Categories
Profiles

Romi Dasani: Undoing Expectations

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.

arrow

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?”

a group of diverse young people

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.

money wash cleanser from un_did

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. 

romi dasani of un_did

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.

diverse group of young people dressed in black, laughing


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?”

a man holding the meltdown balm from un_did

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.” 

a black woman with un_did's meltdown

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.

romi dasani from un_did holding his products in a bag


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.

Categories
Profiles

Bryan Whitman: A Diamond In The Rough

Bryan Whitman – 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 Whitman 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.

arrow

Whitman 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 Whitman 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.”

Whitman 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,’” Whitman tells me. 

So, Whitman 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.


Whitman 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,” Whitman 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,” Whitman says.

And Whitman gives back just as much energy as he receives. While we’re accustomed to seeing bored celebrities with half smiles in fans’ pictures, Whitman 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 Whitman 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,” Whitman says, and I can tell he’s genuine. “It’s a really big thing to me.”

This is partially because of Whitman’s 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 Whitman 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. Whitman 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? Whitman is showing me that you can be both.

 


As we end the interview, I ask Whitman 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? Whitman 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 Whitman?

“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 Whitman for taking the time to speak with QUILL. You can follow Whitman on Instagram and TikTok.

Categories
Hair Profiles

Wes Sharpton & The Pursuit For Inner Peace

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.

arrow

“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.”

b&w wes sharpton walking down the street, looking behind him at the camera

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.  

a picture of a woman in nylon magazine with hair by wes sharpton

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.

wes sharpton's hair cut in vogue magazine

“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.”

b&w photo of wes sharpton cutting hair

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.’”

hairstory line up of products

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.) 

hairstory's new wash

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.”

wes sharpton holding a camera and smiling at the camera in b&w

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.

“Let people grow.”

b&w photo of wes sharpton looking at camera straight on


Thank you to Wes Sharpton for the honest, real conversation. Follow Sharpton on Instagram and his site. You can also follow Hairstory on their site and Instagram.


Read More Features
Categories
Profiles

Tim Hollinger Speaks About The Art Of Bathing

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.

arrow

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.

Categories
Profiles

Courtnei Lee: The Vision Of Decisions

Courtnei Lee has stopped smoking.

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.

arrow

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.”

courtnei lee smiling at camera with pink and blue eyeshadow

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.

courtnei lee and kas van neste baker in swimsuits smiling at camera 

“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.”

black and white photo of courtnei lee in neutral makeup smiling with her mouth open and hair in loose blonde waves

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.

courtnei lee with pink hair and bangs

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.

oyt cosmetics extreme moisture blend

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.”

oyt cosmetics lip colors

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.

a photo of courtnei lee; she's wearing a black top and earrings, makeup done, against a neon red background


Thank you to Courtnei Lee for sharing your story. You can find Lee on Instagram, and follow OYT Cosmetics on their website and Instagram.


A feature by QUILL Media.

Categories
Profiles

Michael Ayre And Luke Jordan Are Changing Consumerism For The Better

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. 

Noted.

arrow

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.

You can follow their personal Instagram, and visit SheHeThey’s website for more details and to view the amazing minority-owned businesses they’re hosting.

Categories
Profiles

The Resurgence Of Jayla Roxx

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.”

batme! cosmetics lashes from velvet collection

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.

batme! cosmetics eyeshadow donut palette

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.

jayla roxx makeup

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.

jayla roxx wearing makeup


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.”

batme! lashes from the velvet collection

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.

jayla roxx in blue dress posing


Thank you to Jayla Roxx for taking the time to speak with QUILL again, and congratulations on your successful release!

Follow BatMe! Cosmetics on their Instagram and site, and follow Roxx herself on her Instagram.


Read More About Jayla Roxx:
Jayla Roxx Wants You To Know This Is BatMe! Cosmetics’ Resurgence – Not A Restart
An Abridged Interview Between QUILL’s Tess and BatMe! Cosmetics’ Founder Jayla Roxx
Categories
Profiles

Welcome To The Barb Shop, Where Your Hair Is Yours To Chop Off

I say it. I can’t believe I say it, but I do: I group a woman-identifying person and a non-binary-identifying person together and say “you guys.”

In Santa Cruz, it’s genderless, the same way “dude” and “my guy” is. But in my line of work, I can’t blame being a Santa Cruzan. So, I check in.

“All good with ‘you guys,’” Megan Andrews says with their thumbs up, while Sheena Lister comments that she “gets the Santa Cruz vibes” from me.

It’s this ‘lax behavior that makes interviewing The Barb Shop’s Andrews and Lister so easy, so comfortable. But don’t take their demeanor as not taking their business seriously – because the second we get into it, the energy changes. They’re passionate. Dedicated.

