David Lopez On Healing the Internet With Lashes, Lipstick, and Tons of Wigs

The celebrity hairstylist and Ulta Beauty pro talks dissecting the constructs of gender identity, one social media trend at a time.

Everybody's In: David Lopez

Courtesy of David Lopez

When David Lopez, a gay, Latinx beauty creator and mental health advocate, swipes on a new lipstick, tries out an eyeliner look, or (heaven forbid!) throws on a wig in front of his hundreds of thousands of TikTok and Instagram followers, he knows exactly what he’s doing. 

While the self-proclaimed “provocative” celebrity hairstylist and beauty pro is more than aware that his fluid gender expression is bound to start conversations with those unfamiliar with expansive identities, Lopez is incredibly mindful of the fact that each and every post shared (and every follower gained) actually holds a much deeper meaning. One of unity, and the need to feel seen.

“I think that the reason why I'm important right now is because sometimes people see themselves in me, whether it's through mental health struggles, through being queer, through being gender nonconforming, through being gay,” Lopez says of the following he’s gained in recent years. 

“​​I try to help make people feel good. And when you build confidence from a very real place, when you feel seen, when you feel included in conversations that you once felt traditionally left out of, you are then able to better process your own thoughts, ideas, and feelings in a way that's a little healthier and a little more subjective,” he continues. “And then you also build more empathy for others as you build more empathy for yourself. So, it's all cyclical.”

It’s this very impact that spurred Lopez to shift his focus away from celebrity hairstyling (after working his way up the ladder from assisting on the sidelines to taming the tresses of everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Hailey Bieber) and toward growing his social media presence in recent years — an effort that’s already paying off. In addition to his massive online presence, Lopez also currently holds multiple brand contracts and a coveted hosting gig on Ulta Beauty’s new podcast, The Beauty Of …

The more you push yourself, the more comfortable you get in those tight spaces, and the less tight they feel when you're in them.

“I'm very humbled that Ulta considered me to be the host of the podcast, redefining what beauty is and where it lives and how we consume it and express it. It feels great,” Lopez gushes of his role in the show, which is set to release its second season shortly. “It feels like a very natural next step for me because I'm a very curious person. I love getting to know people and expanding my mind. When you expand your mind, you expand your heart. And I think that that's kind of what I would hope to do with other people through my own work.”

But that’s not to say Lopez’s road has always been easy. He’ll be the first to admit that it includes plenty of reflection and unlearning of societal pressures: “I spent most of my life aligning with whiteness. I straightened my hair for 15 years. I tried to talk a certain way, dress a certain way,” he shares. It was a journey for him to be as comfortable in his own skin as he is today. 

Lopez believes that opening up about this evolution fully can inspire others to live truthfully, happily, and without bounds, all while helping himself grow at the same time. “The communities surrounding me digitally and in real life have helped me heal a lot of my own trauma and experiences and really be a mirror for me at times when I didn't want to really see my reflection,” he says. “I think that if I've helped anyone, they've helped me just as much.

InStyle spoke to Lopez about what originally sparked his interest in hair, which celebrity client he was most starstruck to meet, and the importance of doing things that scare him.

This is Everybody’s In, a celebration of people making the world a better place for everyone in 2023. You’re ‘in’ if you’re making an impact. Read on to see who’s with you.

Can you remember a moment where you first realized you had an interest in hair and makeup?

Yeah, since I was born. I don't remember a time I was not interested in the way that hair moved. I used to rip up strips of napkins into long strips — I'm talking when I was probably 3 years old — and run up and down the boardwalk in Puerto Rico, where I'm from, and hold it out the car window to watch it blow in the wind. My mom told me, everyone told me, that I've been obsessed with hair since they can remember me being alive. Even my obsession with horses when I was little was mainly because of their ponytails, their tails.

Growing up in a Puerto Rican, Latinx household and watching the power and transformation of a blowout, roller sets, and how good it made people feel and just the freedom of it … It was just so beautiful. I was just obsessed with it.

