If you’re looking to purchase from a company dedicated to bettering the world, let me introduce you to MOXIE Nail Varnish.
Actually, no, let me introduce you to the heartbeat of MOXIE: Mary Ann “EM” Kilgore, who formed MOXIE Nail Varnish with her husband, Hugh.
It was actually Hugh who emailed me, mentioning that they were a gender-neutral nail lacquer brand, and they loved what QUILL was doing, and would we want to talk?
The answer was an immediate yes. After a 45-minute introductory call, EM and I scheduled a time to really talk.
When the day came for our conversation, I was under a raincloud. There were bugs in my room that maintenance had yet to deal with; my boyfriend had just broken up with me; I was in the middle of medication changes for my bipolar.
But when EM said hello and asked about People With Periods, prompting us to talk about taking first steps in our respective businesses, my spirits quickly lifted. I walked away 40 minutes later feeling uplifted and inspired.
And to say “MOXIE” had a new meaning to me after our conversation? Well, that’s an understatement. Here’s why.
To keep things vague at her request, EM Kilgore witnessed adversity throughout her childhood, threading deep compassion and empathy throughout her identity.
So, when it came time to decide on which direction EM and Hugh wanted to take MOXIE Nail Varnish in, the Kilgore’s decided the philanthropic route was for them. It was inspired by her childhood and giving back in the ways she couldn’t then.
“Before I became a manicurist, I did hair part time while working in corporate,” EM explains, laying out her beauty industry experience for me. “In the different companies that I worked in, I would use my haircutting skills to raise money during the holidays for different charities. I would offer haircuts for $10 to all of the employees and their families, and the money would go to local organizations.”
When EM began MOXIE Nail Varnish, she wanted to carry over her philanthropic spirit. So, “each month, a new influencer collab or special product is dedicated to a community cause. Currently, we contribute to 7 organizations,” EM says.
For example: in October – right before we spoke – they collaborated with a fellow MOXIE lover to create a pink lacquer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, donating 30% of proceeds to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
“We have influencer Collabs where the influencer has an opportunity to actually create their own nail polish with a kit that I ship to them. We imprint their name directly on the bottle alongside MOXIE Nail Varnish. (October’s influencer was Jens_Ten; the varnish is called JEN.)
Another unique way MOXIE gives back: offering commission to their collaborators. For example, one woman wanted a Royal Purple lacquer with glitter. EM chose microfine glitter (it comes off the nails easier than your standard glitter), titled the deep purple “ROYAL!,” and offered the collaborator commission for three months. And, at a collaborator’s request, they’ll donate the commission to the collaborator’s nonprofit of choice instead.
No matter what, MOXIE is about giving back to people, 100%. “It is an honor to work with these awesome artists,” she gushes. “The goal is for everyone to see themselves in the way the product is presented.”
And EM Kilgore is dedicated to making sure everyone has a product that works for them, which is why the swatch team from social media is diverse in itself.
This way, they receive feedback on what colors look best on specific skin tones, as well as what colors are universal. “We can use nail polish – my passion – as a playground for everyone to feel valued, included, and respected,” she tells me. “[That’s why] I am passionate about this brand.”
The best part: you don’t have to wait a year before their next color hits the market, because they make their own nail polish in their Orange County, California manufacturing facility. Aka, when EM is inspired, “MOXIE Nail Varnish can bring new colors to our fans quite quickly.” This is another reason why fans and swatch team members are so involved in the process – what needs to be (or is highly requested) on the market is available in a short period of time.
While they did just release their first seasonal collection as an experiment driven by Nick, a member of their swatch team – “it’s an eight-shade Fall/Holiday array of shimmery brights, which can actually be worn year-round and fit in just perfectly with any season and person,” she says excitedly – EM is adamant that colors stay available. Because of this, there are currently 55 colors available, not including treatments. EM crafts every color herself.
The inspiration is versatile. “Our signature color is MOXIE!, an off-black with just a tiny touch of shimmer; that was inspired by a Tesla car,” EM laughs. And while, yes, they look at Pantone, too, true inspiration comes from the outside world.
“We really try to come up with new and different colors that aren’t focused on a particular season or trend, but rather by architecture, nature and different textiles.” And again, they also ask fans to request specific colors if they can’t find the specific shade they’d like to swipe on.
I’ve browsed the site multiple times, and I love every color I see. But as I browse it now, looking through the various blues and reds, I find myself drawn to bright orange FREEDOM. My True Colors Personality type is Orange, representing creativity; spontaneity; an aversion to authority; and bold.
I quietly make a mental note to mention this to EM.
Turns out, they started right when QUILL did, and they’re still growing in the gender neutral space (again, like QUILL). EM wanted to make sure that it was branded as for all, because in her earlier days as a manicurist, she noticed that only women-identifying individuals would come in to have their nails done.
“I made it a point to market my services to everyone, because everyone should enjoy manis and pedis,” EM says. “I feel that groomed nails are important, regardless of gender.”
EM notes that skincare lines are becoming better at marketing to men, now, by adding color correction items to men’s lines. While not outright lipstick and contour kits, it’s a step in the right direction. “I love the idea of anyone waking up and touching up a little of this or a little of that to put their best self forward,” she says. But, “why leave the nails out of the process?”
She understands that polish can be scary. While makeup can quickly be wiped off, nail polish is there – it’s a commitment. So, MOXIE offers BUFF!. “It’s a transparent tinted nail treatment with a low level of shine,” she explains. With one swipe, it covers the entire nail, giving it a healthier-yet-still-natural look.
“BUFF! is a simple introduction to anyone wanting to extend grooming to their nails,” she says. I mention that men must love it – she says yes, but reminds me that it’s for everyone. “The great thing is that people who normally don’t wear polish will get introduced to the notion of swiping something on their nails.” She pauses, eyes widening and smile growing. “Maybe the next step will be full-on red polish!” she exclaims.
Something tells me there are smaller steps in between a natural look and full-on red, but I like where EM is going with this.
Ultimately, “I am so excited to see how thinking has evolved in the past few years and how the world has become,” EM Kilgore says, as we wrap up our interview.
“We’re so much more open to new ideas in fashion, self-care, and self-expression. And I am so excited that MOXIE Nail Varnish can be a part of this evolution.”
I ask where she’s hoping the nail industry will go next. She takes a moment to think. “I look at nail polish as a medium to express one’s style. … I would love to see polished nails become a natural part of creating a look for the day, or to even be a part of total grooming for everyone.”
But for EM, it all comes back to philanthropy. “There are so many things that we’ve been touched by,” she says, and she wants to touch upon all of them through MOXIE.
Why? I ask. What about it makes it so important to her to give back?
“It feels so good. It feels right. I mean, what’s the driver?”
Megan Behnke, the founder of genderless, clean skincare brand Ralphie and Alice, Zooms in from her workshop in Southern California, about a six-hour drive south from QUILL’s headquarters.
I cannot help but immediately tell her that her skin is glowing, and she can’t help but tell me that she’s always down for a last-minute chat with another founder fighting for genderless beauty.
Our conversation lasts 30 minutes, in which we share laughs and rolled eyes and running over the other’s sentences. But my favorite part? When I ask who Ralphie and Alice are. It’s a unique name, after all, for a company.
Behnke smiles gently, divulging that the names are those of her grandfather and grandmother.
“I was raised by a single mother who was an artist. She worked all the time just to make sure that me and my siblings were taken care of,” she tells me. “And on weekends and during the summer, we would always get schlepped off to my grandma and grandpa’s house.”
Clearly, this had an effect on you, I say.
Behnke nods eagerly. “Being with them was like my happy place. It was just the best thing ever.” She starts to tear up. “Even just talking about them, I’m feeling really emotional. They’re literally my best friends!”
Having lost my remaining grandparent at 20, I often wonder what it would have been like to be close to a grandparent for this long. (Megan and I are near the same age.) How would it shape me? Would we be best friends? Would I name my company after them? If I were to go off of Megan’s experience, the answer would most likely be yes.
But there’s more to starting a brand than being lucky enough to be best friends with your grandparents, so here’s Megan Behnke’s full story. Aka, why one badass gal is revolutionizing the skincare industry by cleaning it up and demolishing gender stereotypes in the process.
Megan Behnke can only wear clean beauty products. (More on that later.)
So, like the rest of us, she loves browsing skincare aisles to see what’s out there; after all, it’s easier to “go and buy some face wash instead of having to figure out how to make it myself, but with clean ingredients.”
But the stark difference between gender identities – and only two gender identities, of course – bewilders her each time she looks at skincare products. “I can’t believe that there’s still separation by gender,” she exclaims, eyes wide. Sure, AESOP is there, but AESOP isn’t affordable to all; Jergens says they’re unisex, but women-only marketing implies otherwise. “Even the scents – the girls have the rosy, soft, flowery scents and pink packaging. Then the guys have the burly scents and aggressive names.”
She had been running Ralphie and Alice for a few years when she had the epiphany while strolling through the cosmetics aisles: “to offer a clean, gender-fluid product, one that can allow the focus to be on oneself rather than an outdated marketing tactic.”
Much of this came from her own personal experience. Previously, Behnke worked at a clothing company that primarily targets Gen Z. She was responsible for product research and design, and she fell in love with the freedom and fluidity Gen Z was exhibiting in their self expression.
“I wholeheartedly believe that they’re the people who are gonna push us through the future,” she says, naming them as her target market. Her smile grows as she glimpses away from the camera. “I just think they’re so badass. And really inspiring!”
On top of this, Behnke grew up with brothers, and she enjoyed the convenience of 2-in-1 and 3-in-1 products (again, like me. Efficiency for the win, right?). “The only thing is, they are all very, very outdated. I’ve yet to see a clean 2-in-1 or ‘multi-tasking’ product.” And again, they are mainly marketed toward men – women are still marketed an arsenal of seven different products for the same purpose.
Clean, clean, clean. I’ve dropped it so many times. But it’s not because I’m teasing you – it’s because Behnke is only just starting to talk about this herself, and she’s given me the honor of being one of the first publications to mention it in-depth.
With your promise of gentle eyes, I’ll dive in.
Megan Behnke has a one-two-punch of mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD) and lupus.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know what it was,” she confesses.
“I thought I was someone who was unlucky and always caught the flu. When it started affecting my skin, I thought I had severe acne or even eczema.” On top of that, “I was constantly getting very sick and going through a bunch of different immune system related issues.”
So she cut everything toxic out of her diet, and then she began cutting everything toxic out of her skincare. The problem: “clean” is an unofficial declaration, with no actual meaning behind it. There’s Clean at Target and Clean At Sephora, and they share similarities in terms of ingredients they exclude, but “clean” itself? You won’t find one definition online or in the Beauty Encyclopedia.
For Behnke, “clean” required being a totally vegan formula filled with healthy ingredients that benefit the skin, and absolutely zero fragrance.
Unsurprisingly, this left few options for Behnke. So, “I started cooking up products in my kitchen, one by one.” And when she made a batch that was a bit too big? “I would share it with family and friends, they’d beg for more, and that’s kind of how the ball started rolling.”
That was seven years ago. Then the epiphany in the skincare aisle happened, and Behnke was left all the more determined to start a clean, genderless skincare brand. She continues to perfect her craft, but so far, her products have multiple five-star reviews raving about the benefits of the products. Behnke credits her personal experience for the inclusion of the ingredients.
For example, her Pop Stix – a tinted lip and cheek balm – has nourishing shea butter and avocado oil, moisturizing and healing rose damask oil, and dry hibiscus for itchy and irritated skin. The Lip Stix, another popular product, has only five ingredients, which include shea butter, candelilla wax for its glide, avocado oil, rosehip seed oil for healing, and jojoba oil for moisture. The vast majority of the ingredients are organic, too.
Behnke is still learning how to talk about her illnesses. “I feel I’m at a place where I am accepting of – and strong enough – to talk about the pain and trauma that comes along with having an auto-immune disease,” she says.
“I was misdiagnosed for a long long time. And because of that, I was mentally left in limbo and physically started getting really severe pancreas issues that I continue to still deal with daily… like, every single time I eat food.” She shrugs in a way many chronically-ill people do, myself included.
On top of talking about her diseases, Behnke is taking action, too: Ralphie and Alice is currently in the process of being certified by the National Eczema Association. “We have a ton of customers who have eczema and who absolutely love the performance of our products,” she explains.
But, let’s be real: as if that’s the only way Behnke is giving back with her platform.
