“I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I went to a private school that’s attached to the second biggest mega-church in America. My parents grew up in the Philippines, and I think they had this reflexive idea that private school was just better, when it’s not in a lot of ways. But the good thing about it is that I became really accustomed to strangeness and disagreeing with everyone around me. Once I’d been at a 5,000-person assembly where everyone was nailing their sins to a cross and weeping, nothing could freak me out anymore.
I was desperate to get out of the south for college, but my guidance counselor made me apply for a scholarship at UVA. She saved me from a life of student loans, and I liked it for superficial reasons—I just wanted to go to school with a ton of hot dudes. I had this vision of a college student wearing wool and editing a newspaper, and it just wasn’t me. It turns out I was basic and southern all along! I joined a sorority and a fucking a cappella group, and I didn’t do any extracurricular writing. That being said, I took a creative writing class every semester because the staff was incredible—all these legendary short story writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Ann Beattie would teach undergrads. I got an idea in college that I liked writing, and that I was reasonably good at it, but I assumed I would work for a non-profit or teach.
I graduated college right when the recession hit, so I joined the Peace Corps. It was really hard in a way that I couldn’t have predicted, and that I still find hard to articulate. I ended up stationed in central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan, and I lived there for two years. It was extremely eye-opening about the gap between your own good intentions and the systems upon which the world actually works. I don’t like to fail at things—my reactions to everything are either extreme nonchalance or a monstrous force of will. I’ll grit my way through anything, and that was something I was absolutely unable to. That itself was a real learning experience. In the end, they suggested I leave for security reasons—I kind of looked local, and I was getting sexually harassed all the time. In situations where I’ve been sexually harassed, I’ve always been like, ‘Fuck you, you’re a loser.’ But you can’t think that way when you’re in the Peace Corps. You can’t be like, ‘Fuck you, you don’t matter,’ because you’re there to be like, ‘You matter a lot.’ I found that a lot of my wires were crossed, and I couldn’t really process it—I had the best thick, wavy hair, and it all fell out due to stress.
After the Peace Corps I killed some time in Houston. I have an extremely sunny temperament for the most part, but I was legitimately depressed when I came back. I would walk into a grocery store afterwards and just cry. How was it possible that I could get anything I want? I needed money, so I wrote ad copy, and I tutored, and I basically wrote kids’ college essays for them. And then I went to grad school at the University of Michigan for fiction writing.
I was in this extremely luxurious program, fully paid. Again, the world has saved me from loans. My first year, I went to class just once a week—that was it, and you were supposed to write for the rest of the time. I started freelancing for The Billfold to fill the time. Emma Carmichael cold emailed me one day asking if I’d be interested in a job at The Hairpin, and I started working there, too. She moved to Jezebel, and after grad school, I moved with her. I loved the freedom I had there, and I loved the people I worked with, and I loved being at a place that people didn’t respect. I liked trying to prove that wrong, you know? Trying to write something so good that it was a fuck you.
Once I’d been at a 5,000-person assembly where everyone was nailing their sins to a cross and weeping, nothing could freak me out anymore.
Being at Jezebel taught me that I’m extremely fallible—I will try my best to do things well, and it’s OK if people don’t like things that you do. Sometimes it’ll be because you made a mistake and you have to learn from it, and sometimes it’s because people are losing their mind over something stupid, and that’s OK too. You don’t need to tell them you think they’re overreacting. I think it was a good lesson in internet dynamics.
My current job at The New Yorker is the type of job I never thought I’d be able to have. I don’t think that I started calling myself a writer until a year into my grad school program—even at Jezebel, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. The New Yorker was a place where I could learn to do the thing I didn’t know how to do, which was reporting. I wanted the privilege and the luxury to be able to work on something for months—after the blog cycle, I was craving that. With every single thing I turned in my first year there, I would try to slip something past the copy desk that I didn’t think they’d allow, and sometimes it worked. Once I got the phrase ‘what’s your dick like’ in there. I got to put the phrase ‘real men eat ass’ in, which was a real accomplishment for me. I’m interested in a lot of things, and I write about whatever I’m interested in—I’m lucky to have an editor that lets me. My first book, Trick Mirror, will also be out August 6th. It’s a collection of essays—just things I’m obsessed with and wanted to write long essays about. I think that being immersed in as many strange environments as I can, just out of personal curiosity, leads me to have a good amount of ideas kicking around.
