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Owning Your Ugly at the Prettiest Place on Earth, Sephora

I met up with Arabelle Sicardi and Tayler Smith, a makeup artist and photographer duo, at Sephora to talk about their latest series Most Important Ugly. The portrait makeup series is like wearing your heart on your sleeve, except on your face.

by Fiona Duncan
May 5 2014, 11:00am

Often when I’m arranging to meet someone I know from online for the first time, there has to come some awkward exchange of personal physical traits, our blind date self-description (I’ll be the petite blonde in beige…). When I met up with Arabelle Sicardi and Tayler Smith no such words were necessary. The pair are unmistakable. Arabelle, a.k.a. Fashion Pirate, is short and wears her hair in a spectrum of blue-green tones, from teal to turquoise to grass and acid; Tayler, taller, is tangerine orange. Both dress like the Rookie demographic that Arabelle writes for; that is, with their insides on the outside. Their styles are each their own—Arabelle is sci-fi, punk, Japanophilic, and queer; Tayler is stately, 70s, floral, and femme—but also the same: equally colorful, intellectual, and clashing.

I wanted to meet the duo to discuss their collaborative photography project, Most Important Ugly, a portrait series designed to, “negotiate the sitter’s stories of alienation and presentation, memories and disremembering,” through makeup. The series consists of thirteen portraits of thirteen subjects—a diverse cast of Arabelle and Tayler's muses.

These are portraits of a process: immediately before each photoshoot, Arabelle and Tayler asked their chosen sitters to answer in talk a series of questions from a list Arabelle composed titled “Therapy Sessions at Sephora.” Questions like: Who taught you what pretty is? Have you ever had a nightmare about your looks? What do you hate about yourself when you look in the mirror? Arabelle used their answers to paint, in abstract makeup, a picture of their shame, pain, power, and beauty on their own face while Tayler staged the photographs. The intent was to reveal, “the monsters that are hidden inside of us when we're taught what we are is not enough, or is too much, or that it shouldn’t exist at all.”

They were on time and dressed to the nines, with faces painted like characters out of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. They'd stayed up late at a sleepover the night before, and traveled in from New Jersey together. As we browsed the shimmery shelves of the makeup conglomerate, a half dozen black and red cloaked employees interrupted us with the same query: “Are you girls OK?” About a third of the display samples were missing—presumably in someone’s purse.

VICE: Do you guys come here often?
Arabelle: All the time. I love watching girls bond over make up—it makes me so happy! My favorite Sephora is the one at Union Square. I’ll literally sit down at one of those demonstration tables and people watch. It’s really creepy of me.

If I’m out of the house for a long time, I’ll come reapply makeup at Sephora. Do you think most of these makeup brands are made in the same place?
Tayler:Yeah, because a lot of them are owned by the same company, LVMH.

Arabelle: Sephora itself is owned by LVMH. It’s all very political, like what gets promoted first, what’s on the kiosk endcaps. There was a really good piece in Business of Fashion about their business strategy. I like being aware of corporate agendas so I'm able to apply appropriate skepticism to the latest brands and beauty trends. I especially like knowing what products, colors, and smells are most popular where so I can test them out before everyone else around me. I'm just really nosy.

How do you two know each other?
Tayler: The Internet.

Arabelle: Tumblr. I needed someone to help me take photos for my fashion blog after my old photographer moved to Japan. I saw that Tayler had really cool stuff on her website, so I was like asked her if she was interested in working on this project.

Did you meet most of your subjects for this project online too?
Some of them. Many are my readers. I did a open casting call on my site.

Tayler: A very small portion are people I go to school with. Kids I’d see around and thought would be amazing for the project. Then there are the muses.

Who are the muses?
Arabelle: Our main girl is Indigo. She’s the girl with the biggest photo in the show, she's on the show cards and everything too. I wanted her from the beginning and we're going to work on a lot of stuff together in the future. And there's Hari Nef. The first time we met was actually at that 285 Kent show I just told you about. There's Eri Wakiyama too. She was the ultimate Monster in the series. Doing her makeup was hard because she's already quite self-actualized into what we were trying to pull out of everyone else through questions. She wasn't afraid at all so there was little to make her anxious about. She is an end goal of identity because she's so free.

Tayler: Shooting Indigo was definitely the biggest moment for me. She's self-actualized as her own type of monster. When I was shooting her, Arabelle was standing really close to me, and when I got the picture, we both collapsed onto the floor.

Could you tell me a bit about the project’s process? Mainly about the questionnaire, “Therapy Sessions at Sephora,” that you gave each of your subjects...
Arabelle: I came up with the questions during a panic attack in Sephora a year ago, about. I was in a bad place and I wanted to ask myself how I got there and how I should get out. I started asking them to other people and it helped both of us figure out what we hated and needed to change about our lives.

I ask the same questions to everyone who sits for us. Obviously depending on how they answer one of them, we go on tangents, I ask them other things to personalize the experience. The questions are meant to get in your head and make you map out your body anxieties for me so we can pull them out, blow them up and make a tribute together. For some people it was really scary and they got visibly upset when I found their ultimate weak spot, but those people in particular loved the end result mostly because it made them face their fears. I mean, we're not trying to bully them for no reason. It's project is about accepting yourself, even the gruesome parts—especially the gruesome parts—and kissing your scars. I think they're the most interesting parts of our bodies. Why not treat them that way? At the very least, they show you survived.

Do you wear makeup everyday?
No, I think this is the first day I’ve worn makeup in a week. I have to be in a certain mindset to wear makeup but it gets my shit together, do you know what I mean?

Not really...
Makeup helps me get my shit together. It gives me purpose, a plan, and process. I’ll sit and listen to Missy Elliott and, like, get my paint on. I was listening to My Chemical Romance this morning and I think it shows in my makeup.

When you wear makeup do you always wear such bold colors? Your eyelids look like a watercolor, Tayler; it’s so pretty.
Thank you! Color is my vice—hah! I feel the most confident and safe when I'm wearing bold colors.

Do you feel like bold makeup is a power?
Definitely. That’s the whole point of the project: to harness the power of monstrosity. I would say "feminine" monstrosity but this project isn't so much about being femme or being a girl as it is about something outside of gender. Actually, we purposely included trans and non-binary portraits and changed the original title, Girlmonsters, to Most Important Ugly. It fits into the narrative arc of how I came up with the idea in the first place, from something reactionary and resistant to something bigger. The first time I ever did resistance makeup in the way that the project uses it was after a show at 285 Kent. Traveling home from Brooklyn to where I live in Jersey is a nightmare: it’s a two hour commute at two in the morning, you’re alone, it's terrifying. Knowing I’d have this long way home, I put on big red eyeshadow for the show, messy red glitter, smudged purple lipstick that made my teeth yellow looking. And no one bothered me on the way home. It was great. They couldn't understand what I was doing with my face. I felt safe.

What's your "Most Important Beautiful"?
My friends! My chosen family. I don't care too much about my own body identity and disassociate from it a lot, ironically. But I focus on being supportive to my friends and their journeys. We have to take care of each other. Our stories and friends are what keep us afloat.

Tayler: My most important beautiful is not human.