Meghan Behnke describes herself as an empath.
“That’s another thing that I’m extremely passionate about: just, helping people. I don’t like seeing people struggle or even hearing of people struggling.”
So, not only is she providing clean products to the world, talking openly about a diagnosis that has impacted her life significantly, and still fitting in time to spend with her family and friends (this entire time, Behnke has been radiating adorable joy in a Betty Boop T-shirt, post-niece play-session; “it’s anti-fashion,” she jokes) – she’s also a philanthropic fiend.
Behnke rallies her community to make change every month. “Our community picks a theme or the issue that they want to raise awareness and money for, and we work with customers who are graphic designers to come up with a nice design.” They then sell the apparel exclusively for 10 days, though Behnke notes they’re hoping to sell all designs on a regular basis.
“At Ralphie and Alice, we’re not just making a post online because it’s Pride Month or Black History Month. We work towards being year-round allies, doing our part in educating, connecting, and raising money,” she says. As someone who has worked for places both performative and genuine in their activism, I can tell Behnke means what she says. It’s yet another reason why our meeting feels kismet.
“Kismet,” I repeat silently to myself: a perfect word to fit in the article title.
My emails with Behnke the day before official feature month begins changes the title significantly. Here’s why.
We are nearing feature week, and I have excitedly sent an email to Megan Behnke about it.
The response I get breaks my heart: they lost dear Ralphie less than a week before.
But, she says, she’ll rush to get Ralphie and Alice assets to me by EOD.
I tell her to take a week. Celebrate his life and grieve, and QUILL will be right here when she’s ready to have the feature go live. She thanks me, and we agree to talk in a week.
In this past week, I considered starting the article multiple times, but I put it off the second I sat down at my computer. I was distracted by anything and everything else. It wasn’t quite avoidance, so what was it?
And then, thinking about the way she talked about Ralphie, it hit me; her relationship with him reminds me of the one I have with my mom. And even though the OG Siri, as I like to call her (her name is literally Siri), is alive and kickin’, it’s crossed my mind once or twice that my hero won’t live forever.
So, as I sit down to write this article the night before, I want to dedicate this piece to everyone’s Ralphie, whoever they may be. A Ralphie that believed in you, took care of you, and loved you unconditionally, right until the very end.
And I want you, dear reader, to know that you are their Megan, who was lucky enough to have loved them right back.
I’m not going to lie: I’m nervous when Ghost Democracy founder Rex Chou appears on my screen for our Zoom conversation.
He seems relaxed, but his demeanor is hard to read. It’s nothing he’s done, and entirely my nerves and slight intimidation.
But I’ll cut to the chase: Chou is one of the funniest, wittiest, best “brain dumpers” I’ve met. He speaks his mind but is never mean, jokes but never with malice, and says what he believes with conviction. It’s admirable, really, and I feel extremely blessed to be having this conversation… Until I drop that I have no skincare routine.
But the response I get? Not what you’d expect. But let’s start the story, first.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Rex Chou was supposed to be a suit-and-tie businessman. He went to college for finance and had plans to work on Wall Street. Well, loose plans – he ended up at L’Oreal for a marketing opportunity instead. “I was like, that sounds fun. I’ll do that for a couple of years,'” he starts.
And then a couple turned to 12. “Beauty is something that everyone can relate to, even though the word beauty makes people think, ‘oh, that’s just a women’s industry.’” He laughs. “Guys also sometimes don’t want to leave the house when they have a huge pimple on their nose, you know?”
His love for working in the beauty industry took him all over – New York, Madrid, London – and then, when he got tired of moving every three years, he found himself in New York again. This time, however? He had an opportunity to launch his own brand on the West Coast. Why not give LA a shot? (Time to pick up and move again.)
“We saw the growth of cosmetics during social media; skincare, not so much,” he says. And when people were suddenly obsessing over what’s in their laundry detergent and what they eat and what’s “clean,” Chou says “skincare had really been driving the growth.”
While there is no one definition of “clean” in beauty, there are guidelines that lend themselves to the term. And while clean skincare is now blowing up, “when you walk into Sephora, everything is millennial pink. It’s light, pastel pinks, very feminine, very untouchable, everything’s $90 to $120,” he says.
“I felt that there was an opportunity for a clean skincare brand that was effective to look different, act different, speak to consumers in a different way, and also be gender neutral, because guys are starting to care about their skin as well.”
After working in beauty for so long, Chou was also aware that “skincare consumers are exceptionally smart and they do their research.” He didn’t want to lead them astray or provide them with a false sense of security and knowledge when they applied his products.
“There are big brands that are like, ‘oh, this is a vitamin C moisturizer.’ But really, when you look at the ingredient label, they put one drop of vitamin C in it, and you’re paying for filler ingredients,” Chou says, rolling his eyes.
So, clean skincare that was transparent. Got it. But branding… how do you say you’re one of the first without saying you’re one of the first? How do you stick out among so many other clean brands that claim they’re doing something that you are… when they aren’t actually doing it?
Answer: go against the grain and be unique.
“Skin and beauty brands tend to shy away from blue because they’re afraid that people will think, ‘oh, it’s only for nighttime,’ or, ‘oh, it’s for guys.’ And I think we’re way beyond the binary now,” Chou tells me. So, he ran with his love for the color blue, rather than the whites and Glossier pinks you’re so used to seeing.
“I wanted it to be inclusive,” he explains. “I think that my target consumer is the intelligent, conscientious person who’s looking for quality. My consumer is someone who doesn’t care about levels of masculinity. They just want something gender-neutral.”
And then there was the name. “It was the hardest thing,” Chou laughs. “I was like, ‘what’s clean and transparent?’ The first thing that came to mind was ghost. And I thought, ‘that’s weird, but I’ll stick with it because I think a ghost could be cute, and it’s also transparent.’”
And cute they made it – each bottle has a little ghost on it, and the tissue paper within the packaging is dotted with adorable little transparent guys.
Okay, ghost. Cute ghost. Where did democracy come from?
“My mission is to democratize clean skincare and make it more accessible to more people,” Chou says. “It shouldn’t just be reserved for the elite. I don’t think it should only be for Gwyneth Paltrow, you know? It should be much more inclusive,” he declares. He had a goal of democratizing skincare, and… wait, there it is.
Democratization was too intense, so he ran with Ghost Democracy – weird, but usable, at least temporarily. “Then, as I floated it around the office and with some friends, they’re like, ‘ghost, what?’ And that’s exactly the reaction that I wanted.”
So, the name stuck. With brands like “Green Pure” running the clean circuit, “now we’ve got this bold brand that’s blue. That has a weird name,” Chou says excitedly. So, when his target consumer is mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, they’re immediately drawn in. “It’s kinda like ‘ghost what? and they sell what?’ and then they click through, and that way you break through the clutter.”
It’s breaking through the binary. It’s breaking through the barriers. And it’s also breaking through the bullshit.
I mention to Rex Chou that skincare has become oddly inaccessible, even when the price is almost too nice. The Ordinary is the brand I bring up as an example – it’s ridiculously affordable, but its wording is not. Or there are the fun, lighthearted, easy-to-understand brands that charge $18 for a 0.13-oz. lip balm (cough looking at you, Drunk Elephant).
“[Ghost Democracy] talk[s] a lot about ingredients. We educate a lot. We are very straightforward and we say exactly what the ingredient is, and what it does,” he responds. “We cut all that romance copy, because no one has time for that fluff anymore, and I think that consumers are smarter than that.”
I reflect on our conversation so far and how many times Chou has complimented consumers of skincare and beauty in general. Whereas some brands utilize trickery like a strength, Chou relies on his experience in the beauty industry – what works, what doesn’t – and, with help from his investors, does what he thinks will best serve the consumer.
Why is he so dedicated? It’s simple: “because, ultimately, everything I do is for the consumer,” he says point-blank.
Coming back to the education: Ghost Democracy combines the best of both inaccessible worlds to create a ridiculously-accessible line.
“My target consumer just wants great, simple, straightforward skincare, and doesn’t have time to mix eight different products. But yeah, you don’t need to say it works on the lower level of the epi– no. Just tell me what it does and what my skin’s gonna look like afterward. Let’s start from there,” he says, and I snap at the camera. He’s saying what many beauty consumers are saying: we’re smart, we care, but we don’t necessarily know what every product on a bottle is unless you tell us what it is, as well as what it does.
This vision of his consumer guides his process. “The way that I approach product design is, ‘Hey, I wanna make the best hyaluronic acid serum. This is exactly what I want to put in it. I also want it to be soothing. So let’s put 4% niacinamide in it,’” he tells me, outlining the process. While first submissions usually aren’t so great, they work through them until they have a formula that meets his and the brand’s standards, “rather than going ‘hey, I only have $2 to make this formula – what can you put in it?'”
Each bottle has every active ingredient listed front and center, so you know exactly what you’re putting on your skin, and each ingredient serves a purpose. All products are fragrance-, essential oil-, dry alcohol-, silicone-, and paraben-free, as well as vegan and cruelty-free. High quality is of the utmost importance to Chou.
In fact, he divulges to me, “when I first approached the labs, they were like, ‘these are the most restrictions we’ve ever had.’ And I said, ‘yeah, because I want it to be really, really clean. Take out all of that nonsense filler and replace it with active ingredients that work. But don’t irritate the skin.’”
So uh, yeah, the products are clean, in case you couldn’t tell.
He tells me that it matters so much to him to make the formulas correctly because he loves hearing what they’ve done for people.
“That’s what gets me up in the morning every day: reading reviews that say things like, ‘oh my God, I’ve never used a vitamin C that didn’t burn my skin. This is amazing.’ Or, ‘Oh, my God. It’s only been three days and I have already started to see results, what is in this?’’
It’s here where I have to ‘fess up to Rex Chou. I don’t want to, but I have to. That vitamin C serum I asked for, which he sent to me… along with the cleanser, moisturizer, and hyaluronic acid serum?
… It’s the first I’ve ever owned. I’ve never had a skincare routine.
I prepare for the outrage. The apocalypse. A bloodbath between those who would die for skincare and those who still use soap – if anything at all.
Okay, dramatic, yes. But a skincare founder being told, “hey, you sent me this nice stuff, and I don’t know what to do with it?” Not the best feeling.
Rex Chou is excited.
So excited, in fact, that he walks me through the entire routine, so I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s so obvious that he loves this, as he recites the ingredients in each product without looking and explains what they do. “I can’t wait for you to just start this skincare journey,” he says, smiling.
He tells me about how the vitamin C serum. That filler? None here – the vitamin C serum only requires a few drops for your entire face, because it’s one of the few on the market that’s entirely waterless. Still, it won’t burn your skin or irritate the epidermis – Chou made sure of that.
He also loves “slathering” on Ghost Democracy’s hyaluronic acid – like, uses an entire pipette to slather it on – because it calms, plumps, and makes your skin dewy.
Chou isn’t wearing any of his products, as I had called for an early meeting on his day off. (Sorry, Rex.) But he is absolutely glowing, only emphasized when he moves closer to the camera. “You can see, it just naturally gives your skin that moisture that it loses.”
Chou is glowing, yes, but it’s more than a healthy slathering of hydration – he also emanates joy as he talks about Ghost Democracy, and it comes through in his skin’s radiance. The twinkle in his eye and huge smile are small indicators, as well.
I ask Rex Chou what’s next for Ghost Democracy: adding more products? Growth? Just chill’ and seeing what happens?
One thing is certain: it’s not to rush to put out 20 new products, something most skincare companies can’t relate to.
“If I see opportunities in the portfolio, great, but at the same time, If I don’t see that something makes sense necessarily – for example, an acne spot treatment – I’ll always recommend another brand that I trust,” he says. “Ghost Democracy is all about simplicity and we really believe in our core values, and part of that simplicity is not being a brand that has 80 products.”
Not having 80 products means being at odds with other rapidly-growing skincare companies. But it also gives Ghost Democracy the chance to better their line – including when it comes to sustainability. “We’re focused on improving our existing products, improving our sustainability, our carbon footprint, everything that we’re doing, we want to do better before we start to branch off and launch body care or hair care and other things.”
Plus, with conversations opening up between brands and consumers – “it’s a two-way conversation and they do want to know who’s behind the brand” Chou says of consumers – Ghost Democracy is also focused on nurturing relationships with its current customers, not just promoting to potential customers.
