Written by Victoria Myers
Illustrations by Samantha Hahn
March 20th, 2018
I frequently have a thought that I hardly ever express to anyone, out of a fear that it is both too taboo, and so obvious that to state it in public would result in too embarrassing an episode to even repeat to my therapist. Here is the thought: for a woman, the primary thing that determines the outcome of almost every interaction and opportunity is her physical appearance. Not just in terms of the overt, like race and conventional attractiveness, but also in regards to how tall a woman is, how thin, how young or old looking, how she does her hair, the price point and style of her clothing, how much of her body is revealed, how much effort it looks like she put into her appearance. The list is long and the variables many, and it can frequently feel like changing any one of them can have the same effect as a change in resume.
When I was in college, depressed and miserable, I gained weight, and it led to years of me not doing things that could have been advantageous professionally. I would postpone internship interviews thinking if I put them off a month and lost eight pounds, the outcome would be better; I wouldn’t want to meet people I admired thinking if I were prettier, they would like me better and be more inclined to listen to what I was saying; and I distinctly remember throwing out an application to transfer to another college, thinking it was pointless, since there was no way they would accept me with my current appearance. Looking back, this all sounds crazy. But, the thing is, it’s actually not that crazy.
In recent years, there have been a number of articles and studies addressing the correlation between a woman’s appearance and how she functions in a professional setting. At the end of 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote an essay in The New Yorker about the paradox of the booming skincare industry; it’s become part of the concept of self-care, but also promotes the false idea that young is natural and desirable. Taffy Brodesser-Akner took an in-depth look at the weight loss industry, and what people really mean when they say things like “love your body.” In 2015, writing for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan looked at the makeup tax, showing that women are expected to wear makeup, they’re rewarded professionally for looking good, and all of this takes time and money. In 2011, Rebekah Brooks caused a stir when she wore her hair long and curly to testify in court leading The New York Times to publish an article about the baggage that comes with curly hair, and how it’s not seen as professional. There have been studies to back up the bias against all forms of hair that are not straight and sleek, and there have been studies that show it pays to be attractive and it pays to be thin—all while people are inundated with ads about how all women deserve to feel beautiful and it’s what’s on the inside that counts, which mainly just shows they don’t and it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, women are left having to navigate the complexities of trying to appear in ways that both represent who they are and are socially acceptable for the job they want, contradictions included. For example, on one hand, the societal standard says women should look young, perpetually twenty-two, and on the other hand, have you ever seen a twenty-two year old woman trusted in a leadership or authoritative role? Almost every woman I know spends time not only doing their hair and makeup for professional commitments, but also mental energy thinking about how the variables of their appearance can affect how they’re seen and their chances of success. To make matters more complicated, many times the same choices can simultaneously lead to opposite outcomes: putting a visible amount of effort into your appearance and looking attractive can lead to people being more likely to make eye contact and engage in conversation with women, but it can also increase the likelihood of a woman being seen as vapid or unintelligent. The same behavior on a woman who looks and dresses one way can be viewed as the reverse on a woman who looks and dresses differently. Appearance is, both figuratively and literally, a whole other layer that women have to contend with in their professional lives beyond just being prepared to do their jobs.
In theatre, these issues affect women both on and off-stage, and on both sides of the curtain. From directors trying to get people to take them seriously to actresses battling antiquated notions of the ingénue, whether women talk about it openly or not, appearance is part of the conversation about women in the workplace. I recently spoke to twelve women who work in theatre—and they represent only a small sampling of opinions on the subject—about issues surrounding physical appearance. Here are Tala Ashe, Laura Benanti, Sierra Boggess, Halley Feiffer, Anne Kauffman, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Rebecca Luker, Nikiya Mathis, Jesca Prudencio, Aneesh Sheth, Liesl Tommy, and Whitney White on the complexities of deciding what to wear and being a woman in the world.
Tala Ashe, Actress
When you’re going to an audition you’re usually going somewhat in character, yes? If you’re going for professional meetings, do you have a go-to outfit?
For auditions, I’m generally going in thinking about the character, especially if it’s theatre auditions. TV is a little bit different. I find it trickier when I’m going to meet a casting director or an agent or a director just for a general meeting. I do think a lot of actors are ill-equipped for this. I find myself thinking about trying to strike a balance of being quote-unquote “my best self,” and also dressing true to who I am. I suppose some actors do walk in wearing overalls, which is what I wish I was wearing, but I find that as a woman, I’m aware that [dressing like that] generally does you a disservice. I think I do err on the side of looking quote-unquote “pretty” and sort of disarming, but also like I’m not trying too hard. I think about it more than I wish I had to, actually, in those situations.
Do you feel a pressure when you’re going into those meetings, not only to look nice, but nice in a specific feminine-type way?
Totally. I think in the film and television world, I feel a parallel to this even in auditioning because I think there is more of a focus on looking pretty or looking beautiful. I’m definitely wearing more makeup than I normally would. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that, and I don’t feel like I’m covering myself up or being dishonest, but I’m definitely playing the part of someone who looks not only put together, but as nice as I can. It’s so hard to talk about this stuff. When you break it down, the psychology of it feels kind of gross.
I don’t know if this exists more in musical theatre than non-musicals, but I remember hearing people say they were told in school that, for women, if you were going to an audition, always wear a skirt or a dress, and never wear pants.
I don’t remember that so much, but I do remember a teacher telling me never to wear jeans, which now I think is absolutely ludicrous. I see the impulse behind that. The other thing is, sometimes once I get the job and once I’m in the room—and, for an actor, often being in a room can potentially lead to your next job because of how people you know perceive you in a rehearsal process—I work really hard to actually sort of do the opposite, which is to not be pretty, and exude an energy that says, “I’m an intelligent, formidable person, so don’t just treat me like a pretty girl.” Ironically, once I get the job there are no more dresses.
It seems a challenge that on one hand actresses are judged a lot for how they look, but then you also need people to respect you and take you seriously when you say things. Do you feel that’s something you have to actively think about?
It definitely is something that I actively think about. I was actually talking to my partner about this and he was like, “I don’t think about any of that.” Men don’t think about this, but I think about it a lot. I think a lot about what I wear the first day of rehearsal, generally speaking. For me, I’m trying to reflect a sort of seriousness in my presence there through what clothes I’m wearing. Also, trying to be open and trying to be disarming, because I know that’s also true to who I am and what I want to put forth, especially on the first day of work. It’s important for my director and for my fellow actors to know that I possess a wide range of humanity in me. I think we’re being unrealistic if we don’t think that’s reflected physically and in the clothes that we wear. So I actually I think about it a lot more than I wish I did.
Have you ever had an experience where you’ve worn something to a meeting or professional situation where it actually made you feel uncomfortable and like you were doing it for other people?
Yes. I remember really distinctly, I went in for an agent meeting at a very fancy agency and I went and I bought a dress, which was my first wrong step, so I already felt like I had really tried very hard for this. And then I wore very high heels, and I don’t ever wear heels. I felt so out of my body. I literally couldn’t walk. I remember sitting in his office trying to do all the things that I remembered about staying physically open, but my clothing was stopping me from doing it because I felt so uncomfortable. To this day, I won’t wear heels. I just won’t. I know how much it throws me off balance. It’s just not for me.
Let’s talk a little bit about hair and makeup. When you’re going in for an important meeting, how long do you spend on that?
I have difficult hair, so my hair is sort of the thing I would spend more time on. I spend like at least 30 to 45 minutes on my hair alone, just like if I have to blow dry it. Then probably another 15 minutes for makeup. I need at least an hour to get ready for most things. If it’s for film and television, I feel like I have to be even more put together so it takes a little longer. I wish it didn’t. When people are like, “Just go. It’s just an audition. How fun,” I’m like, it takes work in the preparation, but it also takes work to get myself ready or to get myself presentable in my mind.
They’ve done studies about the makeup tax on women, and it’s not only money, but the time that women have to spend that men don’t.
I 100% feel that. I don’t think anyone thinks about that, and it matters. It matters in time and it matters in money. The amount of money that I have to spend—and I don’t even really do anything crazy with my hair, but I know girls who have to keep their hair highlighted and blonde and cut in a way. It really does add up financially.
Do you find there’s also pressure to make it seem like it was all completely effortless?
