Exclusive: MJ Rodriguez on $5 Skincare Secrets and Breaking Down Barriers

"I don’t want people to see us as a trending topic—we don’t deserve that."

Updated 11/11/19

 Lars Niki / Getty

On June 3, 2018, a star was born. As soon as Pose—the Ryan Murphy-produced series chronicling New York City’s ballroom culture in the 1980s and ‘90s—premiered on FX, it was obvious that MJ Rodriguez was something special. Playing Blanca, founder and mother of the House of Evangelista, Rodriguez commands your attention every second she appears onscreen: from her poise to the power of her performance, everything about her screams icon. So when Rodriguez was announced as the keynote speaker at George Washington University’s 5th annual Diversity Summit on November 7, Rodriguez partnered with Olay Body to make sure she would be just as radiant onstage as she is on the small screen. In the two weeks leading up to the summit, Rodriguez embarked on an Olay Body 14-day transformation journey, relying on Olay Ultra Moisture Body Wash to transform her skin from rough to silky-smooth so that she would feel fully at home in her own skin by the time she took the stage.

It’s the perfect partnership, because nobody knows more about how to be comfortable in your own skin than Rodriguez. The singer-actress is a chameleon, flitting with ease from her work on Pose to her position as an advocate for the trans community to her role as Audrey in the Pasadena Playhouse’s recent production of Little Shop of Horrors. Earlier this week, I talked to Rodriguez about her skincare journey, her top tips on staying grounded, and why trans representation means giving performers like Rodriguez the opportunity to speak for every woman.

Tell me about your keynote address at the Diversity Summit at George Washington University. How did that happen?

“So, they reached out to me, and my first response was obviously yes. There’s a thriving community of African-American and Latinx young people over in DC, and I wanted to make sure I could be an influence for those people and tell them my story—the struggles and also the triumphs that I’ve had. I honestly just want to sit down and get to know them and hopefully inspire them and spread some more love, that’s all.”

How have you been preparing? I know you partnered with Olay Body to get ready.

“I’m being honest, girl, I can’t even lie: this Ultra Moisture Body Wash is legit. It literally has the perfect amount of Shea butter in it. I mean, I had been doing a whole bunch of stupid stuff with my skin, but I’ve been on this journey for a week now and, girl, I’ve been seeing extreme, extreme results. My skin is softer, it’s supple now. I’ll go out and meet some of my supporters, and they’re very touchy feely—and I accept it, because I love love! And the thing that they have been saying is, ‘Oh my god, girl, your skin is so smooth.’ And I’m like, you know, ‘What can I say? it’s Olay!’.”

This is your first time partnering with a major brand, right?

“I mean, I’m sure you can only imagine what it’s like for a girl like me, a young, thriving, African-American Latina trans woman who’s trying to be as confident and as real as possible. I’ve never been able in my whole life to have a partnership like this. When I got the call from Olay Body, I just kind of freaked out, ‘cause I was like, ‘Oh my god, am I even worthy of this? This is insane!’ And for Olay Body, I think it’s a wonderful, big step forward into honoring authenticity and recognizing people who are happy with who they are, no matter how they identify, no matter what they look like, no matter the color of their skin. So just being offered an opportunity to feel seen and be taken seriously, it feels good. It feels really good. Not only that, but I get to speak for all women on this earth—not just the trans community, but everyone out there who is struggling with their skin or with being fearless and being completely happy in who they are.”

On the topic of being able to speak for all women, since Pose began airing, you’ve gotten this incredible platform very quickly. What do you do to avoid imposter syndrome and stay grounded?

“What keeps me grounded is my mother. My mother is my biggest rock, my father is one of my biggest rocks…my family just in general. I always find a way to come back home and center myself. But as much as I love being around my family and having them be a foundation, I have to know that I’m a foundation for myself too, and I have to know that I lift myself up when I need to. And I take that moment for myself whenever I have to. When I’m alone, I make sure I look in the mirror and let myself know how beautiful I am, and that I’m worthy and that I deserve just as much as anybody else—it doesn’t matter if I’m a trans woman, I’m a human being at the end of the day, and I deserve to be treated just as equally as anybody else.

And Pose has really opened up the conversation about seeing women like us in the mainstream, leading shows and actually being taken seriously for our craft. For a long time, women like us weren’t even taken seriously for 9-to-5 jobs, so you can only imagine what it was like for women who were trying to get into the business. So, I’m completely indebted and thankful to Ryan Murphy for giving me a show I can lead as an actress, because to hold such a show together is, yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a blessing. And it’s humbling, because it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

It doesn’t matter if I’m a trans woman—I’m a human being at the end of the day, and I deserve to be treated just as equally as anybody else. 

What are your hair and beauty rituals that make you feel confident?

“I’m a big person on skincare, beauty care. I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is go to the bathroom and take a shower with Olay Body Ultra Moisture Body Wash. And after that, I wash my face. I make sure I exfoliate as much as possible, and I’ll put a face mask on every so often just to get a glow. I also like to put my jade roller in the freezer, and I’ll just roll it on my face every so often. Then I’m off to making sure my hair is right. Now, as you can see, I love wearing a good wig—wigs are my favorite thing. But I also take care of my natural hair under there, which is extremely long now, and I use Shea moisturizer hair products to make sure that my hair is extremely moisturized and that my coils are still intact.”

What about makeup? What do you like to wear? 

“Crazy enough, I used to use so much makeup back in the day to hide behind who I truly was, and then I got to a place where I was like, one, this is not doing justice to my skin, and two, this is not doing justice to my mental health. So, now I just use small instances of products that make me feel beautiful. I use Milk Cosmetics, and I wanna give them an extreme shoutout because they’re inclusive to everybody, however you identify—gender nonconforming, trans individuals, African-American individuals, Asian individuals. Their foundation is beyond amazing. It lays on your skin so smoothly, and when the heat gets to it, or even when there’s dryness that gets to it when it’s cold, it still lays on your face like it’s your own skin. It’s quite amazing. And their red matte lip—honey, baby, it’s life.”

You’ve been catapulted into the public eye because of a role that is very much about the trans experience, but you also just did Little Shop of Horrors and played Audrey, which is a traditionally white cis female role. How do you navigate between showing up as a member of the trans community and representing the community versus demanding access to the same opportunities traditionally reserved for white cis actresses?

“When it comes to a larger platform, I always try to amplify all of our voices as women, because as a trans woman—even though there is ‘trans’ at the beginning of that, there is also ‘woman’ behind it. And I think it’s important that we as women notice that and embrace each other. The best part of being in a place where I can play a trans woman or also play a cis woman is it just breaks down that barrier to casting trans women in roles beyond the trans sex worker or the trans street walker, ‘cause we’re much more than that. I don’t want people to see us as a trending topic—we don’t deserve that.

I don’t want people to see us as a trending topic—we don’t deserve that. 

We’re now in a position where we’re in the mainstream, and I think that the doors should be knocked down now for us to be considered for roles that any other woman would be considered for. And I think that women who are a part of the trans community and especially part of the cis community should speak up, because we all know that women go through the most when it comes to getting roles and jobs. When I played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, my main goal was to break down the idea of what women were like even back in the day. Men wrote this story about Audrey, and they made her this ditzy blonde. And by being a young, African-American Latinx black trans woman in the show, I hoped that I would break it down for people to see that women should be seen for who they are.”

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