“I think it’s just getting the word out, speaking to people like you, and partnering with other people and getting the word out about our little brand,” he smiles. “It’s not about being everything to everyone. It’s about being the best for whatever that person needs from our brand.”
Speaking of which. I call Chou the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain of Ghost Democracy – I had to google and find him on LinkedIn to reach him, I couldn’t just click on the “About” on the site. Is this on purpose?
“I have a story to tell, but I wanted the brand to really be front and center. I didn’t want to be a founder brand,” he says. I reflect on other unmentioned brands that sell with a face, rather than with a product. He emphasizes: “I do wanna share my story of how it is being a man in the beauty industry, what it means being queer in the beauty industry, and also what it means when you don’t really see a lot of Asian people in the boardroom.”
To see a person who is not your stereotypical skincare consumer (though that is changing!) NOT actively try to prove themselves as experts (or as a Rexpert, as I refer to him in my review of his skincare products), is a breath of fresh air. Instead, it’s exciting to watch someone come in and say, “I have the skills, the accolades, and I’m gonna do this right” without plastering their face everywhere, or resorting to gaudy, inaccessible marketing practices.
“I don’t believe in flying influencers out to Morocco to take a selfie for a new product launch. I want to use that money and put it into my formulas to give the best quality to my consumers,” he says adamantly. “Whatever your economic situation is, it shouldn’t prevent you from feeling confident.”
I tell him that Ghost Democracy is changing the game, because affordable, effective, informative, high-quality skincare isn’t really out there.
He smiles and looks down, glow coming out in full force when he looks back up and meets my eyes.
“Thank you,” he says, genuinely. And then: “I’m really glad that Ghost Democracy is able to be a part of that.”
Thank you to Rex Chou for taking the time to talk with Tess. Follow Ghost Democracy on their Instagram, and learn more about their products on their site!
My AirPods have – naturally – died right before my Zoom conversation with UN_DID’s Romi Dasani.
I have also pulled a paranoid all-nighter in order to make the 8 am meeting. Dasani is in the United Kingdom and extremely busy; the last thing I want to do is reschedule this meeting because I slept through my alarm.
I have been excited about this phone call for a long time. My sleep deprivation fails to hide this excitement, and Dasani kindly recognizes it.
“I’m loving the energy! It’s evening for me here at the moment. So it’s giving me the boost that I need for the day,” he smiles.
His evening plan sounds extremely relaxing: finish this call (the last of many), have a drink, and write in his notebook. “I’m gonna write and structure my thoughts,” he says. Creating a plan for the next day helps him wind down, because he can sort out priorities, “go all in on that, and everything else can just wait for the time being.”
I look at my desk and realize my own notebook isn’t there, and that I haven’t known where it is for… longer than I’d like to admit. The notebook is MIA.
Dasani’s comment inspires me to make a mental note to locate it. But for now, I go all in with this interview and begin with the big questions.
UN_DID is UK-based skincare brand, offering the “money wash” cleanser and “meltdown.” balm. The brand was born because Dasani was sick of seeing performative activism in the beauty industry. As someone from the LGBTQ+ community, the rainbow flags and Pride celebrations that appeared in June but disappeared in July were frustrating.
“The struggles and the fight for LGBTQ+ people don’t stop after July. It doesn’t end there,” he says, and I nod in strong agreement. “It’s an everyday kind of challenge and it’s an everyday conversation. So there were just some kinds of things that didn’t necessarily sit well with me,” he says.
Then there were the companies that, forward facing, appeared to be extremely progressive. But behind the scenes, it was a different story. “It was so contradictory,” Dasani tells me, “because I’m like, how can you speak to different types of communities if you don’t have those people internally telling you, or advising you, or guiding you, and giving their thoughts?”
It reminded him of a time he was at a previous workplace, when a coworker approached him in the lunch area. She told him to look around, and he did… unsure of what he was looking for.
“She said, ‘have you realized we are the only two people of color in this whole building?’ It was a light bulb moment,” he says. And while things have improved, years later, that interaction has stuck with him.
It took time, but the culmination of realizations and resulting feelings about the performative activism and the homogeneous culture behind the scenes encouraged Dasani to start UN_DID.
“The name UN_DID is obviously a play on ‘undo,’ and the whole concept is around undoing these kinds of stereotypes; undoing and instead trying to create this authentic, really cool, safe space where every gender, every kind of ethnicity, however you identify as a human being, as a person, can feel that there’s something there.”
Dasani has lit up as he tells me this, explaining the backstory. He smiles a little wider before saying, “…But that’s quite a heavy message, so I wanted to do it in a really fun, sexy, playful – just, a lighter way that people can instantly get that kind of warm, fuzzy feeling. That way, that message is delivered in a positive way.”
And fun, sexy, playful it is. Orange is the dominant color, bright and bold; the titles of the products are lowercase, with periods at the end. It’s all very sexy, very cool, very attractive to the eye. Throw in a backward “D” in “UN_DID,” and playful is an understatement.
The messaging is also on point: look at the product descriptions, and the amount of play on “UN” is impossible to miss. For example: “UN_believable? believe it!” describes their money wash, a cleanser for all skin types.
Dasani has created this brand all on his own, but “I lean on experts. I lean on freelancers. I lean on agencies to help me bring some ideas to life,” he says. And in doing so, he brings in diversity – diversity he believes other brands are neglecting.
“I did a big brand photoshoot about two, three months ago, and everyone who was there, models, people working behind the scenes included, were from a diverse background,” he says. “It’s important to represent behind the scenes as well, so you’re giving other people opportunities, and that’s what the brand stands for.”
So, fun, sexy, heartfelt, diverse, and inclusive are all at the heart of it. But why? Why does this man find it so important?
Well, it’s close to his heart, too.
Romi Dasani created a message directed to the world… but also to himself.
When I ask why he created his own skincare company rather than simply bringing this insight to a company he was already with, he pauses and thinks.
“For me to break away from [my culture’s stereotypes] and actually show that as a very proud, gay, Indian, British man, I can do this and I can break all of that kind of taboo… then it will hopefully start opening up more conversations,” he explains. Rather than being a doctor or lawyer, for example – something expected of him – he turned to entrepreneurship.
“There are so many people who are hustling and have creative ideas and want to change things,” he divulges. But there’s no competition, no edge to his voice. Instead, he sounds encouraged, excited by the prospect of so many ideas coming to life all at once.
“It has to start from somewhere and that’s why I wanted to do it by myself: to prove to myself that I could, and to show and represent myself as well to other people,” he says.
He wants it to be bigger than himself, though. “I want somebody else to be like, ‘he did it. He did it. I can do this.’ It’s setting that example: you don’t need to live in that box,” he shares.
“I identify in three different ways: I have an Indian heritage – that’s how I grew up, but I am British. I grew up in England, but I also identify as gay. So for me, this whole process is the idea of bringing together three identities,” he explains. “And it’s not about one being better than the other or one overtaking the other, it’s about: how am I bringing those three things together in my own way?”
Dasani genuinely embraces the differences that make us who we are. He doesn’t use it to build sales or “relate” to an audience he doesn’t actually relate to.
“Some past companies that I’ve been in, they would talk about [diversity and inclusion] because they wanted to win over the community and create a larger community, larger fan-base,” he says. But it would return in sales, and where it returned in sales was where the diversity and inclusion stopped. The same went on internally; as long as sales were up from the “marketing checkbox” of diversity and inclusion, the team stayed the same.
Which is why Dasani regularly asks himself of UN_DID: “How are we showcasing diversity? Not just externally to our customers, and our amazing community. But how are we showing it internally?”
As he mentioned, he leans on outside support. And looking at UN_DID’s website, with so many identities, ethnicities, races, all in gender-neutral clothing, the authenticity of his mission is clear.
Romi Dasani also takes sustainability and philanthropy into consideration.
The formulas are vegan and Leaping Bunny Certified; they use glass wherever possible; all shipping materials are made from 100% recycled materials; packaging like tissue paper and stickers are part of an eco-alliance; and all secondary packaging is fully recyclable. So that guilt? You can let it go and know that the brand is working around the clock to be as sustainable and clean as possible.
I’m thrilled by this sustainability, but I’m even more wowed by the dedication to supporting nonprofit organization akt. Dasani is practically bouncing when he starts talking about it.
“For our partnership with akt, we give 5% of sales of every product. It’s not of profits, it’s of the sale, which is more, and that’s of every single product sold,” he expresses. “And that is every day. It’s not just, ‘we’re doing a spotlight for it now because it’s a great moment to talk about the partnership during Pride.’ I wanted to be authentic, show that it is not just for Pride. It is every single day.”
I reflect on his previous statement, regarding companies that fail to realize the LGBTQ+ struggles exist outside of June. The companies that only give back profits of rainbow eyeshadow palettes. The companies that refuse to have a conversation when July begins.
“akt is about helping [LGBTQ+ people] progress and be self-sufficient and move forward with their own lives. akt works with specific faith groups, because akt are not the experts, who then help bring families together, if that’s what is needed,” Dasani explains. “Or if a person needs to be removed from the home situation, then they have their own housing. Or they help with life skills – they can help write CVs and prepare people for job interviews.”
I back up: faith. I know of many people who were part of a faith that prohibited them from living their lives. Dasani tells me that akt can help those “consolidate in their own mind what it means to be a gender identity or a particular sexual orientation with the faith background.” He looks at me with a gripping intensity – not joy, but depth. “It’s not about rejecting the faith background. It’s, how do you bring those two things together?”
He stops abruptly, then smiles sheepishly: “I could go on and on, there are so many services. I hope I’ve said everything. I should reach out to my contact there and be like, ‘did I say everything right?’”
The fact that Dasani has given back and is so passionate… well, why?
“No young person should ever feel at risk at home where it should be a safe environment. And I speak from personal experience.”
He divulges further: “my home situation hasn’t been good because of those same reasons. But luckily, I was self-sufficient by that point. But some of these young people are not as fortunate as I was.”
There’s a quiet moment, quick but noticeable. Then he continues: “I’m really happy that I can do even a small bit, whether that’s a small contribution or raising awareness.”
My admiration only deepens.
When I ask Dasani the second-to-last question – what do you hope to see in the beauty industry in the next few years? – this 13+ year veteran of the industry has an immediate response.
He’s positive, at first. With no criticism in his voice, he says he’s proud of where the industry is headed. “For the last two and a half years, I’ve seen the evolution and the change in beauty brands. And it’s been really good, actually.” I’m surprised by this answer, because many people to whom I’ve asked this question are critical right off the bat.
Dasani tells me, “I’ve been really excited that people are talking about things like diversity and inclusion and creating accepting spaces and creating safe zones. The diversity of our community can really be truly represented and shine and just be champions of that.”
However, he notes, the voices aren’t loud enough. They aren’t as consistent or strong in their beliefs as they should be, if they want to be true allies to the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’d like to see more boldness and more confidence in what [brands are] saying and what they’re doing, because if beauty brands take a stance, they stay confident in it; it can then inspire change in all of the community, I think,” he tells me. “Don’t get me wrong, brands are speaking out, but I think it needs to be more vocal.”
I ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to get in before we end our conversation. After all, I need to let him get to a drink and that notepad list of priorities.
He says yes.
“No one is just one thing. No one identifies just in one way. Everyone is very complex and everyone is so rich and beautiful and that’s what makes everyone amazing,” he says. It’s the uniqueness, the individuality that brings balance and interest to the world, ultimately.
“I think that’s the nuance of UN_DID. There are different things inside of you and that’s great. It’s how you bring those things together. That’s the beauty of it.”
It’s the perfect way to end a conversation with a man who sees diversity for what it is: absolutely beautiful.
We wind down our conversation, and I thank him for his time. After he hangs up, I simply want to nap. The all-nighter has hit me hard, and I’m ready to crash. But first? I locate my notebook and outline the day’s activities, circling the priorities.
And suddenly, I understand the weight lifted off Dasani’s shoulders when a plan has been made. I curl up and snooze for the next few hours with that same weightlessness.
Thank you to Romi Dasani for taking the time to speak with QUILL. You can find UN_DID on Instagram, and check out their site. Head to akt to learn more about the nonprofit.
Bryan – aka the über-popular TikTokker, Bryan The Diamond – and I are joking about trauma.
Well, not about the trauma itself, but about how trauma builds character, whether you want it to or not. He’s been through plenty; plenty that I won’t repeat here, because it’s not my story to tell.
What I can tell you? His fabulous answer to my infamous opener: “Who are you?”
