ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Tayi Tibble on Rachel Hunter

An essay by Tayi Tibble on being beautiful, being loved and being Rachel Hunter.

Rachel Hunter writes in her book Tour of Beauty that she never felt like “beauty was important” when she was growing up. “Beauty was nature. As soon as I came home from school I would drop my bag and run to the safety of the bush outside, to Mother Nature’s arms.” When I was coming home from school — in the seedy neon lighting of the early 2000s — I would drop my bag and run to the safety of the internet, to play makeover and dress-up games, or into MTV’s arms, where Sisqo’s “The Thong Song” seemed to play on repeat. And so when Rachel Hunter writes that she wasn’t “really bewitched by the idea of beauty at all” and “barely looked in the mirror” I’m like, wow, unrelatable. I was completely bewitched by the idea of beauty.

During my childhood this enchantment manifested in a number of ways including a preferred game of pretend that my friends and I would play as kids called Boyfriends, an alternative if darisay urban take on the traditional House or Mums & Dads. In this game, it was always incredibly important to describe what we looked like - eg a hybrid Britney Spears x Shakira, or Jessica Alba in Honey (2003). During sleepovers we would accordian-fold landscape pieces of printer paper and spend hours carefully drawing our dream looks. This is my pool party look. This is my prom dress. This is my clubbing outfit. It was sort of like playing The Sims, but pohara. I remember the next door neighbour coming to play, and bringing with her a small crochet bag filled with plastic imitations of lipstick, nail varnish and powder puffs from The $2 Shop. I’d sit on the trampoline with my eyes closed while she fixed my face. “Now, rub your lips together and go ‘mwah’, like this,” she’d instruct. “Mwah”, I’d repeat. I’d peer into the cloudy silver sticker inside her fake plastic compact and think wow, I look so beautiful.

I wanted it all for real. Mascara wands, brushes, creams, all those products and perfumes and potions. Even as a snot-nosed kid I was completely transfixed by Mum’s collection of 90s matte lipsticks, glittery body oils and especially her Eyeshadows for Brown Eyes, a little plastic palette of green and gold shimmers. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have a go at it myself so I didn’t wait. I was forever mashing lipsticks or leaving clumsy incriminating fingerprints in eyeshadow pans, emerging from 15 minutes without adult supervision with lipliner eyebrows and night cream in my hair. The urge to destroy in the name of beauty was compulsive, as if the divine ancient feminine within me recognised the dresser as an altar, and makeup as a form of witchcraft. More than aspiring to have an established career, I aspired to have an established beauty routine.

But somewhere between being told off for being a tutu and mocked, for the monobrow and Monroe mole I routinely gave myself with a Vivid, I began to grow disillusioned with Paris Hilton’s skinny white blonde constructed matrix. I was beginning to see the glitches. I remember walking home from school and seeing this plump and unpleasant kid from the mob house up the street mooching around my mailbox. He pointed to the top of my head and asked, “How come your hair is always so frizzy?”

Little shit. But his fat finger caused a deep enduring wound as I realised, with horror, that my hair was frizzy; dark, wild, and different in texture from the silky straight blondes I saw while skipping through school, or skipping through channels on TV. I barged past him, up my driveway and into the bathroom where I looked in the mirror and thought wow I look so ugly.

Then one tangy summer in Nelson, my beautiful, bored teenaged aunts straightened my hair with an iron. Ebony and Millie were a few years older than me and had a reputation for being devastating. I idolised them. I would have worn, said, done, anything they wanted, like the time I let Ebony cut me a Mullet x Double Rats tail. I remember the awful but intoxicating smell of my hair being cooked against the ironing board, sort of like petrol. When they had finished playing with me like a doll, I was stood up in front of the mirror while they teased me, “Tayi you should enter Miss Richmond Mall!”

It wasn’t even as though I looked much better. I looked as helplessly 11 and as awkward as ever. But it was the way that I felt that was transformational. Like every makeover montage in a 2000s teen movie. I might have still had flat furry caterpillars for eyebrows, but inside me was a beautiful butterfly, gently beating its wings, unbeknownst that it was also causing catastrophic knock-on events.