Oh, 100%. When I was younger, I felt like I tried really hard and I looked like I tried really hard. I think seeing the effort is not doing anyone any favors, but it’s bullshit because it does take effort. And, again, it’s gendered effort. Generally, I would say men don’t have to get ready as meticulously and they don’t have as many options. They get that time and they get that hair and makeup tax back. They’re not charged for that.
I’ve had these conversations a lot, with a lot of friends, and I’m thinking of one specific friend who is an actor and she’s an artist, and when she goes in for auditions, I know that she feels this pressure to look nice and it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to her. She doesn’t necessarily have those desires or skills to blow dry her hair, and it puts a pressure on her that I think is so unfair. I think a lot of women feel that, especially women who are maybe not as adept at putting on makeup or doing their hair. We are artists, and our job is to come in and be a character, and at the same time in these other moments in our career we’re asked to look like sort of the shiniest version of ourselves. It’s a big ask. That shininess is not doing us any favors in our actual work.
Laura Benanti, Actress
When you go to a meeting with a director or a meeting with somebody in the industry, do you have a go-to outfit?
I’m really bad at this stuff. I’m not naturally fashionable at all. I really don’t care that much. One of my favorite things that’s ever been said to me is my doorman was like, “Do you know what I love about you? You just don’t care what you look like.” At first, I was really offended. Then I thought, you know what? He’s right. The fact that I’ve been able to maintain that even though we’re in this brutal industry, and I’ve definitely been told some really horrible things, is something that I’m proud of. That being said, when I go in for an important meeting, I try to look relaxed and like the best version of myself. If I’m walking around during the day in dirty jeans and sneakers, I’ll wear nice jeans and boots. I’ll shower and do my hair, but I’m not going to gussy myself up, or try to look super sexy, or purport myself to be what I’m not because I feel like when people are meeting you, they want to see you. If you are not what they want, then fine. I don’t want to present a version of myself that isn’t real because then when I actually show up, they’ll be like, “Who’s this?”
Did you ever find yourself in a professional setting where you felt like the way that you were presenting yourself physically was making people assume certain things about you that weren’t true?
I think that because I am curvier, and especially when I was younger I was even curvier than I am now, people assumed things about me that weren’t true. It was a little bit of a Jessica Rabbit situation where I was like, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn this way.” If I was wearing a shirt that was not loose or baggy and it showed my figure, then I think that leaves room for people to project onto you what they would like you to be like. Definitely, when I was younger, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I felt like people had expectations of me that I was not willing to cash in on.
Going along with that, have you ever had an experience where you felt like there was pressure to dress more sexily than you were comfortable with?
Yeah, sure. Definitely sexier, or just in a way that does not represent me. I think when I was younger I was more malleable in that way. I think, also, it’s one of the reasons why I became really obsessed with being so thin for a while. It wasn’t because I wanted to be skinny. It’s because I wanted to hide my breasts because I didn’t want people to think of me as someone who is quote-unquote, “easy” or overly sexual.
I wanted to talk a little bit about hair and makeup too because you have curly hair.
I do. I’m never allowed to have curly hair. That is the thing that pisses me off the most, is that anytime I have gone in an audition with curly hair, they’ve asked me to come back with my hair straight. To me, it actually feels deep. It feels like your hair is too ethnic when it’s curly. We would like you to be the stereotypical version of a white, American woman, and that is straight, long hair. When I’ve had short hair, when I’ve had curly hair, I’ve either missed out on jobs, or they’ve said, “Can you come back with your hair straight?” Now I almost always wear it straight except in my own life, because I know it’s going to happen. Part of me is mad at myself for doing that. Part of me feels no, rock your curly hair, and then let it be the thing, but I need the work, you know? I genuinely think part of it is that it feels too ethnic, and I think that’s gross.
For musical theatre, onstage you’re wearing wigs, but somebody once told me that they found it frustrating that depending on the character, there’s a lot of debate about hair color that’s based on old stereotypes. Have you found that for some of the roles that you’ve done, people have wanted to make you blonde?
No, I do not look good as a blonde. I’ve always had brown hair. That’s never been an issue for me, but I will say, there’s a lot of mythology around blonde and brunette. If you think about it, the blonde is the good one, and the brunette is the bad one, dark and light. I even thought of that growing up as a little kid. I think that’s something that we need to look at as a culture too. I think we are, more and more, which I’m grateful for.
Hair and makeup take a lot of time, especially now that you have a small child.
In my everyday life I cannot do my hair or makeup. I do not have makeup on. Maybe I’ll curl my eyelashes and put a little bit of mascara on, but that’s pretty much it. I don’t have time. I put my hair back or wear a hat. In order to get ready for an event, I have so many pictures now of Ella sitting on my lap while I get my hair and makeup done. It takes about an hour and a half. That’s a lot of time.
Do you also feel the pressure to make all that look totally effortless?
No. I make it a point—and I think anybody on social media who follows me knows this—to show real life and not-real life. I make it a point once in a while to do before and after photos, so people see what I look like without makeup on. Most of my everyday stuff is me without makeup on and not amazing hair. I use the hashtag “it takes a village to raise an actress” all the time. I put pictures of my hair and makeup team and Scott, my stylist. I make sure that people know that this is part of my job, and time and effort is put into it. I didn’t wake up like this.
As you’ve gotten older, do you feel the pressure to look super youthful?
Yes. That is something I feel, for sure. Right now, I’m getting offers to play moms of 18-year-olds. I have a one-year-old child. Most of the people that I would be a mother of on TV are in their mid to late teens, and my [fictional] husband is in his mid-50s. I do think it’s getting better. I think we’re going in the right direction, but I still think that we are youth obsessed. I’ve had people say to me, “Just look your youngest. Do whatever you can to look as young as possible.” I’m like, “Look, I’m 38 years old, and I look 38 years old.” I’m proud of my life—not every moment of it, but I’m proud of the lines on my face because they’re memories.
In the entertainment industry, there’s also a lot of pressure to be thin. How much thought do you have to put into that being part of your career, that you do have to be careful about what you eat and exercising and all that stuff?
Genetically, I’m pretty lucky in that I don’t have to exercise like crazy. I do that for my health, but certainly when I was younger being thin was a huge part of my life. I’ve been on every diet, and I was miserable. I was vegan, and then I was paleo. Then I was zone, and then I was vegan again, always calorie counting, always working out, and really stressing about it. Then finally, eight or nine years ago I thought, this is so boring. All that time and energy of me thinking about how thin I am or if I weigh 128 pounds versus 130 pounds, that’s insane. I basically just stopped. Now I try to be healthy. I try to exercise for my health, but especially after having a baby. I gained 65 pounds with my baby. I didn’t freak out about losing weight. I just try to be healthy.
Now that you have a daughter, has that changed how you think about appearance in terms of what you’re modeling for her?
Yes. The other day I was in a music class, and someone said about my daughter, “She’s so fat.” I was like, “We don’t use that word.” She was like, “No, but her cheeks are so chubby.” I said, “No, we don’t use that word. We say, ‘She’s tall,’ or ‘She’s strong.’ We don’t use those words with her.” They looked at me like I was some asshole, but my daughter is tall. I was always tall. She’s really healthy, and I’m so happy about that. I’m so proud of that. Her cheeks are feeding her brain. I am very, very mindful of not presenting to her that what you look like is the most important thing in your life. That should be the least important thing.
Sierra Boggess, Actress
Do you have an outfit that you tend to wear if you have to go a business meeting or if you’re talking to a director or a theatre company about a show?
No, I don’t have one particular outfit for that. I just err on the side of more conservative, I guess, so it’s whatever I have that I feel like is that. It’s not wearing anything too tight, not wearing anything too low. Those two things are what I would avoid if I was going to a meeting like that. I would just prefer to be in yoga clothes all the time.
For auditions, actresses that I’ve spoken to have mentioned that you try to kind of dress like the character, but also kind of not.
Yes, you have to sort of dress like your best version of yourself, but within the vein of the character.
That sounds complicated.