But when life changes two months after a career move, it’s understandable why you must maintain a sense of lightheartedness and downright determination. Here – let me explain.

arrow

The Barb Shop was born from Lister’s discomfort. She paid $200 in salons – unrealistic to keep up with every six-to-10 weeks – or was the only woman in the barbershop. 

“I couldn’t help but ask myself over those years, where is the place for me? Where do I belong? Where should I be sitting? Where should I be getting my hair cut?” she explains.

sheena lister smiling at the camera

It was meeting Andrews that made the idea of launching this idea a possibility. Meeting through a mutual friend, the two bonded over sports… and then fell out of contact for two years, aware of one another, but not connected. That is, until Andrews went out to coffee with the aforementioned mutual friend.

“Our mutual friend said, ‘have you heard what Sheena’s doing?’ And Megan said, ‘I haven’t, what’s Sheena doing?’ And then the rest is Barb-story,” Lister smiles.

Andrews was drawn to the idea of Barb because they had felt the same way – the awkwardness of walking into a salon and barbershop and wondering, “where do I fit? Do I fit here?” 

After speaking again, this time about business and astrological compatibility (Lister is an Aquarius, and Andrews is a Scorpio; “we’ve stayed in the ‘best thing ever’ lane,” jokes Andrews), The Barb Shop became a reality.

Lister and Andrews had also created a pomade meant for short hair – no gender listed. The two gave themselves six months for proof of concept, but within two, proof of concept had been… well, proven. It was clear that Barb was filling a necessary space. 

pile of barb, a pomade by sheena lister and megan andrews of the barb shop

“What we’ve always said to each other is that we see Barb as much more than just a hair product, that there’s this community element, lifestyle element of who Barbs are and how they move through the world,” explains Andrews.

Lister jumps in. “I think that’s going to be the magic, to look at someone and be like, ‘oh, you’re a Barb.’ And that person goes, ‘oh, you’ve heard of Barb, I’m a Barb.’ And just to have that instant connection. It happens in communities. It happens with identities anyway, right?”

It does. And that’s when our conversation gets interesting.


As our readers know, QUILL is all about gender-inclusivity – men can wear makeup, and women don’t have to shave their armpits. But one thing to acknowledge: there are places in which men have always been accepted, whereas women have been shunned. It’s a twist on gender-inclusivity, but an important one to acknowledge.

“We are skewing into a space of wanting to represent more people first and focusing on that, with the value in mind behind it all that, yeah, hair has no gender,” says Andrews. “Hair length has no gender. That is absolutely where we come from.”

megan andrews, co founder of the barb shop, smiling at the camera

At the same time, look at their Instagram feed, and you won’t find cis men showing off their short ‘dos. This is purposeful.

“As soon as we talk about ‘hair has no gender,’ or ‘we don’t need to have these gendered conversations,’ [then] short hair is for men, long hair is for women,” Andrews continues. “We actually decided to be intentional about centering around non-men in order to create some more equity in that space and representation.”

On top of this, the words “gender neutral” and “gender inclusive” don’t always strike a chord with the audience. As Lister shares with me, “I just got push-back today on the use of the word gender-neutral, that, ‘well, if you say you’re a gender-neutral brand, but you’re targeting women, non-binary, trans folks…’ So there’s a little bit of a disconnect.”

And, sure, maybe it is a little confusing – at first glance. But when you dig deeper, you find that The Barb Shop is gender-neutral, because they’re normalizing short hair as a genderless concept through women and non-binary people – excuse me, Barbs – who were told that long hair was the only option.

QUILL always talks about taking steps toward inclusivity, and The Barb Shop has done that in neutralizing an outdated notion that short hair is for men, and men only. But that wasn’t enough for Lister and Andrews. So, they turned to activations.

“We call them Go Barb events. We partner with a stylist and they either pick a client who’s mentioned to them, ‘Hey, I really want to go short, I want to do a big chop.’ Or we’ve thrown out social media and said, ‘Hey, if you’re ready to go Barb, let us know,’” Andrews tells me. “And we sponsor the cut. We pay for the cut, we set up the whole thing and help that person go Barb.”

women with short hair outside of a hair cutting place

COVID put a wrench in these events, but Lister and Andrews are preparing to start them back up. On top of this, they have their “Ba(R)b + D” program.

“We’re going out to people who cut hair, who work in shops, who run salons and know products that they love, know products that they don’t love, and are the least celebrated in the industry sometimes – which is not okay,” Andrews emphasizes.

The two created a pool of hopefuls, which will be whittled down to an even smaller group. Through the program, stylists will “develop the products from formulation ingredients, all the way through testing on their own clients, with their own hands, and finishing with, ‘here’s the product we decided on, it’s going to market,’” Andrews says excitedly.

“They’re going to get credit with their actual names on our website and then our materials so that everyone knows who built this product. And these unsung heroes who are cutting our hair and making us feel so good get to be a part of what drives Barb forward.”

These ideas are big, and they’re damn impressive. I mention that authenticity is important when building a brand that is to be taken seriously, and that it appears the two can be themselves.

