How MAC Cosmetics Became A Safe Space For The LGBTQ+ Community

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It’s 1994 in London, and partygoers donning their finest attire attend a soiree filled with champagne flutes and club music. Large electronic images of the statuesque model posing fiercely illuminate every wall while cookies that say “I am the MAC Girl” are being passed around. RuPaul, MAC Cosmetics' first spokesperson for the Viva Glam campaign, takes center stage as the room hushes.

"And everybody wants to know why they chose RuPaul to be the first MAC Viva Glam spokesperson. Why did they choose that Black man who puts on makeup?" RuPaul asks an attentive crowd. "I’ll tell you why… because MAC is for everybody.”

While the big parties might be at a standstill for a while, the brand's inclusive messaging is still the same 26 years later. MAC Cosmetics' mission to support marginalized communities continues to prove that the brand is, and has always been, a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.

We live in a world of diluted marketing — whether that is brands selling tacky rainbow-printed products or posting a blank black square with the hashtag #blackouttuesday — where brands seldom support their claims of solidarity without offering tangible action. MAC is a brand that historically puts action behind its activism. The 1994 celebration was in honor of the brand's first Viva Glam campaign, a line of vibrant lipsticks and lip glosses from which 100% of proceeds are donated to benefit people with AIDS and HIV all around the world. As of 2019, the Viva Glam campaign raised and donated $500 million to organizations like Planned Parenthood, GLAAD, and Girls Inc., and this year, the brand donated $10 million to communities of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19, according to Nancy Mahon, global executive director of the MAC Viva Glam Fund.

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“MAC has stood with the LGBTQ community from the very beginning,” Mahon tells TZR. “The Viva Glam campaign started at the height of the AIDS epidemic as a community response mechanism to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. We have never been afraid to talk about difficult issues where others may not be willing to go.”

MAC’s interest in fighting for the LGBTQ+ community is embedded in the brand's DNA. The company was founded in 1984 by Frank Toskan, a makeup artist and photographer, along with Frank Angelo, a salon owner. Their idea was a response to the lack of makeup that photographed well. By the time the Viva Glam campaign was conceived, the company had established its inclusive reputation in the industry along with an apt slogan: “All Ages, All Races, All Genders.

Aside from the large sums donated by the campaign, those that have been chosen to represent the line attest to the brand’s promise of inclusivity. During a time when women with Eurocentric features were the face of every other makeup conglomerate, MAC chose a direction taboo to mainstream media: having RuPaul, a Black, unapologetic drag queen, be the first face of Viva Glam — a decision that still resonates with customers and friends of the brand today.

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“When they announced that our it-girl was RuPaul, I felt like I won the lottery,” Gregory Arlt, director of artistry for MAC Cosmetics, tells TZR. “At that time of the Viva Glam launch back in 1994, drag was such a subculture. But we’ve always had drag queens and transgender people work with us. We even had the infamous Lady Bunny bounce our [first] store on Christopher Street in 1990,” he reveals.

Having been with MAC for 26 years, the Old-Hollywood-obsessed celebrity makeup artist has witnessed the brand’s growth from the very beginning. Starting as a traveling artist at the ripe age of 22, Arlt’s career at MAC has projected beyond the imaginable: New York and Paris fashion weeks, magazine covers featuring Angelina Jolie for Vanity Fair and Danai Gurira for Women's Health, and working with household diva names like Dita Von Teese and Cher.

“Back then, we would joke that MAC always hires the ‘unhireable,’” he notes. "I was literally blown away with all the races, genders, and ages that sat in my chair. And I remember thinking, ‘This is a really revolutionary, maverick company that is taking risks and putting money where their mouth is.’”

In addition to supporting the LGBTQ+ community, MAC announced last year that it will be supporting GLAAD with $500,000 over a two-year period to reinforce targeted programming and public awareness campaigns that challenge LGBTQ+ stigma, fear-based myths, and fear of discrimination — all factors that increase isolation and delay testing and care for the community.

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And despite the large donations, the company recognizes that the fight against HIV and AIDS is far from over. While there is still no vaccine for the deadly virus, approximately 1.1 million people in the United States are infected with 38,000 new cases per year, according to HIV.gov. And according to the CDC, among the 38,000, Black gay men made up 37% of cases while white men made up 27%, Latino and Hispanic men made up 28%, and Asian men made up 2%.

In retrospect, MAC's promise to inclusivity and diversity obviously pays off when fostering and promoting talent. Since RuPaul's reign, the Viva Glam campaign has racked up a diverse list of LGBTQ+ spokespeople including Princess Nokia, Aquaria, Parker Kit Hill, Troye Sivan, and Deja Foxx. MAC has also cultivated a long list of diverse LGBTQ+ celebrity makeup artists that began at the company. For Sir John, better known as Beyoncé’s makeup artist, it was the MAC makeup counters in New York City’s SoHo Bloomingdale's that allowed him to refine his craft. And makeup conglomerates Angel Merino and Patrick Ta also attribute their successful, high-profile careers to their cosmetic alma mater. These three not only represent a large sea of LGBTQ+ talent found within the company, but also serve as a beacon of hope for the younger generation of makeup gurus.

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As it seems that other companies blanket the authenticity of their solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, MAC presents a concrete, long lasting timeline of their efforts and missions. The company doesn’t need to adorn its products in rainbow patterns that seemingly always revert back to its original color once July 1 hits. Its founders birthed a company that recognized a missing piece in cosmetic skin tones. They cultivated a community that offered solace to the, at the time, misfits in society. And they gave back to the community before doing so was such a transaction for social approval.

And while RuPaul announced it to the onlooking chic crowd in 1994, the sentiment still stands strong today: MAC is, and has always been, for everybody.