Yes, it is complicated. That’s honestly one of the hardest struggles I find about auditions, is figuring out what it is that I need to look like. How do you look like yourself, because they want you to be you, but they also want you to be a character. It’s a hard balance, I think. As I get older, I don’t stress about it as much. I’d say all the people that I’ve ever talked to that are in this industry have had the same experience, because we’re all coming out of school and we’re told to dress a certain way, and that is actually wrong. Most of the time, they tell you to dress in a jewel tone. That doesn’t look like anyone. What is interesting is I find most of the time, directors or creatives, want you to look like yourself.
I’ve heard that in school for musical theatre, they traditionally tell women to never wear pants to an audition, and to always wear a skirt or a dress.
That was definitely a thing. I remember, [they would say] for an audition, you have a jewel-toned dress with a heel, but not too sexy a heel, just a nice heel. One of my first auditions was for a musical called Princesses, which was about high school girls. I had just graduated and I came [to New York] and I did this audition, and I showed up in my jewel dress and my hair was down and curled and I had a ton of makeup on, all of which I had been taught. The casting director, Tara Rubin, after my audition, came out to see me in the waiting room and she was like, “Great. We’re going to call you back.” She said, “Go home and put some jeans on and put your hair up and take half of that makeup off.” I was terrified because I hadn’t practiced to just wear jeans. I thought maybe it’s a joke. I was so scared. I was scared to be seen with only half a face of makeup on for an audition. It was such a new concept for me, and it took me years to actually be okay with that. It was hard for me to know that it’s okay to dress like a human person because that’s what it felt like. I guess they think, when they teach you this, that this is a neutral look to be in a dress, so that you’re [obviously] a girl. I think that’s what was the weirdest for me was to know that it is okay to wear pants for an audition.
During The Little Mermaid, when you were first starting to have to do a lot of press and public appearances, you were representing a brand. Have you found, as you’ve gotten older, that you’ve had to find a way of balancing what you feel reflects you, but also how people think of you and what they see as your brand?
I still feel a part of me needs and wants to uphold that brand because that will forever be a part of my… legacy is such a grand word, but for lack of a better word, legacy. I am aware that I have a younger fan base, so I do think about that for sure, but I also live my life.
There is a balance I was able to find. I think I was terrified for a while and didn’t quite know who I was once I was out of playing Ariel, because it was structured for me. I did go through a period of time that’s, “What do I want to look like and how do I want to dress and who am I in this business and who am I as a person?” That was a difficult time for me, but luckily, that was a transition period I got to have in London, so it allowed me to go away for a bit and explore, and maybe get a little better handle on how I want to be in the world. I also have an unwritten rule for myself that I just want to behave with integrity, so I do think about, “Am I proud of my actions?” If I am, then I’m okay with people being a part of that or seeing it.
As an actress, there’s pressure to stay looking young and attractive forever. Have you ever felt like that pressure comes into conflict with ways that you might feel you needed to present yourself in order for people to take you seriously as a talented, creative person with ideas and thoughts?
What I’ve run into is because I don’t look my age, if I want to be taken seriously, I’ll have to dress myself up older. So that does come in conflict with just dressing how I would like to. If I’m going to do my own solo concert or something is when I really find it. Once I leave New York, based on what I look like, they might think that I’m not a powerful leading lady because I look young and because I’ve played Ariel, so I’m supposed to be everybody’s favorite sweet Disney princess. Once I’m on stage, it makes sense for them and they view me as a powerful woman, but offstage, if I want to be taken seriously from the first moment, then I would dress up. I also find that as I get older, I don’t really care. That’s other people’s perception and I don’t fight that anymore. I used to fight against my looks within myself. For so long I wanted to look older than I was.
When you’re doing your hair and makeup, do you feel pressure to make it look effortless?
Absolutely. I think that’s why it takes so much longer to do our makeup, because that needs to look like we just are who we are and just rolled out like this, but that actually takes a lot of time. So yes, I do. I wish I could just wake up and look like what people think I look like.
Because you have a lot young female fans, do you feel pressure from that you have these young girls looking to you and watching what you’re doing?
I don’t feel pressured anymore. I used to, a long time ago. I don’t like to look at it as pressure, because I want to have a handle on this. One of the things that I’m running into, because my fan base is so young, and one of the things that makes me crazy, especially with social media, is people saying, “You’re so perfect.” That makes me want to throw my phone because I think that is an epidemic. We have filters and nobody posts photos without filters. We post our best stuff.
I’m always talking about this: we are perfectly imperfect. Perfection is not something to strive for, so it is important to me that I show myself just as a regular person and not dressed up always in a certain way. It’s making sure that they see that, too, because I think that that is part of what causes so many disorders and shame spirals for people: they’re striving for perfection, which they’ve created in their minds or based on somebody else. I find that it’s my responsibility to teach or live by example that this is raw, and any photo that’s all done up or, “God, that’s so perfect,” is not. It’s an illusion. I think that’s really important.
Also, to get deep about Ariel, Ariel represents somebody who feels she was born in the wrong body or with the wrong look or in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have transgender people and people who have different disorders [reach out to me] because they are feeling like Ariel’s the role that they respond to the most because she tells their story. That, to me, is my responsibility of having played a character like that, that actually speaks to appearance and to the extreme that she would go to in order to be what she thinks she should be.
But the main thing that I want to say about the subject is to not strive for perfection. I think to try and change the thought around the pressure [of appearance] is to maybe look at it as what you are willing to do. I think that’s a good question that we have to ask ourselves, and it’s up to our own integrity barometer. What I do now is ask myself, “Is this within my integrity and does this resonate with that?” If it does, then I’ll wear it and if it doesn’t, then we’re not wearing it.
Halley Feiffer, Writer and Actress
Both as an actress and a writer, when you go for important meetings, do you have a go-to outfit?
I love this question. A couple years ago, I was on a panel of women in theatre at Williamstown and we ended up all talking about this, and we realized that we all had to think a lot about what we wore depending on what the context was. I remember saying, and this is still true, that I have an actress wardrobe and I have a playwright wardrobe. They’re pretty much polar opposites. The actress wardrobe is much more feminine, for lack of a better word, and the writer wardrobe is much more masculine, for lack of a better word. If I’m going to an audition, I’ll usually wear a lower-cut shirt. If I’m going to a general or a pitch meeting as a writer, I will never do that. I almost always wear a blazer with square shoulders to make myself look more masculine. I almost never wear a skirt as a writer. As an actress, I tend to wear a lower-cut shirt and a skirt and heels. I try to lean into sex appeal as an actress, unwittingly—I don’t think I even necessarily do it consciously. Whereas as a writer, I really try to bury my sexuality because, to be very honest, I feel that as a white woman with blonde hair, I’m already predisposed to people thinking I’m dumb. That’s why I actually don’t even have contact lenses—I wear glasses all the time in the hopes of subliminally reminding people that I’m not dumb, which might sound ridiculous, but I often get treated like I’m dumb and I feel like I have to work really, really hard as a writer to remind people that I’m not. And I kind of work hard as an actress to lean into that false assumption, which is tragic, but that’s the way that I found myself behaving.
Do you feel pressure to always look very put together?
I do. For instance, right now, I’m a little late driving to work and I don’t know if I will have time to put makeup on, and that’s really stressing me out. It’s not really because I’m vain—I don’t even tend to wear makeup on weekends—it’s really because I see that as part of showing up to work and being professional, looking like I’ve put some effort into my appearance. I do often think, “Man, the men in this room save a lot of time in that they don’t have to worry about this stuff as much.” It does put us at a disadvantage because that’s incredibly energy and time consuming, thinking about your personal appearance and what messages you’re conveying with it.
They’ve done studies that show women are more likely to be rewarded in the workplace if they wear makeup.
That makes me want to rip out my own heart. I definitely believe it. Here’s the other fucked up part: I’m really careful about how much makeup I wear. I want to wear enough so that I look nice. I don’t want to wear so much that I look too “actress-y” for writer meetings, so I try to do a makeup look that looks like I’m not really wearing makeup, but I just sort of woke up fresh-faced. It takes a lot of thought and energy and it is really expensive. Someone said to me that this entire system has been manufactured to keep us down because we are so distracted with thinking about how we look. We are at a complete disadvantage because we have to spend more money and we have to spend more time doing this thing that men don’t have to do at all. So, of course it’s harder for us to get ahead, because we have less resources.
