Keys to success
She may have talent coursing through her veins (plus shelves of Grammys to prove it), but the 36-year-old singer, songwriter and judge on The Voice US knows that if you want to spark a good debate, nothing beats giving up your concealer.
Celebrating Alicia’s natural revolution
“I’m not a slave to makeup. I’m not a slave to not wearing makeup either.”
Polls conducted only among your friends have no real scientific value. You’re basically just surveying a landscape of your own opinions. But knowing that I was going to ignore science altogether I decided to ask friends and acquaintances their opinion of Alicia Keys. Snapchatting millennial: “She’s on point.” Forty-something mother of three: “She is wonderful on The Voice – so smart, sincere and kind.” Straight dude: “She is hot.” Gay dude: “She is hot.” There were too many “Oh, I love her” and wistful “I wish I had her skin” comments to count. So the unscientific consensus is that she is a perfect amalgam of talent and beauty.
Close up and in person, all of those observations are true. The first things you notice: the fabulous hair wrapped partially, casually, with a scarf; eyes that are alive with interest and maybe a little mischief; the angelic smile, sinful body and skin that looks almost suspiciously healthy, like she’s never eaten a potato chip in her life. What isn’t immediately apparent but sinks in after about 10 minutes of conversation is her sincerity and warmth. (Mother of three was right, too.) Each question matters to her and she considers her answers carefully.
Alicia is not playing a game. Her words, her music, her political activism – even her decision to do the no-makeup thing (this is the first time she has worn makeup in an editorial photo shoot since last Autumn) and to let her hair be free – are part of a cohesive whole. “I’m not a slave to makeup. I’m not a slave to not wearing makeup either. I get to choose at [any] given moment. That’s my right.” This is a woman who knows her own mind and says and does only what she wants. It may have taken her a while, but boy has she arrived, in a place of self-possession, creative autonomy and power that few popular performers ever achieve.
She is a 15-time Grammy winner. Some perspective: Adele has 10; Taylor Swift, 10; Mary J Blige, nine; Rihanna, eight. “The We Are Here Movement [a wide-ranging socialjustice organization founded by Alicia] will stand in support of Hispanics, refugees, people of colour, Muslims and anyone who feels afraid in the US. As an artist, I expect to continue to use my voice for things that matter, as I have since the beginning of my career. That won’t change. As an activist, I will continue to fight for what’s right. That won’t change, either. It’s time for all of us to be engaged. As a mother, I am a lioness.” The politics of appearance is another realm in which Alicia’s voice has an increasingly large microphone. Several months ago – she describes it more as an evolution, a process of self-realisation, than an on-off switch – she took a break from wearing makeup, including on the set of The Voice, replete though it is with HD cameras.
It caused quite a stir, and many people began to read into the decision all sorts of motivation and see it as a radical act. It was never intended as such. Alicia is not antimakeup at all. “I think makeup can be selfexpression,” she says. “I have no intention to shame anyone at all [ who chooses to wear it]. No one should be ashamed by the way you choose to express yourself. And that’s exactly the point. However, if you
want to do that for yourself, you should do that.”
Paradoxically, Alicia’s personal experience with years in the spotlight has led her to the place she is today. “I started at 20 years old in this ridiculously invasive world [the music business] in which everyone covered me in makeup and then threw me under tons of lights, so I’d sweat for two or three hours.” She would break out because of it, making her feel even more self-conscious, objectified, judged. “It took me so long to finally say, ‘Whoa!’” she says. “Who am I under there? That is just my own personal quest.” You do hear a little envious grousing occasionally, along the lines of “Well, if I had perfect skin like hers, I wouldn’t have to wear makeup, either.” Alicia explains that she has suffered with skin problems for years, that she is not perfect, and that, most importantly, perfection is not the point. “I am all about a woman’s right to choose. I think a woman should do anything she wants as it relates to her face, her body, her health. Whatever mode of expression that empowers you, that’s what you should do. What I am not down for is this ridiculously high, unrealistic expectation about appearance that we as women are held to.”
Like her appearance, Alicia’s music has evolved, too. You could say on a parallel track, but that would be a lazy oversimplification. Alicia traffics in subtlety, depth and passion, which is what makes her such a compelling artist. Her new album, Here, is reflective of some of the personal growth she’s achieved in recent years. “It started with a list of things that I am sick of,” she says. “One of the big ones is that I was so sick of the way women were forced to feel inadequate in many different circumstances or forced to feel insecure by the way we’re portrayed or the way we look. Another one: I am so annoyed at the way we force boys to be fake strong – don’t cry, don’t be soft. Let a boy be able to dance! Let a boy paint his nails. All these strange, oppressive ideas.” You’d think that the music that started with a list of gripes would be, shall we say, bitter – and yet it’s expansive, affirming and beautiful.
In a moment, her tone changes. She has left something unsaid, something that she’s considered and that seems tailored. “I think there’s something really beautiful about what resonates from within us. One thing I’ve heard more than ever is this glow that people refer to that I have. I kind of recognise that glow because I’ve begun to listen to myself inside. And I think there’s something really powerful that happens when you start to listen to yourself. I’m not more confident because I think I’m better than, but because I’ve been hearing myself more, listening to myself more. And that’s taken a little minute to arrive at that place. But there’s definitely something powerful about the way your inner feels that reflects on the outer, on your skin. That, to me, is real beauty.”