Traditionally, the "B-side" refers to the flip-side of a record. The A-side contains the more front-facing hits—the singles—but on the B-side, you can get in a bit deeper with the artist. And quite honestly, there's no better metaphor we can think of for the creative team behind a beauty look. They pull the references, scour the archives, and paint the picture you see on the big screen. The celebrity, model, or actor is the single with the most air time. But the glam team? They're the producers, conductors, friends, and family. For lack of a less ubiquitous phrase, they make it work.
It has always been our mission to shine a light on the BTS of beauty, as the artistry of hair and makeup is an intricate, detailed exploration at the cross-section of aesthetics and culture. Why? Because the origin of a look is just as important as the look itself. The backstory deserves its own hard-earned glory.
This time around, we're introducing you to Deja Smith and Dee TrannyBear, the masterminds behind the hair and makeup looks for Byrdie's seventh cover—Legends—featuring Laverne Cox. Below, join us in taking a peek behind the curtain, as their words are beautiful and inspiring in equal measure.
Makeup: Deja Smith
"We have similar creative sensibilities," Smith says of her relationship with Cox, "We have an affinity for cultural institutions like the Ebony Fashion Fair, we spent years training in the fine arts, and we both aspired to be performing artists. [We connect on] our formative experiences as trans women of color," Smith explains. Their similar background makes communicating and executing a beauty vision easy for Smith. "Every chance I get to work with her, I'm thrilled at the opportunity and stay fully engaged," she says. Her goal is to always provide Cox with a beauty service to help her feel the part. "On top of all of that, Laverne is brilliant, knowledgeable and compassionate," Smith shares. And after spending a nine-hour day with her, I couldn't agree more.
The first makeup look was inspired by late '80s and early '90s icons, like Sade, with glossy skin and an even glossier red lip. Smith played a lot with texture and color to create a look that beckons back to those previous eras but still feels freshly unique. The second was all about "goddess vibes," as Smith puts it, with sculpted skin and a slick, reverse cat-eye look. It felt sultry and simple against the two headpieces—and Cox worked the hell out of it.
Art and beauty have always been the central focus in Smith's life through a range of various mediums. As a kid, Smith's desire to express herself using beauty products was heavily policed at home and in public. "It wasn't until I began a career in dance that I really understood the transformative power of makeup," she says. Smith continues, "Then, my 'aha moment' came after losing almost everything." She realized her talent for makeup artistry could elevate her into a brand-new life. Over ten years later, Smith still continues to fall in love with beauty and uses her craft as a catalyst for change and self-love on a global scale.
A native New Yorker, Smith describes her early years in beauty and entertainment as "trial by fire." She tells me about the ever-present highs and lows of working as an artist in New York City. "I got my start as a retail makeup artist for MAC Cosmetics, eventually working at the famous Henri Bendel counter," she says. Through MAC, Smith began working backstage at New York Fashion Week and made connections in the editorial fashion world. "Meanwhile, I performed and partied hard in the NYC Blatino nightlife world," Smith tells me. She continues, "That's where I met my great friend and business partner Dee TrannyBear. Together, our blended networks produced unbelievable experiences like working with Kehinde Wiley, Laverne Cox, Alok Vaid Menon, Manila Luzon, and the fabulous list goes on and on."
I ask about her favorite on-set memory and she doesn't skip a beat. "In 2016, I was working with Laverne on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do The Time Warp Again in Toronto. I had never done a major motion picture before and felt pressure to learn fast. I wanted to produce my best work for my beautiful friend—it was her first major leading role," Smith explains. "One day we were shooting overnight. We probably started hair and makeup sometime in the early afternoon, but didn't get to Laverne until about 4 a.m.. After getting her set in front of the camera and just before calling action, our director Kenny Ortega announced over the microphone something like, 'It's four o'clock in the morning and Laverne Cox looks stunning. How is this possible? Deja Smith, great job!' I was floored and beaming because I didn't expect such a huge compliment, but I knew I had earned it."
The third look for our shoot offered some playfulness and, similar to the aforementioned memory, I was floored at the caliber of work after many, many hours on set. Smith describes it as "pop artistry with graphic eye designs," wherein she placed asymmetric pops of canary yellow across Cox's lids. It's one of my favorite looks we've done on anyone to date. "Beauty is an escape," she says, adding, "beauty is my chance to reveal a glimpse of who I am to the world, as well as who I want to be in the future." In the very beginning of Smith's beauty career, she used makeup as armor to defend herself against outside assumptions. But now, the makeup artist utilizes beauty as a tool to invite others into her uniquely beautiful world. And, I must admit, it's a stunning place to be.
