Early last year, makeup artist Kay Montano published an interview with British actor Thandie Newton, in which she spoke for the first time about forgoing relaxers (chemical straightening) and letting her hair grow out naturally. The response was immediate. “I got more hits than I’ve ever got,” says Montano. “It was on the Today show on US television. I got asked to go on to the BBC to talk about it. And all these beautiful comments from readers! That’s when I realised – there’s something here.Beauty can be used to make you feel better about yourself, instead of worse.”
From that single piece – and an eight-year friendship that started when the two women met on a shoot for Vogue magazine – came an idea for a wider project. The result, 18 months later, is the website ThandieKay.
But is this site, created by two mixed-race women, a response to the largely white-dominated media that pushes a certain aesthetic over others? Not exactly, says Montano. “It’s not a ‘mixed race’ site. We’re not going to exclude anybody.” She sees the site as a sort of Rookie magazine, the popular American online magazine for teenage girls created by fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, but with an older readership. “In America, there’s a strong – I wouldn’t call it a subculture, it’s somewhere in between subculture and mainstream – culture online.”
ThandieKay may not be specifically a destination for women of colour, but the hues of the women on the newly launched front page suggest it will be a more obvious celebration of difference, something more inclusive than your average beauty site.
When I ask Montano to expand on what the site is about, she asks me what my background is; my parents are Nigerian. “So you’re a ‘first-borner’, like Thandie and me,” she replies. “You’ve got parents born somewhere else.”
Her father is from Trinidad, while Newton’s mother is from Zimbabwe. “But we had different experiences of being mixed-race in this country,” she continues. “Thandie grew up in Cornwall – her parents met in Ghana – with her little brother, and there were no other black people around.” She thinks that the experience worked in Newton’s favour: “She has a heightened awareness – you don’t have the luxury of just being able to instantly belong.” Montano herself grew up in west London: “In the 1970s and 1980s, nobody of colour or mixed race could grow up in a better place,” she says. Despite being called racist names in her overwhelmingly white primary school, she says: “In my experience, everyone was reflected when I was growing up. I was post-‘black is beautiful’.”
She feels that things have got less inclusive over the years. “For me personally, now in my mid-40s, and in the fashion industry and being hyper-aware of media and manifestations of women, what I notice now, what I feel is lacking is what I grew up with,” she says. “What bubbles up to the surface in a media culture like ours is only going to be the most bland and ordinary. Unfortunately, anything that is ever so slightly minority just doesn’t get reflected. Women come in all shapes and forms and all of these things are on the same bar, and one is not more important than the other.”
In addition to tutorials, the site will include beauty Q&As. “People can give a lot away in such an intimate space,” says Montano, as well as features. They have spoken to Oscar-winning Pakistani-Canadian director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Orange prize-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
ThandieKay is an attempt to reclaim the beauty mantle from those who label it as silly or frivolous. “Beauty is the Trojan horse,” says Montano. “The whole idea of beauty as a ritual has been completely taken over by the idea that you’re just doing it to attract men, or to look younger, or that you’re buying into regressive ideas, or that you’re not a feminist. It’s a lot of baggage. But men do it, animals do it. We’re not going to get into the arguments, we’re just going to present ideas.”
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