“We are the definition of what so many entrepreneurs and so many underrepresented founders go through every single day. You walk into a room with people who don’t look like you and instinctively are like, ‘holy shit, can I be myself?’” says Lister.

“And what I truly appreciate about this journey is that both of us can show up as ourselves every single day. That’s what our entire brand is all about.” She pauses thoughtfully. “I think it’s an example of when you show up as your authentic self, people will listen. Because it’s much easier to pretend you’re somebody you’re not just to fit in.”

Andrews feels the same. “This is just how we want to look,” they shrug. “We don’t feel brave. We don’t feel like we’re doing things. This is who we are. So we hope our brand is imbuing this confidence of moving through the world that everyone deserves.”

barbs standing against orange background, laughing

Inclusion doesn’t stop at having short hair and offering cuts, though. Andrews and Lister know that anyone can have short hair – but not every hair type has products available to them. For this reason, “we have worked with one consultant specifically, who’s an educator, and we’re looking forward to continuing to learn about the industry and hair types in general,” says Lister.

It comes back to creating community among Barbs. “The ‘why’ for what we’re doing is to unite folks with short hair and create a community for folks with short hair, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, all of it,” Lister shares. “It’s a no-brainer for us. If we’re creating products for people with short hair, we need to make sure that’s inclusive of all hair textures, types, and all humans.”

barbs

The word “inclusive” sticks out, because there’s really no other word to describe what Lister and Andrews are doing.


As we wrap up our interview exactly 43 minutes later, I express my gratitude. And that’s when they ask me about QUILL – for the details, specifically.

I’m taken aback. I’m interviewing them, am I not? But they seem interested, so I explain that my past workplace, in which I was a beauty editor, was all about performative activism, and my bisexual, woman-identifying self did not feel comfortable. So I left, combined my love of beauty and love for my community to form QUILL, and the rest is history.

It feels good to tell my story to people who get it. “Congrats to everyone doing it!” Andrews exclaims, and I laugh. “We’re all doing it,” I concede, a large smile on my face.

We confirm details on publishing (I will be delayed in reaching out again to confirm, and Lister and Andrews will respond as if it’s no big deal, bless their hearts), thank one another, and hang up. 

I look at my long hair after the two Barbs hang up, admire the hair I always want but cut off when things in life go awry. Life is good now, and my hair reflects that, flowing in soft waves down my body.

So I head to the bathroom, grab the scissors, and chop my chest-length hair to my collarbones. I’m not quite a Barb yet, I know – and maybe I’ll never be a full Barb – but I’m one step closer. And if that’s what will give me the power and confidence that Andrews and Lister emanate, I’ll take it.

I chop another inch off.


megan and sheena sitting down holding barb hair pomade

Thank you to Sheena Lister and Megan Andrews for sharing their story. You can find The Barb Shop on their website and Instagram.


Read More Profiles:
Jenn Harper Won’t Let You Erase Her Ancestry
Johnny Kritsberg and Jeff Parshley Don’t Care For Beauty’s Gender Stereotypes
Categories
Makeup Profiles

Jenn Harper Won’t Let You Erase Her Ancestry

When my co-founder, Marissa, texted me about Cheekbone Beauty, I immediately went to the back-story. Who is the founder? Why does this company exist?

The answer: Jenn Harper, to rebuild her roots to her Anishinaabe community and shed light on the eradication of an entire people – and spotlight the beauty that has come from these very people.

So, when I sit down with Jenn Harper, I’m immediately drawn to her centered energy. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I know this woman is strong before hearing a word from her.

I’m not wrong. Cheekbone Beauty may be a vehicle, but Jenn Harper is, without a doubt, in the driver’s seat.


cheekbone beauty products

Cheekbone Beauty began as a dream. Literally.

“A corner in my basement was where we started, but the true beginning happened after one of those pop-out-of-bed-in-the-middle-of-the-night dreams.”

The imagery was vivid, with Harper remembering “the joy and laughter of these Native little girls that were covered in lip gloss.”

It sounds like a point-A-to-point-B story: Harper went to bed, woke up with an idea, and got to work. And in some ways, this is true – as Harper says with a smile, “that night, I grabbed my laptop and started writing what is really the beginning of our business plan today; really, the foundations of it.”

But there was history behind Cheekbone Beauty as well. At the time Harper had the dream, she was learning about her ancestors and the erasure of their culture through residential schools, a system built by government and church officials to impose a more Eurocentric way of living.

“[Residential schools] really robbed many people from our communities of their language,” explains Harper, “which is really closely tied to their culture and who they are – and, also, many of their practices.”

But Harper’s family lineage is filled with strong women. She tells me the inspiring story of how her grandmother brought Anishinaabemowin – her people’s language – back to the community, despite forced residential schooling from the ages of six through 16. Rejecting the attempts to strip away her culture, Emily Paul, Harper’s grandmother, was resilient, maintaining her cultural identity.