I ask Smith about her own beauty icons and she lists all the greats: Angela Bassett, Michelle Obama, Iman, Stacey McKenzie, Carmen de Lavallade, Tracey "Africa" Norman, Grace Jones, and Candis Cayne, as well as an up-and-coming icon, Gia Love. As for mentors? They're her friends. "My mentors in the business are fellow artists and friends whose work and work ethic inspire me to continue pushing my own achievements to the next level. Porsche Cooper, Jesse Parks, and Carla Farmer, I speak your names and I thank you for your love," she shares.
Before wrapping up, I ask Smith for some advice for aspiring artists and if she has a career highlight to share thus far. She pauses thoughtfully and responds, "I'm so proud of every achievement I've made up to this point in my career. However, my 2019 and 2020 Emmy Award nominations were also achievements for my family and community, so I'll have to put those two at the top of my list." Smith cares of the work, the vision, and her creative family. The advice she gives is important and helpful to anyone, even those outside of her specific niche: "No matter what gig you're working on, give it your all and remember to use your expertise to support the greater vision. Show up early with a great attitude. Perform your craft with excellence and pride. Be nice to everyone. Never forget to be grateful for each and every possibility."
Hair: Dee TrannyBear
"As a nonbinary/trans person, it's really empowering and humbling to work with this trailblazing Black trans woman!" Dee TrannyBear exclaims as we begin our interview. "She really made us realize the importance of activism," they say. Dee has been Cox's "wigologist" for over nine years and will take any chance to communicate how proud they are to be a part of her team.
Dee was born in Italy and grew up in a a small village in Bavaria. They got into beauty quite early on, working at a salon at age 14 every day after school. "When I finished high school, I moved to Berlin to do my apprenticeship as a hairstylist and colorist," they explain. "But my 'aha moment' was in junior high school," Dee tells me. They continue, "I got to 'beautify' the cheerleading team with my best friend. That's when I discovered how much I love doing hair."
The early years in their career were more salon-focused, Dee had the chance to compete at junior stylist competitions as well. "It was pretty exciting," they share. But, breaking into the editorial world in NYC was challenging. "I didn't know a lot of people or brands, but luckily I was able to let my work speak for itself. I had the chance to collaborate with some amazing people," they say of that time. Those collaborations helped Dee garner a reputation, and from there, their career flourished.
Cox's first hairstyle was inspired by a classic French twist, but Dee added a modern spin. It was half bouffant, half twist and super sculpted. "It's chic and fun," they say of the look. The second was all about the headpieces—first the red jewels and then the silver chains. Underneath, Dee slicked the base and created a ponytail. The red option was meant to look like a rhinestone bob, so Dee kept Cox's hair out of sight. But the silver accessory called for volume. "I added a full textured tail, they describe, "like a warrior queen."
Dee offered up their own definition of beauty during our time together. "Beauty is what you make it. Outdated ideologies [created this notion] of boxing beauty into stereotypes. But as a nonbinary person, my expression of beauty is based on feeling, not gender," they share, adding, "My hair, makeup, and clothes change every day. I can get inspired by the most random things, but that’s the beauty of being completely free in your personal expression. Anything can spark a look!" It's exactly that notion that makes spending time with Dee so fun. To them, beauty can be anything, anywhere, any time. "The beauty industry has a long history of exclusionary behavior," Dee says. "Breaking that circle is one of the most empowering feelings."
As for career highlights, they have a hard time pinning down just one specific moment. (In fact, Dee once used a leaf blower to add movement to a client's hair.) There been so many, like opening the Economy of Grace exhibit with Kehinde Wiley, getting to work with Laverne on major projects, as well as doing hair for my nonbinary sibling, Alok V. Menon, for all their groundbreaking work." But, they tell me, one of the biggest highlights was establishing Double_D_Production with Deja Smith. "It's our bias-free hair, makeup, and image consulting production company," they explain. "It uplifts in the intersection of beauty, art, performance, and community."
The third and final look on set was one of Dee's favorites. "I've never been able to do locs on Laverne, they tell me. "These are long locks like a goddess," they muse, "half-up and half-down, but flowing." And, let me tell you, they moved with elegant ease as Cox danced all over that set. It was incredible.
Dee's icons have range, from Donatella Versace and Beyoncé to Fran Drescher from The Nanny. But most of all, they feel inspired and empowered by all the other trans/nonbinary people changing this industry every single day. Their mentors include heavy-hitters like Kim Kimble, Oscar James, Ursula Stephen, Larry Sims, and the list goes on. Dee has so much love for the work and the other people making it in this business. They have sage advice, too, for those looking to break into the beauty industry: "Assist stylists to gain experience on set. Get a mannequin with hair to practice—the more you learn how to 'perfect' techniques (styling, cutting, coloring, and extensions) the better and faster you'll get. Look into your local beauty schools to get your credentials. From there, you can go anywhere with your skills."