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Pure Essence: 30 Years Of Black Beauty

For 30 years Mikki Taylor has made sure black women look their very best as the beauty and cover director of Essence magazine. Now she's planning to retire. Host Michel Martin speaks with her about her career.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we talk to people who have made a difference through their work, people who have wisdom to share.

Today, we speak to a woman who for 30 years has been making sure women -especially black women - look their very best. She's Essence magazine's beauty and cover director Mikki Taylor. And having passed that 30-year milestone, she's just announced that she's retiring, sort of, and she's with us now from her office in New York.

Mikki Taylor, congratulations on the 30 years. Welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. MIKKI TAYLOR (Beauty and Cover director, Essence Magazine): Youre welcome.

MARTIN: Do you remember your first day at the magazine?

Ms. TAYLOR: Oh, my gosh. I do remember the first month, let me say that, because it was such a whirlwind. And it was more than I had ever dreamed, being able to walk in and contribute to the pages of my favorite magazine. I'd never dreamed that. In my prior career I'd been in beauty and fashion and also a model and I had modeled on the pages of Essence. But never in my dreams did I ever think that I would have an opportunity to have a say-so about how black women looked and felt about themselves.

MARTIN: Did you imagine that 30 years later here you would be?

Ms. TAYLOR: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TAYLOR: Honestly, no. But it's so - its interesting. I think in my 30 careers that to contribute to that and to watch how weve grown and stepped into what the ancestors would call arrival time, and to be children of the dream, women of the dream, and all the possibilities and the things that we have now brought into reality, it's just been awesome. And from that perspective, I could see why 30 years went by like a flash and why there was so much roll your sleeves up and get to work because these are amazing times and there's amazing contributions to be made.

MARTIN: But all the times people go for modeling, and they go into other things like, you know, retail and other things. And I'm just wondering why you were attracted to the beauty field to begin with. What is it about it that excites you?

Ms. TAYLOR: Because beauty, to me, above all industries, if you will, has such transformative power. And, you know, for me, the conversation had not really been had with women of color. Again, if you look at when Essence was born in May 1970, there was no other magazine on the newsstand that looked like us and talked to us about every aspect of our beauty. And so, certainly in light of my mother having been in the industry, working in entertainment from a beauty and style perspective, it had a great influence on me.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk a little bit more about how we think about beauty has changed over the years. As you mentioned, one of the reasons this has been so fraught for - not just for black women, but particularly for black women, is that they feel that theyve not been appreciated for their unique aesthetic.

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I think for so long, you know, black women had been like the invisible woman. And I think that it was, I guess, a matter of confusion on the part of companies on how to serve our distinct needs and desires. And that's, you know, one of my greatest roles or things that I'm proud of here at Essence, having been able to sort of lead the way and help companies understand, you know, how different we are and how easily served we are and what our distinct needs and desires are.

MARTIN: But, can I ask you, was there ever a time in your life when you did not feel you were beautiful?

Ms. TAYLOR: No, I won't say there was ever a time when I didnt feel I was beautiful. I will say there was a time that I didnt know how beautiful I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right. Okay, Missy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What about many people feel or some people feel that women are too invested in beauty and too concerned about their appearance and that that becomes its own trap?

Ms. TAYLOR: I dont agree with that. I dont think women could ever be too invested in their beauty because beauty is not, essentially, how do I look? It's really what youre about and how well you self-nurture.

MARTIN: Well, I take your point, but there are those who would challenge that analysis. I mean, I'm thinking about, for example, Chris Rock's film "Good Hair," where one of the points that he makes is that there are some black women who are so heavily invested in hair and particularly looking a certain way, having long straight hair, that they are willing to go to great lengths, including to bust their budgets to get that hair. And he raises the question, is that okay?

Ms. TAYLOR: I think that that's only one aspect of it that he looked at, and while it made for a thought-provoking documentary, I think you have to look at what else black women are invested in. And its not only their hair, though I can tell you hair is our crowning glory, but it's not only their hair that they're invested in. They're invested in their mental wellness. They're invested in their skin. They're invested in fitness. So you have to look at black women, if youre going to size us up here in this century, you have to look at all that we're invested in as it pertains to our beauty.