I lived in Texas, and it’s really the land of big curls and hairspray. I loved it. When I was four I begged my mom to let me go to Glamour Shots in the mall—she finally said yes, and they actually came out really good. I wrote a thank you note to God, for allowing me to go to Glamour Shots and ‘for making me sneaky.’ I spent all of grade school fantasizing about makeup, all of middle school wearing it badly, and in high school I was a cheerleader, and I wore frosted lip gloss from Urban Decay. [Laughs] Now, I think if I could articulate a goal for myself beauty-wise, it would be to look pretty enough to like to look at, the way that I like to look at my friends, but nothing more.
I only have one kind of everything, and I don’t experiment much. My biggest problem is the Tatcha Cleansing Oil. It all started with a sample at Sephora… it’s so nice, and it’s so expensive. Kill me. I use the Camellia Cleansing Oil, which takes all my makeup off, and then I use Alba toner. It’s cheap, at the drugstore, and it has no alcohol or witch hazel. I have no idea what toner does, but it makes me feel clean, especially after being out in New York. Then I use the goddamn Tatcha essence, and Fresh’s Crème Ancienne. Even with a heavy face oil in winter, my face would feel super tight. This is the only thing I’ve ever found where my skin never feels that way. Again, it’s so expensive, but I only use a tiny bit at a time. The biggest wrench in my beauty routine is this thing on my nose, which is actinic keratosis. It’s not cancerous yet, but I’ve been burning it off with photodynamic therapy every few weeks. I think it’s because all throughout college I would use my roommate’s prescription retinol to blast zits, and go in the sun. Now I wear fucking Tatcha SPF, and have a La Roche-Posay 50-plus thing that I use just on my nose. Sometimes I use the Shani Darden retinol thing now, and when I’m hungover I’ll use the Fresh Rose face mask in the fridge. Otherwise, I don’t really try new things. What if I start liking another incredibly expensive thing? I can’t bring another Tatcha into my life!
I lived in Texas, and it’s really the land of big curls and hairspray. I loved it.
I work from home, so I often don’t put on makeup until I’m going to meet somebody. A lot of people are like, ‘I don’t like working at home because it turns me into a slob,’ but I love to be a slob! Being able to wear jean shorts all day is a privilege—nice clothes, in this economy? [Laughs] My usual makeup starts with Nars BB cream, and I always mix the Cusco and Saint Moritz shades. I also use the Bobbi Brown concealer in Warm Natural. I’ve always found it so hard to match my skin tone—I’m not that olive, but I’m not that yellow either. Then I use this blush, Nars Exposed, right on the apples. I have huge cheeks—my true beauty inspo is crying Selena Gomez.
My lashes are very thick and straight, but these are extensions. I go to this place called Lash Love, and it’s so tight. I get a short, half set so it looks as if I just had normal, good lashes, and it’s 60 bucks. I let them fully come off before I get new ones, and my eyelashes always look the same. What I originally liked about them is that you could wear no makeup at all and still feel like you look a little bit better than normal. I’ve gotten them five times, but when I don’t have them I love Buxom mascara. For me, the heaviness of it tilts my lashes upwards a bit.
