“Part of my job is to remind everyone that readers are all kinds of people. There’s this idea of who a reader is—a girl with glasses tearing through a novel quietly in her apartment. Literature is something we put a capital-L on, but so many different kinds of things count as literature, and teach us about who we are, and the history of who we have become. I loved to read from when I was a little kid. I grew up in suburban Jersey, just outside of the city. I went to school at the University of Chicago, and it’s very much a place where you’re not supposed to learn how to do a thing—you’re supposed to learn how to think. I studied English, and I had no idea I would work in books. I actually managed a telefund at school, Dial for Dollars, and that took me to work at the telefund at Steppenwolf Theatre. It was a manager job, and it was kind of crappy because I didn’t want to run a telethon as my job, but it was also kind of great because I made $31,000. I stayed and did that for a long time, and I learned how to work in a development department. Then I came back to New York and worked at a youth theater called Tada!, and did marketing and development and special events.
Eventually I left and went to the Tribeca Film Institute to run a small youth program. We built programs that served 10,000 kids per year—bringing them to screenings, teaching them to make films, teaching teachers. I became the director of education, and I stayed for six or seven years. When I left, I was sort of unsure about what I wanted to do. I was 31, and the piece that I had been missing was that I was a reader! I had a friend who wrote a novel that came out around that time, and she was dragging me along to a lot of her events. I started meeting people who worked in publishing, and something sparked a little light. That friend was also an editor at a small magazine called Guernica, and she suggested I talk to them about maybe doing some events. I met with Guernica, and I left that meeting as the associate publisher of the magazine—a volunteer. I still did work in film and education for a while, just to pay the rent, but my heart had fully transferred over. I found a world that really needed not only people of color working within it, but that also needed people to be loud. Publishing has not been the most diverse of industries. There are a lot of people doing that work, but it felt valuable to join the team.
After three years at Guernica, I landed at The Foundation. I love my job—it’s the best job in the whole world. Right now, we’re getting ready to announce all the judges for the National Book Award. That means getting 25 people to commit to reading an enormous number of books. Then we’ve also started a new project, Literature for Justice. It’s about using literature as a way to humanize people who’ve been impacted by mass incarceration, and to contextualize what mass incarceration in America looks like. That’s one of the things about books—we can try to get people to read a novel, but that novel might have a lot to do with the multigenerational trauma—you need context,and that helps us understand where we sit in the world today.
How we perceive ourselves, and what we consider beautiful, is an undertone in so much of what we read. It’s all about representation. When you’re a woman of color and you don’t see yourself represented… everyone was reading the Sweet Valley High books when I was a kid. You see so much about ‘this blonde hair,’ and ‘this is what’s beautiful,’ this kind of thing that you can’t do if you have black hair, you know? You don’t get to take away the same things that the person who is being spoken to takes away.
We want to have this very narrow, very intellectual idea of what a cultural life is, but a lot of it is engaging with the world as it exists, and that includes beauty. Let’s look at foundation. You say, ‘I’m going to go shopping and look for a foundation because I’m getting older, and I would like my skin to be very even.’ You start thinking about your color. I do not like it when a foundation washes me out, because I love my brown. The process of even doing that makes me think about who I am, and what I love about myself, and it’s a continual reminder that this is still not a world that tells black people, ‘Love yourself! You’re super beautiful!’ Just spending time paying attention to skincare, for me, is about feeling great. I don’t know if the world always does that work for you.
You see so much about ‘this blonde hair,’ and ‘this is what’s beautiful,’ this kind of thing that you can’t do if you have black hair, you know?
I wash my face every single morning in the shower. I use this stuff called Tula. It’s a probiotic face wash and it smells amazing—it takes my makeup off, and it’s pretty gentle. Then I tone—I always tone. Years ago I read that Halle Berry said something like, ‘Every morning I wash my face, I tone, and I put on moisturizer.’ Those three things. So I tone every day, and I use a couple different ones. Sometimes I just use micellar water, Bioderma. I switched to Sebium because it turns out that I’m pimply. I also use the sensitive skin one, Sensibio. I use that, or I use a fancier one on occasion, the Uma Brightening Toner. It sort of tingles—I like an active-feeling thing—and your skin looks really good after. The other one I’ve been using for the zit outbreak moments, is Innisfree’s Pore Cleansing Toner. Beauty Water is another one I’ve tried and liked—I guess I am a maximalist.
It gets stupid when we get to the serums—I have so many. If I’m dry, I’ll use hyaluronic acid. I like The Ordinary Hylamide one. Then I use tretinoin. I sometimes use A313, which I bought at a pharmacy in Paris. Antioxidants is the next one—A. S is special products, and then it’s sunscreen. So, I do an antioxidant every day. I’m really into the True Botanicals Vitamin C Booster—I do the vitamin C mixed with resveratrol and ferulic acid from The Ordinary. I used to use the CE Ferulic, but that felt kind of unstable, and it was super expensive.
Moisturizer I’m pretty simple about. I use Hyaluronic Marine Moisture Cushion from Dennis Gross. If I need a little more I use Embryolisse—if you find yourself in Paris, all that stuff is way cheaper there. I use the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin SPF, and when I’m not having shitty skin, I use the XL. But always SPF 50, and I touch up a few hours later with Supergoop spray. I’m pretty good about sunscreen. I have the dots—they’re a thing that people of color often get called DPN, dermatitis papular nigra. They look like freckles, but they’re sort of lesions. Morgan Freeman has them—they come from the sun.