He rambles a bit, telling me about his life, but it’s what he settles on that, I think, fully encapsulates why Bryan has millions of followers – sorry, besties – across platforms:
“When you ask who I am, I guess I’m just… a ride or die. I’m a person who cares.”
And as we continue talking, it’s clear to me that he is just that.
Bryan grew up in Orlando, Florida. He didn’t have the most positive experience growing up. “I just went through a lot of things that would kind of minimize me,” he says. “That’s what I was used to growing up. I was very minimized by everyone around me.”
He’s not being minimized anymore – during our phone call, he looks fabulous, wandering around his current place of stay and filming content with friends. (I don’t ask who, though a part of me is dying to know.) And though he’s not yelling, he’s talking loudly at the camera. I don’t need to ask why; he jumps into an explanation.
“So when I first started doing TikTok, you noticed I yelled a lot,” he says. Yes, I did notice this, I say. Turns out, “It’s literally because I got accustomed to yelling in my life, because no one would ever listen to me.”
It was the constant feeling of being minimized and silenced, coupled with the trauma, that led Bryan to YouTubers. “They would make me feel better because of all of the hate I would get in school. They’re making videos and I’m part of their life and it makes me feel so included.”
Bryan attempted to practice what his content creator idols preached. At school, he made sure that no peer was sitting alone at lunch, “because you don’t have to sit by yourself, you know?” He was, essentially, determined to create the environment for others that he’d desired having for himself. And as he continued to fill his lunch table, his dream continued to develop: becoming an influencer someday.
As he says, watching his creators made him realize that he wasn’t alone, despite the hurled insults and trauma. “I would always think, ‘damn, there are people that are literally doing exactly what I’m doing right now. And possibly going through even worse,’” Bryan tells me.
So, Bryan decided to take on TikTok. And suddenly, he was a sensation, doing exactly what he’d hoped to do. A large reason: the people on the other side of his screen.
Bryan refuses to call his followers “fans.” Instead, they’re his “besties.”
“My besties are like family to me. They wake up and they go on my page. They go and they check up on me,” Bryan gushes to me. “At VidCon, I literally told my manager and all my friends, ‘we need to go out there. I need to find my besties.’” His besties’ reactions were a full circle moment for him. “I never thought I’d have people excited to meet me. They make me feel loved,” Bryan says.
And Bryan gives back just as much energy as he receives. While we’re accustomed to seeing bored celebrities with half smiles in fans’ pictures, Bryan believes in bringing his entire self to each interaction.
“I refuse to ever give someone that supports me low levels of energy, because that’s not what they deserve. No matter how tired I am, it’s what I do. And it’s what I like.”
It all comes back to those moments in the cafeteria. “All my encounters with my besties are really in-depth. I feel like it’s a blessing that I have people that actually like me, ‘cause I didn’t have that many growing up,” he tells me.
It’s a quiet admission, one that makes my heart ache. But Bryan quickly dives further into his love for his following. “I just care about everything in their lives, even the little things. Some of them have issues at home and they’ll DM me and ask me for help or advice on what they should do. And I always just talk to them and try to motivate them,” Bryan says, and I can tell he’s genuine. “It’s a really big thing to me.”
This is partially because of Bryan ultimate goal: to be a voice for those who can’t speak up. He wants to use his platform for good – and forever. “I tell my manager all the time: this is a thing I’ll be doing until the day I die. That’s how dedicated I am to my besties,” he says.
He shares stories with me about encounters, gives me a scroll through a collage of photos from VidCon. He looks thrilled in every single picture, as if he’s the one meeting the celebrity with over five million followers on TikTok alone.
“It’s really cool that, even though people might hate me online and they might be really mean to me, I also have that group of people that thinks ‘this kid’s not that bad.’”
It’s here where I stop Bryan for a second and call attention to his nails. They’re decked out and took eight hours to complete. They’re really, really f*cking gorgeous. I mention how QUILL got its start with nail polish, and how QUILL has evolved into a full platform advocating for gender inclusivity in the beauty industry. Bryan immediately jumps on it.
“I wear nails and I’m a man. You can tell me that they’re for women. However, I paid for them, so when you start paying for my nails, then you can talk,” he says, and I give a dramatic snap to the camera in response.
He continues: “Makeup is not something that should ever be tied to a gender. Like, we can touch up whenever we want. My best friend wears a tinted moisturizer – what’s wrong with that? This is not an era where makeup is just for women Men can use makeup as well,” he finishes.
I ask him if he has any favorite makeup, or if he has a skincare routine he can’t give up. He admits that he has a lot to learn with makeup, but that he loves skincare – lip care, especially. So much so, he pulls out his three favorite products: Drunk Elephant’s Lippe Balm, Neutrogena’s lip gloss, and Total Hydrate chapstick. He tells me how to use them for the perfect pucker.
And the secret to not breaking out? Nope, not Tatcha – the affordable, customized Curology. “I tried it for a full month. I love it,” he tells me.
Neutrogena, Curology… am I talking to a TikTok influencer, or a real person? Bryan is showing me that you can be both.
As we end the interview, I ask Bryan if he has anything he’d like to say. It’s extremely eloquent: “The most loved people are also the most hated people. It just means you’re doing something that’s worth talking about,” he tells me.
I agree – but is any press really good press? What about the press that points out flaws, or that simply criticizes him? Bryan doesn’t bat an eyelash. “I always want to be held accountable, but I think it’s important to help people grow and learn instead of trying to tearing them down,” he says.
On that note, what’s next for Bryan?
“I started when I was almost 21, and I feel like my besties and I are growing together. So, I want to continue to share my life with my community and give them a closer look into my world.” He plans on doing this with longer clips on Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.
Ultimately, though? It’s all for the besties.
“I hope one day I get the opportunity to meet all of my besties; it’s very important to me,’ he says. He smiles widely and nods.
“At the end of the day, who am I without them? I’m nothing.”
Thank you to Bryan for taking the time to speak with QUILL. You can follow Bryan on Instagram and TikTok.
Hairstory’s Wes Sharpton doesn’t give me a chance to ask a question after I open with “Who are you?”
Instead, Sharpton launches into his full story. Who he is, how he got to Hairstory, the history of Hairstory, and where they are now.
It’s like he’s practiced telling this tale, the way it flows so naturally. I follow along easily, lost in his descriptors.
But I don’t laugh. No, I tear up multiple times instead throughout the hour-long journey.
When he gets to the end, he mumbles that he’s sorry for “blabbing” on. I tell him it’s fine; I only have two questions now, anyway.
“Sure,” Sharpton says, nodding. I don’t know what he expects me to ask; maybe something about Hairstory, or a detail he left out. But it’s clearly not these two questions.
Have I piqued your curiosity? Good. Here’s Wes Sharpton’s story, from humble beginnings to Hairstory.
“My friends and I would always joke: I’m the original country queer. And that’s where my story started.” It’s a succinct intro, but Wes Sharpton makes it seem like the easy way to start the story.
Sharpton grew up in Oklahoma in the ‘90s, before he had the resources that we do now for the LGBTQ+ community – and when the state was extremely conservative regarding gay rights. “It was feeling like there weren’t enough of us in people’s homes yet to really like that I could feel…” He searches for the right word, eventually landing on: “safe.”
I quietly listen to him describe his strategies in school: taking different paths throughout hallways to get through class, never following the same one, because there was a lack of safety in familiarity. “I thought ‘if I am in this space and I keep doing the same thing every day, someone’s gonna notice my path to get to class and that’s gonna make me vulnerable to being beat up, or something like that.’” He shrugs. “It’s what you had to do to survive.”
There was more strategy; making friends with those who could indirectly, unknowingly protect you. It helped Sharpton develop his “people smarts,” something he takes pride in.
“I think many people in my position had to get smart and quick! And we had to move in a way for survival, right? We had to be a little strategic for our own safety, like, ‘who do I need to align with to be protected?’” I didn’t come out until 24; the thought of dodging and befriending solely for strategic reasons makes my stomach churn.
But Sharpton says it so casually, no shock factor attached to the words. As he says, “it sounds awful, but it was just the way that we had to navigate the world in that place, at that time.”
But through the media, Sharpton knew there was more out there for him, more than what conservative Oklahoma had to offer him. There was space for him. Space where he didn’t have to be strategic.
“I just had an inkling in my mind: ‘there’s gotta be a place. There’s gotta be a place where not everything is like Oklahoma. I’m not gonna always have to change paths. I’m not always gonna have to switch gears. I can have a routine one day without fear.’”
A routine is something most youths take for granted through their adolescent lives. They wake up, quickly scarf down breakfast, go through the motions in school, and continue on to extracurriculars, or to do homework, or to visit friends, or to simply rest at home. And it happens every day. Rinse, wash, repeat. There is no strategy involved.
Sharpton did not have this luxury. But he did have those dreams of a better place.
“Growing up gay, poor, having learning disabilities… These are all challenges, but there is a gift in these obstacles: imagination,” he says, smiling. “The idea of seeing and training your mind to imagine something that isn’t quite there yet in reality is such a valuable gift.
“I could have a bigger vision of myself than others could, because I could imagine things that had not existed in the world yet, as we know them.”
He eventually made it out of Oklahoma. Here’s how.
After escaping school and its lack of consistency, Wes Sharpton gravitated toward fashion.
This is where I tear up for the first time.
“Can I be honest with you? Really honest,” he asks me. I say yes, of course, please.
“For me, my otherness was in the fashion world, which I believe I gravitated to because it wasn’t a place I belonged…” Sharpton pauses and looks at me.
“I never felt beautiful. I never felt pretty in my own skin. And I thought, if I can’t really have it myself, at least I can be a part of it. At least I could have a piece of something beautiful.”
My heart lurches to my throat. I swallow down the lump. Be professional, I tell myself.
Sharpton continues on after telling me his secret about his experience at a “cheap” cosmetology school, where he learned the details of makeup and hair care. He had assumed he was going to be a makeup artist, but after being invited to a hair show – “which is really where people stand on a platform and cut hair” – he was drawn to the hair world.
“I thought, ‘dang, these people are cool…. Maybe there’s a space where I could do this.’ And then I started to cut hair. I ended up in New York, where I trained and worked at Bumble and bumble. for many years.” Goodbye, Oklahoma; hello, Big City.
However, the fashion world wasn’t what Sharpton expected. He was glad to have escaped his hometown and found his niche in cutting hair, but “a fashion set is not as amazing as people assume it is, there’s a lot of standing and waiting and then ‘go.’ There’s a lot of pressure.”
So, Sharpton leaned into hair cutting. He worked at salons for many years, perfecting his craft, therefore putting Sharpton on the map. But it was when his work made it into Vogue that he faced a major realization.
“I thought, when I got into VOGUE, that I would be whole. And that would mean that I had made it and showed everybody and did the thing,” he says.
That’s understandable. Those who have felt othered, felt the doubt from those surrounding them… “making it” means you proved them wrong, that you are where you belong. But it was the opposite for Sharpton.
“I realized then that I needed to do some internal work, and that I’d need to align myself with things that I really loved and really believed in,” he tells me. “The press is interesting, right? It happens quick and it happens fast. I remember taking that moment and going, ‘okay, cool. This is great that this is going on in your life, but it won’t fix you.’”
He recalls doing an interview on what hair is best for your face shape; he felt “icky” after doing it, and he decided then and there that he would never tell someone how to be beautiful again.
Instead, “I thought, ‘what if we stopped having these conversations about face shape? Why don’t you just come in and you tell me what you really love about yourself? Then I’m gonna focus on how I can bring attention to that.’”
So, when someone sits in his chair and complains about their face, he resets the conversation. He has the client tell him what their favorite feature is, and he highlights that instead. “You are not designed to hide. And I, as a hairdresser, am not designed to help you hide,” he says. “I’m not OK with the culture of criticism and having a ‘solution.’ I say, let’s blow that out of the water because this is a bunch of bullsh*t, and we don’t need to be participants in that.”
He was thrilled to make this change, taking a stand to never speak about face shape again and then bringing it into his personal practice. But, he tells me, he was tired. As his career grew exponentially, he was also growing tired.
He dreamt of simplifying his life, ending his story and “opening a juice bar on the beach.” Something that didn’t exhaust him so much.
“I was really leaning into a little bit of that fantasy of thinking, ‘it’s time to wrap this show up. Maybe it’s time to do something different,’” he recalls. “And then Hairstory came into my life, a brand that is fully supportive of the hairdressing community.”
