of the makeup of an artist.”
Kaliardos, a longtime collaborator of Miley Cyrus, sees a throughline to today. “Everything we put out there tells people to accept or not accept people, and we have to be aware of how we do that,” he says. “There are pop stars who just do a look -- and then pop stars who really take you on a journey.”