“When she got back to our community, that’s all she did: speak our language. And every one of my aunties and uncles and my cousins that live on the reservation actually all speak Anishinaabemowin.” My jaw drops in awe at this story.

“She’s no longer here, but how incredible is it that her family really took back the language?”

jenn harper of cheekbone beauty's grandmother, emily paul

Harper then explains that, though her grandmother was a powerhouse, the concept and existence of residential schooling led to transgenerational trauma; her paternal grandparents passed along their trauma to her father, who in turn passed the trauma to Harper and her siblings.

Turns out, this is also a large source of inspiration behind Cheekbone Beauty: only a few months prior to this dream, Harper had begun her path to sobriety. And it’s not something that’s uncommon – many First Nations families are afflicted by transgenerational trauma.

“We look at the reservation system: marginalized, impoverished addiction, violence and suicide is really the result,” Harper says in a matter-of-fact tone. “While [learning and acknowledging] all that, I was in this space where I was turning my own life around.” 

Harper saw the stereotypes surrounding First Nations families, including struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. Still, the fight was an uphill battle… until she reached an epiphany.

“I realized what took me so long to get sober was the shame that surrounded addiction,” she says. “When I realized the power of voicing something, getting really vulnerable… I really believe that the moment I gave a voice to it, that shame started to die. I was killing it. And that’s what helped me get well and heal.”

She credits the love around her as a source of constant support. “Having people around me that love me and care about me was really powerful, and part of that healing journey was no longer being ashamed of who I was and where I came from.”

Jenn, BJ and nieces and nephews

During her healing process, she created a special friendship, one that led to a powerful sense that she was being truly seen. “She said something to me about a year after being sober: ‘this is the version of you that I saw while [you were] still sick.'”

Wow, I think. But Harper takes it a step further, brings home the message of human connection and its true power upon us.

“Imagine us as human beings, having that power to see the best version of the people that we know in our lives before they can even see it, and how powerful that can be in helping someone,” she surmises.

It’s poetry that wrote itself many years back, poetry brought to life that illuminates society’s desire for togetherness. The honor to write this insight is overwhelming.


Harper’s dedication to supporting others extends to her dedication to creating a legitimate beauty line, starting with something she really, really wants to stress: “I’m proud that this last couple of weeks, we officially became B Corp certified!” she tells me excitedly.

Becoming B Corp certified isn’t easy – it’s not simply writing a check and having a background check. In fact, the process is so extensive, it took almost a year to complete the process and receive the certification. “They dive into every ingredient, your environmental impact in terms of the buildings that you are housed in, they then have to go reach out to your suppliers…” Harper explains. I’m tired just thinking about it.

Sustainability and transitioning into a “clean” brand – an unregulated, vague term – is also top of mind for Harper.

“We look at things like the toxicity levels of ingredients, and for pigments, this is where all the color and makeup come from.” Read: this is where the unhealthy, un-clean ingredients are hidden, often with negative effects on our bodies when applying highly-pigmented eyeshadows and bronzers.

Harper is dedicated to overcoming this and pursuing sustainability, making sure “the pigment suppliers we work with constantly are testing their pigments and colors.”

jenn harper working on formulas for cheekbone beauty

Certifications like this are important to Harper, who now carefully studies the products she picks up. While she wants to believe in the best version of others, she’s also aware of the loopholes and half-truths that float around the industry. She’s careful when it comes to bringing in team members, aware that the trust she places in them reflects on Cheekbone Beauty – and especially herself.

“You just want people to know you’re legit,” she says. “I just want people to know I’m legit.”

Cleanliness aside, Harper is also excited about the philanthropic aspect of being a B Corp – a priority from the beginning, when she was building the foundational business plan and reflecting on her family history.

“We wanted to [give back] because that’s who we are, and it’s why we exist. With B Corp, we give 2% of revenues. So that 2% of revenues is regardless of profitability.” I must look confused – or, as I choose to believe, captivated. Harper continues her thorough explanation: “So if you’re selling said amount of money per year and your revenues say that, then you have to give back the 2%, which I think is awesome.”

She smiles, then emphasizes her philanthropic mindset: “I think that’s fantastic.”

When it comes to where these revenues go, Harper says Cheekbone Beauty is “balancing out our giving to be both an environmental cause as well as an Indigenous youth organization cause.”

jenn harper at six years old

Cheekbone Beauty has given back since the beginning. “I think it’s almost close to the $200,000 range now; it’s well over $150,000 back to communities that support Indigenous youth,” Harper says proudly – not arrogantly. But the philanthropy extends further: “Our specific goal is to support educational opportunities, but we’re here to support you whenever and however we can.”

When it comes to environmental causes, Cheekbone Beauty gives back 1% to the planet as well. “For us, that’s always been about planting trees with an organization called One Tree Planted,” Harper explains.