MARTIN: Has your sense of what beautiful is changed in any way over the 30 years?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I would say this initially starting out as a beauty editor, it was really about seeing that we ceased to be underserved and that, again, our needs and desires were met in terms of product. When I first started talking about beauty products, the products that served us could fit in the span of my two arms and now we know - I'm happy to say that that's no longer the case. But along the line, as you come to understand better who you serve and you allow yourself to not only touch but to be touched, you understand that there is a mental and spiritual component of that.

And so, I guess my - I would say that my concept of beauty developed to incorporate not only the exterior, but the internal as well, and how important it is. And that to have one without the other is really to sell yourself short. So I would say that it became broader, if you will.

MARTIN: Some fashion writers have written about the presence of women of color on the runways and some years its been feast or famine, I think is a fair point. As a former model yourself, how do you think that is going? Did you see on the fall runways this year the kind of diversity you'd hope for?

Ms. TAYLOR: I didnt see the kind of diversity that I'd hoped for. I did see diversity but I didnt see the kind that I'd hoped for. It's all information and I think we really do have to educate those that are speaking directly to us, that they have to speak the language that we understand. They have to enter the conversation with us and not talk at us.

When you dont have diversity on the runway or in your advertising, for that matter, many of the fashion ads, if you see them in newspapers and for brands and so forth, they're talking above us or talking, you know, at us but not talking to us or with us. I think we have to help them enter the conversation.

MARTIN: Well, why are we still talking about this, though? Weve been having this conversation for years. I mean, the big anniversary, I think the anniversary of Beverly Johnson on the cover of Vogue just passed in the fall and, but I mean, why are we still having this conversation?

Ms. TAYLOR: I guess we're still having the conversation because we haven't made enough noise.

MARTIN: All right. Well, whats hot for spring? Let us know. What's the hot color? Give a sister some help. Come on. Help us out.

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, the wonderful thing that's happening for spring is that after so many seasons of lip gloss, lipstick is back and womanly beauty, if you will. I like the array of nude makeup that's so fabulous and really available for women of color in hues that dont look foe or pasty on us. I like the direction that hair is going in, certainly directional parting. Lots of textures, combination textures. Shortcuts at an all-time high.

In terms of style, I like the pale palette in fashion, in terms of dove gray and nude and bisque and ivory. I also like what I'm calling Acapulco colors of coral and orange and teal and parrot green and so forth that just looks amazing on brown skin. The 80s are still with us in terms of conversation-worthy shoes, platforms and high wedges and high stilettos and all kinds of adornment, if you will. So its an exciting season ahead but it's still a time of what I call, to take an individualist approach and really put it together in a way that works for you, as opposed to becoming a designers or anyone for that matter, their carbon copy.

MARTIN: Okay, well maybe when Powerball comes in Ill be happy to do all that, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...if youre trying to keep your purchases modest, for whatever reason, and you still want to freshen up the wardrobe this spring are there a few things that you would steer people towards, for the budget conscious consumer?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I would say get one multitasking dress that works day to night and you feel absolutely fabulous every time you put it on. I would say update your wardrobe with a pair or two of shoes that will take your existing clothes into new territory. I would say make an investment in the romantic blouse that you could wear with a great trouser, that you could also pair with a wonderful pencil skirt. And by all means, get a great functional bag in a slice of a wonderful color and not a black bag.

And make sure it has a lining where you can find things because black linings you'll be - you know, it's just such a kiss of death to be digging in your bag for a business card, lip balm or what have you because it's a black hole that you can't find anything in. So those are...

MARTIN: Have you been spying on me? Have you been spying on me digging in my bag? Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TAYLOR: Ah, I'm looking right at your bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That is so wrong. Whos telling on me digging in my bag for everything? Okay. Okay. Thank you so much.

Ms. TAYLOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mikki Taylor is the beauty and cover director for Essence magazine. After 30 years there she is not hanging up her makeup kit. She tells us that she will become an editor-at-large, and she joined us from her office in New York.

And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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