Nighttime is when I do peels or acids. I do probably one acid a week, and retinol once or twice. I don’t love the glycolics, but I’ve used the TLC Framboos Night Serum. The Power Glow Peels—I love these for travel. But my favorite thing in the whole world is the Instant Facial—I can’t believe it’s Goop. This shit is awesome. It does not mess with your skin, it’s super active, you do not need to use it often. I use it once every two weeks. And I do a mask about once a week. I’ve been having breakouts, so I use Origins Clear Improvement.
For body, I’m very simple. I use a lot of moisturizer. My preference is CeraVe, the jar. I put some oil in it—sometimes I use an essential oil, sometimes I use Everyday Oil, which is my favorite thing. Sometimes I use cocoa butter. I’m a big fan of Amlactin. It just softens you up—it’s got acids in it that draw moisture in, and it keeps you really soft. It’s great for hands and feet, great for winter, and if you get chicken skin at all, that is one of the things people use. It smells terrible and it’s sticky, but it’s really the best moisturizer in the world.
I’ve been negligent about hair my whole life—I always just put it in a bun—and I relaxed my hair because I didn’t want to think about it. Now, I’ve had to re-learn things. I’ve been learning from Google, and I do this post on my Facebook page every Friday called Beauty Thread Friday, where I ask questions about things that I’m interested in, or stuff that I’m obsessing over and that people talk about.
I’m growing out my relaxer, so lately I’ve been in a place of wash, condition, condition. I’ve been taking vitamins for hair growth—biotin, and I’ve been experimenting with collagen and regular multivitamins. Sometimes I use castor oil on my roots. I decided to grow my relaxer out about a year ago because the thing that broke me is I was getting my hair blown out a lot more, and it just stopped curling because it was so damaged. So I’ve been in protective style mode—this is a wig to keep it protected until I’m done. I use Moroccanoil oil sometimes, but I also use Everyday Oil, or coconut oil, or castor oil. For shampoo, sometimes I use the Devachan No Poo, and I like their conditioner a lot. For hairsprays, I really like L’Oreal Elnett—it just shellacs it into place.
Perfumes were always kind of contagious in my family—my mom would end up wearing the same perfume as my grandma, and so on. I like most kinds, and I’ve been getting more into the funkier, earthy smells. The heaviest one I wear is actually one of my favorites. It’s from Hi Wildflower, which is by Tanwi Islam [Ed. note: name since changed to Tanaïs]. They are a person of color running their own cosmetics and perfume company, and they have it at Otherwild, and little boutiques. They are great. They make lipsticks, and nail polishes, and oils, and perfume. They have one called Sandálo, which is sandalwoody, really dark, and mysterious. Zadie Smith was once at an event, and I don’t really know her, but I was smelling her and I smelled this sandalwood and this darkness and I was so compelled by it. I didn’t ask her what it was, but I’ve been trying to recreate it. My other favorite is probably the ill-advised Rodin, because it’s too expensive. I literally have a bottle that I splash on only for special days. That’s so jasminey, and I love it. And then I have essential oils that I’ll put in oil and use as a non-scent. I really like sandalwood, neroli, jasmine, ylang ylang, I love palo santo—that’s a smell that I always want on me.
Tinted moisturizer, powder on top, lipstick and mascara—that was me for over a decade. Now it depends on the day. I’ll put on a little concealer—I use the Nars concealer in the pot, and I also use Glossier’s. Sometimes I’ll just do that if I’m having a great skin day, and then I'll put on a little cream blush—Olio e Osso, the reddish one, No 3. I use Hourglass Ambient Lighting for highlighter, and I use all three in the palette—the darkest one on my cheekbones, the middle one up on my brow, and the gold on my décolletage.
I don’t know how to not use mascara—I use the Bobbi Brown Waterproof. It separates, it’s not clumpy, it’s not too much. If I’m doing something big at nighttime, like the National Book Awards, I use Chantecaille’s potted foundation, or Kevyn Aucoin’s The Etherialist. Both of those are nondramatic. If I’m using powder over, I use Bareminerals. I’m also super interested in the Fenty Stick, which is kind of like a concealer, but if you have a little oil on your face you can spread it around with a Beautyblender and turn it into a very chill form of coverage. I also use bronzer very consistently, Nars Casino, and it seems to work on my skin. Even when I’m darker in the summer, or in the winter it helps warm everything up.
Lipsticks—I’ve been really into nude, and I like In The Buff from Surratt. I love a red, and the Milk OG Red is my favorite. Love the Glossier one, Zip, too. Zip is good for, ‘I’m wearing red, but I’m not wearing red.’ If you throw on that OG Red and a leather jacket and heels, you look like a night out. Zip is chiller. But the magic trick is actually Surratt’s brown lip liner. For darker skin, it just makes every lipstick that’s too light for you possible to wear. It’s like the best thing ever—Chocolat Bisous.”
—as told to ITG
Lisa Lucas photographed by Tom Newton in New York on February 20, 2018.