I express how this initiative is rare among other companies I’ve looked into – even B Corps. Harper tilts her head. “[Female-led organizations or female-identifying-led organization] tend to want to figure out how to give back to our community. And that goes back to that whole matriarchal circle, take care of our community.”

She continues to posit questions. “Is that why we are like that? Is it about always protecting our own and taking care of our family?” she asks. “I don’t have all the answers on that one, but I found that to be interesting.”

Harper is humble in her knowledge of this, though she has the experience: she was part of the organization She.E.O. “It was about women founders and a network to support women founders,” Harper says about the organization, which she joined in her early days. “They had some studies and data, [and they showed that] women-led organizations really always are about giving back to community.”

jenn harper sitting at desk at cheekbone beauty office

I think of the male executives behind the scenes, helming companies, leading discussions regarding diversity (and the irony behind that). But Harper isn’t scrutinizing, simply “thinking of that through an Indigenous lens.”

It comes back to her culture. It always does.


I note that the first product we featured from Cheekbone Beauty was their Sustain Eyeliner Pencil – the bright blue color, specifically.

In a world filled with nude Naked palettes and subtle beiges and bronzes, I ask if choosing bold colors for the brand’s products was a conscious decision. If so – which I suspected – why?

“Natural beauty brands have always slanted towards the more muted tones,” Harper acknowledges. “However, if we look in nature, think of the vibrant pinks, purples… those colors exist out there in the most beautiful florals and fauna everywhere we see. The color is there.”

mint green eyeshadow from cheekbone beauty on model's eyes

It is. I look next to me, at my “California” Bouquet, filled with an assortment of flowers bursting with color. The plants outside of my home are blooming as spring moves to summer. Harper has taken the beauty and color and run with it.

It also comes back to the language that her grandparents were being stripped of, a language where one word can convey an entire sentence. “Within the Anishinaabemowin, which is the word for our language, everything is so descriptive. And I think that’s really, really powerful.”

She continues: “I felt like that’s just the way that [my ancestors] would communicate: with great description,” she says thoughtfully. “And there’s always a tone of gratitude in how things were described through the language.”

So, the bright pops of color come from the vivid shades that are there. But Harper keeps skin in mind, too, and how the colors will appear on different tones, “from the fairest of fairest skin tones to the deepest of dark melanin.” And what I love most: porcelain skin was not the highlight when thinking of colors.

three models wearing bright colors on their eyes from cheekbone beauty

As Harper says, “sometimes, definitely on the deeper skin tones, you want some bold color. It does bring out a bit of a pop.” It’s a sense of inclusivity that I find many brands miss out on; one subtle blush for darker skin tones, five for tan and beige that range from rosy to flaming orange. To sum it up with Harper’s words: “When we talk about inclusivity, we’re talking about shade ranges.”

It’s the importance of growth and inclusivity that led Harper to choose Sephora in Canada as Cheekbone Beauty’s partner. “When I see the work that Sephora has done in terms of inclusivity, I think they’ve done an incredible job.” Harper loves being included in back-end meetings, absorbing plenty of information, and she says it’s always with inclusivity at the forefront.

“I feel like,” she says, to close out our interview on the perfect note, “we are living in a time where we are going to see that makeup is available and accessible to each and every human being on the planet.”

jenn wearing colorful dress


Thank you to Jenn Harper for speaking with QUILL. You can check out Cheekbone Beauty on their website, as well as their Instagram.

Categories
Interviews Makeup Profiles

Jeff Parshley Does It All In The Name Of Equality – And He Won’t Stop

Jeff Parshley is a man of many talents.

He co-founded the NOH8 Campaign; he created his own brand, NOW Nail Polish, which recently collaborated with TikTok-er Johnny Kritsberg; and he is an outspoken activist for the LGBTQ+ community.

So, naturally, the first question I ask is a big one: “Who are you, Jeff?”

Anyone else would stutter, but Parshley doesn’t hesitate. He launches directly into who he is. And apparently, it all started by accident.

And perhaps it did begin as an accident. Perhaps he did fall into becoming a founder, an entrepreneur, an activist, all by accident.

But clearly, Jeff Parshley knows who he is at his core. And it’s this knowledge, this comfort with himself, this belief in himself, that has led him to take on so many roles at once – and thrive.

So, how was it an accident? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, actually, and Parshley has given me the honor of telling it.


jeff parshley smiling at camera. he's holding his bowtie between two fingers with mint green now nail polish on

Parshley was born in a small town in New Hampshire, where there wasn’t much LGBTQ+ representation.

And while it’s hard for me to believe, Parshley says he didn’t know who he was at the time. He struggled with his identity before he eventually landed in West Hollywood.

There, Parshley became enmeshed in the LGBTQ+ community, joining rallies and protests for equality. The protests became more consistent, more passionate, as Proposition 8 – a proposition against gay marriage in California – was placed on the ballot in 2008.