Ah, there it is. Enter: Hairstory.
The hair world was facing a crisis: what was once so exclusive had become accessible. People were able to buy hair products online, if not for cheaper on Amazon. The hairdressing community took a hit financially as e-Commerce capabilities grew – those who relied on product sales and in-person sales were losing out to a fast-growing and fast-moving Internet.
“As e-commerce grew, we were almost abandoned by haircare companies who had previously said they were ‘pro the hairdresser,’” Sharpton says. ‘Hairstory did something different that appealed to me because it supported hairdressers in a way no other brand had done.’
The idea came from Hairstory’s CEO, Eli Halliwell: providing hairdressers with affiliate links, therefore rebirthing exclusivity – just online, this time.
How Hairstory’s affiliate links work, in Sharpton’s words: “Hairdressers are rewarded for their client relationships – so much so that, after one affiliate sale, the customer remains connected to their Hairstory hairdresser for eternity, with the hairdresser rewarded ongoingly.
“Eli told me; ‘Your clients are always connected to you, and we will always pay you and we’re always gonna do that every time that they return. We will always honor sharing your education about these products with your clients.’”
Sharpton was drawn to the concept, because “the one thing that energized me the most was a big idea.” On top of this, he felt that Halliwell was supporting the hairdressing community, which had been so brutally abandoned by others.
Part of the reason behind the abandonment: the misconception by so-called “pro-hairdresser” companies that claimed that hairdressers were poor at selling their products, or simply didn’t know “how to retail.” But Sharpton strongly disagrees.
“This isn’t true!” he emphasizes. “It’s that our entire business is built on trust. We’re intuitive at our job and we have a personal connection with our clients that doesn’t align with pushing for retail sales.”
So Sharpton’s response to Haillwell’s big idea? “I thought, ‘here is someone who’s bringing something new and fresh that also allows [hairdressers] to participate, respects our work, and allows us to be considered,’” Sharpton says of Halliwell. “And it was really [hairdressers] being considered, which was bigger to me than the idea of the link.
“I was also drawn to [Hairstory’s New Wash] in a space that’s historically always been the same, shampoo, conditioner, detangler… What reinvention could happen from there?” Sharpton tells me. The unique New Wash – which helped to blow up affiliate links and what Hairstory is best known for – is “an all-in-one hair cleanser that rivals shampoo.” (Note: I’ve been using it for the past six weeks, and my review comes out tomorrow.)
So, Sharpton didn’t give up his hair cutting and start a juice bar. His excitement kept him around. He’s still with Hairstory to this day – the exact reason we’re on Zoom right now, my mic muted.
… Until it’s my turn to ask the follow-up questions.
I only have two.
The questions aren’t easy, and I’m aware of it. They’re direct, thought of as he closes his story, his vulnerable journey from “original country queer” to world-renowned hairdresser. But I don’t feel like asking Wes Sharpton easy questions after this story – this “Hair”story, if you will.
“What is your definition of beautiful?” I ask point-blank.
“I think that is such a hard question,” he says. But he doesn’t shy away from the question; he thinks hard about it.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever be whole, right? I don’t know that I’ll ever have that ability to be able to maybe be like, this is beautiful because I don’t know that I’ve dismantled all of the messages that say what isn’t beautiful yet. So my job is to try and dismantle a little piece of that in hopes that other people down the road either have to do less dismantling or hopefully one day have to do zero dismantling.”
Zero dismantling sounds impossible right now, but Sharpton is determined to do the work.
“I just wonder what the world would look like if people thought they were enough already as you came in,” he says. “I would hope that in the future, that we could have the idea that there could be a space for all of us.”
I reflect on how I’ve struggled to feel beautiful all my life, and how the internal struggle pops up every single day. Sharpton drops another piece of wisdom.
“I would love to give you a clean, pretty PR answer, but I don’t know that it would be, I don’t know that it would be the truth. I thought about this today and I thought, you know what? You always have a choice to be as honest as you want. And sometimes your honesty means that you have to be vulnerable about the way that you view yourself in the world and why maybe you’re motivated to change that for others.”
Then he apologizes. I tell him not to – QUILL doesn’t look for clean answers. We look for the raw, real, brilliant, honest, vulnerable truth. And that’s what he’s given me here.
It changes my next question, but it’s just as pointed, and I’m almost scared to ask it: “Do you think you’ll ever be enough?” It’s a personal question for myself as well, and I’m hoping Sharpton hasn’t run out of wisdom, because I desperately need it.
I could summarize what he says, but I’m going to give his full quote, because I teared up and nearly cried as he dove into it. I hope you enjoy it, too. I think it’s an appropriate close to the interview. Please take this to heart.
“I think it depends, right? I think, at the end of the day, I think that what we really want is just to be seen, because I think the idea of being seen means that you have value, and if you have value, then maybe someone could value you. And that is because when it comes down to it, you’d like to imagine for yourself that if you could be seen, that you could also be loved.
“We want the baseline. Like, you’re good, right? Like, you’re here, you exist. You deserve to exist. You can be recognized. We want that as a baseline and everything else, and as far as enoughness goes, maybe it’s just doing the work to unravel why we have tricked ourselves into believing that we’re not enough.
“Sometimes challenging yourself to be like, ‘what if I did this incrementally better?’ There’s never an end to mastery, right? There’s only just the journeys along the way. That’s the joy of the whole thing. And so in some spaces, I want to be enough, but I also want a healthy challenge to still be better.
“I think for me, enough will never be there because there’s always growth. As a community, we are sometimes a little harsh on ourselves, and I think we’ve got to remember to let people learn and grow. And we’ve got generations of experiences that are new, and queer people are learning. I didn’t have access to some of the things that are around today, so I didn’t have a language around some things. It’s cool that we can grow together.
“And I would say, just be gentle. Remember people are largely on your side. I think sometimes we get a little bickering amongst ourselves and we get overwhelmed by things outside of our group that we’re not addressing and that are not moving us forward. So I think that can be something that we have to be considerate of; to be kind to ourselves and let people learn.
Tim Hollinger, co-founder of Bathing Culture, makes lists.
He shows me his journal on Zoom, with line after line of tasks to accomplish that day. It clearly takes time to write out this list, but Hollinger enjoys it.
Tucked away, staying along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, Hollinger has agreed to give me 30 minutes of his time for this interview. I’m thrilled, because he seems fascinating straight from the get-go. The way he speaks is eloquent, words winding tangentially, a slow and steady speech pattern guiding whimsical thoughts.
I ask him the question: “Who are you?”
Most jump into their title, their brand, because it’s a core part of their identity – and the topic of the article. I do the same with QUILL.
So I’m taken off-guard by Hollinger’s answer.
“I am someone who wants to leave the world better than I found it, and that feels increasingly hard, but in the grand scheme of things, I think that we’re making progress.” He pauses, then continues, equally thoughtful in his second half.
“I am someone who lives in the moment, and finds joy in the small things, and tries to bring out the best in the people around me, and tries to maintain perspective. And tries to learn something new every day. And tries to give my community, my family, my friends, my partners, the love that they deserve.”
And if that doesn’t set the tone for an interview, I’m not sure what does.
In most articles, I start off with a summary of the company – it’s what I’m given. But this is Tom Hollinger, so I don’t get what I’m expecting… and I don’t mind.
Ultimately, Bathing Culture – based in Northern California, on the beautiful Mt. Tamalpais – was born from… bathing culture.
“Spencer [Arnold, my co-founder,] and I are very interested in how timeless bathing is. It cuts across cultures and communities,” Hollinger says. “When we started off, we didn’t have a brand, we just had a community and we would make products for them,” like soap. Then came stickers; specifically, one that said “Love Is Rad,” the same sticker that led me to Bathing Culture in the first place.
Eventually, Arnold and Hollinger sat down and decided that they wanted to form a business. “Basically, we said ‘Hey, let’s make products that we can stay excited about, can connect people to these experiences, and can be safe for personal and planetary health,’” Hollinger says, as if starting a brand is that simple.
But for the two of them, it was. Because, again, bathing is a fascinating concept to them. “When you strip all the way down and it’s just your body and it’s just the beauty of all different bodies and celebrating that this is something that people have always been doing, there’s such cultural depth there,” Hollinger says.
It’s true: we’ve been bathing since the beginning of time, no matter the gender, age, culture. It’s not just women in the tub with Chardonnay – “though I don’t want to shit on the woman in the tub with the Chardonnay, because that’s a legitimate experience” laughs Hollinger – bathing comes with its own experiences. And Arnold and Hollinger were not experiencing Chardonnay in a tub.
“We would take these hikes into the wilds and find hot springs and just get naked with a bunch of people and get in the hot springs,” recalls Hollinger. It’s an experience not many people get to have, though.
I ask if it’s fair to say that they’re essentially giving the experience to those who can’t have it. He nods. “There are so many people that are seeking out these experiences, and we really wanted to give people the opportunity to have the experience at home and connect people to that.”
It’s not just the tub and Chardonnay – though, again, it’s a legitimate experience – “bathing can be having a moonlight soak with 10 of your friends. It can be jumping in a sprinkler in your front yard with your cousins. It can be all of these things and that is just so incredibly liberating.”
And when you’re bathing, there’s a certain peace to it; there’s a mood boost. “There’s the joy [with bathing], but then there’s also the relaxation, the solitude,” he says. “And at a time where the world is not healthy, the macro sense and the importance of being able to take care of ourselves is just so critical right now.”
Our world is a mess right now, no doubt about it. From the Roe v Wade ruling to the Don’t Say Gay laws to the Ukraine war to the global pandemic, the population is struggling. We need to find peace; why not start in the shower?
After all, “the mental health reset we get from that pause, that shower, that calmness of some warm water or the reset of some cold water, is incredibly important,” he says. “We can span from the peaceful to the joyous and bring positivity or fullness across that and through the experience of the bathing.”
Self care is something I tend to neglect. I may not bring my phone into the shower, but I can’t think of the last time I enjoyed it, the last time it wasn’t wash-my-hair-wash-my-body-jump-out-and-go. But speaking with Hollinger, who is so passionate about the healthy act of bathing, I make a silent promise to myself to take my time during my next shower.
Tim Hollinger and Spencer Arnold met in middle school, attending a school in New York for dyslexic students. There was an instant connection at 14 years old, and they’ve stuck with each other since, growing alongside each other. How has starting a business all of these years later changed things?
“I think that having this brand together has really helped our relationship,” Hollinger says. “It’s challenged our relationship. But it’s really, in the big picture, helped it, because we’ve been forced to really make sure that we’re communicating about business things, but then also about personal things on a very deep level.”
I mention how so often, it seems that business partners don’t even like each other. They huddle to their own sides, taking care of different sectors, rarely communicating. I tell him that he and Arnold seem to collaborate across sectors.
“I would say Spencer is definitely like the product and creative engine behind a lot of what we do, alongside our designer Greg. And I’m much more on the operational side,” Hollinger explains. “But there are still things that we’re just both all over, which is a lot of fun.”
Fun is important to Hollinger and Arnold, and though the term “codependency” often has negative connotations, Hollinger sees it differently. “I think for us, there’s a sense of play in a lot of what we do and how we work together.”
They carry this play from the backend to the front end.
“We always like to put little Easter eggs in things for people to find. And most people won’t notice that stuff, but it’s part of what brings us joy in our work.” There’s the word “joy” again. “People [can tell when a brand] care[s] about what [its] doing or not, and sometimes [they] can’t quite put [their] finger on what it is. For us, making sure that fun is coming through is important.”
An example: the rainbow branding. I have to ask about the rainbows.
“We just launched our Heat Wave Body Oil” – I congratulate him immediately, and he thanks me before continuing – “and we use the rainbow motif, but we use it almost like a flame. And then we have other oils where they’re more wavy. From a branding perspective, it’s just really fun to play with that.”
Bathing Culture was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to an extremely queer-friendly community. Rainbows, as we all know, represent LGBTQ+ pride. But it’s never “just” something with Tim Hollinger. No, the rainbow isn’t just to say, “hey, we’re gay-friendly!” though that is part of it; of course, with him, there’s more.
“When water hits the light, there’s a rainbow. I think playing with that duality of light and darkness – like light in the rain – and the known and unknown, right?” muses Hollinger. “I think that’s just something that is worth exploring and celebrating.”
When you search their symbolism, rainbows represent hope during difficult times. A duality, right in the meaning. How appropriate.
It’s not just about joy, though. There’s important work being done with Bathing Culture: specifically, surrounding sustainability.