Do you have a favorite celebrity client that you’ve worked with in the past?

Oh, gosh. It's hard to say a favorite because I really have been so lucky to have worked with some amazing, talented, kind people. Obviously, Ashley Graham. I always talk about Ashley. She's not only an amazing client, but also an amazing friend. She’s really helped me a lot in my personal life, with my own level of confidence, and the intersection between what she does and what kind of I do really helped me a lot.

Working with Chrissy Teigen was a pure joy. It was a couple years of just pure fun and joy. A lot of travel. I did get to work with a ‘90s icon of mine, Tiffani Amber Thiessen, who I had named my dog after. She played Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell. Working with her was such a trip because she's just one of the most kind, warm, beautiful humans, and I used to watch her show when I was little, so it was really wild to do her hair.

Even my obsession with horses when I was little was mainly because of their ponytails,

I've done housewives before. That was really cool, to be around the housewives of New York City and see them filming the show and be at the reunions and all of that — I'm a pop culture fiend. And also doing America's Next Top Model with Ashley [Graham]. She was hosting with Tyra [Banks] that year. To watch the live deliberations and watch the models being eliminated live, it was my version of the Olympics.

Many people see celebrity hairstyling as an end goal in their career. What made you want to shift your focus away from that vein of the industry to lean more into the social media side?

I've never publicly said that I've “left” celebrity hair styling, but internally, in my very close circle, people know that I kind of have left it in a way. My social media personality and life took over and my mission and understanding of why I do what I do took over. I think what happened is is that I really started to focus on what I want to do with my career, which was to not have people feel that they aren’t included in the conversation, or that they can't feel the way they imagine celebrities feel when they have the hair and the makeup and the glam team around them. And also kind of bring a little more equity into the game, if that makes sense.

Social media was a powerful tool for me to do that. I'm very aware that I'm kind of a hot commodity right now: I'm queer, I'm Brown, I'm professional, I know how to speak, so it kind of took over. Honestly, my agent is like, "You don't even have time to do people's hair" — I'm in five different brand contracts right now on top of the social media content that I create for myself — so I just didn't have time to do it anymore. It was kind of a natural segue. It wasn't a purposeful one, but it was definitely a natural segue that happened as a result of me making an intentional choice in my life about what I do for work and how I want to present my work to the world.

Why do you think your presence in the industry is so important for representation?

For some obvious reasons, I think that I do tick a lot of boxes in terms of being Brown, Latinx, Afro-Caribbean. I talk a lot of my mental health journey, social anxiety and depression, my panic attack disorder. The point of all that is that I think that my life journey from the darkness that I've experienced has allowed me to have a lot of empathy for all kinds of people and all kinds of experiences. Now, I can bring them all together to one focal point, which is beauty, really.

We're all on a journey to love and accept ourselves before we feel that way from others, so I think that's my representation. The other thing is, let's cut to the chase, I am a 37 quickly approaching 38-year-old man. And a lot of brands that tap on gender-nonconforming people right now are 10 years, 15 years younger than me and half my size. So, I think that's important, too, as I'm getting older. I think we're all redefining what aging looks like, and I think we're redefining what age is and how far you can take it, how playful you can be, how long you can stay and be connected to your inner child.

How does it feel knowing you now get to serve as the representation for others that you may have lacked in your youth?

It feels great. I think I feel a sense of responsibility for that. I also feel that it’s actually helped me heal a lot of things for myself. The communities surrounding me digitally and in real life have helped me heal a lot of my own trauma and experiences and really be a mirror for me at times when I didn't want to really see my reflection. I think that if I've helped anyone, they've helped me just as much.

But I think that there's a lot more of us [creators] now, and I sometimes forget that there was no one like me really growing up. But I think that you kind of become the person that you wished you had seen, and that's what I think about all the time. I just really want to be the person I wish I could have seen, and I wish I had seen someone that gave me the feeling of autonomy and that messaging I could be whoever I wanted. I could express myself however I wanted. I could love all parts of myself and nothing about me was worth having shame over.