Did you watch Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? In that show, she will get up early, before her husband, and put on makeup. This podcast was saying that was very common advice in the women’s magazines of that day. My first thought was, “That’s horrible. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that.” Then my second thought was like, “Oh wait, I have done that in A.) dating men, and B.) I do that pretty much every day at work. I show up looking sort of bouncy and fresh-faced and you have no idea that I was sitting in my car for the last 15 minutes applying all of this dewy makeup so that you guys all think that this is effortless, trying to make myself look younger so that people will keep hiring me and thinking that I’m this wunderkind, which I’m not.” I’m approaching my mid-30s but I look younger than that, and I’m trying to keep that mint going because that seems like it will be useful for my “brand,” which doesn’t necessarily exist. I’m just trying to support myself.
I recently went through my closet and I got rid of everything where I thought, “Oh, this makes me look like a child, this will make them think that I’m the intern.” It’s such a thing with women’s clothing. Do you think about age and how it relates to clothing?
Yeah, because I want to look young and I also want to look like a woman. I want to look like an attractive, young woman who can be everyone’s boss, and that feels nearly impossible. I’ve had the same thing where I’ve ended up throwing out or donating a lot of clothes that I feel look too girlish. If I do wear, let’s say, a shirt with a flower pattern, I’ll make sure to pair that with a really masculine blazer. I never want to look just girlish if I’m going to an event where I’m primarily a writer. Conversely, as an actress, I’ll really lean into that often.
Have you ever had the experience where you feel like you look very put together and you’ve put a lot of effort into your appearance and you’ve found that it’s backfired on you in some way, either in the sense that people are like, “Oh, she’s kind of a bitch,” or, “she must not be very nice,” or the other type of weird stigmas that women get that can be linked to appearance?
I don’t know if this is exactly answering your question but I recently cut a lot of my hair off. I had very long blond hair and I had an epiphany. I just felt like a lot of men in professional contexts were treating me like I was stupid to the point where I even started wondering, “Maybe I’m stupid and I never knew it and this is all a big mistake and it’s been so nice of everyone to not tell me I’m stupid.” I cut a lot of my hair off to see if that would change the way that people perceived me. Also, I felt like it—it’s not like I did it for them. But I really was like, “Me having long, straight, blonde hair is sending a message that I don’t mean to send. I want to look like a boss and I think I look like a starlet, and that’s not for me anymore.” It’s only been a couple of weeks, but I do feel like I get hit on less. I do think putting effort into my appearance has conveyed the impression, not necessarily that I’m a bitch, but that I am kind of ditzy.
Have you ever had an experience where you felt pressure to present yourself in a sexy manner or to wear something that was more revealing than what you would naturally do?
As an actress, for sure, I literally have little cutlets that I used to put in my bra before auditions to make my breasts look bigger. I think most actresses have a little arsenal of tricks like that. I used to look on the audition sheet and see if the director was a man—which, as we all know, it is usually is—and really try to lean into my sex appeal just to try to get a job. I’m not proud of that, but it also felt like an inevitability, because I would be in these waiting rooms and look at all these other women who were doing that and if I’m the one person who’s not doing that, I’m going to have less of a chance of getting this job.
Do you feel that what you’re wearing and what you look like affects how you feel about yourself and how confident you feel in professional settings?
I think so. That’s why I started wearing blazers and more expensive pants. I wear masculine shoes. I wear oxfords to writing meetings because I want to feel and be perceived as a woman who’s also a man, which I can’t believe I have to say, and it feels very anti-feminist, but I also feel like that’s why Donald Trump is President. He said about Hillary, “She doesn’t look Presidential.” I forget who he was speaking to, but it was like, “What does that mean? What do you mean by that?” “I don’t know. She just doesn’t look Presidential.” What he obviously meant was she doesn’t look like a man. That shouldn’t be the way it is, but it is right now, I think. Hillary didn’t wear any girly dresses to the debates or to any of her events. She wore pantsuits and she wore dresses with more masculine energy. That’s exactly what I try to do, really just to trick people into thinking that I can be a boss, which I know I can, but I think they’re more likely to know that and I’m more likely to feel like I can do that if I’m dressed more like a man.
Anne Kauffman, Director
When you’re going for a meeting with a theatre company, artistic director, or producer, do you have a go-to outfit that you wear?
I don’t have a go-to outfit. When you asked this question, I was actually thinking mostly about being a younger director feeling like I should dress androgynously or like a man. That was my early career. Now, I go in and I dress thinking I want to be respected and I want them to understand that I respect the endeavor that we’re meeting about. It’s a mutual respect thing. I want them to know that I respect the fact that they’ve called me and that I’m taking this whole thing seriously.
Earlier in your career, when you felt you had to dress more androgynously or more masculine, can you describe what that meant to you and when that changed?
I had a pretty androgynous look early in my career anyway, but I definitely felt like I needed to present as totally asexual in the rehearsal room because I didn’t want people to look at me as a sexual person, but as a leader. I wanted to make sure that men in the room took me seriously and didn’t look at me as an object. I’m not assuming that they did, but I felt like dressing like a man gave me authority. I also happened to be a lot younger than people in the room, so there was a certain kind of gravitas that I was trying to achieve.
Around that time, I also thought that my own personal life or my personal experiences had no bearing on any work that I was doing. I didn’t bring my personal life or relate anything to myself when I was working on plays early in my career, which now just seems insane, because this is why we do this. I think my dress code changed around the same time that I realized, “Oh, I actually need to bring who I am into the room.” To connect my passion for the work and why I’m choosing it and how it relates to my own life into the room. That also happened to affect the way I dressed. I dressed more casually, I dressed like me. I wanted to be comfortable. It’s not like I have like a crazy style of dress, but it wasn’t just thinking in terms of straight lines and no curves and ignoring my body as a woman.
Early on were you also trying to disguise your age and look older?
I think I probably was trying to project some sort of maturity. So I was basically trying to dress like an old man. I was basically dressing like my grandfather.
So it was all pants?
Blazers. Pants. There was a real thrift store kind of vibe to it. I shopped in the men’s section. In thrift stores, I never ever bought women’s pants. I only ever bought men’s pants and blazers. Growing up, we were forced to wear dresses and skirts all the time. We weren’t allowed to wear pants. So think there was also this whole kind of rebellion against that as well. And old man button downs. I didn’t wear ties, but I did used to wear Doc Martens that looked like men’s wingtips.
My go-to thing is always a dress over pants. In the summertime, I’ll wear dresses and skirts almost all the time. I dress for my mood. I don’t ever dress with anything low cut. I definitely don’t, like, dress provocatively. I think I am pretty much about comfort. But I don’t hide being a woman anymore, which is something I really felt like I did when I was a younger director.
Are there still times where you feel like you should dress a certain way?
I think my own nervousness about wearing something is mostly about my personal relationship to my body. It doesn’t really have to do with who I’m going to meet. But actually, I was going for an interview for a show where the subject matter was pretty taboo. I did think about wearing something that made me look like a director who could approach this material. Meaning I didn’t want to seem too uptight. I was aware of that. I wanted to project this image of someone who’s maybe groovy. That was actually pretty recent.
Let’s talk about hair and makeup for a minute.
Oh, Jesus. Okay. I have hair, and sometimes I wear makeup. I mean, I’ll wear mascara to a meeting. I don’t really wear makeup that much. I would put more makeup on for an opening night, which is still not that much makeup.
Is that a personal preference thing?
Yes, as opposed to what?
They’ve done studies that show that women in the workplace get more opportunities and are paid more if they wear makeup. But then, if it’s too much makeup, there are drawbacks.
Wow. Yeah, I’m not a makeup person. I don’t like wearing makeup. For me, I would say it might also have to do, again, with how I need to present as myself in the room. I want people to know who I am. This is who I am. I feel like it’s pretty important that what you see is what you get. If I’m dressing a little bit more formally or a little less, all of those thing are me. There is a range of me. I think it’s the way that I am in meetings more and more too: Here are my ideas, if you like them, you like them, if you don’t, you don’t. I feel like that’s how I’m trying to present. I really feel like presenting my ideas like, “These are my ideas, take them or leave them,” is something that I really had to evolve, too. My look, except when I was dressing like a man, I feel like that has not radically shifted.
Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Actress
Do you have a go-to audition outfit?
