‘Pose’ Star Angelica Ross: Why Makeup Is ‘War Paint’ for the Trans Community

‘Pose’ Star Angelica Ross: Why Makeup Is ‘War Paint’ for the Trans Community
Photo: Daniel Zuchnik / WireImage. Design: Allison Kahler/STYLECASTER.

Long before transforming into colorful Candy on FX’s groundbreaking series Pose (which was just renewed for a second season), Angelica Ross made a name for herself as a performer and activist representing the trans community. They say with great power comes great responsibility, and now that her star has reached new heights, Ross is more than living out that mantra.

Ahead and in her own words, the actress recalls the role makeup has played in her journey and why fashion and beauty brands need to expand their definition of inclusivity.

Makeup Memories

My first makeup memory that stands out to me is the first time I did drag in Rochester, New York. It was mostly white queens that were in the area. They called me different names at that time because tranny was a word we threw around a little bit more loosely back then. But I remember trying to put on a black smokey eye and them telling me, “Girl, you look like a raccoon.” And it was bad, because it was just two black circles around my eyes, but even in that moment, they used it as an opportunity to make a racist joke. She’s like, “Oh, you look like a coon.” And it’s again, both experiencing being within that community but also anti-blackness. And experiencing that all through makeup, including where you’re getting your makeup from.


I used to work for Laura Mercier and different brands, and when they first came out, they did not have shades for our skin tones. Even if you look back in the fashion magazines in the ’80s, you see how washed out some of the makeup is, but at that time, that’s what was good and that’s what was serving people. The first time I sort of felt affirmed was interesting. It was before I transitioned. I was working at the Fashion Fair makeup counter, and I was working as a bald-headed boy and wearing the product just to give myself a nice, smooth, even skin tone, and people started calling me ma’am. Fashion Fair was one of those lines that really carried all of our colors, so that’s when I started feeling really confident in makeup. I started wearing makeup as a boy in pre-transition and continued to wear it throughout my transition.

I need brands to know we have 40 shades of women, too.

War Paint

People don’t know that makeup is like our war paint. It’s what we used to put on to get in those streets. For me, I grew up doing drag, and this is why it was so hurtful to a lot of us in the trans community how the community at one point was trying to invalidate the contribution trans women have given to the art of drag. For us, it’s not only art; it’s survival because we’re putting this makeup on, and we’re trying to compete for a slot just to work for tips, so we can make the money back for our cab ride home. Over the years, I performed at almost every bar around this country. I worked at a bar called the Kit Kat Lounge in Chicago, and when I was on staff there, I was doing two numbers every 15 minutes, then going back to my room and changing my hair and oftentimes changing my makeup, too, to fit the mood or tone of the next song. So having that extreme experience of doing makeup that much night after night after night; we are real makeup experts.


Eventually, you saw a lot of gay men who kind of took the space of beauty advisor because we weren’t getting jobs in those spaces. When they could get in, they could get into the beauty space where women felt comfortable and they weren’t a threat anymore and we were more like the cute gay friend. And literally, I watched girls like Erica Andrews, who—God rest her soul, she’s passed away now—she was a girl that we looked up to. She ended up working so hard in her life and finally broke through. She worked for MAC and did makeup on shows, showing us that you could get a job somewhere and hopefully get health insurance that would cover your transition.

We can do that by constantly taking our agency to switch it up. And don’t worry about who has a problem with it.

Expanding Inclusivity

Now, I need brands to know we have 40 shades of women, too. These magazines have been the culprit of pushing very limited aspects of womanhood; how we should be sexually, how we should look fitness-wise, all of these things. And you only see now beauty campaigns being more inclusive of people with vitiligo or people with freckles or gaps; short people, trans people, gender non-conforming people, plus-size models, and disabled models. I would like to see an inclusivity that recognizes that anybody could wear or feel good wearing their product. And not to think that, Oh, someone who’s disabled; they’re not going to be able to afford this thing, so we shouldn’t market this to them. Well, I’m sure there’s plenty of disabled people who are functional and have jobs but have disabilities in different ways and still wanna look good. And they make enough money to pay for that Gucci whatever. So you can’t just count people out and assume they can’t afford things.

All of the brands need to not only be inclusive, but all of these big, major names need to ask: What have we done for the black community? And what I mean about that: A lot of us like to wear the labels; we like to have certain things. But how are those people visible in your community? How are brands visible in saying we understand the anti-blackness in America? We understand that things are being tilted, and we’re creating scholarships or roadmaps or pipelines to employment or internships. What are their commitments to our community? And we should be holding them accountable to that, especially when our communities are spending dollars.

Taking Control

I think we can do that by constantly taking our agency to switch it up. And don’t worry about who has a problem with it. “Oh, I don’t like your hair short,” or “I don’t like it when you wear the dark lipstick,” or “Why aren’t you wearing any makeup?” You say, “Because today I don’t want to wear makeup. Today, I am highlighting my natural beauty. I’m bathing my face in the sun.” What ways as women can we strip ourselves down, but also do all of the things so that we’re not calling these women whores because they’re wearing too much makeup, and we’re not calling these women plain Janes and not desirable because they’re not wearing no makeup; instead, understanding that the spectrum of womanhood includes so many beauty choices? And whatever choice you make is one that should make you feel beautiful.

*Edited and condensed for clarity.