“Even when it was up for a vote, we were thinking, ‘oh, there’s no way.’” Marriage equality was already legal; the idea of reversing such a fundamental right for the LGBTQ+ community seemed impossible.

But within 24 hours, the community had experienced a slew of bittersweet emotions: Barack Obama was elected president, and Proposition 8 had passed.

“[Co-founder Adam Bouska] and I started taking part in the rallies and the protests. … We got home one night and we were just thinking to ourselves, ‘how can we speak out beyond that?’ Because we felt like the protests were so powerful,” Parshley explains, discussing the collective positive reactions: people clearing restaurants, traffic stopping, tenants supporting the rallies from their apartment windows. “Everybody supporting the protests, it made us want to do more.”

Parshley recalls the numerous signs he saw reading, “I’m a victim of H8.”

“Proposition 8 was kind of labeled ‘Proposition H8’ here, because it was writing discrimination into the law. We started seeing profile photos pop up that said, ‘I’m a victim of H8,’ and [Bouska and I] related to that message and understood it.’”

However, you had to click on the profile pictures in order to identify the person holding the sign. Bouska and Parshley wanted to take it a step further – “we [wanted to] send that same message, but show our faces; put our faces to it and show who we were, show who the victim was, and show how we felt.” So, at one in the morning following a Proposition 8 protest, they pulled out a camera and snapped what are now iconic pictures of each other.

jeff parshley original noh8 campaign photo adam bouska original noh8 campaign photo

“We thought, ‘you know what? We should get other people to take these photos.’ …. We had a group of nine to start the collage, our closest friends. And we just said, ‘hey, listen, this is the photo that we took the other night, and would you want to take one in support of the message?’”

The answer was, of course, a resounding yes. But it didn’t end at the nine friends. “They took one, and then their friends took one, and then their friends took one, and then it just started snowballing into more than we ever thought.’”

The snowball led to a discussion: “We realized, ‘okay, now there’s something here. People are getting involved. They’re using it as a tool to create dialogue. What can we do here?’” Looking over the more than 1,000 photos inspired by the initial two they had taken that first night, Parshley and Bouska founded the NOH8 Campaign.

“We call ourselves accidental activists … We just wanted to speak out to our friends and our family and that’s the way we did it. … It’s just crazy that NOH8 has become what it has.”

Yes, there are celebrities involved in the NOH8 campaign, but “the foundation of this campaign is everyday people,” says Parshley. And while celebrities like Miley Cyrus may have significant influence in comparison to the “everyday” person, Parshley hopes to remind followers that, “we all have influence. … If we can all use that in a way to create change, then let’s do it.”

And the tape? “I felt like I was silenced. I felt like my rights were taken away. I felt like my voice didn’t matter. My right was up to a majority vote.”

Parshley, who has been very animated since we said hello, slows down. “Even if all of the people in the LGBTQ+ community supported ‘No on Prop 8,’ if nobody else does, the majority wins.“

Parshley looks directly at me, making sure I understand the importance of this to him; to an entire blindsided community. “One-hundred percent of the LGBTQ+ community can support [‘No on Prop 8’]. But if the majority doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.”

And tragically, he’s absolutely right.


When your identity is under attack and your rights are being stripped, you fight back. That’s all you can do.

So, it makes sense when Parshley calls himself an “accidental activist” again. It wasn’t a title he strived for or worked at – he simply wanted to make a statement, and that statement turned into a global campaign.

a family having taken a photo to support the noh8 campaign

“For the last 14 years, [the NOH8 Campaign has] been championing equality in all aspects of what we do. We encourage equality across the board for everything. And it’s not just about marriage equality, because people showed us that it’s more than that,” Parshley says, reflecting on the millions that have supported the campaign. “They showed us that the campaign means so much more than what we ever even thought it meant.”

COVID sidelined the events-based organization for two years, but they’re getting back into the swing of things easily. “We just did a 10-city tour across to Atlanta and then back [to California],” Parshley says; I know this because, when I held the interview with Kritsberg regarding their collaboration (more on that later), Parshley was on that tour.

“We’ve always said that if people still come, we’ll keep going,” Parshley explains.

“And people still come. So it’s not something that we think has an ending because … now, it’s still, if not more, needed.” He references the anti-trans and Don’t Say Gay bills. “In Florida … we can’t even learn about our own education or history,” Parshley expresses, shaking his head. “There’s a lot of awareness still to be raised.”

It’s for this reason Parshley wants to emphasize the broader goals of the NOH8 Campaign: “We’ve had to explain … ‘this campaign is not solely a campaign for marriage equality, this is a campaign for no hate, this is a campaign for equality, this is a campaign for anti-discrimination and anti-bullying, this is a campaign to bring people together.”

a couple with tape and noh8 on their faces in support of the noh8 campaign

Parshley admits that he never saw this exponential growth coming, but that he knew it was going to be bigger than Proposition 8.