“Look at the manufacturing and the supply chain where these products are coming from, and a lot of the synthetic products don’t biodegrade,” he tells me, something I connect to much of Marissa’s eco-conscious writing for QUILL. “So with that in mind, we’re really committed to full-cycle sustainability: a sustainable business, a sustainable lifestyle, and sustainable packaging, and sustainable products,” Hollinger says.
Their main point of pride for sustainability: refills. People are able to take empty containers – from shampoo containers to mustard jars – and head to one of Bathing Culture’s more than one hundred refill partners, rather than buying container after container of product. It’s captured the attention of big brands, bringing awareness to the smaller, up-and-coming Bathing Culture.
Speaking of which, you’ll never find Bathing Culture throwing their ethics out the window for the sake of partnering with bigger brands or receiving more exposure. They’ve turned down partnerships with companies that are pro-”give-everyone-a-gun” or anti-LGBTQ+, because “[Arnold and I] want this brand to be an extension of a safe place, a safe space. And we want these products to give people a transformative experience without sacrificing our ethics.”
In a capitalistic world, where greed regularly wins over morals, it’s admirable and refreshing to hear this stance. It’s because, explains Hollinger, they know that they can make a difference – anyone can.
“Sometimes it can feel like you’re having a small impact, or as a brand, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he shares. “But people notice, and even just standing up for what’s right or taking steps – and this is on an individual level too – it really does make a difference.”
We’re hitting our time limit. I reflect on everything that’s been said, and I realize that this is the first interview where I’ve seen someone’s thought process as they work through their answers, as they discuss their work, as they share their personal insight and greatest emotions.
We only had 25 minutes of interview-time, but I ask if there’s anything Hollinger would like to share before we go; anything extra he can think of that he’d like for me to put in.
I feel that I can write a decent article, tell a story via 30-to-45-minute interviews. But the feeling I receive from his answer is almost too much. It’s a simple answer, but it’s one that closes one of the most intimate interviews I’ve had:
“No, I trust you.”
Tim Hollinger trusts me to tell his story, and tell his story well. And where there should be panic, I feel… validated.
We hang up, and I begin to write.
Thank you to Tim Hollinger for sharing Bathing Culture’s story. Check out their website and Instagram for more.
It’s been a long time coming, this rejection of a habit she’s relied on for years to cope with stress. But it’s time, she says.
We’ve just met 30 seconds ago, but I tell her I’m proud of her – it’s hard to take that step.
“Thanks. Honestly, I think I’m just at a place where it needs to go. It was my little clutch, and it needed to go,” she says. There’s no hint of regret in her voice, just a sense of “alright, well, that’s that.”
And I come to find that this is representative of Lee’s broader attitude in life. As we speak, it’s clear that she’s decisive. Not rash, but decisive. As someone who goes back and forth between whether or not she wants a smoothie or coffee when she doesn’t even like coffee, I want to have Courtnei Lee’s determination.
So, there’s no cigarette on camera. There’s no clutch. What does that mean for Lee? Will she close up, curl in on herself?
The answer: nope. She’s raw and open from the get-go, not once hesitating, not once stuttering or revising her statements. Decisive in who she is, in what she stands for, in what she believes and what she hopes for.
We go over our time by 20 minutes. (Cough, I go over by 20 minutes.) It is an illuminating and inspiring conversation, and I don’t want it to end. Don’t worry – I’ll let you in on why.
Courtnei Lee realized she had ended up in a “life or death” situation.
“I’d spent 25 years living in the wrong body, but I was too terrified to do anything about it because of the weight of society that I felt like came with transitioning,” she reflects. “It couldn’t be put off anymore.”
It was scary, but she had hit a wall. “I was like, okay, I need to choose happiness for myself. Fuck the world, fuck all these stereotypes and thinking that I’m just going to become this target for harassment and negativity – which you do, in a way,” Lee says. “But the positive things that come along with transition and loving yourself outweigh any of the negative aspects that you might receive from it by far.”
On top of this, she had reflected on past activists; while she can simply delete and block the hate and homophobia on Instagram, she knows that women like Marsha P. Johnson didn’t have that luxury. Plus, LGBTQ2S youth today are in need of representation and strong role models.
“To be an advocate, you have to put yourself out there and armor up as best as you can and know that the impact you’re making for the community that’s standing behind you, specifically our youth, our LGBTQ2S youth… You’re being a barrier for them to be able to walk through this and not have to go through it to the extent that you are,” Lee explains.
Lee did not have adequate representation when she was growing up. “If there was representation, it was in a very comedic, degrading way. I had no language to try and understand myself for the feelings that I was having,” she says. “So I’m grateful to where things came to because there was representation being created by the time that I decided to transition.”
For example, Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black blew up as a trans advocate following her role on the show. “There were faces popping up that I could look at and say, ‘oh, my God, there’s other people like me,’” says Lee. “We’ve come a long way from the point where we had no ability to have representation to being on TV and to having these conversations. We’ve fought really hard to be at this place.”
Lee’s business partner, Kas Van Neste Baker, is a trans man; she had watched his transition, though it was very different from her own. Still, there were similarities: “both of our transitions were very binary. I’ve always identified as extremely female. There was nothing masculine about my transition that I was in the middle of identifying,” Lee says.
“Mine was very binary, and I identify as female. And his was very binary, he identifies as male. We’re both on the far end.”
This thinking, however – men transition into women, and women transition into men, and that’s that – can be detrimental, and there is still a lack of representation in the non-binary community. Take, for example, Van Neste Baker’s and Lee’s non-binary friend Skylar. “For them, it was really confusing, because they had to go on testosterone and they were doing HRT, and it took them going through those motions to realize that they didn’t actually need to completely transition,” Lee explains.
On top of this, not everyone wants surgery. It’s invasive, and the healing process takes time. “While for some of us, surgery is something that becomes a decision that could save our lives, for other people, it’s not something that affects them that way and they’re happy with their body the way it is,” says Less. “So I think there’s just so many misconceptions of what trans is, and what it means to be, to the heteronormative world.”
So, these kinds of conversations are important to have now. But Lee also acknowledges that many conversations can still be intrusive – especially because, despite progression and growth in collective consciousness, “so many people talk about anyone’s transition and being trans.”
Still, Lee could not be more elated with where she’s at. “I think it’s definitely the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” she gushes, “and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything I did in the last five years if I hadn’t done that.”
So, why don’t we dive into those accomplishments, hm?
Courtnei Lee was living in a small apartment in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 2020 – when COVID hit.
She was a server in a restaurant, and with the pandemic, she had lost her job.
“I was just overwhelmed, and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she tells me – mirroring the experiences of many when businesses began shutting down, leaving millions unemployed.
But she didn’t want to sit around and sulk. Instead, she began thinking about something she’d reflected on for so long, but had never given herself the chance to do: create makeup products for the trans community.
“One thing that happened when I transitioned, kind of why I lead with my transness is because – I hate this word – I never thought that I was going to be a passing trans woman,” she says. “I’m six-foot-one. I’m tall. I was skinny, but I was broad. I assumed that I would always be a trans person that didn’t fit into, like, a stereotypical gender norm, and that was something I had accepted when I transitioned.”
So, Lee leaned into makeup, her “armor” and “shield.”
“It was me telling you very blatantly that I don’t identify as male,” she says.
She would search for beauty tutorials and makeup products, collecting her favorites for her “jigsaw puzzle,” as she put it, because the products weren’t designed for people transitioning, and especially those going through HRT.
“When you’re going through HRT, your skin goes through such an insane change; it’s a whole other form of puberty, and your skin cells are changing so quickly,” Lee shares. On top of this, she was going through laser hair removal – not too kind on the skin, either.
So, the jigsaw puzzle consisted of products that worked. Kind of. The multiple products worked together, but there wasn’t just one product for trans people.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘it just doesn’t make sense,’” Lee tells me. “I know that there are so many other people like me, where maybe we’re not in the mass market, like, shipping out to every single person, but I’m still valid, and my existence is still here, and somebody should still recognize that.”
So, when she was sitting, unemployed, in that apartment she couldn’t afford, she made the decision: start on the products she needed, but couldn’t find anywhere else. She began C.L. Essentials (an acronym for Courtnei Lee Essentials), a makeup brand designed for trans people… but still able to be worn by anyone. There was no trans-facing advocacy; unless you followed Lee directly, you would not know the brand was designed with trans people in mind.
When Van Neste Baker invested, however, Lee took a stand. “I said, ‘I think it’s a good opportunity for us to rebrand,’ because what we want is to disrupt the beauty industry and create space for LGBTQ2S people within it,” she says. And C.L. Essentials was renamed OYT Cosmetics.
Lee and Van Neste Baker both felt that advocacy was important to the brand, especially should they lead with their LGBTQS2 identities and mission. Lee jokes, “anything that we do in our lives, like, God forbid I have a scandal or something” – she laughs – “anything can affect the movement.” So, they wanted the movement to be embraced by the masses, and they leaned into being more LGBTQ2S-forward.
“When creating this space, I think as LGBTQ2S people, we are tiptoeing in and around where we can to try and place little pieces of ourselves,” Lee says, thinking aloud. “Like, ‘okay, this is for us, and we fit in here. Okay?’ And then cis people are like, ‘okay, you can have that. You can have this.’ But we don’t need anyone to tell us where to be or what we can or can’t do.”
It clearly frustrates Lee, because her posture changes – straightens, stiffens, shoulders back and chin up – as she delivers her next statement:
“We want this to be disruptive, where we’re saying, ‘this is just as much our space as it is anybody else’s. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re gender fluid, we’re whatever you want to call it, and we’re not going anywhere. We deserve this space just as much as any straight, white, cisgendered, six foot one, gorgeous model does.’”
But she’s not done.
“We’re in this constant state of trying to explain ourselves to [cis people] so that they get it, rather than just telling them, ‘we don’t fucking care if you get it. This has nothing to do with you. This is our body and our lives. And you can educate yourself if you want to understand it, but it’s not our responsibility to do that for you.’”
Snaps. For. Days.
Twenty minutes over the amount of time I’d promised, and I ask Courtnei Lee what’s next for her and OYT Cosmetics.
“We’re moving the company into retail now, which we’re quite excited about,” she tells me. “The reason why we want to be in a large retail position is because when it does come to branding and a corporate entity and marketing strategies, it allows us to actually create representation within the beauty industry to a higher scope.”
Lee wants to create a safe work environment, aware that so many LGBTQ2S people experience transphobic, homophobic bosses and overall hostile workplaces. It’s her number one priority as a leader of a brand.
It’s not just the LGBTQ2S community that matters to Lee, though it’s front-of-mind; Lee is also an Indigenous person, and learning First Nations teachings and languages opened her eyes to the white genocide and residential schools her ancestors faced. It’s another movement she’s passionate about, one with a similar trajectory.
“You can see how far back movements come and how far it’s taken to get us to a place where we are now just getting validation,” she says.
And though she can’t share personal details, she shares that OYT Cosmetics has just brought over a refugee through Rainbow Refugee. It’s opened the entire team’s eyes.
“Knowing what they undergo in those other countries and how you can’t exist in general, you can’t talk about it, you can’t even think it without risking your life at the end of the day… Every day that you’re living in those countries is a battle,” she says slowly.
“So as much as where we are battling here, and we still have a really long way to go, there’s other places in the world that are so far behind, and it’s such scary environments for our LGBTQ2S siblings.”
Lee wants OYT Cosmetics to be representative of every LGBTQ2S person, including those in countries like the one mentioned. She wants to help end self-harm and suicide among the LGBTQ2S community, and she wants to advocate to those leading other countries that “these people deserve to be validated. These people deserve health care. They deserve their rights.”
After all, she continues, “we’re all just people trying to get through whatever life throws at us. And life isn’t easy for anybody, so why make it harder for somebody that you don’t even know?”
Lee is proud of her community, but also aware of the discourse within it – the same discourse that exists outside of it.
“One of my assistants just wrote a blog post on body shaming and fatphobia within the queer community and how that’s attached to racism and disabilities and stigmas,” she says. “Our community still has a lot of growing to do, too.” She emphasizes that it’s important for the community to stand together rather than tear itself apart: “If we start going in between our own groups and spreading hate and harassment, it’s only going to divide us further, which works against us in the long run.”