What do you enjoy most about exploring gender expression through makeup? 

I am a very provocative person. I like to push the envelope. I am a conversation starter, and I know what I'm doing when I post an Instagram. I know what buttons it's going to push, and I know that people are going to see it and like it and not like it. I know what I'm doing.

But aside from all of the social aspects and the conversation starters, I think it’s really about dissecting the constructs and the structures that we have created — they're not real. We have created these ideas of what a man is and a woman is and how they present themselves. We created this. It's all a matrix. None of it's real. I think that, for me, it's just the personal joy. I get to look in the mirror and see the version of myself that I always wanted to be. It never gets old. It literally never gets old. Just the divine energy that comes through me when I'm in the hair and the makeup and the clothing, it's literally pure magic for me, and I love it so much.

Who has been your favorite guest on The Beauty Of…?

I really have enjoyed all of them so much. I will say it was so cool to have someone like [artist and author] Timothy Goodman on the podcast, because we haven't had that many cis-male hetero people on the show. It was a very special kind of conversation and I think, as queer people, we don't always feel like we have the space to develop friendships and relationships with cis-hetero men, at least for me. 

Of course, Stacy London, that was a great conversation. She's an icon of mine. Watching What Not to Wear was something that really changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life. I was like, "I want to be on TV, and I want to have a makeover show." That's literally the end goal. I think that [author] Virgie Tovar was incredible and made me cry on the show. We had [transgender rights activist and social media star] Dylan Mulvaney who was so special. We had A.M. Darke, a professor who talks a lot about equity and beauty in the virtual space. Everyone’s been so special.

What steps have you taken to get to the point now where you feel confident and comfortable in your own skin? 

Facing the darkness. Making friends with the fear. It's been a really long journey. I have a very deep spiritual practice that I am very close with that guides me a lot. A little witchy, you could say. I have an incredible therapist and psychiatrist in my life, who both help me manage my panic disorder in a holistic way. I journal a lot. I do a lot of reflection. I'm very curious about my thoughts and my own emotions and my decision-making process. I’ve had to check my ego. I'm constantly asking myself, "Is this a decision my ego is making or my pure, pure soul is making?" 

When I say making friends of the darkness, I mean, truly, the parts of you that are the most uncomfortable. My mom always told me, and I'll never forget it, "If it scares you, you should be doing it." And I started looking at my life going, "What are the things that scare me? Oh my God, I really want to wear a wig, but it scares me. I'm going to do it." The first time I posted a photo of myself on Instagram wearing a wig, I was shaking. My hands were shaking as I hit post on Instagram. This was probably four years ago, three years ago. Shaking. I just pushed myself, and the more you push yourself, the more comfortable you get in those tight spaces and the less tight they feel when you're in them.

Was there ever a time when this wasn’t the case?

Yes, there was a long time that wasn't the case. I spent most of my life aligning with whiteness. I straightened my hair for 15 years. I tried to talk a certain way, dress a certain way, just to align myself with whiteness and heteronormativity and be the straight version of myself. I did not want to paint my nails, did not want to wear my hair curly, did not want to be seen in makeup, did not want people to know I was wearing makeup, did not want to wear heels, didn't want to dress the way I wanted to dress.

It was really BLM, the Black Lives Matter movement, that kind of broke down a lot of things for me. Not only did it really force me to face why I made certain decisions in my life and how I aligned myself to whiteness, but also the intersectionality of then, if I'm aligning myself with whiteness, am I aligning myself with the cis male stereotype? So it really broke down those structures for me a lot.

What does Everybody’s In mean to you?

Everyone belongs. Everyone deserves to be here. Everyone deserves to be happy and free and deserves to feel love and to love — not just others, but themselves. And everyone deserves to have the opportunity to be friends with the darkness in a healthy way and make peace with the past, make peace with the future, and just enjoy this beautiful planet and this beautiful home that we get to see every single day. Understand it's not always going to be easy. Everybody's in. No one's out.

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