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Viola Davis is obsessed with taking baths. She’s so obsessed, in fact, that the L’Oréal Paris spokeswoman applies her entire nighttime skin care routine while soaking. She tells me this casually while on the phone just two weeks before the 2021 Oscars, where she’s up for Best Actress for her role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Though she’s one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Davis doesn’t hold back when it comes to spilling her beauty secrets and sharing some of her wisdom. Perhaps that’s why she’s the face of a major milestone for L’Oréal Paris: the 30th anniversary of the iconic Voluminous Original Mascara.
Ahead of the Academy Awards and her next role, Michelle Obama in Showtime’s The First Lady, we catch up with Davis to chat all things skincare, baths, and beauty.
Who is your biggest beauty inspiration?
My first beauty inspiration was my mom, only because she had the best legs in Central Falls, Rhode Island. And she had the best wigs! She could rock a wig, or she could take it off, which she did a lot. She would whip it off, especially when she was mad at us. But she also wore short hair, she had high cheekbones, and a long neck. Just absolutely beautiful. So she was the first—and people in Central Falls would always say, “Viola, your mom is so beautiful.” And it would just, it would make me so proud. She was a minimalist, but yet she knew how to rock the heels and the miniskirts and still look like her. I didn’t feel like she was trying to look like anyone else. She didn’t have the fashion magazines. It was just her style, her way.
Did you want to emulate her beauty in your own life?
Yes, especially my 20s. I used to wear the platform shoes and miniskirts, because I wanted to show my legs, which were a little bit more muscular than my mom’s. I never quite felt like I achieved it, but she definitely was the prototype.
Over time, I think our perceptions of beauty can change. What is something you once thought was true about beauty that you’ve since changed your mind about?
Oh, boy, a lot of it. I always thought beauty was in youth. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think I was a little different that way. But still, I had a little bit of a perception that beauty was youth. As soon as you started seeing the skin sag and the wrinkles, then you couldn’t see the beauty quite as well. I also always thought beauty was hair, lots of hair. And I also thought beauty was something external, that all of beauty was external. It wasn’t until I got much older that I realized that it was a full package. It’s like the old saying, “Beauty is as beauty does.” The person’s heart, character, and confidence, and understanding their value is what radiates beauty. I would hear people say it, but I never quite believed it until I got older.
Was your new attitude and perception of beauty a gradual change that came with time, or was there one moment when you realized it changed?
It came with time, sort of feeling the nicks and scrapes of life and getting to know myself. Understanding that at some point, it’s not conceited and it’s not egotistical to love oneself. I have a daughter who is very beautiful and very tall, and I am always telling her how beautiful she is. The other day she said, “You know, you’re beautiful too, Mommy.” So I feel like through affirming her, it’s also affirming myself. So that has played a huge role in me understanding beauty, is coming to terms with my own beauty.
We can often recognize beauty in other people but not see it in ourselves. Over the last year, I think a lot of people had a sort of awakening and saw their beauty routines change. How has your routine changed?
My whole thing with beauty right now is health. That’s how it’s changed in the last year. It’s sort of always been that way. You know, I’m in Hollywood, we’re in Los Angeles, people will have a tendency to be very health conscious here. I’m drinking green juice as we speak.
Part of it is not just looking good, it’s feeling good—from your core. It’s having a life that makes you feel good. That’s how it’s changed in the last year. So it’s like drinking the green juice. I actually have a water bottle that lets me know every two hours where I need to be with my water schedule. It’s like, “You’re getting there, you’re halfway there.” That’s literally what it says on the water bottle.
I want to go to bed feeling a level of peace. And so my nighttime regimen has changed in terms of the Epsom salt has now progressed into bath bombs, which has progressed into essential oils in my bath, which has progressed into diffusers and the Calm app while I sleep. You know, it’s progressed into me sitting with my daughter at night saying Genesis, “What was your rose, and what was your thorn today?”
I am obsessed with my skin—I’ll just say it, sometimes I want to look serious and deep enough, I’m all those things—but I love skincare, I do. At night, I do bathing with essential oils, especially lemongrass, that’s my new thing.
So what’s the secret to your perfect bath? Give us the recipe!