OYT Cosmetics was created for everyone to combat this. “With fat shaming and racism within our communities, those are the things that we need to make sure are not happening and we’re not tolerating within our communities, and that we’re all standing up for each other,” she says. “I think seeing representation within our community, it really helps create space for every individual, not just LGBTQ2S stereotypes approved in aspects in the cis world.”
Okay, we’re really over time, so I ask Lee if she has any parting words about OYT Cosmetics and herself – anything she wants the world to know. She thinks on it.
“I want to create representation for our youth to be able to see on TV or walking down the street or on a billboard, so they know that their experience is valid and they have a family and a team, even if maybe their family isn’t supporting them,” she says. “They don’t need to turn to self harm or a substance to try and escape that.” Lee pauses, looking directly at me.
“I want to help create a healthier environment within our LGBTQ2S youth.”
There is no doubt: she’s doing just that.
Thank you to Courtnei Lee for sharing your story. You can find Lee on Instagram, and follow OYT Cosmetics on their website and Instagram.
Luke Jordan and Michael Ayre, engaged couple and founders of SheHeThey, are drinking wine.
Based in the UK, my scheduled 11 am PST meeting is during their 7 pm UTC dinnertime. Bantering back and forth with each other and me, we all salud, a fake glass of wine in my hand, before I hit record.
As we begin to talk, Ayre introduces himself and his pronouns: “he/him.” Jordan chimes in with their pronouns, “they/he.” They identify as non-binary, and though comfortable with the use of “he,” Jordan is making a point when they put “they” first.
“Even though I don’t mind ‘he,’ I think it’s important to have ‘they’ first, because the conversation needs to be happening,” they say.
I smile at the comment, because it’s so damn Jordan. Following them on LinkedIn, their sass, their wit, their “shade” as they’ll later call it, is fun to witness. But it’s their quips of wisdom and consistent activism that alert me to the deeper soul; a soul who likes to cause mischief with deeper meaning behind it.
We’ll get into the deeper meaning later on, but for now: no matter the comfort, it’s they, not he.
For those who (somehow) don’t know, SheHeThey is the first marketplace built of solely minority-owned businesses. You identify as a cis white male and own a clothing brand? Sorry, but this isn’t the place for you.
No, this is the place where you’ll discover the disability-owned shop-owner selling their candles, or the LGBTQ+-identifying shop-owner selling earrings.
“We came up with the concept of SheHeThey because we went looking for SheHeThey,” explains Ayre, recalling the inability to find a gift for a friend, jumping from website to website and clicking through Google’s hundreds of pages. “That got us thinking, well, if these amazing businesses are hard to find, is there not an opportunity to create a platform where they are easy to find?”
Jordan and Ayre got work on researching the concept, which opened their eyes to the discrepancies in success between majority and minority business owners. “If someone is a minority or they have a minority background, then their chances of being successful are slashed at all levels. And we just thought we had to do something about it,” Ayre says matter-of-factly. “And that’s where SheHeThey came from.”
Seems simple enough, right? Ayre agrees, which is why he wakes up every day to the fear of learning they are, turns out, not the first. “I keep waiting for an email or a DM to say ‘you’re doing exactly what we do,’ because it’s that obvious,” he chuckles.
Though they were sure of their idea, they took time to themselves to perfect the concept – partially due to the scale, and partially due to just what focusing on minority-owned businesses and business owners meant.
“What we are trying to create is so sensitive and I think there’s a responsibility to make sure that, sure, it’s not going to be perfect, but it at least needs to be done right and respectfully,” Jordan tells me.
Still, the “unicorn idea” needed to be pursued. They scoured the globe to find an example of what they were doing – UK, Europe, US, Canada, Australia, literally everywhere – and couldn’t. “There were a lot of marketplaces that were dedicated to a specific minority group, but not dedicated to people who embraced equality and had the foundation behind the business,” Ayre says.
So, the number-crunching began. There weren’t many resources available, but Jordan and Ayre knew they wanted to take the plunge. They also knew that they couldn’t do it half-heartedly or distractedly if they wanted to get it right. And while they knew they’d never launch perfectly or run a perfect business – “we will hit a lot of highs and lows and bumps along the way” – they wanted to give themselves the best chance possible to make a splash.
And that name – can’t forget to mention that. Turns out, it came from one of Jordan’s friends, whose initial idea was a play on the different gender identities. As well, they (Jordan), he (Ayre), and she (their dear friend who has volunteered hours upon hours) are the foundation of the company. They. He. She.
… SheHeThey. Perfect.
“The name itself, I love it so much because I think it is an inclusive name and I know that there are other pronouns out there, but it encapsulates everybody,” gushes Jordan. “It acknowledges the fact that it’s not a gender binary and we can break free of that. … It’s just an inclusive term in itself, which is amazing.”
Inclusion is, obviously, what holds SheHeThey up. While there are many marketplaces dedicated to one minority, SheHeThey is the first that takes all minorities and says “here’s your home.” But they understand that each group is different – another reason they took their sweet time.
To prepare for SheHeThey’s birth, Jordan and Ayre knew that it would take “ a lot of time, dedication, and commitment to learning the language, to understanding different people, to connecting with different people.” But it paid off – as of opening, they had 60+ confirmed sellers, with products ranging from jewelry to art to apparel to phone cases.
Ultimately, SheHeThey is “about creating positive consumerism and changing the way that we shop, our shopping habits, our shopping behavior and making it more inclusive to other people and for the people who the system is designed for,” states Jordan. And in an age where white-washing, rainbow-washing, everything-unique-washing exists in order to sell moremoremore, it’s nice to hear that someone(s) wants to change the shopping experience for the better. Victoria’s Secret, please move out of the way.
When it comes to backgrounds, it makes perfect sense as to how SheHeThey functions.
Jordan is a branding design expert, with plenty of background at design and brand agencies. They currently run their own business, “Studio Potts.”
“To put it in the nicest way possible” they make sure to preface their statement, “I don’t enjoy working for people because I find a lot of the time their values are completely different to mine and I never feel like I fit in. I always feel very limited by people’s leadership skills and ability.”
Jordan has known they were non-binary since they were a kid, but the environment they grew up in didn’t foster a positive or comprehensive view of their gender identity. “I come particularly from a very small village where it is extremely racist, extremely homophobic. Like, feels like 100 years behind the times,” they say.
Ayre and Jordan moved to Manchester three years ago, and the change in environment (they moved from East to West) “is still opening me up in a lot of ways that I kind of shut off as a kid being in that area [of my identity],” Jordan admits.
Even at Studio Potts, however, they’d found themselves conforming. “I always found that I absolutely had to put my most straight act on. I had to be very masculine. I had to hide my queerness, be very, business like. I was conscious of the fashion I was wearing.”
Ayre, on the other hand, has a… slightly different background. “I actually worked in recruitment for a few years before moving into the prison service,” he says.
I’m sure he sees my eyebrows crinkle, because he continues. “I worked with high risk men who wouldn’t engage in education work, wouldn’t accept visits from family, wouldn’t leave the cells, so they really were kind of the highest risk, but also the furthest away from being rehabilitated. I did that for six years,” he says.
And while he just left his full-time job to dedicate his entire time to SheHeThey (“Terrifying!” I described it in my email-response to the news), at the time of our interview, he was working as a relationship manager, supporting businesses of all shapes and sizes.
So, you have a branding expert and someone who is incredible with some of the most difficult people. A brand expert and a communicator. How does a business like this fail?
More importantly, how does a business like this start? And how does it… well, work?
Answer #1: “Way back when we first met, actually, we said someday, we wanted to run a business together. Once we knew we were serious, we knew that we wanted to be self-sufficient,” says Ayre. “We’ve got ambitions to travel the world, we want to live in Spain eventually. It’s a joint ambition of ours, so we need to be self-sufficient to make that happen.”
Then, the gift-search happened, and the business idea was born.
The technical workings of the business sound somewhat confusing, but are actually pretty straightforward: businesses pay a membership price to host items on SheHeThey’s site, SheHeThey receives a small cut of the sale, and a customer ends up with a product from a minority-owned business. Easy.
There are three levels of membership for business owners; different prices correlate to how many products you can have in the store and what percentage is taken from the sale. “Free,” is free (duh); the paid memberships are “Flourish” and “Prosper.”
Most business owners have signed up for Prosper; more expensive in membership, but with a commission cut of only 2% (the industry standard is 12.5%). “We’d love for people to sign for Prosper, because at that point, we want people to see it as, ‘this can be your website and [SheHeThey] is only going to take the 2% commission, and you being on board is making SheHeThey happen,” explains Jordan.
When it comes to deciphering whether a business is truly minority-owned, there are two points of authentication.
“If someone’s interested in selling with SheHeThey, they have to fill out an application form. We ask specific questions around who they are, what their background is, what kind of products they sell. We ask them to tell us a little bit about their business and they have to submit that application form,” explains Ayre.
“At that point, that’s only registering their interest. We then review the application form, and we then have five days to decide whether we want to approve them as a SheHeThey seller.” If approved, they can see the back-end via a unique code SheHeThey gives the business owner. But the team still has to approve the business one more time before they can begin selling.
“We’re going to try our absolute hardest to make sure you don’t just get people slipping through the net,” Jordan emphasizes. “That has been a challenging point that we’ve had to kind of overcome: how do we stop just anybody signing up? Because it’s really important that we keep all that which we’ve managed to do.”
Okay, okay, yes. SheHeThey is important. But why Ayre and Jordan? Why are they the ones running the show?
I know exactly why, but I like saving the best for their own sections.
Jordan and Ayre are very open about supporting LGBTQ+ rights on LinkedIn: Ayre, with a warmth and fervent “go get ‘em!” attitude; Jordan, with emotional points and smart kiss-offs to haters; both, with genuine care for their community. So, it’s no surprise that SheHeThey will become more vocal as their presence grows.
“We will absolutely be representing all areas of minority owned businesses. We won’t be afraid to have an opinion because SheHeThey, I think, will grow to a point where people will look to us to see what SheHeThey has said,” says Ayre. “Of course, at some point, we will have to bring other perspectives in with other people with lived experience.”
It’s something I talk about with my team on a regular basis: you can’t speak about lived experiences that aren’t your own. Ayre and Jordan completely agree with this.
“For the time being, while it’s us, what we want to do is create partnerships with organizations, charities, individuals, and make sure that we are getting different perspectives that are different to our own, so that we aren’t solely the only voice coming out of SheHeThey,” Ayre finishes.
And SheHeThey will be taking a firm stand, not a soft one. Now that they’re live and posting (they had stayed relatively quiet in the stressful months leading up to the launch), “we won’t hold back.”
This support is especially important to Jordan. “I’ve only just recently let people into the fact that I am non-binary,” they say.
“I’ve never fit into that idea of man or woman, and I’ve never been able to use the words. I understand exactly why I’ve never been able to connect those dots: because that language isn’t accessible. We still have conversion therapy for people like me, which hurts my brain.”
They continue: “I’d like to think that everything that we’ll be doing will be a form of activism in the sense that we absolutely will not be doing what the UK government is doing – excluding trans people, nonbinary people, etcetera – for obvious reasons.”
They and Ayre tell me about how they recently attended a protest in Manchester, and Jordan felt wonderful being surrounded by others who identified and felt the same way they did, even if their backgrounds were not identical. It’s a feeling they want to experience in life, and an experience they want to provide to the workplace.
I explain that QUILL was born from my own sense of activism in the LGBTQ+ community. One of my previous employers was homophobic, and though it was my dream job, I left because I couldn’t be in a place that invalidated my identity. (You can only witness LGBTQ+ pitches being deleted so many times before the homophobia becomes blatant.)
Ayre and Jordan shake their heads. “It just comes back to that point of: it’s allowing somebody to simply exist and acknowledging that their existence is perfectly valid and they don’t need to explain themselves to anybody,” says Jordan. “We will absolutely be doing our part to make sure that we’re in these places to support trans people and anybody else who needs that support, to be perfectly honest with you.”
I feel powerful when I state that I’m doing the same. Still, I face imposter syndrome when speaking about QUILL – even though it’s activism. How do Ayre and Jordan deal with that… IF they deal with that?
“The people who are almost convinced that what they are doing is cute or it’s a bit of a side hustle, or are told ‘it’s great that you do that because you’re queer,’ and it’s not taken seriously? We are the platform to say ‘we take you seriously,’” says Ayre. “But – to do that, we had to first take ourselves seriously.