I often feel like I am interacting with makeup like I’m a teenager going to a music festival—I want pragmatic makeup that will just stay on. All of my beauty routines are created to last for 12 hours. If I’m going out, I use this Smashbox green primer. I’m Asian, and if I’m drinking it’ll help me not look flushed. Then I’ll use the Givenchy Photo’Perfexion foundation in Perfect Gold or Perfect Pecan in winter, or the Teint Couture in Elegant Amber in the summer. I’ll mix in the Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer, too. Sometimes instead of the Bobbi Brown concealer I’ll use this really intense foundation from IT Cosmetics, Confidence in a Foundation, as concealer. It’s basically paint. I have the Naked palette, and I’ll only use three shades—Buck, Darkhorse, and Creep. Or I’ll use the classic Revlon Colorstay, which I’ve been using since I was 13—it never comes off. I’ll use an Anastasia brow pencil, and then Nars Albatross highlighter on my cheekbones. There’s a real shift between being an adolescent to being an adult, where you go from wearing a heavy eye and nothing on your lips, to realizing that you can do the opposite and look a lot better. I only own one lipstick, and it’s a red one from fucking Tatcha. Before I had it, I never wore lipstick because I would always be anxiously checking the mirror, but this one doesn’t smear. I finish with the Urban Decay All-Nighter Setting Spray.
I have easy to experiment with hair—I would always grow it really long and donate it, highlight it, do bangs, cut whatever. I went blonde three and a half years ago, and I like it because I wear black all the time, and this breaks it up. When I wanted to go blonde, I went to Suite Caroline because all of my friends had gone there—all of my friends had peacock hair. I saw Cara Craig, and she dyed me this shade of blonde. Now I go every three months. I wash my hair every five days, and do a yoga class on wash day. I used to use a lot of weird protein treatments I’d find at beauty supply stores, but now I just use Virtue shampoo with the Christophe Robin purple mask as conditioner every time. I put a huge amount of this Joico oil in my hair after I shower, and that’s all I do. It air dries easily, but sometimes I curl it a little bit with a curling iron, and it just holds. If my lifestyle does not, economically or time-wise, accommodate spending half a day and a lot of money in a salon chair, then I’ll change it.
You know how sometimes people smell different when they’re stressed? I noticed that when I was in a good mood, I would smell different. I would take off a sweater, and when I was happy it would smell kind of sugary. So when I was at the Fresh counter, I happened to smell the Brown Sugar perfume, and it was almost exactly the same smell. I’m extremely attached to it. I’m one of those people that perfume smells extremely intense on, so in the past I tended to not wear it. But with Brown Sugar I feel like I’ve found my thing.
NAILS + BODY
I always do my nails with the sheer glitter from Floss Gloss, Dimepiece. It’s the best, because you can do your nails in two minutes, and it dries super fast. When it chips it doesn’t matter. My toes are always orange or pink or purple.
There’s a real shift between being an adolescent to being an adult, where you go from wearing a heavy eye and nothing on your lips, to realizing that you can do the opposite and look a lot better.
When I was in the Peace Corps, I was showering once a week, max. I felt kind of gross all the time, but one thing I found is that your whole body adjusts. My boyfriend came to visit and attested—I was like, ‘Are we all disgusting? Can you tell me?’ And he said I was the same. Obviously now I shower all the time, and I use a huge amount of the Alba body oil on my body after. In general, I’m a top-to-toe oil person. I’m super dry. Sometimes I use the old granny jar of Cetaphil, or Weleda Skin Food, which I’m obsessed with like everyone else. It’s cheap and I like the smell. Mostly I use it on my hands and feet, but you can use it for everything. I’ve used it to deal with my hair, or as a substitute face cream sometimes.
My dad’s birthday present to me every year is massages, because he says I need to relax—and I do! During all the Me Too stuff I was writing about sexual assault constantly, and I felt fine, but my blood pressure was at emergency levels. My body really takes the hit. I should go to therapy, but what I do is smoke a ton of weed. One of my favorite things to do to relax is to put my speaker in the shower, get high, and take a really stoned shower listening to an album that I really love. Sometimes I go to Physique 57 for barre. I have conflicted feelings about working out—am I taking care of myself? Or am I trying to look better, so my face will look better on the paraprofessional world of Instagram, and have more energy to work all the goddamn time? In high school I used to get stoned and go running, but in the Peace Corps I started doing yoga every day in my room to calm down, and it was amazing. There’s a place down my street called Tangerine where I do the standard Vinyasa. You can just fling yourself on the ground sometimes—I find that really pleasurable.”
—as told to ITG
Jia Tolentino photographed by Tom Newton on July 16, 2019 in Brooklyn.