The only go-to outfits that I have are when I go into dance calls. I have one or two pairs of pants that make me feel really good to be in. So, I make sure to wear those even if it’s not totally appropriate. But, for any other audition, it’s so much more about trying to get the creative team to picture you in the world that they’re creating. You don’t want to show up in costume, obviously, because then you get put in the crazy pile. But, you want to at least show that you’ve done your research into who this person is and how they might dress and what world you might be occupying as that character.
For musical theatre stuff where it’s not a dance call, do you find most of the time that you’re wearing skirts and dresses for that?
When I was first graduating from school and coming out into the real world, we were constantly chastised if we wore pants to auditions. Even in school, it was never wear jeans to an audition, never wear pants to an audition. I found that to be sort of insane advice. I do find that I wear skirts more often than pants, and sometimes, I will feel like, ”Oh, I’m such a rebel if I’m wearing jeans to an audition.” But, certainly as I’ve gotten older, that stigma has sort of fallen away a little bit and I realize now how unhelpful that advice was to have you your jewel tone red dress and your tan shoes to wear to every audition. I find that to be sort of terrible advice, and I’m hoping that as these programs evolve, people aren’t asking their students to do that anymore.
Where do you think that advice stemmed from?
I guess it comes from what people think specifically ingénue women look like on stage and trying to find a human being version of, “I want to play Laurie in Oklahoma.” Or what people want women to look like generically on stage oftentimes has more to do with a skirt and a dress than anything else. But I never really fit into the type that would do that. I remember when I was graduating from college and we were putting together our showcase, I was thinking I wanted to be a Rockette because I was like, “I know exactly what I’m selling here and I’m going to wear a short skirt and I’m going to dance and I’m going to paint my face,” and I ended up getting into a fight with the head of the department about the fact that I was wearing a short skirt. And I was like, “Well, I’m not going to sing a song about being a showgirl in a knee-length wrap dress. That’s completely insane.” But there were certainly some words to be had about the fact that I was wearing a short skirt. That was deemed inappropriate for literally no reason.
You recently changed your hair color from brunette to blonde.
I did change my hair color as a little bit of a revolt to force people to look at me in a different way.
Have you found that it’s made a difference?
Not really. It was the initial shock of it, and then it’s like, “Oh, right. It’s still her.”
You mentioned the ingénue thing in musical theatre earlier, and not really fitting into that, or feeling like you didn’t fit into that.
I’ve never fit into that. I’ve always sort of skated in the middle of not really an ingénue and not really full out sidekick. I just don’t necessarily slot into a lot of the musical theatre archetypes. So I’m already a difficult person to place, and what I dress like or what kind of hair and makeup I have isn’t really going to change what my face looks like. And that’s just the God’s honest truth about it.
When you were younger, did you try to do things to your appearance to make yourself look more one way or the other?
Yeah. There would be definite calls where I would be like, “Oh, I’m going to have to put my bangs back because I have to look more generic.” Things like that, where I would try to make myself blend in more because I needed a job. But, at the same time, I did not get the nose job when I was thinking about getting the nose job, and if I had really wanted to go for it and make myself blend in, I would’ve done it. But something stopped me.
In musical theatre it still can be about an all-American, very WASP-y look.
And I am definitely not that. I once had an agent who said to me, “Oh, well, you can’t use that headshot. It shows too much of your nose.” And I was like, “Well, that’s the nose that’s going to walk into the room. They’d better see it now and not waste anybody’s time.” And thankfully, I was on my way to lunch with my cousin and she was like, “You don’t need a new nose. You need a new agent.” But it didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t the problem until someone else told me I wasn’t.
Is that the worst story you have of somebody saying something about your physical appearance in relation to work and getting a job?
Probably. I don’t know. There’s been so many; I can’t even remember them all. There have been people who have said to me, “We just love you; we just don’t know what to do with your face.” Or like, “You know, there’s nothing in this that you can’t do, but you just don’t look like everybody else.”
I have a lot of feelings about all of this. Style and dressing is such a complicated, intimate thing. And when you do work as a stylist, you have to be prepared to be there for people emotionally far more than you would think, because putting clothes on people and asking them to look at themselves is a very emotionally raw, super intimate thing. And like, there’s so much wrapped up in what we’re trying to present to the world. It is about nonverbal communication and the rules of nonverbal communication are changing all the time, and especially the way that women are presenting themselves in the world, and women who are creative, and women who want to be interpretive artists without losing their own humanity and their own senses of self. It’s a tough thing to navigate. I can only hope that with things like this, it will ask people to look at the human being and not necessarily just at the idea of the human being.
Rebecca Luker, Actress
I remember when we talked before, you mentioned that Fun Home was the first show where you’d ever been allowed to wear jeans, and we talked about how for musical theatre there was that advice for auditioning, especially if you’re an ingénue, to always wear a dress or a skirt.
Right. I told you my Music Man story. They didn’t want to see me for the role for whatever reason. But I knew that at that time in my life I was so right for the role, and I thought it would be my last chance to do it. So I got my agent to get me in. I just said, “Just get me in, whatever. I don’t know if they don’t want to see me. I just want a chance to do it.” I thought, “I could really do it up and pile my hair up in a turn of the century ‘do and find the perfect Marian dress, or something that at least suggests her, and really go for it.” But I just didn’t feel up to that. I just thought, “I’m just going to look normal. I’m going to dress way down,” in a way that was maybe my middle finger to the whole situation. Like saying, “I’m not going to pay attention to the traditions and all that crap. I just want you to listen to me. I want you to hear me. I want you to see me as I really am.” So I walked in with this pair of pants that wasn’t dressy or anything special. I had like a baggy sweater, and I think my hair was down. It was completely not what you wear to this audition. I looked completely different from everybody in the room, too. As you know, it did work. I did get the part. I don’t know if I did because I just went in with this “I don’t really care” attitude of I’m just going to show you what I can do and you can take me or leave me. But that’s what I did and, in that instance, it worked out.
But I always have this conflict about what to wear to what. Some people can just have effortless style. I am not one of those people. I just have a hard time with it. I’d be a really good rich person who’d just have a stylist like, “Oh, just dress me. Just tell me what to wear.” It’s always a struggle for me, so I am not always appropriately dressed. I try to wear something I think I look attractive in. I’m completely not up to the minute. I’m always three years behind whatever the style is. But I don’t care about that, because if I don’t look good it, I’m not going to wear it anyway. I’m just a mess sometimes like that.
Did you get that advice to wear a dress and do your hair and all of that type of stuff?
I did get that advice sometimes. Actually, and especially when I first started out I had no earthly idea what I was supposed to wear to anything. I’d wear the most inappropriate things to a commercial audition. I honestly didn’t know. I didn’t have anybody to give me advice on that. I did have an agent, and one of the woman agents in the office did, every now and then, go, “Uh, they mentioned that you wore this weird dress to this audition,” or whatever. I was poor back then. I probably had two dresses.
This is a funny story, too. When I was going in for Mary Poppins, for Mrs. Banks, at my first audition, apparently, I could’ve looked more attractive or something. When I got the callback, the casting people went, “Just tell her to look pretty. Just come in looking prettier.” I thought that was the oddest advice. I went, “Uh, did I look hideous in the first audition?” It made me laugh, actually. I went, “I guess I don’t know how to look pretty sometimes.” Honestly, it’s so tough. It’s so tough knowing what to wear. Sometimes I wish I was a man and I could just wear tuxedos and suits everywhere. I’d be so happy.
Right, it’s time and money, and men don’t have to think about any of this nearly as much.
It really is and they really don’t. Everything’s expensive. You have to take time with your hair and your makeup. Sometimes I just want to shave my head and put on a suit, honestly. I love dressing up in evening gowns and going out, but even that is a lot of work, and it can be expensive. We do this to ourselves. If women would revolt and just say, “Why are we doing this? Let’s not do this anymore.” Take off the false lashes and cut your hair off and put on a suit, a uniform. I would love to wear a uniform like school kids do sometimes.
As you’ve gotten older, have you felt the pressure of people wanting women to look younger?