“We had a bit of imposter syndrome, absolutely,” Ayre admits. “We were saying, ‘who will do this? Who are we?’ People from the northeast of England who actually don’t have a heavy presence in the queer community, for a start.”
Jordan agrees, though they see the imposter syndrome in a positive light, unlike myself. “I think the imposter syndrome probably will never go. It just manifests itself in different ways… But that to me is just growth. You just grow as a human, and you’re always going to have that because that’s what constantly pushes you. So I embrace it.”
The elephant’s weight on my chest, the heaviness I feel each time I bring up QUILL for the first time, lifts slightly.
We’re winding down, and I’m about to let Ayre and Jordan go to finally enjoy dinner with their wine. But first, I must ask: they launch in around a month, so what’s the ultimate goal?
Ayre takes the floor first, adamant and driven. “For me, personally, we want to disrupt the industry. We want to look at other mainstream brands who make hundreds of millions by feeding into the mainstream narrative and say, ‘you don’t do what we do, so you need to do better. Look at all of these amazing businesses that sell with SheHeThey, look at the diversity that we represent, and look at these amazing entrepreneurs who you basically have trampled all over.’”
Jordan throws his hat in the ring. “To me, it’s about healing the narrative. It’s about healing our society. Society has been fine tuned to only give opportunity and reward a certain kind of person and that needs to be healed. We need to acknowledge that everybody needs representation, everybody is just as needed and wanted, and should be visible, and should be able to be successful, and should be able to thrive,” they say. They shrug. “For me, that’s what I hope people get from it.”
This would be the perfect place to end the interview, but I also want to share with you how selfless this duo is.
I ask what the first feelings they have toward SheHeThey are. All of it: the concept, the days leading up to launch – are they nervous? Excited? Terrified?
“For me, personally, it makes me feel excited, full of pride. I think as long as we stick to our values and we try and do good, then surely there can’t be anything bad that comes out of this. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. That’s okay. But at least we’ll give it a good old try to try and make the world better.”
Jordan gets emotional. “For me as well, just pride. For me as well, it’s a lot of pride, and I don’t know what the right words are, but I just think it’s so incredibly important. … I just think it’s an important message to get out there. An important platform.”
And when I ask what they’ll do if someone says “hey, you’re copying me?”
“If we find that there’s someone else out there who’s doing what we’re doing, well, that’s absolutely fine. If anything, we want to partner with them, and we want to work with them because we only want to do good,” Ayre says, as if it’s a no-brainer.
I tell him there’s no ego in that response, no ownership, no selfishness.
“There’s no ego attached to what we do, because if there was ego attached, we wouldn’t be the right people to do this,” he responds.
A brand that believes in supporting others – even those in direct competition with them – is rare to find.
Then again, maybe that’s exactly why SheHeThey is the first SheHeThey out there – and the one that will succeed.
Thank you to Michael Ayre and Luke Jordan for speaking with QUILL about SheHeThey.
QUILL’s intern, Tara, is on Zoom with me. We’re waiting for Jayla Roxx, who is currently on set of one of her many film projects.
I have made the beautiful mistake of forgetting how time zones work. Roxx has been accommodating. I fall over my tongue with apologies and words of embarrassment. “I’m on zero minutes of sleep in the past 48 hours,” I admit. (This is true – I’m fried.)
“Bless your heart. We’ve literally been triple filming – three locations for the entire day. I’m in the same place. I’ve been all over the place, so it’s all good,” she says.
The interview begins – a rushed 26-minute call, because, again, Roxx is on set – and flows naturally, as if we’re friends catching up, as if I’m not asking routine journalist questions. We end with “talk soon.”
Tara comes off mute with her camera still off. The first words out of her mouth: “She is so sweet.”
That’s only one of countless positive words to describe Jayla Roxx. Here’s why.
A brief summary of the last conversation Roxx and I had: BatMe! Cosmetics was on hold, she was taking her time to better an already amazing brand, and she was wanting someone to tell the story of its resurgence – not it’s “restart” or “new beginning.”
Now, she wants to reassure you that that isn’t happening again – BatMe! is around (though it never truly went away, simply was on hiatus) and here to stay.
“Everybody’s like, ‘this may happen again, so I’m going to buy 20 pairs, just so I can be stocked up.’ I was like, ‘thank you, but we’re here to stay for sure.’ We’re here to stay and we ain’t going nowhere.”
It’s easier now, thankfully. “I have an amazing team that helps me design,” she says. “We have a new design on our lashes. We have the newer DuraFLEX band. I know it sounds all fancy. So it ensures longer lasting wear.”
I’ll be honest: I don’t wear lashes. My tardive dyskinesia doesn’t allow for the precision required to place them. I do know, from having others apply them, that they’re… not always the sturdiest products. But I trust BatMe!, because Roxx is all about her customers.
“I listen to the people and I want to make sure that we provide something that they feel seen and heard within their products,” she states. And it’s true, she takes her community seriously; it’s why they didn’t leave when she took eight months away (went on hiatus) to create a better product.
The first time Roxx and I talked, she emphasized how important community is to her, and how important it is to listen to your consumers. And if you do that – create a space where your community is heard – they don’t leave.
“I didn’t lose any Instagram followers. They didn’t say, ‘oh, fuck this.’ They were just like, ‘okay, well, we’ll wait patiently.’ And they have, so I’m super excited for them to show their new looks.”
The collection, “Velvet,” comes in three sets. Each is customizable – you can cut and shape them, for example – so “it gives everyone a way to find themselves within those products and be able to truly stand out with everything that we have going on.”
Individuality matters to Roxx, as it’s her way of putting herself into the product. The resurgence was bigger than just redesigning and changing materials. “Not only did the products go through a resurgence, but so did I, and that’s how I feel. I use cosmetics as a way to be my personal diary and my self-expression,” she explains.
In many ways, this explains why she took so much time perfecting her brand – she needed to discover herself, too, and she didn’t want to cut that process short. I love Roxx’s sense of humor, because she hits me with a comparison of herself to Rihanna.
“She’s like, ‘leave me alone. I’m going to continue to sell my underwear and makeup until I decide to release the album.’ And that’s how I am. But she’s a Pisces too – I’m a Pisces – and we just do it when we want to.”
I jokingly tell her I’ll include what Pisces are like in the article, and she jokes right back: “I’m a little interested in it, too. So, let me know what you think.”
All I know is that my Sagittarius self and her Pisces identity form deep bonds that last. While our friendship is deeper than that, I’m glad our astrological signs confirm our compatibility.
I ask Roxx what she’s up to now, and she practically sighs; I can almost see her close her eyes to center herself. “So, I’m still in production, I’m currently producing three shows as of right now. I have one docu-series and two reality competitions that are in production.” One of these is through Remidi, her own company, while one of them is through AMC. She refuses to tell me what the third is, and I know it must be juicy if she’s zipping her lips here.
Okay, so wow, that’s a lot. How does she have time to run an entire makeup brand?
“I don’t have time to do this,” she says, and I laugh. She continues, “I will tell you that I make time for it. The time that [my consumers] take to go to the website and buy their favorite stuff, I have to give them that same energy.”
She’s giving – a quality I’ve always loved about Roxx. Nothing is solely about her – it’s also about the people who surround her and love her. She realizes she’s not a one-woman show; there are many around her who admire and perhaps, even, need her existence.
“Just when I think I’m about to quit, I put the other people in my mind,” she reveals thoughtfully. “It’s like, well, I’m robbing them of an experience. I’m robbing people of representation. I’m robbing them of messages that need to be shared. And that’s through all of my businesses, even with BatMe! So I can’t quit, because I’ll be robbing people. And I don’t rob.”
I have no words. I pretend it’s the lag, but in reality, Jayla Roxx has left me speechless. I quickly gather myself, grateful that she can’t see me in that moment, and continue on to a big topic that I always love discussing with Roxx: the LGBTQ+ community.
Roxx knows the topic is coming, because she knows QUILL, and, more importantly, she knows me.
I ask what she’s seen since our last article, six months ago, especially with the release of BatMe! She says she’s seen growth. It’s Pride Month, she says, so rainbows are all around; rainbow washing is in full swing, and many will fall for it, and buy from the companies without genuine interest in the LGBTQ+ community.
But it’s less about what she’s seeing, and more about how she’s growing. “There were people who didn’t identify as any type of [gender] or anything like that, but they didn’t have the language for it. Nor did I have the language for it,” she says, reflecting on her experience when starting BatMe! in 2017.
“As we push forward and realize there’s over – since I do casting and stuff, now – there’s over 15 different genders. So, I’m like, ‘well, shit, I have a lot of learning to do. And that’s [also] kind of why I took that break: to also learn about the people that I’m talking to.”
Part of this was changing the language she used to market her lashes. “I changed gender-less to gender-free. So, it’s a gender-free cosmetic brand now because there’s nothing ‘less’ about the gender,” she says.
She continues. “So, we have to be free with who we are regardless of how we show up. So when I say made for everybody, I can’t say LGBT, because that’s still marginalizing people. So it’s gender-free. It’s for everyone.”
I remind her of our first conversation, in which I asked why people should buy something because someone is trans and awesome. At the time, she gently but firmly explained that it’s about quality, not about identity. I mention that I almost didn’t want to include the conversation in the final article, but decided to in order to show that through our mistakes, we can all continue to learn within our community.
“I’m glad that you were able to put that in there because I was really like, oh, well she’s being vulnerable. And that’s one of the things that people really, really, really, really, really, really don’t want to be: vulnerable,” Roxx says.
“I can honestly say as a trans person, I don’t know everything. I don’t know about this stuff and I have to do it as my due diligence and to be non-ignorant as a person who is a leader of tomorrow, and a trailblazer, and all those things. I can’t do that without knowledge and without knowledge, there is no power,” she says.
I know I’m about to stress her out by my next question, and I’m almost entertained by it.
Roxx has sold out of her Velvet collection within four days – the website isn’t even finished – and I’m curious to know what the plan is.
“Oh my God, please don’t make me do it! Don’t make me do it,” she laughs loudly, though I hear the hint of stress in her voice.
“I don’t know where to go from here. Now that it’s open… I was like, well, maybe we can do this. We can do that. Then I just realized people don’t really want all that extra shit,” she says, explaining why her collection is minimal, not over-filled with products. “They just want to buy the lashes, be happy, and go about their day,” Roxx finishes, laying out her game plan: just keep listening to her audience.
“I think we’ll just go with that. Right now, I’ll just leave the lashes as they be. And then once I start to see people wanting more and expecting more, then I’ll do more,” she says. I tell her she’s basking in the release, not pushing for the “next big thing.” She elaborates, “I don’t have to do the whole, ‘let’s do this and let’s have flowers, and…” No, girl, they just want the stuff, just give it to them clean and simple, straight to the point.”
That’s why you won’t find excessive TikToks or Instagram posts to promote the lashes. You won’t find 20 different products in the store tomorrow. You won’t see the million-dollar campaigns. Roxx knows that people will buy products because they want them, and they’ll voice their opinions when they do want more.
Most of her audience consists of performers and entertainers like herself, so “we don’t need the extra brushes and lash curlers and blah, blah. We already have that shit,” she says. “I’m just like, ‘alright, let’s just keep it straight to the point.’ It’s user-accessible. Buy it on the way out.”
With that, we’re 26 minutes in, and I can hear talking in the background on her end. I tell her I’ll let her go.
This is where Roxx and I fall into our friends dynamic, not that of journalist-and-interviewee. I tell her how proud of her I am for this, tell her I’m here for her in whatever way she needs; she tells me she’s proud of me for highlighting voices and “doing the Lord’s work.” I nearly burst into tears as we hang up.
Turns out, Pisces are gentle creatures, with a softness and empathy that brings people to them; they give and rarely take. The water sign is a complete daydreamer with lofty goals; they’re creative and extremely talented. And to complete this personality, they’re laid-back and adaptable, capable of fitting into any role necessary.
I think this describes Roxx to the nth degree: She’s creative – getting her start in theater, now modeling, acting, and creating and building a makeup brand – and supremely talented. However, she’s far from rigid, instead listening to her audience and responding to their needs.
And finally, the reason she and I have bonded so much: she’s so goddamn lovable. Giving and funny, empathetic and thoughtful, Jayla Roxx is a good human. A great human.
So, when Tara calls her so sweet, I almost laugh. Because she absolutely is… and five billion more adjectives that will never fully capture the soul of this beautiful woman.
Thank you to Jayla Roxx for taking the time to speak with QUILL again, and congratulations on your successful release!