Look Good, Do Good: Madam C.J. Walker and Rihanna’s Beauty Politics

*This post is part of our online forum on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her death. 

Madam CJ Walker Product Advertisement , (Permission: Madam CJ Walker Family Archive)

As the summer of 2017 drew its last breath and the fashion world gathered in New York City for fashion week, global superstar Rihanna launched her cosmetics line, Fenty Beauty. Sold exclusively in the US on the brand’s website and at luxury beauty emporium Sephora, Fenty became the biggest beauty launch in the store’s history. Women of color flocked to the retailer to get matched in their Fenty shade only to find that the stores could not keep enough products on their shelves to meet the demand. Boasting over 40 shades of foundation to complement a diverse range of skin tones, Fenty Beauty earned a staggering $72 million in sales in its first month and was named one of the 25 Best Inventions of 2017 by Time Magazine. Beauty brands that had previously ignored Black women consumers scrambled to figure out how to tap into what they now realized was a lucrative market.  

Considered a groundbreaking moment in the beauty industry, Rihanna’s success drew comparisons with another Black female entrepreneur, the beauty pioneer Madam C. J. Walker. Indeed, there would be no Fenty Beauty if not for the work Walker did over a century ago to expand the contours of the beauty industry to meet the demands of Black women consumers. While popular treatments of Walker’s life often focus on her financial achievement, her greatest legacy came from the way she reframed the quest for beauty not as fantasy or escapism but as practical and political. As we reflect upon the centennial of Madam Walker’s death, how do we evaluate Fenty’s impact not just in terms of sales, but in light of Walker’s unwavering commitment to transforming Black women’s lives?

The life histories of the two women at the helm of these brands intersect in compelling ways. Both had difficult childhoods–Walker was plagued by poverty and the death of her mother, while Rihanna contended with debilitating headaches and a father with drug addiction.1 However, their respective roads to entrepreneurship could not be more divergent. Walker, a former washerwoman and single mother, loved to boast that she began her journey to economic autonomy with  “$1.50 in my pocket.”2 Rihanna, on the other hand, became a businesswoman at the height of her singing career. The women also have very different relationships to their products and brands. Although she started out with limited resources, Walker was both the founder and owner of a manufacturing company and a nationwide system of beauty schools. On the other hand, Rihanna does not own Fenty, but has an integrated partnership with LVMH, a luxury goods conglomerate that recognizes her as the brand’s founder and creative director, and gives her an equity stake in the company. Rihanna leveraged her success with Fenty Beauty to launch a new fashion label with LVMH. The new fashion house would be the first one launched by the conglomerate since 1987 and would make Rihanna one of the most powerful Black women in the fashion industry.

Madam Walker emerged on the scene at the dawn of the twentieth century, after white-owned beauty companies tried unsuccessfully to capitalize on Black women’s desires to express their modern identities through engagement in consumer culture. Not surprisingly, the same culture that produced lynch mobs and segregation would rely upon racist tropes that portrayed Black women as inherently grotesque and in need of fixing. Advertisements included before sketches of women with dark skin and unkempt hair who became white women with bone-straight hair as a result of using their beauty products. Despite condemnation from some race leaders who accused Walker of promoting a Eurocentric beauty ideal, Walker’s early advertisements emphasized improved hair health and manageability, not straightened hair. Instead of racist caricatures, she placed her undeniably Black body at the center of her company’s visual narrative. These deliberate choices challenged what Kobena Mercer calls the “ideologies of the beautiful,” aesthetic ideals that relegate Black women, particularly those with Africanized features, outside of its desired norms.3

Fenty also relies upon visual narratives to destabilize the connection between whiteness and beauty. While cosmetic companies like MakeUp Forever, MAC, and CoverFX have been offering a wide range of shades for over a decade, Fenty did what most luxury brands have been unable or unwilling to do: it placed Black women at the center of its beauty narrative. Rihanna, like Walker, used her own body and star power to help sales. With over 60 million Instagram followers, she had a built-in audience that would have been unimaginable to Madam Walker. However, Fenty’s advertising campaigns not only included Rihanna but also featured Black models like Duckie Thot, Slick Woods, and Leomie Anderson. The brand also marshaled a team of Black social media influencers to create a buzz about their products.

Featuring Black women was just one way that Rihanna centered Black women in the brand. She also took on one of the most important battles in retail–the allocation of shelf space. Most of the other beauty brands that offer a wide range of foundation shades only sell them online, marginalizing dark-skinned consumers and rendering them unable to make an in-store purchase. However, Rihanna insisted that Sephora carry all 40 foundation options in store. This seemingly insignificant move turned Fenty displays in Sephora into gathering spaces.

I remember my first visit to Sephora soon after the Fenty launch. Black women swarmed around the products, swatched them on their wrists, and asked complete strangers for feedback. There was an atmosphere of playfulness as well as a sense of safety, of being seen without being made a spectacle. Some women admitted to having never visited Sephora before but came to witness the Fenty phenomenon because they felt that for the first time, a brand genuinely cared about their beauty needs. For Rihanna, this was one of the most surprising and welcome aspects of the Fenty launch. She recalled in a 2017 interview, “I never could have anticipated the emotional connection that women are having with the products and the brand as a whole. Some are finding their shade of foundation for the first time, getting emotional at the counter. That’s something I will never get over.” As Bianca Williams, author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diaporic Dreams, and the Politics of Transnationalism, notes, pleasure and play can serve as a liberatory praxis for Black women who are often denied such things in their everyday life.

Fenty Beauty is still in its infancy as a brand, but it could learn a great deal from the Walker Manufacturing Company on how to transform emotional connection into action. Madam Walker initially found it difficult to find retailers willing to sell her products, so she hired Black women to serve as sales agents and sent them to the places where Black women were already gathering—beauty salons, churches, and club meetings. This allowed Walker to provide dignified employment for Black women who had few career options outside of domestic service. In the first half of the twentieth century, racial and gender inequalities limited most African American women’s labor opportunities to household labor which did not pay well or allow them to spend time with their families. Madam Walker gave African American women the privilege of working for and on behalf of other Black women. As a former laundress, this was a source of great pride. At the National Negro Business League’s 1914 convention, Walker seized the opportunity of Booker T. Washington’s unexpected invitation to address the crowd and proclaim, “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself… I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”4 The sales agents quickly learned that working for the Walker Company came with a responsibility, not just to better their own lives, but to follow in the footsteps of their leader who from the inception of her company, prioritized philanthropy and civic engagement. [Link to Tyrone McKinley Freeman’s piece]].

As Madam Walker stood before her sales agents during her keynote at their 1918 convention, she lauded them for being “some of the best women the Race has produced” and reminded them that despite how proud she was of their financial success, “their first duty is to humanity.” She further explained, “I shall expect to find my agents taking the lead in every locality not only in operating a successful business, but in every movement in the interest of our colored citizenship.” The women responded immediately to this call by collectively drafting a telegram to President Wilson expressing their strong stance against lynching. Generations of sales agents and beauticians would follow in their footsteps by serving as leaders and key mobilizers in various iterations of the Black freedom struggle.5

As a beauty entrepreneur, Rihanna should be commended for her commitment to making sure Black women of all hues have access to beauty products and for forcing an industry fixated on whiteness to acknowledge Black women. However, the so-called Fenty Revolution is incomplete if it remains in the realm of aesthetics. Many of the challenges that Black women faced at the turn of the last century remain in the current one. I hope that Rihanna, who has already demonstrated a commitment to philanthropy and education–two issues Madam Walker championed–will capitalize on the emotional connection Black women have with her brand to help create a more beautiful future.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

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