What It's Really Like to Be Asian American in Beauty

Daniel Martin, celebrity-beloved makeup artist and Tatcha's Global Director of Artistry & Education; Tina Craig, Founder of the skincare brand U Beauty; and nail artist Mei Kawajiri share their experiences in the industry — the good, the bad, and the beautiful — and how AAPI representation can improve.

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Photo: Courtesy Daniel Martin

Daniel Martin: Tatcha Global Director of Artistry & Education

I've gained the courage to feel like I am a voice in the beauty space, but I haven't always thought of myself in that way. Until someone brought it to my attention, I didn't realize that I am the first Asian American to have this position at a beauty brand. There's Peter Philips at Dior, Lucia [Pica] at Chanel, and Tom [Pecheux] at YSL.

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Inspirations: Martin's mother lost her family in the Vietnam War and moved to the U.S. while pregnant with him. Courtesy Daniel Martin

I definitely discovered my courage because of the Black Lives Matter movement and [the murder of] George Floyd. Up until that point I never spoke publicly about politics or where I stood on social matters, but what happened to Floyd was an awakening to me. Now I know I need to be vocal to make a difference. It's interesting because my father is white, he's French, and my mother is Vietnamese. I have a very white name. I've had to deal with showing up to jobs where they thought I was the assistant to Daniel Martin because they were expecting someone white to be the makeup artist. I've also been mistaken for the nail tech. This is why education about the Asian experience in this country is so important. We don't read about it in our history books at school. We need more Asians in executive positions to have seats at the table. It's why I embrace diversity in my artistry. I'm very fortunate to have such a range of inspiring women [Jessica Alba, Meghan Markle, and Jessica Biel] whom I work with to bring out their own beauty. Makeup isn't about covering up; it is about empowering that person's strengths.

Tatcha The Silk Powder

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Courtesy Tatcha

$48; tatcha.com.

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Inspirations: Martin’s grandparents on their wedding day. Martin’s grandmother influenced his love for makeup and beauty. Courtesy Daniel Martin
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Inspirations: Chinese & British actress Nancy Kwan in Kung Fu: The Cenotaph I & II.

Daniel Martin

I remember watching Nancy Kwan movies with my mom as a kid. Coming to the U.S., this was the first time my mom saw someone like her on the big screen.

— Daniel Martin
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Courtesy Tina Craig

Tina Craig: Founder of Skincare Brand U Beauty

Ever since I immigrated here from Taiwan when I was 8, I've always looked at how fashion magazines and runways tried to Westernize our features. In the '90s, if I was getting my makeup done, the artist would contour my eyelids to look more Eurocentric instead of trying to highlight them. I'm proud of my eyelids, and it took years for me to accept myself. Once in a while, I still have to remind makeup artists of this.

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Inspirations: Japanese jewelry designer Tina Chow influenced Craig after she discovered Chow’s creations at Bergdorf Goodman. Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS)

I've experienced microaggressions, like when publicists confuse me with other Asian women and tag us interchangeably on Instagram. It's a passive aggressive way of saying all Asians look alike, which we don't. [When it comes to the industry,] I am totally in support of everyone using long-standing Asian beauty methods and tools. It's not offensive to me when non-Asian women perform these practices; it is only problematic when they try to tell us they can do it better than a 5,000-year-old culture. It is genuinely appreciated when people have educated themselves about our traditions and cultural origins. Give credit where it is due and honor these practices. I know this sounds cliché, but if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

When I was younger, the character Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles made thousands of young Asian American teenagers hate themselves. I went to see it in the theater and every time that character came on the screen my friends would laugh — I wanted to crawl into a hole in the floor and disappear. I always wished there was someone who would speak up for us and say, "This is not OK." It's actually a part of our culture to not cause trouble. Yet I was always labeled as a troublemaker by my family, which I kind of liked. [laughs] Speaking up for my community has made me really proud of myself and, for the first time ever, I don't have imposter syndrome.

U Beauty Resurfacing Compound

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Courtesy U Beauty

$228/50 ml; ubeauty.com.

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Inspirations: Gemma Chan. Jeff Spicer/Getty

Tina craig

Gemma Chan exhibits even more courage in her real life than the superheroes she plays onscreen.

— Tina craig
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Courtesy Mei Kawajiri

Mei Kawajiri: Nail Artist

I moved to New York from Japan in 2012. Not many people know what it's like to leave their home country and start alone somewhere new. I am so lucky to have grown up in Japan and been surrounded by Asian singers, models, and actors in the media. It was surprising how little Asian representation [in the beauty industry] there was when I came here. I think that everyone would be more kind if they put themselves in other people's shoes.

Just a few years ago, a client's husband told me to "speak English," even though I was, although not perfectly. I was shocked and never went back because I was never going to be treated that way again. Asian cultures are built on respect — we are strong-minded and choose our words wisely. I am so proud of how far I have come. I taught myself English with a textbook and practiced on photo shoots and in the salon where supportive people helped me learn new words every day. I use my platform to represent the AAPI community by sharing how amazing our culture is through style, food, and, of course, nails [her clients include Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid].

What makes the nail community so special is its roots in Asian traditions. Many [American] salons use Japanese gel [nail polish] and in the U.S. market, original products from Asia are becoming more mainstream. Being Japanese is such an honor, especially as an artist coming from a culture that is extremely detail-oriented and has such high standards for quality. It's sad that our contributions have been appropriated and sold with no real ties to the community. The industry needs to make an effort to understand our culture beyond the generalizations and stereotypes. Don't just order sushi or use our technology without supporting the people behind it. Travel to Asia to see for yourself how the cultures are so incredible in the way that they have respect for all people and care about every single thing.

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Inspirations: Kawajiri is inspired by the fantasy of Japanese anime’s Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Courtesy 2001 Studio Ghibli-NDDTM

I'm most proud of the road I paved for nail art culture and artists who want to follow in my footsteps. I remember only a few places did nail art when I first came to New York, but now most salons offer it because there is such a demand. I'm happy we will continue to push boundaries together.

ManiMe Mei's Party by Mei Kawajiri

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Courtesy ManiMe

$25; manime.co.

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Inspirations: Whenever Kawajiri does nails backstage at Balenciaga shows, she feels “free to create.”. Jemal Countess/Getty

mei kawajiri

Rei Kawakubo didn't change her Japanese style to cater to Western fashion.

— mei kawajiri
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Inspirations: The originality of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo reminds Kawajiri to stay true to herself. Estrop/Getty

For more stories like this, pick up the July 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 18th.

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