Alicia Keys looked beautiful at the VMAs without makeup. That much is undeniable, but why go without makeup to a dressy event like MTV’s VMAs? Why shed the mask? What is Ms. Keys trying to say? Looking closely it is easy to see a deeper change in Alicia.
News reported that Alicia is talented enough that she doesn’t have to play the game, or get dressed up to get attention, but there is a lot more to it than that. Alicia has dropped all pretense in favor of being her genuine self. It was not always this way for her, but now, she would not want to live any other way.
Alicia Keys wrote a very personal essay of empowerment in the Lenny Letter blog this spring. She called for a revolution, but not one of violence or defense against injustice coming from some outside source. No, Alicia’s revolution is the liberation of the authentic self from the censoring self. Her revelation is one of a woman’s complicity with her own repression.
Alicia Keys revealed a moment in her own childhood when was in second grade and her mom had talked her into wearing her hair down and natural. Her friends made fun of her.
“You grab the brush and gel and pull your beautiful big hair back into the tightest ponytail you possibly can to contain your unique hair in a bun — hiding a piece of who you are in order to fit into a picture of what others seem to see as perfection.”
Alicia Keys learned at an early age that one has to hide parts of themselves to be accepted. That is one of the many wrong lessons children learn and need to unlearn. Yet this lie, in the form of a life lesson, just keeps presenting itself throughout a lifetime. Keys recalls many incidents where she felt she had to hide her real self, and this is a universal experience.
“It’s another moment where some piece of you realizes that to fit in or be thought of as beautiful, you have to cover up to be ‘a bit closer to perfect.'”
Alicia Keys wrote that it only got worse when she became successful. Being in the public eye drew all sorts of criticism. She soon discovered that people thought she was too tough, not feminine enough, and too much a product of the New York streets she grew up on.
Ms. Keys is a strong woman but other people could not readily understand what she is, even though her demeanor was quite common where she came from. Fame brought her less acceptance, not more. More criticism was just pressure to change in order to please others and fit into her new environment.
“But this wasn’t the streets of New York. This was the harsh, judgmental world of entertainment and my biggest test yet. I started, more than ever, to become a chameleon. Never fully being who I was, but constantly changing so all the ‘theys’ would accept me.”
Even Alicia Keys buckled under the pressure of “they,” at least for a while. She could not feel comfortable being herself with everyone judging her. Again she denied her own authenticity in favor of some imagined ideal. No one, though, can define the ideal. It is nebulous, ever changing, and designed by its very nature to be something people just naturally are not.
Finally, Alicia Keys was completely fed up with not being real. As an artist she must call on herself, but not the facade, not the mask, the real authentic self she knew was hiding deep inside. Like any other friend, the inner-self gets tired of being pulled out and conversed with in private, but being shoved aside when people are around. No friend wants to be treated that way. Alicia decided to become a real friend to herself and stop rejecting the person she truly was.
“Before I started my new album, I wrote a list of all the things that I was sick of. And one was how much women are brainwashed into feeling like we have to be skinny, or sexy, or desirable, or perfect. One of the many things I was tired of was the constant judgment of women. The constant stereotyping through every medium that makes us feel like being a normal size is not normal, and heaven forbid if you’re plus-size. Or the constant message that being sexy means being naked.”
Alicia Keys points out, though, that while most women say it is society who represses females, in fact, society is merely the collective that represents individuals. Women impose the rules on themselves and each other. Everyone learns from an early age to judge others and themselves, by a superficial standard that, in the larger scheme of things, could immediately be seen as both irrelevant and illogical.
It took Alicia Keys a long while to come about her inner revelation. She meditated and spent time alone, trying to understand the societal devaluation and continual repressions of the genuine person. Every single person plays their part in upholding and conceiving of an impossible ideal.
“I was finally uncovering just how much I censored myself, and it scared me. Who was I anyway? Did I even know HOW to be brutally honest anymore? Who I wanted to be?”
Alicia Keys was determined to find her authentic self and hang on to that person. She didn’t want to be fake anymore. She wanted to be honest, especially with herself. Then, she received a powerful clue from a photographer. Photographers are also artists and so the photographer saw immediately the beauty in Alicia’s bare face.
“It wasn’t until I walked into one of my first shoots for my new album recently that the issue was front and center again. I’d just come from the gym, had a scarf under my baseball cap, and the beautiful photographer Paola (never met a Paola I didn’t like) said, ‘I have to shoot you right now, like this! The music is raw and real, and these photos have to be too!'”
Alicia Keys, though she had been seeking a path to authenticity, immediately cringed at the thought of her naked face being photographed. Makeup has become the expected mask of society. Alicia says she told Paola she was not sure about doing a professional photo shoot without makeup.
“I want to be real, but this might be too real!!”
Alicia finally agreed to the bare-faced photo shoot, and it was a tremendously cathartic experience. She felt a sense of empowerment and of decades-old walls breaking down inside her. She vowed right then to never wear makeup again or to allow herself to hide in other ways.
“I hope to God it’s a revolution. Cause I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
Alicia Keys has found great freedom in giving up her mask and while she is pretty, either way, she is more beautiful without concealing herself.
[Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images]