It’s Time To Give These Unsung Black Beauty Icons Their Proper Due

Recognizing true impact.

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For every iconic photo of Josephine Baker with her flapper curls and glamorously thin eyebrows, for every red-lipped Billie Holiday pouring her heart out into a retro microphone, there are dozens — if not hundreds — of unsung Black beauty icons that helped define the American aesthetic and shape hair and makeup trends still incredibly popular today. Many of these women arrived on the Hollywood scene in the 1930s and ‘40s, a notoriously difficult period for women of color, and Black women in particular, to earn roles beyond racist, reductive typecasting. But even with the odds stacked against them, these artists managed to create, express, and make their art in the face of oppression and intolerance.

While their names aren’t quite as recognizable as their household-famous contemporaries, the impact of these actors and musicians lives on — through their work, yes, but also in the form of the beauty movements they helped create and fuel. With so many hair and makeup trends from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s seeing a resurgence in pop culture today, it’s time these less-than-celebrated stars finally get their due.

Ahead, get acquainted with some of the beauty world’s most deserving but under-recognized Black stars from Hollywood’s earliest years.

Adelaide Hall

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Jazz aficionados might already be familiar with Hall’s beautiful vocal range and incredibly vast discography, but the singer’s early signature style — glossy finger waves, curved brows, and pin-up-style ruby lips — helped define the flapper aesthetic when she became a Broadway star in the ‘20s.

Pearl Bailey

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With her enviable bone structure, wide, sparkling eyes, and arched brows, Bailey was a quintessential Old Hollywood beauty. She hosted her own ABC variety show for years, a showcase of her incredible acting and vocal abilities. What should be emphasized, though, is how seamlessly she could flit between roles, completely becoming different characters with a big updo or more exaggerated makeup.

Etta Moten Barnett

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Barnett’s impact is far-reaching, but it’s almost ironic in a way. Despite her legendary beauty and adherence to ‘50s beauty favorites like her curled bangs and tapered bobs, her most enduring contribution to the culture was via radio. Her velvety voice narrated the radio show I Remember When for years, and is considered by historians to be one of the first programs by and for Black women that reached a wider audience demographic as well.

Nina Mae McKinney

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Despite being one of the first Black movie stars ever — both in the U.S. and internationally — McKinney’s storied beauty was reduced to comparisons against white contemporaries. She was called “the Black Greta Garbo,” but to pit anyone against McKinney is a disservice to both her stunning looks and her vast, varied career choices.

Paula Kelly

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By the time actor-musician Kelly hit the scene in the late ’60s, Black culture was increasingly influential in America. Kelly, though, had a range few others could compete with. Just take a look at this mid-dance shot from 1970 and notice how many of her beauty elements still resonate today, from her full, glossy Afro to that expertly-applied graphic winged liner.

Edna Mae Harris

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Harris’ notably long lashes, coquettish bangs, and doll-like upturned lips — which frame her large, gleaming smile — made her an incredibly popular Black actor, usually starring in films with all-Black casts.

Carmen Manley

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America has Hollywood, of course, but there were plenty of Black Britons making waves across the pond, both with their work and beauty signatures. Manley was among the most beloved, known for her intricate updos as well as her live theatrical performances.