Okay, I’m gonna tell you. The first thing I do is I use the L’Oréal pads, the peel pads. I do that on my skin only, because it feels like it’s alive and it feels awake and vibrant. And I like when my husband compliments me, my skin. And then, I do the water. Literally, I’m telling you, I’m so serious about this. I only do hot water. And I put in Dr Teal’s bath gel because it makes bubbles. And then, I put in a lot of lavender, Epsom salt, or any kind of Epsom salt that has a fragrance. Then I put in maybe four or five drops of lemongrass, lavender, or frankincense essential oil—and this is all in hot water, no cold water whatsoever. Then I fill it halfway and turn it off. Then I put in some cold water. Then my husband and I, we get into that bathtub, we start sweating. That’s when I start doing his skincare regime, I do my skincare routine. And that’s why we are a happy couple.
There can be such a double standard for women. They’re often written about as looking great for their age. Why do you think age is often brought up in discussions of beauty?
Let me just say, I am very proud of my age. I’m going to reiterate what L’Oréal says: I am age perfect. I am very proud to be 55. I think that people only attribute beauty to youth. Especially when it comes to women. I think that a woman’s value a lot of times is placed on her youth and how she looks, not on her ability.
I own every single thing that is going on with my face and my skin right now. I’ve lived 55 years of life. I’ve had a lot of great memories, and I’ve overcome a lot of odds. I do not believe that beauty is just youth, although there are young people who are beautiful. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that beauty is the whole package. It’s the valuing of oneself and understanding one’s worth. And it is literally creating a life that is an extension of that.
The Helen Mirrens, the Jane Fondas, the Phylicia Rashads, the Debbie Allens, I could keep going on and on with women who are over the age of 50, who look absolutely different and absolutely beautiful because of what they have achieved in their lives. And what happens is, it shows in the joy, the joy and the experience shows through their eyes and their skin. That’s what I believe, that’s what I see.
But I believe that society absolutely can have a very one dimensional view of beauty, which is one of the reasons why L’Oréal is very attractive to me. That sort of affirmation of, “I’m worth it.” I mean, it cuts to the chase. Literally, if you show any of those commercials of anyone saying, “I’m worth it,” you can see sometimes tears welling in a woman’s eyes. Because that’s one thing that you’re not taught. When you’re doing your cleansers, you’re doing your serums, you’re doing the mascara, the only thing you’re being taught is it there’s a prototype of beauty out there. She’s some young cute girl, and there’s a prototype, and you have to look like her. There’s nothing that cuts to the chase of you as an individual, saying to you, “However you start your day, whatever you do in your life, just know you’re worth it.”
There are some days when not enough makeup or skincare in the world can make you feel whole enough or good enough. On those days, what do you do? What is your advice for other women going through that right now?
I am someone that always says this, and I absolutely believe it. It’s not just kumbaya. I absolutely believe that people know what would make them happy. Without question. That may be eating some ice cream, having that Hershey’s bar, walking around the block, buying something that may be a little bit more expensive than what you thought it would be, just putting on some lipstick and some sunglasses, kissing your dog.
Whenever I’m feeling down like that, I do something in the day that’s going to bring me joy. And I don’t edit. I don’t ask for approval for it. I don’t care how inconsequential it sounds. It could be anything from keto ice cream, to me making a very sort of decadent dish in my kitchen, to me sitting in the backyard in the sun or jumping on the trampoline with my daughter. There is something out there that’s going to inject a huge dose of joy in you. I say that we need supernatural radical self-care intervention on those days. And for me, usually it involves food or skincare.
Is there any advice you’ve gotten from a makeup artist on set that has really stuck with you?
There are so, so many.
I’m sure—you work with amazing makeup artists.
I do have amazing makeup artists who are always telling me what my undertone is, which apparently is more orangey than yellow. The best thing a makeup artist ever said to me is, “You have to emphasize your smile.” People tell me that’s my best attribute. My smile and my eyes. That’s through mascara and eye shadow, because they feel like my eyes are big. I always was self-conscious about my big eyes. Makeup artists have told me how to play it up. I’m still trying to perfect the eye shadow palette thing. It’s tricky.
I’ve always saw my lips as being really, really big. And they’ve said that you have perfect lips. And they’ve shown me how to line them and how to use colors that are even brighter than what you think they should be, and how they work and how they play up your face.
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