“I immigrated here from South Korea with my parents when I was six. The transition was hard, but when you're that young, you can assimilate and learn the language quickly. I grew up in Queens, and I went to Laguardia for high school. Going to Laguardia was a saving grace. You have to make a portfolio to get in. A 12-year-old making a ‘body of work’ is hilarious to me, but it’s also amazing. Then you have to audition on the spot. You have to draw a person who's sitting in the middle of the room, you have to draw something from memory, and then a still life of some sort. They give you 30 minutes, or something like that.
At Laguardia I learned that I loved printmaking. Then I ended up going to RISD and majoring in it, and I graduated with a BFA. I thought, ‘I'm not going to graduate from art school and move to Brooklyn.’ Then I did. This was in 2010. I stayed with my parents in Queens for probably a month, and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since.
The height of my 20s was defined by confusion—I would never do my 20s over again; I'm so happy to be 30. I worked as a studio manager and digitech for a photographer, and then my friends, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of Eckhaus Latta, started making their work. Mike asked me to model for them. As soon as that started getting exposure, more and more people would ask me to model, sometimes for trade. To those people I said, ‘Clothes don't pay the bills, bitch.’
How I started modeling [for a living] is not a romantic story. I just hustled. I knew I needed to pay my student loans, and modeling was the fastest way I could do it. I would have really bad days, and then I would get a DM from a 15-year-old Korean girl who would say, ‘I live in a town that's predominantly white; not a lot of people look like me. I saw you on the Urban Outfitters website and I just realized that I can be beautiful too.’ I think that's when I started to understand how important visibility was, and how unaware I was of how much it affects people to not see themselves. That's why acting feels so right to me. I ask myself if 15-year-old May would look up to me now, and I know I'm doing the right thing if the answer is ‘yes.’
I got into acting through commercials. With Tales of the City, I play Margot Park. She’s a cis female lesbian who is in a relationship with someone who has recently transitioned. Weirdly, being part of Tales allowed me to give myself permission to be queer. And how many Gaysians do you see on TV? How many body-positive or comfortable-with-themselves Asian Americans do you see just out here existing?
I would have really bad days, and then I would get a DM from a 15-year-old Korean girl who would say, ‘I live in a town that's predominantly white; not a lot of people look like me. I saw you on the Urban Outfitters website and I just realized that I can be beautiful too.’
A huge thing that's happened in the last three years is that I've started taking my mental health seriously. I used to be extremely depressed and anxious. I had a really hard time accepting that I would have to take meds, but that and therapy changed my life. Everything good that has happened... I truly believe that I got Tales because I was doing what was right for me. And I’m making art again. I try to prioritize it as much as I can.
My aesthetician and friend Sofie Pavitt recently told me that skincare is just storytelling. I thought that was such an interesting way to think about the skincare rituals we engage in. It does bring comfort, it does make us feel calm. If that reduces stress, we are ultimately doing something good for our skin. Having a long routine might make us feel more in control of our lives, but shedding it all and doing the bare minimum might make you reassess not only what your skin needs, but also what you want to be focusing on. It's a good reminder that none of it is necessary, and that we do it for pleasure. And that is OK, too!
That being said, I'm obsessed with skincare. It's fun, it smells good, it's ritualistic. Hyperpigmentation is my biggest concern because, melanin, and I'm a picker, which is horrible. I was using EGF, Epidermal Growth Factor, and I think it was helping with the hyperpigmentation a little bit. Double cleansing is the backbone of my routine. I massage either Manyo Factory’s Pure Cleansing Oil or Pai's Light Work Rosehip Cleansing Oil onto my face to remove makeup, and then I emulsify it with water and wash it off. Then I use a second cleanser, either Fresh’s Soy Face Cleanser or one that’s made by Whamisa, an organic Korean fermentation brand. Or I’ll use Panoxyl, which is a drugstore benzoyl peroxide cleanser, when I feel that my skin is congested.
