She’s already the queen of British soul, with three Mobo awards to her name, but now Beverley Knight has a new mission – to bring flattering make-up for dark skins within the reach of women all over the country
The beauty hall at Selfridges in London is said to be the biggest in the land and something about its particular atmosphere slows shoppers to a drowsy crawl, as if intoxicated by the expensively perfumed air. Not Beverley Knight, though. The aisles may stretch into infinity but Britain’s Queen of Soul navigates her way along and around their shiny whiteness with the brisk confidence of the frequent visitor, and on vertiginous wedge heels. “This is pretty much the mecca for make-up,” she imparts over her shoulder, striding forth. “If it exists, you’ll find it here. But do you know what? Only 15 per cent of the counters offer anything for dark-skinned women like me. The others? It’s a case of [she starts singing], ‘Walk on by… ’”
In fact, in a market that Mintel estimated was worth £65 million in 2007, there are only three dedicated ethnic make-up brands available nationwide: Fashion Fair, Iman and Sleek MakeUP. Or were. This month sees K By Beverley Knight make its debut in Selfridges’ hallowed space, rolling out around the country via John Lewis and other outlets. “I made it clear I wanted to be consulted at every stage and was adamant that the range’s starting point should be dark to light, not the other way around. Light is already out there; it’s with dark that the problem lies.”
The capsule range of 78 products runs from a matt primer (“Black skin contains more melanin and hence produces more oil, so we need something to control that before we start applying make-up”) and foundations (“In both a light, fresh finish and one delivering fuller coverage”) through to powders and eyeliners, and will be affordable for most women. Lipsticks will cost £11, for instance, and foundations £22. And while Knight admits the range “can’t hope to be the answer to everyone’s prayers, it is at least a strong start”.
Stopping off at a quartet of existing concessions, the 36-year-old singer’s love of cosmetics becomes obvious. Illamasqua may not yet be widely known to the general public, but Knight positively coos over the British brand that has branched out from theatrical make-up into the mainstream. “They really understand the importance of strong pigments when it comes to dark skin,” she says, admiring the range’s colours. She is also enthusiastic about Bobbi Brown, in particular its oil-free, even-finish foundation which, she says “serves mid-toned black skin really well”. And she is impressed by the custom-blending service at Prescriptives, “although it is one of the most expensive liquid foundations you can buy”.
At Est?e Lauder, however (and this despite a five-minute application of eye shadow and lipstick by one of its resident experts), she finds herself underwhelmed. “Which I kind of knew I would be. Look! You can hardly see any colour on me. Were I any darker, it wouldn’t be there at all. And that, I’m afraid, is typical of most of the well-known brands. It’s crazy to think there’s this vast demographic within our multi-ethnic society which is hardly being catered for at all.”
If finding ethnic make-up is difficult now, the singer, who was made an MBE in 2007 for her contribution to British music and her charity work with Christian Aid, acknowledges that it all used to be so much worse. As a teenager, growing up in Wolverhampton in the Eighties, “There’d be no point my going to Boots, because they had nothing for me. The biggie was Beatties [a department store since taken over by House of Fraser] ’cos at least it had the darkest shade of foundation that the Japanese company Kanebo made. It wasn’t dark enough, not by a long shot, but when you just wanted to buy something, anything, you were grateful to find it. Failing that, you were looking at the darker end of the Revlon range.” And that same, depressing, little-or-no-choice scenario was being played out all over the country, Knight recalls.
“The high street apart, women depended on specialist hair shops which might just carry make-up ranges imported from the States – by the budget brand Posner, specifically for black skin, perhaps, or, if they were really lucky, by Flori Roberts and Fashion Fair.” So her own make-up staples at the time were what?
“Well, everybody does a black mascara and a browny-black eyebrow pencil. Eyeliners always come in black, too. Then I’d go for a lip gloss rather than a stick, ’cos I’d be pushed to find one dark enough. Blushers? You would struggle, as they were always too pink, which doesn’t show up. Plus when you’ve got teenage skin… You’d try to disguise a blemish, only to end up highlighting it.”
The brevity of Knight’s laugh makes clear this was really no laughing matter. “Spots show up on black skin as dark marks that take a long time to clear, leaving your face mottled, like tortoiseshell. The concealers you could buy were invariably too grey, green or red-looking for my skin, let alone for that of anyone darker. Yes, you could get make-up for vitiligo or port-wine stain, but it only came in two colours, ones that were as subtle as wood dye. In short, your choice was hiding away for months at a time or going out exactly as you were, spots and all. Yet despite this, women on beauty counters would say, ‘Your skin’s so lovely, dear, you don’t need foundation,’ meaning, ‘We’ve got zilch that’ll work for you.’”
But by the mid-Nineties, when Knight was taking her first steps as a recording artist (her unlikely path towards which involved taking a degree in theology), things had changed for the better. “Mac happened, basically. It completely revolutionised the way everyone saw make-up and gave the whole industry a much-needed kick. Then came Bobbi Brown. These weren’t ranges that answered all the cosmetic needs of dark skin, by any means, but they were at least a step forward. And now, in my own small way, here I am, and I hope that inspires others to follow. Heaven knows, it’s an area that’s woefully under-served and there’s easily room for more.”
Not that the singer – who has won three Mobo Awards, duetted with Prince and REM, and established herself as a favourite not just of British audiences, but of Nelson Mandela – is neglecting the day job. Released this month is 100%, her sixth studio album and the first to be issued independently using venture capital raised in the City. Featuring collaborations with Chaka Khan, Bee Gee Robin Gibb and the US production team of Jam & Lewis, it is, as Knight herself describes, “current, but not a slave to fashion. I’ve got the self-awareness now to know that I don’t want to be competing with girls 15 years my junior.”
And with that she’s off to obsess about the surprise 40th birthday she is throwing in three days for her elder sister, a nurse and working mum back in Wolverhampton. “I’ve bought the Louboutin shoes I want her to wear on the night. Now I just need to track down the Herv? L?ger dress.” The make-up, it goes without saying, is already taken care of.