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Anok Yai Doesn’t Mind Being Called an ‘Alien’ Anymore

The brand ambassador of Mugler's newest scent talks colored braids, fragrance obsessions, and becoming the role model she always wanted.

On Beauty
Anok Yai Doesn’t Mind Being Called an ‘Alien’ Anymore
Daniel Sannwald for Mugler

Welcome to On Beauty, a series where we take a deep dive into one person's relationship with beauty, how that relationship has transformed over the years, and how they experience being seen. This week, we’re talking to Anok Yai. In 2017, Yai was studying biochemistry and considering a career in medicine. Then, while at Howard University’s homecoming, a photographer snapped a picture of her and shared it online. The photo went viral, and the rest, as they say, is history. Yai has since been featured on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and W Magazine. She’s walked runways for Prada, Chanel, Versace, and Marc Jacobs. And in this next chapter of her career, Yai is taking on the role of brand ambassador for Alien Hypersense, a new fragrance by Mugler. Ahead, we talk to Yai about hair as a form of expression, wearing makeup to school against her mother’s wishes, the scents she’s obsessed with, and more.

Daniel Sannwald for Mugler

Coveteur: What was middle school like for you?

Anok Yai: “I was a nerdy kid who dressed very outlandishly and loved sports. I was a little Black girl in New Hampshire, so I was still growing into myself. Now, looking back, I know that middle school me would be very proud of where I am now.”

Why is that?

AY: “I mean, who would've thought this would happen? I always dreamed that I would become someone who could be the role model I needed when I was a kid. I didn’t really see myself in magazines. They didn't really show young dark-skinned women that they were beautiful. So, I didn't really have too many people to look up to. Now, I want to be that woman for younger girls.”

Did you have a relationship with beauty when you were younger?

AY: “My mom would dress me in furs. And I was really into hair. I started wearing makeup in middle school, and it was just mascara. In high school, I got into the whole trend of dark, blocky eyebrows. I thought I was eating it up, but I looked crazy. My mom didn't like that I wore makeup.”

Oh, why?

AY: “She just thought it was too grown. I would literally run to the bus, do my makeup on the bus, then go to school. Then, right before it was time to go back home, I'd run to the bathroom and wash it off.”

Wow, so she had no idea? Until she reads this.

AY: “Until she reads this.”

Did you watch your mom do her makeup or spritz on a fragrance?

AY: “My mom is obsessed with fragrance. Her whole room is just filled with incense and perfume bottles everywhere. She was who I looked up to when it came to scents and makeup. And I actually learned how to do makeup from doing her makeup.”

When would you do her makeup?

AY: “When we would have community events. She would say, ‘Someone needs to do my makeup,’ because she would be too tired from work. So, I had to watch YouTube to learn how to do it, then practice on her. So, she would go to her parties and people would love her look, and then her friends started to come to my house to get their makeup done. I became the community makeup artist.”

So, you're pretty skilled when it comes to makeup?

AY: “Yes, but I only have one look and I just repeat it. I'm not really good when it comes to trying new things. I do a really dark, edgy liner and a matte face with a natural, soft blend.”

You said that you were really into hair growing up. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

AY: “My mom never allowed me to dye my hair, but she would let me have colored braids. I had purple bobs that were braided, hot pink cornrows. I had a pink mohawk.”

Was that a form of expression for you?

AY: “Yeah, that was my pure form of expression because I was always into art. I taught myself how to oil paint about a year and a half ago. And last year, I went to study under [artist] Kehinde Wiley at his artist residency program [in Senegal].”

When you're trying out different braided hair colors, I'm curious, is it like putting on a character?

AY: “I don't know if it was putting on a character. I think it was more of expressing a version of myself, and hair was the easiest way for me [to do it]. I don't know where the ideas or the colors would come from; I think I was just always obsessed with the colors pink and purple.”

Micha Akchoti for Mugler

Daniel Sannwald for Mugler

Are there any scents you’re drawn to in that same way, that bring out a specific part of yourself?

AY: “I've always loved the scent of rose. I use rose oil on my body whenever I’m at a spa. And I love to spray lavender on my bed when I go to sleep. That’s what actually attracted me to this [Mugler] scent—the jasmine. I’m obsessed with florals.”

What does this new Mugler scent bring out of you?

AY: “This scent really makes me feel like I'm moving in slow motion, like a panther. I feel really sexy, mysterious, and super confident.”

What drew you to the Mugler brand?

AY: “I've always been obsessed with Mugler. When I met Casey [Cadwallader], I loved his creative process. The collaboration is a beautiful thing to be a part of because they take my ideas into consideration and mix them with theirs. It's just amazing. I was involved with everything. When it came to the creative direction, they let me have my voice.”

So, the scent is called Alien Hypersense. In the press materials, you were quoted saying that people called you an alien growing up.

AY: “People used to try to make fun of me and call me an alien, but look at them now.”

Do you feel like that word’s meaning has changed for you?

AY: “For me, when I was younger, I saw it as an insult. But I remember when I first got into high fashion, the photographer told me, ‘Wow, you're like an alien. It's amazing.’ And as I grew into myself, I fell more in love with the word ‘alien’ because now I see it as an other-worldly type of beauty.”

What does beauty mean to you now?

AY: “I used to think [beauty] was something that you put onto yourself, like what you wore or what you put on your skin. But now I realize that it's the essence of who you are as a being, as a spirit. And this beauty is something that exudes out of you. No one can judge it but yourself.”

Part of the series:

On Beauty

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