I bullied my Mum into buying me a proper hair-straightener after that and spent every morning ritualistically burning the heritage out of my hair. I avoided all watersports, and destinations without wall sockets. The modern teenager today can pretty much do the “insta baddie beat” by the time they get their first proper bra; when I got my first bra, “raaawr xo” and being “so random” was in, and the only makeup product anyone seemed to know about was black pencil eyeliner, for being an emo. Sure, I had a hand-me-down tube of brown mascara and my own stick of pencil eyeliner I’d use to draw grudge-like rings around my eyes for special occasions, but I didn’t really venture into makeup until I left school, and when I did it was a disaster.

I don’t know whether to blame the disaster that was my makeup at 18 on colonisation or being pohara but probably a healthy and interrelated mix of the two. When I first started purchasing makeup for myself it was a hectic mess of a) not knowing what I was doing and b) being a broke ass student. I would buy drugstore foundations like Maybelline and Australis that were cheap enough to fit into my budget. Nothing wrong with buying within your budget, but there’s something wrong with the fact that lower end makeup brands don’t invest in the same range of shades and colours that higher end makeup brands do, so the makeup I could choose from only ranged from white white to pink white to super white. Alg though. I had watched enough youtube tutorials to know “just blend it down onto your neck.” Plus I was still straightening my hair and was lowkey into internalising and emulating the western beauty standards I had been consuming for the last 18 years aka being white. But then a group selfie from the whitest of white girl parties ended up on Facebook and my sister said, “Um how are you the whitest person in that photo?” My mum commented, “Hi Casper the Friendly Ghost,” and I thought wow, I really need to go and get colour matched and I did. It was a revelation.

That’s what I began to strive for; those little revelations, those beauty eureka moments that spark from something as simple as incorporating a new product into your skincare routine, or slightly adjusting your eyeliner technique. I remember the moment when I figured out how to gradient my eyebrows instead of drawing harsh thick blocks and the real thrill of watching my entire face soften as a result. I remember getting ready to go to Ivy one night and overhearing one of the drag queens casually remark that you should follow the lines on your face and I was like oh. I looked in the mirror and could suddenly see where my blush should go. Or how it was my bff Raife exposing me to Kpop that finally had me give up trying to contour my cheekboneless face like a Kardashian and embrace my Baby Phat face instead. I realised that the more I practiced makeup and studied my own face in the mirror, the more I came to terms with it. The more I was exposed to different people, trends, influences, cultures, the more I came to understand that there is more than one way to be beautiful, and so the way that I look might be included too.

*

Rachel Hunter getting a US$7000 Hannibal Lecter chainmail facemask made from 24-carat gold in Dubai.

In the introduction of Rachel Hunter’s Tour of Beauty, she propositions the reader with a challenge: “If I were to say to you, ‘You’re beautiful,’ how would you react? Would you accept the compliment, or would you shy away from it, your body language giving away your sense of insecurity?”

She goes on to pose the reader with a lot of questions. There are questions of spiritual nature: “Is it our soul that makes us beautiful?” There are questions about the ethics of technology aka Instagram: “And what is a feed anyway? And what part of ourselves are we feeding when we look at these images?" And there are big questions, of the philosophical kind like the essential, "What is beauty?’”

To answer these questions, she travels the globe, discovering beauty secrets and rituals of other nations and cultures. She goes to Greece and learns about the ancient beauty enhancing properties of olive oil. She goes to South Korea and learns about downturned eyeliner for a puppyish look, rather than the western preference of a cat-like appearance. In Dubai, she gets a special $7000 gold chainmail face mask which she describes as being “a touch more Silence of The Lambs” than she would have liked. And back home in Aotearoa, she talks to Donna Kerridge about Rongoa Maori, and learns the beauty secrets of Papatuanuku. “When we learn to heal the bark on a tree, we learn to heal our skin,” Kerridge explains. “Our bodies are a microcosm within a network of connections that we call the universe.”

