From Ingenue Entrepreneurs to Enduring Icons, Essence Beauty Carnival Brought Out the Best of Black Beauty

Jackie Aina and Julee Wilson speak on stage during the 2019 ESSENCE Beauty Carnival Day 2 on April 28, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images for ESSENCE)

The energy? Buoyant. The crowd? Beautiful. The inspiration? Boundless. In the first stop in their first-ever Beauty Carnival tour, Essence magazine created a mecca for black girl magic this weekend in New York City, with some of the most notable names in the beauty, fashion and entertainment industries on site at the South Street Seaport’s Pier 36.

Essence beauty and fashion director Julee Wilson presided over the festivities, which included appearances by YouTube sensation Jackie Aina; beauty boss Melissa Butler (The Lip Bar); the world’s youngest female barber, 8-year-old Neijae Graham Henries; singers Ciara and Elle Varner; Justine Skye; Yandy Smith; and the supreme supermodel Iman, who slayed even with a fractured wrist, wearing a couture satin wrap cast to accept her 2019 Beauty Carnival Icon Award.


After 40 years in the industry, the still-gorgeous model and mogul who paved the way for both Naomi Campbell and Fenty’s full spectrum beauty dropped gems for the Beauty Carnival audience as she recounted her journey from ambassador’s child to refugee to supermodel, to makeup maven.

Who knew that Iman’s first official modeling job was American Vogue—a mere three days after she arrived in New York City from Somalia? Speaking on the abrupt cultural shift from her African upbringing, she told Wilson:

“To me, it was like a cultural shock, being described as ‘the black model,’” she said. “I’d never heard my name or myself being described as black—I come from a black country. So nobody has had that descriptor about themselves.”


That first job, followed by many others would lay the foundation (pun intended) for Iman Cosmetics, which was a pioneer in multiculturally accessible makeup, as artists simply didn’t know how to blend or match a hue to a black woman. And what does she think about the 40-plus shade phenomenon that Fenty Beauty inspired?

“At the end of the day, it’s not the amount of tones you have; it’s the colors,” Iman said, noting that Rihanna is one this generation’s beauty icons. “it’s the nuances, and the formulation. ... for Iman Cosmetics, it has always been—my philosophy has always been authenticity, longevity and relevancy. That’s what it stands for, and that’s what it still stands for, 25 years later.” (Fun fact: I’m wearing foundation from Iman Cosmetics as I write this post.)


Iman also gave some surprising advice on having a “seat at the table,” telling listeners to “find your tribe” and “start slow.”

“I’m telling you; I am fine in eating alone,” she quipped. “You don’t have to compromise to be invited [to a seat at the table]. You can buy your own table. You don’t have to be at the mercy of anyone else.”


Ciara, whose upcoming album is called Beauty Marks, clarified the release’s title for the Beauty Carnival audience, telling us that it referred to the stretch marks on her back developed during two cherished pregnancies. Fittingly, daughter Sienna turned two this weekend.


2018 WWD Beauty Influencer of the Year Jackie Aina appeared in an interview segment called “No Shade,” and, acknowledging how a bigger platform encourages a bigger voice, called out beauty brands who poach ideas from upstart influencers like herself. She also got clear on her unpredictable trajectory from pharmacist-in-training to military officer and wife to pop-culture creative. And in her ever-relatable fashion, Aina reminded us that social media images are never all they seem, and that despite securing the bag, she’s still (mostly) just like us.


And then, there were the lewks—because we never come to play, we come to slay. The next New York Fashion Week isn’t until September, but the spring street style was on point for Essence Beauty Carnival, as were the bevy of black-owned brands in their marketplace.


The takeaway? There is no shortage of black brilliance, black ingenuity or black girl magic in the world—and no shortage of iterations of black beauty, as Love & Hip Hop: New York’s Yandy Smith when talking about how she’s using love to combat colorism for her daughters.


The Glow Up tip: Want to catch up on the Beauty Carnival action? Check out the Essence YouTube channel for highlights! Or catch the next stop at the 2019 Essence Festival in New Orleans from July 4-7.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.