Black-ish star Marsai Martin talks shop with her fashion icon (and cousin!) Janelle Monáe.

By Jennifer Ferrise
Updated Aug 14, 2019 @ 9:00 am
Credit: Getty Images

Despite their 18 year age difference, Janelle Monáe and Marsai Martin have a lot in common. They’re both killing it at their respective crafts (Martin is a fan favorite on Black-ish; Monáe is touring and set to headline the second season of Amazon’s Homecoming), producing new projects like crazy, and killing it on every single red carpet that they step on to. So when we found out that — surprise! — they’re related, it actually wasn’t all that shocking.

As it turns out, the two stars are “cousins on cousins on cousins,” as Monáe puts it, and though they just met for the first time a few years ago, they’re now making up for lost time, getting to know each other whenever their busy schedules allow. Most recently, Martin gave her older cousin a call to talk fashion for InStyle’s September issue.

“I admire so many things about Janelle,” Martin tells InStyle. “My family members would always tell me how we were related, so I was excited when we finally got to meet and say hello in person.” In terms of style, Martin says she often takes a cue from Monáe’s avant-garde aesthetic. “She’s so true to herself with everything that she puts on. And she can also pull off things that no one else can, like her most recent Met Gala look. She’s definitely a big inspiration for me.”

Read on to listen in on their full chat, where they discuss red carpet risks, power outfits, and the joy of getting turned into a meme. For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.

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MARSAI MARTIN: Janelle, do you remember when we first met? It was at that Golden Globes after-party a while back. I was so eager to say hello because, as it turns out, we’re related.

JANELLE MONÁE: Yes, my love! We’re cousins on cousins on cousins. You were with your mom, and she was naming members of my family, and I was like, “Oh my goodness!” I don’t meet many people who know about my small community in Kansas City, Kan. It was the best news because I’m such a fan of you and your role on Black-ish.

MM: Well, I admire so much about you. I love that you always stay authentic with your style. On the red carpet, you're always in something that is totally different from everybody else.

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JM: Aw, I'm honored. When I was starting out, I didn't have a lot of designers that wanted to dress me. And I couldn’t afford to buy all the things I saw in magazines. My fashion sense was born out of turning nothing into something. I’ve always leaned into what makes me unique. Sometimes I got bullied for it. I look back to when I was wearing black and white tuxedos every day and people were saying that I dressed like a man and that I should look more feminine if I want to get ahead. But ultimately, I chose to express myself in what made me most comfortable.

MM: That’s great. I feel lucky that I learned about the red carpet through my mentors on Black-ish. Tracee [Ellis Ross] has a style that’s so true to herself, so I’ve always kept that with me too. When I’m at events, I enjoy getting to know the photographers and reporters and everyone who’ll ride with me for the rest of my career.

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JM: That's great. I used to keep my distance from photographers because when you go on the red carpet, it’s a lot of people screaming your name. It used to freak me out, but it’s best to be kind, say thank you, and get to know them. It doesn’t have to be this “artist vs. photographer” thing. You can make memories together.

MM: I feel like that's also true with stylists and designers. My stylist, Jason Rembert, is the best. I’ve been to a few fashion shows too, and I find I’m most inspired by clothes that really make a statement. My favorite outfit of yours was the Christian Siriano look you wore to the Met Gala this year [below]. I was like, “Yo, that eye wink!” So dope.

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JM: I wanted that look to be very surreal. I’m a woman who wears many hats, so I wanted that to be represented. And then, of course, I wanted my boob to wink. Christian stayed up for hours to make that happen. My favorite look of yours was your [Georges Hobeika Couture] gown at the NAACP Image Awards [below]. You looked stunning.

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MM: Aw, thanks! I liked the Romona Keveza dress I wore to the BET Awards too [below]. It was all gold, and I was like, “This is a trophy outfit.”

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JM: Yes, and congrats on your award! That meme of your face when they announced your name was so great.

MM: Ha! It’s so funny I got turned into a meme. [laughs] In terms of designers, who are your favorites to work with?

JM: I have to give a shout-out to Christian Siriano. He’s so kind. I have met designers who have amazing clothing, but the people behind the brand are homophobic, racist, or not so nice. With Christian, it’s great knowing that you’re wearing work that supports unity and inclusion.

MM: Have you always been into fashion? How did you dress at 14?

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JM: I used to wear Jordans with a Jaguars Starter jacket. I was working at Blockbuster and as a waitress. I was even a maid. I didn’t have the money, so I had to get creative in high school. I was on the cusp of finding my identity at 14. I wish I would have embraced it more and figured out earlier that thrift-store finds were cool, you know? But Marsai, you have it, girl. You're too cool for school.

MM: Ha! You're too kind. When did you realize you loved fashion?

JM: I’ve always been in wonder about fashion. I loved looking at larger than life personalities like Grace Jones, Prince, Madonna, David Bowie, and Janet Jackson. I said, "Whenever I become an entertainer, I want to make people feel like those artists made me feel." And I loved Greta Garbo too. I remember watching old movies with my grandmother and seeing her sense of style and her androgyny.

MM: Your signature look has always been suits. What has it been like to switch it up and wear more dresses lately?

JM: It was a process. I started rocking the black-and-white tuxedos when I was in Atlanta performing for, like, 100 people. When I began touring, stylists would tell me to dress more feminine. And that’s the reason I stayed in my tuxedo so long — out of rebellion. I wanted to prove that I could make it by being my authentic self. It was about proving that, as women, we can wear tuxedos, we can wear dresses, we can show skin, or not show skin. But we need to be in control of that. I love to experiment, though. Sometimes I want to be a minimalist. Sometimes I want to be extra flamboyant and wear lots of colors. I want to have a fashion line one day for girls and boys who can rock my looks and feel like they’re part of something bigger than just clothing.

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MM: I’d definitely wear your line. I’ll model for it too — hit me up!

JM: I’ll hold you to it. I can’t wait to work with you on something.

MM: Same. What’s your power outfit? I like a jumpsuit or a pantsuit.

JM: I like to go into meetings dressed like an astronaut. When I walk into the room, people’s eyes get so big. I close a lot of deals wearing my astronaut suit with a conductor hat. [laughs]

MM:Wow! I do love your hats. How many do you have?

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JM: I don’t know. My favorite is my vintage black fedora. I love wearing it tilted on the back of my head. It stays on, and people are like, “Is that a magic trick?” It makes me feel like Peter Pan.

MM: You collect hats, and I collect glasses. I just got six pairs from Warby Parker. I’ve worn my pink ones so much, they turned white.

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JM: You should come out with a glasses line! You look so pretty in them with those dimples. How did you become comfortable wearing your glasses and making them a part of your look?

MM: At first I didn’t want to wear them. But then contacts hurt, you know? So I started getting cooler glasses, and I thought, “This is dope!” People come up to me all the time and say, “My daughter wouldn’t wear her glasses until she saw you in Little or on Black-ish.” Now I have my own production company, and my logo literally has my glasses on it because that’s who I am.

JM: Marsai, you’re the coolest. I’m actually due for an eye check. And you know what? You just inspired me to start rocking glasses.