“Coming back to Los Angeles was an adjustment to my own mindset,” Rachel writes in the conclusion. “I could see the Western ideal far more clearly and the impact it has had on me over years; brushing over or erasing my individuality, those unique quirks that make us all beautiful and different.” The biggest lesson Rachel says she took away from her tour of beauty was “the power of community” which was reiterated “time and again in every culture.” There’s an irony — but not a cruel one — that Rachel Hunter’s Tour of Beauty was supposed to discover new beauty secrets of the world, but what she really discovered was that obvious, old cliché: that there are many ways to be beautiful, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And I believe that. I really do. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On one hand it’s why haters can meticulously and hatefully study your face, picking it apart until it becomes grotesque, skewed and genuinely hideous to them lol, but the reverse is more important. Because what I’ve come to know and what I really believe is that you never look as beautiful as you do through the eyes of someone who loves you. Love is like a beauty filter, blurring your imperfections and casting you in a perpetual golden hour glow. And I think if we all focused our attention on being beautiful people for the people who love us, as opposed to whatever the societal norm or standard is at any time, then maybe beauty won’t seem so elusive or unattainable. And thus we come to my number one beauty secret, the tip that truly helped me to achieve my wonderful good looks and embarrassingly high self-esteem: finding people who really love me, and as such, think I’m like the most beautiful woman in the world and treat me accordingly. And if you love and regard and treat people the same way, then beauty is readily available, and everywhere.

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Rachel Hunter with Tayi and her bff Raife at a book signing at Whitcoulls in Lambton Quay.

Late last year, Rachel Hunter was doing a book signing at Whitcoulls in Lambton Quay. Raife and I went to get my copy of her book signed. We dressed up, and queued with about a dozen middle-aged women. Rachel was dressed in a black shawl, her hair scraped up into an unfussy bun, her wrists were decorated in um, cultural bracelets, and her face was bare and glowing.

The woman behind us was properly stanning tf out. She kept repeating, oh my god I love Rachel Hunter and was like, sharing Rachel Hunter trivia facts with the woman behind her. Raife and I were like, eh?? But as the line got closer, and we were about to meet and greet with The Rachel Hunter, I started getting nervous. I have this stand out memory from my childhood of watching Rachel Hunter on this random Gilligan's Island reality TV show and there was this challenge of walking over this narrow plank suspended over water and I recall Rachel being like, “I’ve got this challenge, I’ve walked on catwalks all over the world,” and then she like fully killed it, and I think she was in a bikini, and I was thoroughly impressed, and that distinct feeling of childhood awe for Rachel Hunter was coming over me again. Before I could say “Raife I’m a bit nervous”, Raife was like “Tayi I’m kinda nervous” and we both cracked up laughing because we are so fukn dumb.

It was our turn to sign. Raife nudged me and quietly said, “Oi Rachel is looking at you.” I looked up and she was. “She’s sussing you out,” he teased. We handed over my phone to her resident iphone photographer and The Rachel Hunter said, “Look at you. I love your phone case.” I was like omg and speechless and felt like blushing. Luckily, I can always count on Raife, my most trusted friend. He said, “Hi Rachel Hunter I’m Raife and I’m a drag queen called Bunny, and Tayi’s a writer too.” Rachel said, “Oh you like to write?” And I was like omg did I just get shaded by Rachel Hunter? This is the best day of my life. “Do you guys want a photo?” she asked. We got a cute and dorky photo, and then we thanked Rachel profusely, for her service to celebrity, fashion and beauty.

Afterwards, as Raife and I wandered back up Lambton, Raife said, “Wow she really is beautiful and so natural too.”

“God yeah,” I agreed, “And so nice! And lovely! And down to earth!”

“You look good too,” Raife added. I stopped and smiled at my friend. Tenderly, I said, “Thank you bitch,” and thought wow, he really is handsome. And then we stopped being corny af. And then we went to Mecca.

Rachel Hunter's Tour of Beauty by Emma Clifton & Rachel Hunter (David Bateman, $39.99)

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