When marriage equality was signed into federal law during the Obama administration in 2012, Parshley and the NOH8 team saw it as an opportunity to expand internationally.

“It’s crazy to think that with all of the different languages and the different cultures, just how many people still can relate to the message of hate. Or how many people could relate to the message of standing up against it. In all of those countries, we had people come.”

The reaction and participation during the first international rounds “showed us that we cannot stop this, because people want to get involved. We have a tool that’s creating dialogue, and we want them to use it.”

Two years after COVID placed a stop on travel, Parshley is excited to launch, in some ways, the campaign’s rebirth. “A lot of people know the meaning of the photo,” he says. NOH8 has begun offering photo shoots, ways for supporters to join the movement and show that they are “proof of a safe space.” By participating, others see your photo, which can “help people that might need somebody to talk to gravitate toward you,” Parshley says.

And just like that, silence comes into the picture. But this silence, the one we’re talking about, isn’t ignorance or cowardice: it’s solidarity. The full circle from that first photo 14 years ago is beautiful.


It’s here that I mention that QUILL is my own form of activism; a response to a former workplace that silenced my bisexuality.

I use this to segue to NOW, the nail polish brand Parshley founded.

now nail polish in a rainbow splatter pattern

I ask if it was connected to NOH8, and Parshley laughs. “The story is actually quite similar to how the NOH8 Campaign started.” AKA: kind of an accident.

Parshley had followed men on Instagram who were wearing nail polish, and he had always found it to be “cool.” But when he sat next to a woman-presenting person on a plane with short fingernails, who just so happened to be wearing teal polish, it clicked in Parshley’s mind. And in 2019, Parshley started wearing nail polish. It wasn’t to make a political statement – “I thought it looked cool. Literally, I just thought it looked cool.”

People flocked to him, complimenting his nails everywhere he went. And the same thing happened: “I saw somebody with nails that looked like mine, I painted mine, somebody saw my nails that looked like theirs… I just went, ‘man, this is happening all over again.’”

Parshley tried every type – “glitter, no glitter, flat, matte, I was trying everything. I was so new to it.”

jeff parshley wearing fur jacket and mint green now nail polish

But it was one day in Walgreens that he noticed he was crouching “so I was a little smaller. I could feel myself hiding.” He made his polish choice quickly after checking that the coast was clear. But it ignited something in him.

“At one point, I just thought, ‘you know what? There needs to be a brand that can advertise to everybody.” Keep in mind, this was before the Harry-Styles, Lil-Yachty, MGK world, where cisgender men are founding nail polish lines and creating a mainstream alternative look for men. Nail polish was still very much considered a women’s product. But Parshley, who had fallen in love with OPI’s quality, was determined to change that.

With the NOH8 Campaign growing in numbers, he DM’d OPI on Instagram.

“I said, ‘hey, OPI, I’m Jeff. I created the NOH8 Campaign, and I started wearing nail polish recently. I just feel like more guys and more men are going to be wearing this in the future. … If you’re interested in a collaboration, I’d love to work with you.” He pitched a small unisex line, just a few colors, with advertisements featuring both men’s and women’s hands.

OPI read it – Instagram lets you know if the recipient has “Seen” your message – and didn’t respond.

Rather than be discouraged, Parshley saw an opportunity. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m just going to create my own.’” And, having already started the NOH8 Campaign, he was no stranger to building a brand from the ground up. He found the top three polish manufacturers in Southern California, decided on the bottle design – “it was important to me that they weren’t like grandma’s nail polish, what you typically see in your grandma’s medicine cabinet,” he laughs – and tried to think up a name.

“I went, ‘there’s got to be a better way to say ‘unisex’ than writing ‘unisex.’” He wrote “Not Only Women” on a piece of paper – he didn’t want it to be geared toward just men or just women, he explains – and realized the acronym was “NOW.” And just like that, the brand name was set in stone.

woman in red dress holding red now nail polish by jeff parshley

I mention the logo and how it represents all genders. Parshley emphasizes how important it was that the logo didn’t lean toward men or women, that it encompassed all identities. “I’m not saying this is a line for men. This is not a line for only men, it’s a line for everybody. … I say it as in nail polish, but it’s really everything.” He throws heels, lipstick, and handbags out as other examples.

“It blows me away that these companies will continue to only market to women,” he says, mentioning that even OPI’s male models’ hands look feminine.

It’s a deceptive, if not almost dishonest, way of marketing a product to all genders… without saying it’s for all genders, creating a division between consumers within the beauty world. (Sound familiar, devoted QUILL readers?)

So, Parshley says, NOW isn’t a gendered line. “It’s great that there’s [men’s] lines. … [But] it’s important for me as a brand to promote equality,” he explains, “because that’s what I stand for. And to do it in a way that is truly equal – not just saying, ‘oh, we need to be equal, so here’s the man’s line,’ but ‘we need to be equal, so here’s a line for everybody.’”