Then I use Circumference. I like all of their stuff, but I love the Active Botanical Refining Toner. I'll do that as a third cleanse. It's so crazy. Then Lotion P50, the pigmentation one—PIGM 400. It’s the least smelly [of the P50s], too. It works for me. After toner, I use the Circumference Vital C Antioxidant Day Serum—it absorbs really quickly. Melano CC is a more stable vitamin C that has a longer shelf life. I spot treat with that, sometimes. I don't use everything all at once—it's all rotated, but the vitamin C is pretty consistent. I also use the Drunk Elephant Baby Facial—it’s strong, stings your face. But there's a more gentle AHA mask I started using that I really like, the Pai Copaiba Deep Cleanse AHA mask.
The Circumference Pure Balancing Botanical Face Oil is my favorite, and the rosehip oil by Pai is great for scarring. Then there’s this Maya Chia Superblend Pressed Serum Concentrate. It's a paste, but it goes on greasy like an oil. I like using it after the beach.
I wear sunblock religiously. I really like the Nivea Sun Protect Super Water Gel. It's clear and it almost feels like a serum. It's Japanese and I got it at oo35mm, which is this tiny Asian beauty supply store in Chinatown. It's small, but they have everything. I also started using Supergoop’s SPF 50 setting mist, so that I can refresh my sunblock midday.
I don't do any hair stuff right now. I just put face oil on, and then what's left on my hands, I put on the ends of my hair. I used to change my hair a lot. I went to Shizen for a while, but now my friend Masami at Vacancy Project cuts my hair. My hairstyles are like seasons, like markers of time. I sometimes think back to something I was doing at a certain time, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that's when I was blonde.’ Now I have virgin hair, and I’m trying to grow it. It's funny, because I've gone into Vacancy so many times where I say, ‘OK, I'm here for a haircut,’ and they're like, ‘I don't know…’ They've sent me away multiple times. I guess that's my crazy... that's my own thing.
I have to bleach my hair three times when I’m trying to dye it a certain color—Aki and Miko at Shizen would do it every four to six weeks. My hair is really thick, so it would take it well, but then I started modeling, and the more people touch it, the more it gets messed up. For shampoo and conditioner, I like the Naturaltech series from Davines—it smells so good and it’s really hydrating. I don't do masks and I don't style my hair. I used to use more product when it was short and mullet-y.
First, I fill in my little patches. I always follow my natural eyebrow hair direction and make light, wispy movements to make sure I'm tapering the hair ends. I use a gray pencil from Shu Uemura, or a gray one from Benefit, which I love specifically because it’s super thin. A thing that really bothers me is when people who have really dark brows use a dark brown pencil to fill them in. It always looks too red. My dad used to be in theater when he was younger, and his makeup artist friend gave my mom this tip—use an Ebony Pencil for your brows! It's a Korean thing that's been known for decades. You just have to make sure the skin under your eyebrows isn't so greasy when you're applying.
My hairs are so thick that they need to be laid down with more than one product. I just learned about using Elmer's glue as a brow gel—I put a little of it on a spoolie. I do that, and then I use a wax pencil, the Anastasia Brow Primer, just to have it sit down a little, and then I use the Benefit 24-HR Brow Setter on top. Honestly, this is the best brow gel I've ever used, and I've used all of them. They either get flakey or too shiny, or they don’t hold.
I use a spray hand sanitizer—either Dr. Bronner's Organic Lavender or EO's Lavender—on my phone every night before I go to bed because our phones are fucking disgusting. I keep it on my bedside table so I don't forget.
