On deeply personal terms, Asian Americans are disrupting the beauty industry
Published 7th April 2021
Credit: Courtesy of Live Tinted
On deeply personal terms, Asian Americans are disrupting the beauty industry
This feature is part of CNN Style's new series Hyphenated, which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.
As a young beauty obsessive growing up in Sugar Land, Texas, Deepica Mutyala used to walk the aisles of her local drugstore absorbing details from the magazines and makeup displays that inspired her self-styled look.
"I dyed my hair blonde, I got blue contact (lenses) and I changed myself physically to fit into what was portrayed as beautiful," said Mutyala, the daughter of Indian immigrants, in a phone interview. "It took a lot of time to feel confident in my own skin. So, now that we're finally in a place where embracing your roots and culture is considered 'cool,' it's very surreal."
Today, Mutyala is at the helm of her own beauty brand, Live Tinted. And her mission is to offer customers something she never had as a teen in Texas: products that put people with deeper skin tones, like hers, at the fore.
"Originally, I called the company Deep Beauty," she said, citing the broad appeal of her color correctors and balms. "(It was a play) on my name, but also I wanted to showcase deeper skin tones. I wanted people like me to feel they were represented by this brand."
Mutyala is part of a recent wave of Asian American beauty entrepreneurs and influencers who are using their heritage and culture-specific expertise to diversify a sector that has long neglected people of color.
It's an industry breakthrough that has been years in the making -- and it's thanks, in part, to Rihanna, whose Fenty Beauty brand has demonstrated the power and profitability of cosmetics that cater to a wider range of races and skin tones. When Fenty Beauty launched in 2017, it boasted 40 shades of foundation -- then an unprecedented variety -- and it now has 50. The brand generated an estimated $570 million in revenue during its first 15 months, and the singer has since expanded into skincare products explicitly marketed as gender-inclusive.
Mutyala credited Fenty Beauty's success for opening doors for values-driven and diverse brands like Live Tinted, which launched in 2019. "There are plenty of celebrities who create their own brands, but Rihanna did it with integrity, creating products that allow people to embrace themselves," she said.
While celebrities and influencers have shaped the cosmetics industry, so too has its more diverse consumer base. Asian Americans, for example, outspend the general US population on beauty products -- by 34% when it comes to skin care -- according to NielsenIQ data from 2020.
This demand, and the influence of beauty trends championed by Asian Americans, is reflected on drugstore shelves, which now stock Japanese and Korean beauty products with ingredients like snail mucus sheet masks, for the wider market. Public figures, like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, have even espoused the benefits of "K-beauty," further raising its visibility. (In 2019, the New York congresswoman revealed her elaborate skincare regime, which involved double-cleansing and serums, on Instagram stories).
Instagram has also been instrumental in shaping the career of makeup artists, such as Patrick Ta, who developed his signature luminous look while simultaneously building a huge social media following. A fateful direct-message exchange with actress Shay Mitchell made her the first in a string of high-profile clients that includes Gigi Hadid and Constance Wu. In 2019, Ta started his own line, Patrick Ta Beauty.
"When I first started (working in makeup) at MAC, I was able to work on so many different types of skin tones and ages," Ta said in phone interview. "It really helped my career get to where it is now. Instead of transforming people, I try to just enhance the features people already have."
Another of Ta's celebrity clients, actress Olivia Munn -- who identifies as having both Chinese and European ancestry -- has repeatedly praised how he worked with her Asian features. "As an Asian American, I've always had difficulties finding makeup artists that could make me feel my best," she told The Hollywood Reporter when Ta's line launched. "Most makeup artists just do the same things that they would do on other women and (do) not know how to work on someone with both Asian and American features. But Patrick instantly understood my face. He's extremely thoughtful and meticulous."
Ta said this understanding comes not only from his evolving skills as a makeup artist but from embracing his Vietnamese American identity. "I grew up around a lot of Caucasian people in San Diego, (and I wanted) to be White. When I was first doing makeup on Asian women, I was using more of a Western style," he said. "But I am full-on Asian now. I embrace it. I follow Asian celebrities and Asian beauty trends. I try to bring Asian trends back to the US to try on Asian American people."
Ta said that, when working with clients of Asian ancestry, he avoids bronzer and uses subtler contouring products with more gray undertones. "Doing so helps to "keep the skin bright and clear," he said, adding that he also focuses on lips and cheekbones to give a "healthy, natural finish."
"I like adding (balm) and some blush to give dimension -- the skin should be kind of like a dewy dumpling," he said.
Monolids, or a "single" eyelid without a crease -- a common facial feature among Asians -- lend themselves well to cream eyeshadows, Ta said. The cream formula is particularly easy to blend, and achieves a natural look that honors the shape of a person's eye, rather than dramatically changing its appearance, he explained, adding: "Start with a light wash of color and fade up into your brow bone."
Inclusive beauty standards
Before cosmetic lines like Patrick Ta Beauty or Live Tinted, many Asian American consumers felt ignored by the conventional makeup products and techniques that were tailored to White faces. Others have reported feeling insecure, or have found that makeup artists played down their Asian features. In 2018, actress Chloe Bennett told US Weekly that artists she had worked with had tried to "open" her eyes, using makeup to make them appear bigger, rather than accentuating her natural almond eye shape.
Korean American beauty influencer Jen Chae recalls there being "absolutely nothing that catered to Asian eyes" when she was growing up in Kansas.
"There was next to no Asian community," she said in a phone interview. "I really loved reading beauty tips in magazines ... (but) we were held back by what was available. A lot of mascaras did not hold (our) lashes up. You had eyeliner smearing everywhere. The right skin tones of foundation weren't readily available. You really had to hunt for the right products."
Chae resorted to trial and error to find out which products worked with her features. Then, in 2008, she began sharing the findings on her YouTube channel, From Head to Toe. "Now, it's very well known that if you have lashes that are resistant to curl, you should use waterproof mascara, but nobody had taught me," she said.
"The best eyeliner for monolids, for instance, is a liquid eyeliner that's very waterproof. Because we have eyelid creases so close to the lash line, the natural oils in our skin end up smudging eye makeup. Before, I was testing out these pencils and wondering why it was smudging all over my face."
By early 2009, with her audience growing tenfold to 100,000 subscribers in a single month, Chae said she felt a real appetite for product recommendations and makeup tutorials. Today, her channel has more than 1.2 million subscribers.
"There were so many people, like me, who were searching for that older sister to be like, 'Hey, you should avoid that eyeliner and try this one instead,'" she said, before listing some of her favorite products, including the Perfect Strokes Matte Liquid Liner from Selena Gomez's Rare Beauty ("that one has a brush tip, not a felt tip," Chae said, "so you can get a really sharp line") and the Point Made 24-hour Liquid Eyeliner Pen by Filipino American makeup artist Patrick Starr's brand, One/Size.
"We (Asians) have always liked a sense of natural beauty ... embracing natural skin, that glowing-from-within look," Chae said. "Now, Americans (of many backgrounds) are coming around to that, culturally."
Today's landscape, with its wealth of products and more inclusive beauty standards, is, Chae said, "everything I wish I had when I was growing up."
Top image: Portrait of Deepica Mutyala.
This article was updated to clarify that Patrick Ta grew up in San Diego.