Parshley says he sees many products this way, which is what inspired him to reach out to eyeliner guru and tutorial creator Kritsberg (@okjohnnyboy on social media, where he has more than one million followers combined).

“I worked with Johnny to expand into eyeliner because he’s a man wearing eyeliner, and that’s not common, and I think that it should be. I think anybody that wants to wear it should be able to,” Parshley says adamantly. “We’re going to market [the eyeliner] to everybody, and we’re going to help everybody see that, if you want to wear this product, then it’s for you.”

okjohnnyboy and now polish eyeliner pen

And eyeliner is just the next step; Parshley is already thinking toward the future, looking at eyebrow gels, as well as lip tints that can be used as blush. “There’s a lot of stuff that I think anybody could and should use if it’s going to make them look or feel good.” I agree wholeheartedly – that’s why QUILL exists – and Parshley acknowledges that it’s small brands that are going to make a difference.

“I think the more we can talk about it being for everybody, the more that bigger brands will reconsider how they’re doing it. … It’s not going to happen overnight, obviously,” he concedes. And of course it won’t – the beauty industry has made the concept of gender a controversial statement when paired with lashes and lipstick – but it’s brands like Parshley’s NOW Polish that will change the landscape.

“I’m hoping to force brands to do it, which then will force society to unlearn that these are gender exclusive products, because that’s just not how the world works anymore,” Parshley states.

“Like Johnny said in the last interview, I want to be able to walk into a Target or Sephora or an Ulta and see eyes like mine or hands like mine or lips like mine, and we don’t see that yet.”

I think about how, when I walk into Sephora, everything is marketed toward me. I can’t think of the last time I saw a kiosk with a man wearing eyeliner. When I was younger, I never thought about it, and that realization is the twist of the knife in me.


I cap my interviews at 35 minutes; it’s been 45 with Parshley, and I’ve apologized profusely after he’s answered each question.

But Parshley is quick to say “it’s okay, I’m fine,” each time.

I know he’s busy, so I give him The Final Big Question: what does he hope to see in 2022 and 2023?

“A small one would just be to continue to expand NOW Polish, and to add more colors and more products and build a reputation in the community of the quality. It’s not just a one-off nail polish that we’ve created,” he explains. “We’ve tried to make it the best. And any other products that we will make, we’ll try to make those the best, too.”

Quality is critical to Parshley, but it’s the marketing that he’s most focused on right now – for both NOW and for other brands, especially as Pride Month comes. “I just want to see other companies realize that there’s more to their demographic than they might know. To see some of them utilize them more than just in June. … I feel as though it’s inauthentic,” he says, regarding brands capitalizing on Pride.

black man with afro wearing periwinkle now nail polish by jeff parshley

I comment on how brands throw up palettes in June, then cut the price by 50% the minute July hits. I joke that brands don’t realize the LGBTQ+ community exists for more than 30 days, and Parshley nods in agreement. “It’s insane to me that they get away with it.”

He also hopes that established brands will take steps in the right direction with their advertising. “They’re the ones with the massive influence, and the massive following as far as their products go, and they’re creating the stigma … in society that makeup is for women.”

Parshley believes changing marketing plans won’t just benefit the brands – it will benefit society, as well.

The man wearing lipstick down the street won’t be punched in the mouth, for example. So, while Parshley hopes NOW grows to these brands’ levels, he hopes the major brands will lead the charge no matter what. After all, he says, it’s simple.

“When I’m in [stores], I’m buying women’s products, in my opinion, and I don’t like that. But I do it because it’s not a woman’s product, it’s just marketed that way,” he says, acknowledging the insecurity and the self-assuredness that comes with breaking gender binaries. “I understand that, but not everybody does.” For example, in small towns like the one he grew up in, people can’t imagine makeup being for men or nonbinary people.

nonbinary person holding now's purple polish with makeup on

Then he says the magic words: “All it takes is a picture.”

Parshley continues his thoughts – that by changing advertising with a picture, you’re changing an entire industry. One brand truly can completely turn the beauty industry upside-down without saying a word, just using a picture of a man – and I reflect on how this is exactly where NOH8 started: a picture.

Parshley is many things, but he is the embodiment of a picture speaking a thousand words. Maybe a couple million. Or maybe nothing but the initial thought that spurred his accidental activism: “I hope that changes.”

As the wise Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I firmly believe that Jeff Parshley is an extremely active part of this change, change that will last – through NOW Polish, through his collaborations, through the NOH8 Campaign, through his determination — and I’m confident it will not be by accident.

jeff parshley wearing black nail polish in front of a pink background

Thank you to Jeff Parshley for his time and insight. You can find Jeff on Instagram and Twitter, the NOH8 Campaign on their website and Instagram, and NOW Nail Polish on their website and Instagram.


All photos, including NOH8 Campaign photos, by co-founder Adam Bouska.