The audacity of Zola transcends the film’s brash dialogue and breakneck plot twists. In each scene with the titular heroine and her frenemy Stefani (played by Taylour Paige and Riley Keough, respectively), their personas are embodied by dramatically swooped baby hairs and glittery lids. In part, this can be attributed to their real-life counterparts, whose ill-fated road trip spawned an iconic Twitter thread now dubbed The Thotyssey. Over-the-top, shimmery, and pigmented beauty looks flash through the A24 comedy and set a fantastical tone—particularly fitting given the original thread’s much-debated accuracy.
Zola’s makeup head Kristen Alimena and key artist Naomi Raddatz worked alongside hair veteran Charles Gregory Ross, who passed away due to COVID before the film’s release, and stylist T.A. Henderson to bring director Janicza Bravo’s vision of a Floridian fairytale (turned nightmare) to life. The team's inspiration, which ran the gamut from superheroes to Aaliyah, resulted in many unforgettable—and otherworldly—on-screen beauty looks.
We caught up with Alimena and Raddatz to get a look behind the scenes of Zola’s hair and makeup department, plus tips for recreating Zola and Stefani’s bold looks at home. Read on for their go-to products on set and the beauty tips they learned from the story's IRL counterparts.
How much did the real Zola (A'Ziah King) influence how you executed looks on Taylour?
Kristen Alimena: "I took so much inspiration from her. When I got brought on, I made my own lookbook, and at first, I thought that it would be a lot of hyperrealism, like Spring Breakers or The Florida Project. Those were a lot of my references (plus a photo of Cardi B. from when she was a stripper).
"But when I got on set—and I saw the costumes—it was more fantastical. Like a world that was built, not one that existed. So that’s when I took more images from Zola herself and her Instagram. All of her looks are so fantastic. She’s such a star. For the strip club look, I took inspiration from Zola herself. I went on a deep-dive of her Instagram and got a lot of images from her page. I love her!"
Were the actual photos of the IRL Zola and Stefani used in the original thread a reference point?
KA: "It was actually in Janicza’s lookbook. She had one image in particular, the image that was put on the real Backpage on the night that it actually happened. We loved it. I was really impressed by Janicza’s attention to detail and the fact that she found that. She kept prefacing that Zola has a sweet face and wanted Zola to be more innocent than Stefani. I loved Zola's looks but she was definitely more toned down than Stefani."
Who else was on these moodboards?
Naomi Raddatz: "When we got there, we met so many actual dancers. For me, when we did all of the background and stuff, all of the dancers influenced the makeup that I did. I latched onto all of the details and all of their techniques."
What were some of the techniques that you learned from dancers on set?
KA: "One thing that I did learn about makeup on pole dancers was that they could not have body lotion on. I wanted to put all of this body makeup on to make them glow, but we weren’t able to do that because they couldn’t have anything greasy on their bodies. I thought that was super interesting.
"We ended up using a glowy powder instead—it was either NARS or Fenty. We put it on Stefani during the strip club scene, but Zola wasn’t wearing any body makeup. For the face, it was really about setting it with powder and setting spray, using waterproof products, and using super-pigmented products."
NR: "There were a lot of parallels between dancers’ makeup and theatrical makeup in how high-performing it has to be. There’s a lot of layering, baking, strong glitter adhesives, and lots of powder. Riley Keough definitely loved her powder."
Did you notice makeup playing a part in how the actors got into character?
KA: "Nicholas Braun, for example, had a lot to say about his facial hair. He imagined that his character would have a tick where he would pick his skin. I thought that was super interesting. In the movie, you can tell his character is super anxious and worries about what’s happening to Stefani. So that was his thing—he would pick his skin.
"Throughout the whole film, I was keeping continuity of these scabs that his character would develop. I don’t even think that anybody would be able to tell but that was an awesome character trait. Also, I don’t know if anyone noticed this but Colman Domingo’s character had one lighter eye so every day Naomi would put in his contact lens.
"For Riley, she was down for anything. But she would always ask Naomi for her lip liner and then I would hand her a compact—she was obsessed with this Fenty press powder. And she would take the pressed powder and lip liner, and I think that was her way of stepping into character and saying ‘I’m Stefani.’"
Did beauty help Taylour step into Zola's shoes?
KA: "I remember the first scene that Naomi and I worked on was one of the strip club scenes. I don’t know if anybody noticed this, but Zola and Stefani were wearing the same lip liner. I imagined that maybe in the bathroom, they had a moment like, ‘do you have a lip liner in your bag?’ And they were getting ready together. Because that’s where their friendship develops, they were both wearing a dark line, the way that Zola does, with this beautiful gloss on top. I thought that would be good character development for both of them. It’s how Stefani hooks Zola in."
What were your go-to grooming products for Nicholas Braun and Colman Domingo?
NR: "Colman had amazing skin, so I used a lot of Mario Badescu products to keep him looking hydrated. In Florida, people look pretty balmy already, so I didn’t powder him too much. Also, since we were shooting on film, we wanted things to be as incandescent and reflective as possible. Lots of lip balm, just products to keep everything moisturized and plumped up.
"With Nicholas, he has a really theatrical approach to his character, so everything was really intentional. He’d be like, 'I have a hangnail. Can you accentuate it with some alcohol-based paint? I want to look extra anxious.' That was so much fun."
KA: "Colman’s beard was done by our hair team. Unfortunately, Charles, the hair department head, passed away from COVID. It makes me so sad to think about it. What a movie to go out on. Everything about the hair in this movie was incredible. I think that team killed it. The hair tells a story in itself. Charles was a very special person."
What was your favorite look to work on?
NR: "My favorite look that you designed was Riley’s fire eye. It’s at the end of the movie when she has on a lime green lizard suit and has this red, demonic, blown-out eye. It really embodies that we’re finally seeing the villainous, sociopath spirit of Stefani."
KA: "It was a Morphe palette. We didn’t have a lot of prep time, and the closest thing was Ulta. Normally we would order from a beauty supply store, but that was one palette I had in my kit."
NR: "You called that look a fiery sunset. It felt very Floridian."
Which products were you always reaching for on set?
KA: "I bought the Pat McGrath holiday palette, and that was Zola’s palette. For this caliber of film, we didn’t have a lot of time to do things, so everything had to be done very quickly. So that palette was always in her bag. Plus, Stila Waterproof Eyeliner ($22) and Charlotte Tilbury Foundation ($44)."
NR: "And MAC Glitters."
KA: "The glitters were our saviors. MAC sent us a bunch of products."
NR: "MAC's DazzleGlass Lip Gloss ($22) was all Riley. They sent us literally every single glitter. It caught the light on film so beautifully. Their paint pods were great too. That was our base for Riley’s fiery sunset eye."
How can we recreate that eye look at home?
KA: "We used the paint pod as a base, then the Morphe red, and then we’d put a bit of orange in the crease with yellow on top of that. Next, we blend it together and throw on a KISS Strip Lash ($7)."