I do a lot of work to look like I'm not wearing makeup. I use this MAC Pro Conceal and Correct Palette in Medium like the clone stamp tool in Photoshop—only in certain spots. I stick to the mid-yellow and mid-peach colors, and the darker ones come in handy for my forehead. I use my finger to dab and blend it, or I'll use the Jenny Patinkin line smudge brush, and the Elf crease brush to feather. I just started using Trish McEvoy’s Even Skin Mineral Powder Foundation in Beige. I'll do that lightly on top of where I put the concealer to even it out. Or I'll use the By Terry Hyaluronic Hydra-Powder. It just takes down the shine a little.
My blush is by Nars—Matahari. [Ed note: discontinued] I like colder pinks for blush. Rather than doing the whole contour cheek thing, I like to put it closer to my eyes and on my nose bridge—it's almost like a straight line across my face. It looks more natural that way.
For my eyes, I use MAC’s Pro Longwear Paint Pot in Groundwork as a base, and then a subtle brown shadow from MAC all over my lids. I only go within my lash line because, monolid. If I open my eyes and I look straight, I don't actually want to see [the eyeshadow] too much—I think it looks weird when eyeshadow goes above. I'm going to say right now that so many eyeshadow blending brushes are not for my eyes. They're huge. I only use detail brushes because it makes more sense for me.
When I was 18 I got a cosmetic tattoo—eyeliner—because my mom was getting hers done. She was like, ‘You take too long to get ready in the morning. You're going to college. Just get some shit on your eyes.’ It hurt. It was my first tattoo, but no one notices it now. I don't even notice it. I love Chanel's Stylo Yeux Waterproof eyeliner for a more blended out cat eye. It moves right when you apply it, so you can stretch it with a brush—I use the MAC 231 brush.
For my lashes, I use the Shiseido eyelash curler because it has a shallower curve, and that's how my eyes are. My eyes are also prone to mascara-smudging. I use Blinc mascara—it's made in Japan, but you can get it at Sephora. It goes on like regular mascara, but when it dries it's fully hard and coats your lashes. It’s the best and I will never use another mascara again.
If I did my eyes, I won’t do a lip color and I'll probably just wear a lip balm. I love the Olio E Osso tinted lip balms and Homeoplasmine. But sometimes I wear lipstick—I like Giorgio Armani Lip Maestro in Mad Sultan. It’s an orangish red.
BODY, FRAGRANCE, AND NAILS
I use a spray hand sanitizer—either Dr. Bronner's Organic Lavender or EO's Lavender—on my phone every night before I go to bed because our phones are fucking disgusting. I keep it on my bedside table so I don't forget. To shower, I just use Dr. Bronner's, and my body lotion is from Yu-Be. It smells medicinal, but it goes away really fast. I've used Cerave’s SA Cream for Rough and Bumpy Skin. I don't have rough and bumpy skin, but I want it to be smoother, like a dolphin.
For fragrance, I use Kiehl's Musk Oil almost every day. Then I have another perfume called Black Calamus by Carner, which is from Barcelona. It was a Christmas gift and it's very incensey.
Like I said, I'm a picker—I also pick my cuticles. I'm gross. I'm less likely to start a spot where I'm just tearing away at it if I take care of nails. I use a cuticle oil from the collaboration between Lady Fancy Nails and Circumference. And I almost never get mani-pedis, because I do a great job myself and I don't trust anyone. Right now I’m wearing Adina from Zoya.
SUPPLEMENTS AND MEDICINE
I take a women's daily multivitamin by New Chapter. If I'm going out and I'm drinking, I’m taking Pepcid AC Complete, the chewable kind. I think it coats your stomach more efficiently because it’s chewable. I recommend it in the mint flavor. For all the Asian readers out there, if you take it 30 minutes to an hour before you start drinking, you will not get that Asian glow, you will not turn red. I take it every time I drink. I don't drink a ton, but if I know I have to go to an event and I'm going to be photographed, or even if I'm not and I don't want to feel hot from drinking, I’m taking it. That being said, I don’t really go out much. Oops, I put on so much makeup to go nowhere.”
—as told to ITG
May Hong photographed by Tom Newton in Brooklyn on July 27, 2019.