Oh yes, I definitely feel that in this business, absolutely. We don’t even have it as bad as, say, women in Hollywood, who at age 35 feel like they have to get surgery. That is just horrifying to me. It’s horrifying to me to think about doing it now, in my mid 50s. There is that pressure of having to look 25 when you’re 50. Personally, I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been in my whole life. I do feel like I look a little younger in my years, and I do try to stay in shape, and I do try to take care of myself. But I want to get older gracefully. I want to be proud of my lines on my face. I’m not going to be one of those people to get surgery; I just don’t want to do that. I just want to look like I look. So I’m really trying to be that person. I do look at old photos of myself, we all do, and go, “Oh, I was so cute.” But now I’m really trying to appreciate my more mature self and not worry so much about looking young, so much as just take care of myself.
Going back to what you were saying before about it all being a lot of effort, do you find that you wish that theatre actresses were given more help for public events? In Hollywood, people usually have teams of people for this stuff.
They do, don’t they? I guess it’s because they’re making millions and we’re not. That all costs a lot of money. I understand why people have their own people, because if you have your own hair and makeup person, they know you. I don’t have my own. I just call whoever, or just take whomever’s at some event. It often doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. I’m learning, as I get older, to go, “No, I don’t want that much makeup,” or, “I don’t need lashes,” or, “Can you just make my hair look normal?” I’ve been learning to speak up for myself instead of just letting them do whatever to me. You have to know yourself, and you have to just speak up and be nice about it. I normally say, “Just make me look normal.” It’s all hard. But it’s fun—that’s how I try to look at it. It’s not rocket science.
For women in this business who feel the pressure to look a certain way and dress a certain way, I just wish for all of us that we’re just happy, and we dress the way we feel comfortable, and pressure be damned, and whatever expectations be damned. We all have to be ourselves.
Nikiya Mathis, Actress and Hair Consultant
Do you have a go-to audition outfit?
If it’s an audition, I do have things that I tend to wear. It’s just really important for me to always have something lined up, because nine times out of ten the auditions are coming at the last minute, so I want to know that okay, this is my go-to for the professional look, this is my go-to for a love interest type thing.
In professional settings, do you ever feel a pressure to dress a way that doesn’t feel natural to you or that wouldn’t be your choice?
You know what? I don’t. I see casting directors and directors out and about all the time. I always feel fine being dressed according to my style, and that tends to be a little dressy anyway. I feel comfortable wearing what I want to wear. It’s really my hair that’s always the thing that’s in the back of my mind because sometimes I wear a lot of wigs and sometimes I’ll wear my hair straight and long, sometimes I’ll wear it big and curly and Afro, and I’m unapologetic about that, but I do wonder if people are caught off guard by it. When I say “people,” I’m thinking white people in particular, because black women, and I feel like black culture for the most part, understands that black women do a variety of things with their hair. One day it’s long and straight, the next day it’s short and curly, and that just is what it is because our hair can do that. That’s just our expression. So sometimes I wonder if people are wondering how to place me, but for me there’s freedom in that. I wonder if they’re thinking something, but that doesn’t stop me from expressing myself on a daily basis.
How much time do you feel like you have to spend on hair and makeup?
I tend to be somebody that is doing my hair and doing makeup for the most part on a daily basis. I would say I need at least an hour to do that. For an audition, the biggest thing tends to be hair. I know I can always put on some makeup on the train or the bus, but I do need to figure out what it is that I’m wearing or what my hair is going to look like. The thing that’s been the saving grace for me is the wig. Because my hair is natural, I don’t have the time or the luxury to wake up in the morning and hope that my hair is going to behave in the way that I want it to, or that the weather is going to allow my hair to stay in the same style that I put it in, because with natural hair your hair is just a little bit of a slave to the elements. For me, wigs, and having them set aside and ready, and all I have to do is maybe curl or maybe just style it a little bit, has been a saving grace. That has saved me so much time.
You also do hair and wig consulting and design for shows. What was the genesis of that?
I would do hair in high school. I was bored one summer and then I started doing my hair, and then my friends would say, “Oh my gosh, your hair is cute. Can you do mine?” When I got out of grad school and started working in regional theatre, I would find I would be in contemporary plays and the hair design would be a contemporary style, so something that you probably would not be wigged for in the traditional sense of the theatrical craft of a wig. I was in this one show, and it was decided that it would be best for one of my castmates to have cornrows. In talking to the costume designer for it, the theatre had no contact with anyone around that did cornrows. They had no contact with any black stylists or anything, and nobody in the costume department knew how to do it. I ended up saying, “Hey, do you want me to do it?”
This has happened multiple times, and from there I started thinking, “Wow, black actresses really need this resource.” A lot of black actresses, especially in theatre, are going on a Monday, on their own, to make sure that their hair is okay, so then their Monday is never their day off. Our hair, especially if it’s natural, can be prone to breakage. It just can’t be dealt with and treated any kind of way. Our hair is important to us, and if we damage our hair for a play, we are thinking about the consequences of, “Okay, what about when I go out into the world now for auditions? What am I going to do about my hair that’s been damaged for this show?” There have to be special considerations taken for black hair because it’s definitely different than European.
I always had the desire to fill that need, but I was a bit insecure because I was not a costume designer by trade or education. I was not a wig designer by education. I had not gone to cosmetology school. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I started feeling a little less antsy. I was acting and I was actually doing a show that I really loved, but I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled. I was in this show, and I knew that when I got out of that show I was going to be going back to auditioning. Something about that made me feel powerless. That actually led me to start pursuing hair because I felt like I needed to find another thing in life that also brought me joy.
I started getting people coming to me and I really felt blessed that black actresses were looking to me to fill this void. I want to help because I know what it is to go into a theatre and have somebody look at your hair as if you are a problem, and look at you like, “What am I supposed to do with this?” You don’t want to come off as a diva and say, “Listen, you should be thinking about my hair and you should actually have some education for this, but you don’t.” If I make any kind of stink about it, which of course I would not do, then I’m looked at as a diva and I’m looked at as a problem, but the real problem is that black women’s issues in the world are overlooked, and hair is just a small part of that. The hair is so firmly tied into our identity that it should no longer be overlooked.
Jesca Prudencio, Director
When you go for a meeting with a theatre company or producer, something professional in that realm, do you have a go-to outfit?
Yes. I usually go for one pop of color or a pattern, and then I’ll pair it with black or gray. I used to dress with a lot of color and texture, and then as I have been doing more work and taking on more professional gigs and now working regularly in regional theatre, I want to stay true to the color and pattern, but I find myself pairing it with something more muted just so that my whole outfit isn’t screaming.
One of the things I’ve been talking to directors about is how they present themselves physically in order to get taken seriously. Is that something that you’ve encountered?
Yes. I’ve been given advice over the years of people warning me, “You look really young. You dress really feminine, and be careful. Unfortunately, that’s how it is, you should not dress up as much or dress as feminine.” I’ve been given that advice here and there, but that’s not true for me. I can’t do that, I can’t not be me. I enjoy wearing makeup, and I like doing my hair, and I get my hair ombre’d every five months. I’ve sort of rejected that and stayed true to me. Something I’m aware of is in the last few years I’ve definitely covered myself a lot more. I’m in my 30s now, and even if it’s hot I’ll wear long sleeve and pants. If anything, I feel more mature and more powerful is if I’m covered.
Have you had experiences in professional settings where you’ve walked in, and because of what you’re wearing or because you have your hair and makeup done, that people have made certain assumptions about you that are not true?
Oh, yes. In general, when I walk into a room and people don’t know me, no one assumes I’m the director. Even when I was directing as an MFA grad student, and I was directing my thesis in a theatre of 600 seats, I walk in and the crew person doesn’t know who I am thinks I’m a lost undergrad. When I walk into a theatre, I know people look at me and don’t say, “Oh, are you the director?” They usually say, “Oh, are you lost?,” or, “Oh, can I help you?” I definitely think people make assumptions when I am dressed more feminine, when I’ve done my hair, I’ve done my makeup. Heels make me feel powerful, but I’m 4″10, so having a three inch heel makes me 5″1. For me, heels are not about height, they’re about feeling powerful.
Do you find yourself thinking about age in relation to appearance and dress?
I think I’ve been trying to look like I’m in my 30s for the past 10 years. I’m now in my early 30s, but I was in leadership positions, and teaching, and I was an education director of a theatre 10 years ago, and I was in my early 20s. I think one thing that I’m very aware of is wanting to dress more maturely. That is definitely something that I strive to do. I’m covering my body more and that’s one of my signals of dressing older.
