Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends show is finally on Netflix. That means I don’t have to search the ends of the internet to stream my favorite series—it also means endless hair and beauty inspiration.
I remember my mom watching Girlfriends in the early 2000s, when I’d secretly enjoy joining her on the couch each week to see how Joan, Maya, Toni, Lynn, and Williams’s shenanigans would unfold. I didn’t always know what was going on (the show started when I was five and ended when I was in the eighth grade), but I was always entertained, and I looked up to each of the characters for different reasons. Joan’s hard work, Lynn’s artistic open-mindedness, Maya’s unapologetic spirit, and Toni’s confidence and honesty motivated me through middle school. The show’s fashion and beauty looks were my mood board, from curls, blowouts, and weaves to wigs, braids, and updos. Inspiration didn’t stop at the hair either. There was Joan’s lit-from-within glow, Lynn’s au natural meets gothic-chic vibe, Maya’s hot pink lips and smoky eyes, and Toni’s sexy red lips. It was all a glimpse of what I thought my adult life could look and feel like.
“When I got the job, the direction I got from Mara was that these four girls were cast because of who they are. The way they appeared to the naked eye was how she wanted them to be portrayed on camera,” says Rea Ann Silva, the show’s makeup artist and founder of Beautyblender (she credits Girlfriends as the birthplace for her successful brand, since she was always cutting makeup sponges on set to get the perfect shape). “My job wasn’t about changing their look; it was about building off of it to create nuances and enhancing details for each character per episode. Building these characters isn’t dependent on just makeup or just wardrobe. The trifecta of hair, makeup, and wardrobe is really how transformations came to life—we worked so closely together, and that’s where we saw such great success.” In order to achieve each woman’s dewy glow, Silva had to set one thing straight: “There’s a thin line between being glow-y and greasy.” Her pro move was to enhance the glow on the high points of the face, “where it will catch the light, adding dimension to the skin.”
As a young Black girl, I don’t think I understood how important these images were at the time I was taking them in, but I just knew I was experiencing magic: I was watching women I wanted to be like when I grew up. I saw confident beautiful Black women embracing themselves in a world that constantly negates us. I saw the types of friendships I wanted to cultivate. I saw honesty in the fact that life isn’t always perfect.
Watching their stories unfold today, I can now better understand and even relate to them, and I know the full importance of seeing Black women onscreen, making room for both joy and pain—centering on friendship and sisterhood through it all. “Because of our historical context, Black women are often portrayed as angry,” Carla Farmer, the show’s hairstylist, notes. “Girlfriends is a great example of a narrative that portrayed the complexities and beauty of Black women. When Black women like Mara can tell stories about Black women, it raises the bar.” That same honoring of truth and nuance was reflected in the beauty of the show: “When you have a hair and makeup trailer full of people of color, it raises the bar of the authenticity of the storytelling,” says Farmer. “I believe that’s why it was so successful.”
Now, as I’m in my mid-20s living through this global pandemic, the desire to “get ready” has mostly gone down the drain. But watching Girlfriends, I’m reminded of the joys that come with changing up your look, even if you don’t have anywhere to go…because, let’s be honest, the women of the show always looked amazing, even if it was just sitting in Joan’s living room half the time.
Below, Silva and Farmer break down the inspiration behind each girlfriend’s beauty look and how they achieved it. Maybe it’ll inspire you to explore a new look or two, even though we’re mostly at home. Perhaps today you’re feeling Joan, or tomorrow you want to embody Toni. Or Maya and Lynn on the weekends. As Farmer put it, “I haven’t met a Black woman who could not relate to at least one of the characters. Most women have a little bit of each character inside themselves.”
Joan Clayton (Played by Tracee Ellis Ross)
Makeup: “Tracee came to set each day carrying this little cosmetic case—I can remember it clear as day! Inside this little bag were a bunch of generic bottles filled with unmarked potions that her mother gave her. So while she was in my chair, I would be doing her makeup and she sat with the bag on her lap, pulling out different bottles, spritzing and spraying throughout the whole process. Tracee bringing a little Diana Ross with her every day is what really brought Joan’s radiance and glow to life. Joan was this smart, beautiful business woman with a heart of gold, but always struggling in the love department. Her look was meant to be natural but distinct. I call the complexion piece of doing makeup, ‘building the face,’ and building the face with Tracee was a lot of tag teaming between me, her, and her little bag of Diana Ross beauty secrets. This is where Joan’s iconic radiance came from and then the rest of my job was in the details—the lips, the lashes, etc.”
Hair: “Joan was the attorney friend who was fashion savvy. We created some very beautiful hairstyles that went from simple chignons to a natural fro. I believe Joan helped women feel comfortable with their natural hair.”
Toni Childs (Played by Jill Marie Jones)
Makeup: “Working with Jill Marie Jones and building her look as Toni was also very fun. Her character was very social, very popular, and just a funny girl always looking for love. Because Toni was so extroverted, she was always going out on dates, going to parties, or going somewhere, so I had a lot of freedom to create these really fun looks for her all the time. Jill has the most luscious lips and such a beautiful mouth, so a lot of what we did was use makeup to play up her lips, making her mouth one of the biggest focal points. It was a lot of clean, beautiful skin paired with a strong lip.”
Hair: “Toni was the friend that didn’t care about keeping it real. Toni wanted to completely assimilate and fit into the larger culture, so her hair was always done, usually straight and nice.”
Lynn Searcy (Played by Persia White)
Makeup: “Persia was the first actor I encountered in my career that had one absolute rule—you cannot put anything on her face or body that was derived from an animal: products, lotions, tools, etc. This factor made bringing the character to life easier because Persia’s personal morals and qualities really aligned with her character as Lynn. Once I was able to find the right makeups and tools, the look we created for her just further enhanced the character. Lynn was supersmart, artsy, and creative, and those qualities built her makeup style that was created to be a little more goth— lots of eyeliner and smudging around the eye, not a lot of bronzer. Building Lynn’s look was a combination of her personal traits and ethical stands shining.”
Hair: “Lynn was the bohemian girlfriend. Her hair was always on the more creative side. Braids and locs incorporated into her tresses. We would sometimes add pieces of color also.”
Maya Wilkes (Played by Golden Brooks)
Makeup: “Out of all the characters on Girlfriends, I had the most fun building Maya’s look. Maya loved makeup, and so did Golden. Golden had really strong ideas on how Maya would look any given day, and it was my job as the makeup artist to let her create that through me. Out of all four girls, Golden was the one I experimented with the most. She had the most beautiful velvet looking skin, which made it easier to layer on more and more makeup. It was risky to layer as much makeup as we did, knowing the HD cameras would pick up everything, but figuring out how to still make these layers of makeup look like skin was really where I developed my expertise and the concepts behind the tools and formulas I’ve created for Beautyblender today. For example, when we developed Bounce Foundation, I knew that in order for it to look like skin, it needed a certain type of finish that had never existed before in long-wear, full-coverage makeup. It took us a while to get the texture just right, but when you blend this formula out with a damp Beautyblender, you get what we coined a ‘velveteen matte’ finish. This is the same look and texture I was able to create while experimenting and building Maya’s look through an HD lens on the set of Girlfriends.”
Hair: “Maya was the ‘round the way girlfriend, with the come up.’ Her hairstyle reflected that she wanted to assimilate in the work space, but at the same time, she didn’t want to lose herself. Maya also wore braids.”