There have been a few common themes in my group chat since we’ve all been cooped up in quarantine: the trials of at-home bikini waxing, our failed attempts at the Savage Challenge, and impassioned recaps of Hulu’s newest series Little Fires Everywhere, the on-screen adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel set in the ’90s. “This should be called How To Not Be A Toxic Mom,” one of my friends wrote as we unpacked the latest episode over text.
The salacious drama follows the lives of two moms, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), and their complex approaches to motherhood, relationships, race, and secrecy. Every episode is a whirlwind of emotions that leaves my group chat more and more ignited — and now, Wednesday has become the highlight of our week.
Beyond the secrets that catapult the show’s drama-filled plot — like the truth about Pearl’s dad or Elena’s involvement in Mirabelle’s controversial adoption — there are a few hidden beauty messages in the series that you might have glossed over. Behind the faces of each of the characters is a team of skilled hair and makeup artists tasked with bringing their complicated stories to life. Ahead, we spoke to the crew about how beauty is wrapped up in each character’s identity, and why makeup makes all those little moments in the show even more intense.
Beneath the surface of her perfect life, many things are out of place for Elena Richardson, but you’d never guess it from her consistently-perfect bob. “Elena is extremely type A and always has to be in control, even when she’s not,” Lona Vigi, Witherspoon’s on-set hairstylist, tells Refinery29. “Even when we flashback to her younger life, we consciously made sure that she had the same controlled hair.”
Vigi and Witherspoon collaborated on a neat, side-parted coif for her character. “I prepped her hair every morning with Virtue Purifying Leave-In Conditioner and Virtue Healing Oil,” she says. “When you are working on a television show or movie and doing the same thing repeatedly, it’s important to make sure your hair is protected.”
To achieve that ’90s volume, Vigi roller set her client’s hair daily. “I set her entire head with velcro rollers and sprayed each section with Elnett Supreme Hold hairspray,” she says. “It’s brushable but maintains that pristine look.”
Many people have been wondering whether or not Kerry Washington wore her natural hair for her role in Little Fires Everywhere. According to her on-set stylist, Linda Villalobos, Mia’s hair came courtesy of a really good wig. “Kerry’s natural texture is very similar to her hair in the show, but her on-screen look is a wig,” Villalobos tells us. “We took inspiration from the Salt-N-Pepa half-bob, but didn’t go to the extreme.” Villalobos and Washington wanted Mia to have a more natural, effortless aesthetic. “Mia didn’t come from a super-wealthy family,” Villalobos explains. “She wasn’t going to the salon to get her hair done, so we wanted to keep her look very realistic.”
While Washington’s hair was styled with a wig for the show, there was one moment where Villalobos showcased her natural strands. “We actually used Kerry’s natural hair in a montage scene when she was driving with Pearl,” she says, referring to the end of episode six.
Villalobos added some golden highlights to Washington’s wig to make it look more lived-in. “I wanted to brighten up her hair to make it looks like she’s been out in the sun since she moves around a lot,” she says. Villalobos worked Shea Moisture Foaming Mousse and Lotta Body Wrap Me Mousse through the wig to keep the curls defined. “We wanted to avoid the super wet, defined, Jheri curl look because Mia didn’t have much money to get her hair done,” she says.
I wanted to brighten up her hair to make it looks like she’s been out in the sun since she moves around a lot.
Linda Villalobos, Kerry Washington’s HairStylist
Sheri Knight, Washington’s makeup artist, followed a similar model for her makeup. “Mia’s art form is external, and she’s an observer of others more than she is concerned with her appearance,” she says. For Mia’s barely-there makeup, Knight used a variety of Neutrogena products, including Hydro Boost Hydrating Tint Foundation. (Washington is a spokesperson for the brand.) “Mia’s staple lip color was Bobbi Brown Lip Color in Brown, which is now discontinued,” Knight says. “I also used Chantecaille blush in Marigold to create a natural cheek flush.”
In the series, Mia also wears a nose ring, which Knight says has a hidden meaning. “For viewers paying close attention, they may have caught younger Mia (Tiffany Boone) pay homage to Pauline with the addition of her nose ring at the end of episode six,” she says, referring to Mia’s former photography teacher-turned-lover, Pauline Hawthorne. “It was a subtle way of explaining Mia’s nose ring as her carrying Pauline’s memory with her.” To create the faux piercing on Washington, Knight purchased real nose rings, cut off their posts, and glued them on daily with prosthetic glue.
The character transformation of Pearl Warren (Lexi Underwood) is simultaneously the most dramatic, yet subtle in the show. Mia’s daughter emerges as shy at the beginning of the season and evolves into a more curious, bold young woman as she becomes closer to the Richardson family. The evolution of her personality is evident in many of her beauty choices on-screen.
“In the beginning, Pearl had a more natural, bare-faced appearance,” Cindy Williams, lead makeup artist for the show, tells us. “You see her gradually progress from barely any makeup to adding lip gloss or blush as she tries to fit in and become more like the Richardsons.”
Since the series takes place in the late ’90s, Williams says that there’s a clear distinction between what was considered “glam” then compared to today’s trends. “Back then, teenagers weren’t contouring and highlighting,” says Williams. While developing Pearl’s look, they opted for subtle changes, like lip liner and blush, to distinguish her character’s evolution. “MAC sent us lip colors and cheek colors that were popular during that time,” says Williams. “Spice was one that we used on Pearl and several other girls on set.”
Isabel “Izzy” Richardson
Izzy Richardson (Megan Stott) has had some of the most crucial beauty moments on the show thus far. The youngest of the Richardson crew, who is also the black sheep of her Shaker Heights family, is positioned as rebellious because she doesn’t want to mirror and please her mother. Izzy moves to the beat of her own drum, and it’s evident from the jump — like when she burns off her hair immediately after her mother compliments it as her best feature.
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The scene set the tone for Elena’s selfish expectations for her daughter, and Izzy’s desire to defy them. José Zamora, lead hairstylist for the show, tells Refinery29 that they used a wig for the hair-burning clip, but it was still a huge change for Stott IRL. “We had to cut her hair off, ” Zamora says. “Her real hair was about as long as the wig was before we burned it.” According to Zamora, Stott knew that she’d have to chop her hair for her role, but she was excited about the change. “There were about eight of us in the trailer when it happened and she was pumped,” he says.
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