Do you find that there are any other things, appearance-wise, that are coded in terms of how people view you? An example might be price point in outfits that people make assumptions based on.
In my style, I look for pieces that are unique, and I like when people compliment me on my clothes like, “Your pants are so cool,” or, “Where did you get those pants?” It becomes a story for me, like, “Is that a skirt? Is that shorts? What is that?” And, I’m like, “Oh, I got it in Thailand.” Right now, it’s become sort of an icebreaker for me. That’s something that I look forward to, and since I’ve been all over the world and buying different jewelry and stuff, I like when people say something about it, because then we can always talk about it.
You mentioned working regionally. Have you found that you adjust your dress depending on where you are in the country?
Yes. Definitely. I don’t go shopping very much, but within my clothing I adjust it to the show. I did this show that took place in a New York City kitchen and everyone was uniformed, so for me I always liked wearing this white sweater, or white blouse, or white button down, just because it got me in the mode. When I was just doing Vietgone I was almost always wearing pieces and pants and tops were from Southeast Asia. For me, right now, it’s not necessarily by location, it’s catered to the content of the show. Also, when you travel regionally, you have one suitcase, and you have to pick your seven outfits that you’re going to recycle over and over again. So I think about the content, and I think about what makes me feel more like me.
Is there anything else you think about?
Something I think about a lot just in addition to appearance and makeup and hair is my wedding ring and my engagement ring. My husband has fabulous taste and got me a stunning engagement ring and then also a diamond wedding band. In my mind, when I see an engagement ring, it feels young to me. It’s also sort of fancy, so then it looks like money. It looks expensive, and I don’t want people to look at it and start to make judgments around how did I get it, am I a newlywed, is it really an engagement ring, how much is it, am I rich? I feel like, for me, it’s important to wear my wedding ring, but I usually won’t wear my engagement ring when I’m in meetings or when I’m meeting people or when I’m in rehearsal.
Someone I know who recently finished medical school told me when she’s applying for jobs at hospitals, that she takes off her engagement ring and wedding ring because she’s worried that people won’t give her the job if they think she’s going to get pregnant and quit or not be as available.
I have had people ask me, “Do you have kids?” and the few times it’s happened recently, I haven’t felt judged, but I was like, “Oh, is it because I’m a woman, or is it because I’m wearing a wedding ring?” and they’re reading that and asking if that’s a part of the package. I don’t have kids, and I’m not pregnant. But that is interesting, that seeing a ring, either or both of the rings would link to you not being able to do your job because of kids. For me, the wedding ring, and with getting married, I feel more mature. But, yes, the wedding ring is definitely something I think about, and I’ve decided, especially in this last year, that I will just wear my wedding ring professionally.
Aneesh Sheth, Actress
Do you have a go-to audition outfit?
Generally, it’s not one particular outfit, but I have a few that are in the same vein. Most of them are super femme dresses, and then I’ve got a pantsuit for other, more professional-looking things.
Some people have said that they actually find professional meetings trickier to dress for than auditions because they’re trying to look how they think the people want them to look and also look like how they want to look and be true to themselves. Is that something that you’ve found?
Yeah. Particularly, I think, as a trans-femme individual. I think oftentimes we are dressed to assert our identities in the room, because there’s so many misconceptions and stigmas about who we are as people, that often when we go into these meetings or auditions, particularly for trans roles, there’s a need to feel like, “Okay. Well, we have to assert our identity because people see us as something else.”
The other way is that I get a lot of calls for trans roles, but then, they’re very based on what a trans person is “supposed” to look like, as if we all look the same, right? One of the things that a lot of my colleagues and I come up across is that like, “Okay, they’re looking for a trans-femme individual, but somebody who looks like they’re trans.” I hate that phrase, but that’s commonly seen in these breakdowns in casting. It’s interesting, you go in and you present yourself as you would this character. If she’s a trans woman, she’s wearing a dress or whatever, and you’ll hear comments like, “Well, we need you to look more trans, so come back wearing jeans and a t-shirt or something.” That’s what I mean by misconceptions and stigmas and stuff.
Have you felt that’s had an affect on your personal style and how you dress, even in rehearsals?
I think, over the years, it’s affected my personal style. I’ve always been a very high femme person anyway, and I think that in my 20s—10 years ago—I was definitely wanting to assert that a lot more, wearing the highest heels, and the sexiest dresses, and things like that. Now it’s more like, “This is my body. This is who I am. I’m going to come in jeans and sneakers and a t-shirt, because that makes me feel good.” I think I’ve cared a lot less about the perception of me going into a room.
I wanted to talk a little bit about hair and makeup. How long, on average. do you feel like you spend getting ready?
If there’s something important, an audition or a meeting, definitely a good hour or hour and a half. I feel like it’s almost expected of us. But particularly now, in my 30s, I’m like, “I don’t care if I’m wearing makeup every day.” There was a time that I would wear makeup every day no matter what, even going to the gym or the grocery store. I’m very particular about when I wear makeup now: in rehearsals, or mostly for previews or shows or events. There are days when I’m like, “I really don’t want to, but I know that I must, because I need to be seen a certain way by these people, or they’ll take me less professionally if I don’t.”
Do you also feel the pressure to make it look like you’re not putting in any effort into your appearance?
No one’s ever really posed that question to me. No, I think I make sure I take the time to make it look like I’ve put in some effort. It’s interesting, particularly in the trans community. I see a lot of younger trans folks who don’t care so much about all this stuff. My generation, and the generation above me, I think wearing makeup and looking more femme, particularly for trans women, was a safety thing. How passable you could be determined how safe you would be. I think, for me, that’s played a big part in it.
We touched on this before, but have you ever felt any pressure to dress in a way where you were like, “Nope, not for me”?
Oh God, yeah. It’s getting a little better now, but particularly in a lot of castings for trans-femme roles, there are still kind of these stereotypes about how trans-femmes are like these sexual predators or sex workers or things like that. I think that there’s always pressure to dress more sexy, dress more provocatively than how you want to be seen. There are a lot of stigmatized roles that require us to dress a certain way.
One of the things that come up with directors is how appearance or dress relates to being taken seriously or as authority figures. But even for actors in a rehearsal room, you do need people to listen and take you seriously. Have you ever felt if you’re in rehearsal and wearing makeup and a dress, that that makes people underestimate your abilities, or not take you as seriously?
Absolutely. I think that I have a reputation for being a very nice, congenial person, and I think that when there’s an issue that I speak up about, I’m very quick to be labeled as problematic. I think a lot of that has to do with, “Oh, look at how pretty she is,” or, “She comes in with this happy attitude, she’s such a nice person,” and people maybe want to take advantage of that for whatever reason. I’ve come across that a lot, particularly as a trans woman of color too.
Have you had other experiences, in a professional setting, where you feel like based on your appearance people have just made assumptions about who you are as a person that are just not at all correct?
Oh, yeah. I mean, even when they hear the word trans, the assumptions start rolling in. Particularly in working with costume designers, I’ve noticed that it’s been an issue. Dressing trans bodies is a big issue.
Have you found that there’s extreme pressure to be very thin and things like that?
People leave me alone when it comes to that because I think I have always been very outspoken about body shaming and sex positivity and all that. A lot of my colleagues have experienced that, where they’ve been told, “You need to lose weight for this role. You need to go and you need to dress differently.” Things like that.
Liesl Tommy, Director
When you go in for a meeting at a theatre company or with a producer, do you have a go-to outfit that you wear, and do you put a lot of thought into how you’re presenting yourself?
Over the years, I’ve created a uniform for myself so I don’t have to think about it, because any time you have to think about that sort of thing is time that you could be spending thinking about the actual work. So I’ve created the most streamlined series of outfits for these things, so it just is what it is. During the whole Broadway/Tony Awards thing, I had to think about it a lot. I also had to take time out of my extremely overtaxed days to manage hair, makeup, and clothes that are camera ready. It was extremely time consuming, and extremely expensive. I did slightly resent my male colleagues who did not have to put themselves in hair and makeup to walk the red carpet or for events. They can show up looking tousled and unkempt and it’s kind of cool. I don’t think the same applies to women.
They’ve done studies to back up that, for women, it’s time and money.
