If you haven’t watched Fox’s hit show Empire by now, we have just one question for you: Why? With a cast as easy on the eyes as they are on the ears (croon to us, Jamal), it’s practically required viewing if you’re into drama, slickly produced stuck-in-your head songs, and a strong female cast that also inspires some serious closet envy. One such character is Tiana Brown, resident hot young thing on the verge, played by Serayah McNeill. The 20-year-old actress-singer has acquired a devoted fan base for her portrayal of the diva in training, but also serves up plenty of beauty inspiration IRL—you probably spotted her at the MTV Music Awards this year in Taylor Swift’s #squad (she plays the vampy-lipped Dilemma in the record-breaking “Bad Blood” video) or with killer hair and makeup front row at Jeremy Scott’s or Rachel Zoe’s shows during fashion week. In other words, McNeill is just as worthy of beauty icon status as her character on Empire, and we’ll be watching the budding star closely as she rises to the top (and double-tapping all of her Instagram posts—girl’s got great selfie game).
We caught up with McNeill at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the grand reopening of Sephora on Powell Street and chatted all things beauty—more specifically, hair tips (her natural curls jaw-droppingly stunning), the secret to her perfect skin (it’s super old-school), and more. Keep scrolling to get to know Serayah McNeill!
Your character Tiana on Empire has the diva look down. Would you say your own personal beauty look is different or similar?
McNeill: She definitely goes outside the box, and that’s what I have been trying to do more of. I am normally more of a laid-back dresser, so I love like city chic and more boyfriend jeans—that’s my thing. So, I am trying to get more into all this, you know, this glam. As far as makeup, I usually go very classic every day.
You've become a hair icon to many young girls—was there anyone or a particular moment that inspired you to wear your hair natural?
McNeill: My hair has always been like this, literally growing up. So when I auditioned, that’s the way I wore it, and he loved that. Lee [Daniels] wanted me to keep my hair exactly how it looked in the audition for the role. So that was really cool! And now everyone is like “Oh my god!” about it, and I’m like, oh, that’s cool everyone loves it.
What are some secret-weapon hair products you swear by?
Courtesy of Sephora
What’s your number one hairstyling tip?
McNeill: Oh, man. Well, for me, I love a middle part—that’s my thing. I know some people feel it looks weird on them. But I have been trying to go for more of an effortless look, so it kind of swoops over when it’s down. And for curly hair, I say that the styling process has to start really early. So while it’s wet and the shape is kind of forming.
What’s your styling routine like?
McNeill: Whatever part I want to have, I have to choose it right after the shower and in that moment, because after that, it’ll be kind of hard. So, I part my hair, put all my products in, then let it air-dry.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Your skin is flawless! How do you take care of it, especially with all the makeup you have to wear on set?
McNeill: Every day, there’s like pounds and pounds of makeup and touch-ups. So I really try to mask a lot and exfoliate a lot. Those are my main two things. And for me I have drier skin, so I have to use more of like creamy type of moisturizers. And that’s like really important to me.
What’s a skincare product that’s stayed with you through the years?
McNeill: Um, I know this is going to sound so basic, but I use Dove [soap] ($5). I have very sensitive skin and I try to use, like, actual facial products, and they are always too strong for me, so I go back to just the bar of soap. Cetaphil ($10) is great—and their moisturizer, as well.
Steve Granitz/Getty Images
What’s the best piece of beauty advice would you give your younger fans?
McNeill: Do whatever works for you and makes you feel confident! I feel like there are a lot of makeup trends and some of those are not the best for me. Like really, really matte makeup is not personally not what I like my face to look like, but it is a really big trend right now. So, I try to mix in certain things, like maybe a matte lip color that’s trending along with dewy foundation, because that’s what works for me.
Lastly, the best makeup tip you’ve picked up on set—go!
McNeill: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned since getting makeup artist to do my makeup is hydration before anything. So, they do a lot of prepping the skin before actually applying any type of product, which is the most important thing I’ve learned.
Want more natural hair advice? Click here for six overnight styling tips for natural hair!