It’s a lot of money. And the same applies to meetings. I’m doing a lot of meetings in LA right now for television, and also in New York for commercial projects. I cannot go in with a plaid shirt and ripped jeans and kind of grungy hair, as I’ve seen plenty of my male colleagues do, and they still look kind of cute and cool. We just look dirty. But, like I’ve said, I’ve figured out how to let it not be a thing. I have a uniform. I have the east coast version of it and the west coast of it, and I feel confident and I feel comfortable, which is most important.
Can you describe what the east coast uniform is?
I basically wear leather pants, boots, and the same kind of top. It’s streamlined. It feels like it’s me. I feel confident in it, and it’s done.
One of the things that’s come up with other directors is how they have managed to balance displaying their own personal style with what they thought a person who is in charge should look and dress like. People mentioned that early in their careers, they would go into things in very masculine or androgynous-looking clothing. What was your experience with that?
I am a person who loves fashion. I started reading Vogue at a very early age because I love design; whether it’s architecture or fashion design, it’s something I’ve always been very interested in. Part of the fun of directing is that I can incorporate that passion. I always felt very confident in my ability to create a look that I felt good in because of that. I always felt like whatever I put on was going to suit my mood and my body type.
Do you think about femininity in relation to your appearance?
I like femininity. I am a woman with lots of curves. You can’t hide it, and I’ve never been interested in hiding it. I’m not interested in playing the role of male director. I am a woman and I’m a woman who’s comfortable in her body. I have never felt like I needed to hide that. It doesn’t mean that I come to work with cleavage showing, but I am also not going to dress myself in a suit.
Have you ever had an experience in a professional setting where you thought that what you were wearing affected how people viewed you or viewed what you were saying?
Yes. This goes back to what I was saying about men looking kind of unkempt having a cool factor versus women. Early in my career, the question people would always ask before they hired me is how does she handle tech, as if women would cave under tech and men wouldn’t. I found early on that when the artistic director or producers come and check on you in tech, if you look tired—and you were always tired—I always felt like they would make comments of, “Oh, you look tired,” or, “Are you hanging in there,” that kind of thing. I realized that I would always make it a rule for myself that I would never look schluppy going into tech because that was part of what I had to do in the early days to prove myself. So I always made sure that my hair looked good, that I didn’t wear yoga pants or overalls, which I enjoyed wearing back then. I would always look like it was any other day at work, not like I’d done a series of 18 hour days. I found that that made a big difference in the way that they treated me and the confidence it seems to inspire.
I wanted to talk about hair and makeup for a little bit. How long do you say on average that takes you, either for a meeting or rehearsal?
For rehearsal, it takes me no time. I’ve figured out a way to minimize it all. I’ve really figured out how to keep it as simple as possible and as streamlined as possible. For an event, however, that’s different, and that’s annoying, because you do need to take care of your hair and makeup, especially if you’re going to be on camera or if there are going to be photographs. Like I said, it’s time consuming and it’s expensive.
They’ve done studies showing that how women wear their hair, particularly when it comes to hair that’s viewed as ethnic in any way, can affect how people see them in job opportunities.
Yes, I have read this. And I have, since anybody cared to take a picture of me, made an effort to be natural and to have my hair curly. I do not do straight blowouts. That’s political for me.
Do you ever feel that that’s had a negative effect?
I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that any time I get into a [hair] chair, they assume that I want it straightened. People always assume that that’s what I want done to it. There have been a few times when I’ve had to get rid of the hair stylist and just do it myself because they literally had no idea how to do what I was asking them to do.
In movies or on TV shows, it’s so rare to see anybody in a position of authority with curly hair.
I know. And there are definitely times where I’ve smoothed it, since it’s about making sure that the look is consistent. With curly hair and humidity, it’s just much more high maintenance. So there’s definitely times when I’ve super smoothed it and there’s a ton of product in it just so it stays consistent all night long. But I always resist the urge to just make it look like a sheet of straight, white lady hair.
Whitney White, Director
Do you have a go-to outfit that you wear when you’re going in for meetings with theatre companies or artistic directors or producers?
I do. I’m from Chicago. I was raised by a really fierce, amazing, single mom. Her name’s Janice and she taught me from a very early age the importance of presenting myself. We were doing our best to get by. And I’m a woman of color and presentation’s important, and I’m very thankful that she taught me that. And it can be fun. To this day, she’ll see a picture of me and she’ll be like, “You should’ve worn lipstick.” I appreciate it, because what she taught me is that no matter what’s going on, or how bad you might feel, or whatever resources you may not have, you can always present the best version of yourself.
One thing that she’s instilled me is you cannot beat a blazer-dress combo. I have a blazer that I love. It’s from Zara. It makes me feel good and it makes me feel strong. I wear it and I enjoy it. The good thing about clothing is when you find something you love that you can incorporate into your life, it can get meaning attached to it. So when I have that object on, it empowers me a little bit. So I like blazers. Old school but just reliable. You can go the full on suit route, or with a blazer-dress and some good sneakers, that’s kind of my jam.
Some of the directors I’ve talked to have said that at the start of their careers they felt they had to present themselves in a more masculine way.
I talk with a lot of people about that. And I totally understand that, but I’m coming from a totally different place because, for me, I just don’t believe in dressing down. I don’t believe in hiding who I am. I am a woman. I have breasts. They’re there. I went through real struggle growing up, and I know what it’s like not to have things and I’m not going to play myself down. It’s empowering for me to be myself all the time and I’m not going to not wear lipstick because it’s too feminine. I enjoy it. And also, it’s [asking] what do you enjoy? Because this business is really hard—you’re facing rejection all the freaking time—and it’s like, what’s one way that you can show yourself some love, that you can be good to yourself? A simple way is just taking care of yourself, and that’s different for everyone. It just helps me get through the day a little bit. I feel more powerful the more feminine I am, the more in myself I am.
Is there any part of that where you also feel an external or societal pressure, since women are more likely to get jobs if people view them as being attractive?
That is an interesting thing because in light of all the things we’re reading about going on across our business, it’s really tricky when you start talking about that stuff, because we are in working in a business where the human body is the key commodity of entertainment. So people are looking at you, people are evaluating you, you’re evaluating them, you’re building characters, you’re talking about the way people look, you’re asking people to change the way they look, and, in a weird way, there’s a large part of the entertainment business that is really focused on appearance in a way that many other industries aren’t really.
So that’s a tricky question, And what is attractive? To whom are you attractive? It’s all so individualized. Also, I am a woman of color, so who knows who I’m attracting or pushing away just based on the fact of who I am. I try not to even think about that. I just try to approach it like, what makes me feel good? What’s going to make me feel comfortable to pitch to what is usually a room full of white men?
Has that ever been a struggle internally?
No. I think, again, I have to thank my mom for that. She is a very proud woman. Proud of who she is and how she looks. And affirmation, I think, is key for that kind of thing. And so from a very early age I was surrounded by her and her sisters, a group of women who reminded me, “You are a smart, young, black woman, and you can present yourself as such, no matter how much the world might not be interested in that at times.” I think one particular thing on my end is hair, and black hair is a thing, and there’s all these studies about how women of color, if they wore their hair natural they would be less likely to get a job or keep a job, and things like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about that.
I was going to ask you about hair and makeup. Particularly hair.
Age helps. If I could tell my 21 year old self something it would be, “Girl just wait, it’s going to get better.” The older you get, the more you understand yourself. Now I feel much more comfortable embracing who I am naturally, including hair, and presenting that to the world. It’s just so crazy that we’re thinking about these things. Because it’s like, who cares? If I want to wear a brown sack, it should be my intelligence and ability to lead the project that gets me the job, but, as we all know, sometimes the other factors are at play.
I happen to be a woman who likes makeup. I like doing my hair. I like wearing a dress. And it’s not incongruent with the fact that I speak two languages, have an Ivy League degree, and I’m a confident, talented director. For me, those things are not in clash, but sometimes for the outside world, it can be. And I do get comments from men and women if I’m wearing my hair natural. But that’s what makes me feel good about myself so I don’t really care. Everybody’s always going to have something to say, especially if you’re a woman or a woman of color. For some reason, there’s a target on us that’s like, “Please, comment on this.” You just have to stay focused and keep yourself tuned in to what makes you feel good and what makes you feel healthy and happy, because our business is so tough, so you have got to take everything you can.