Stylist’s beauty director Anita Bhagwandas is part of a subculture that revels in paleness. Here, she recounts her emotional journey to self-acceptance.
Up until fairly recently my Twitter bio read ‘brown goth’. Not hugely professional, I know. But incredibly telling. Those two social constructs of race and subculture were how I’d always chosen to define myself to the outside world; less of a bold statement but more of an explanation – ‘This is why I like coffins and am obsessed with Halloween, but why I’m not blindingly pale.’
Because the goth scene, to most, evokes images of ghostly pale skin and long dark hair; think Morticia Addams, Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice or Siouxsie Sioux – widely seen as goth’s original poster-girl after the term was coined in the Eighties as an off-shoot of punk. And it’s those heavily kohl’d eyes, angst-ridden blanched pallor and blood red lips that still sets the dominant gothic aesthetic to this day – an aesthetic that, it turns out, is laborious to recreate on dark skin. To say the very least.
I’d spent most of my life being an outsider, truthfully. I’d always had this uneasy feeling of ‘otherness’ that’s hard to contextualise at any age – let alone as a child. I was one of the few non-white kids in my school, I was a bit chubby (me and puddings go way back) and I was quite introverted.
I muddled along, not really questioning why my experiences of everything around me felt so jarring, but as I hit my early teens, I finally found an outlet for my malcontent – music. I came to adore indie goth bands like Manic Street Preachers, Mansun and Placebo who dominated the Nineties and, like them, soon my wardrobe solely consisted of black velvet, lace and band T-shirts on rotation.
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Trying to copy my idols’ make-up was a different story though. I’d ring my eyes in a £1 black pencil eyeliner and wear my mother’s blackberry-coloured Bourjois lipstick (whenever she wasn’t looking). But my dark skin almost seemed to absorb the smudgy black rings around my eyes, so I started wearing foundation that was two shades lighter in an attempt to create a contrast. In reality, I just looked like a greying corpse, in a way that would make even Dracula recoil.
Over the years, I spent countless hours staring at the pictures of my porcelain heroes (everyone from Tairrie B from My Ruin to Jessicka from Jack Off Jill) on my bedroom wall, trying to recreate their goth aesthetic.
But there was always something off. Black lipstick looked a bit nothing, while jet black eyeliner made me look more ‘traditionally’ Indian, as if I was channelling the kohl-rimmed eyes you’d see in Bollywood films (which I loathed – far too much joy). I wanted to choose my own identity, rather than have it dictated to me by society or my heritage.
In a fit of deviancy, I shaved off my eyebrows and drew them back in super thin – as was (and still is) part of the goth look. But nothing I did to be part of my chosen subculture felt like it was quite enough.
If I’d felt like a sub-par goth at home in Newport, university in Cardiff challenged my identity to my darkest core. At the freshers’ fair, I signed up to GRIMsoc (Goth Rock Industrial Metal society) and met amazing-looking cyber-goths and goth punks through to trad goths and elegant gothic Lolitas. But the one thing they all had in common was their paleness.
My immediate instinct, despite being resplendent in 30inch wide-legged black jeans and a plethora of skull-shaped adornments, was that I wasn’t goth enough to join these beautiful creatures.
But I did – and had a bat-covered membership card to prove it. Yet I still felt like my ‘look’ was letting me down.
Ultimately, it was a trip to see Nine Inch Nails play at The Astoria in 2005 that kick-started my self-acceptance as a dark-skinned goth. In the smoke-filled crowd I saw a tall Asian girl with metallic silver eyeshadow, black contouring underneath her cheekbones (it worked on her!), forest-green lipstick and dread falls (clip-in dreaded extensions) in bright colours.
Her skin was even darker than mine – yet her make-up was unmissable. She stood out in a mesmerising, goddess-like way and I stared at her, rather than singer Trent Reznor, for most of the show.
I’d spent years thinking that goth had to mean dark and gloomy, but from then on I experimented daily with new ways to express myself. Yet even though I spent all of the money from my part-time job on the boldest shades I could find in Boots and Superdrug, most of it failed to show up – even a bold cobalt in the packaging looked like a greyish-shade on my skin.
I thought I just had to keep re-applying it – but that didn’t work either. I now know the pigments weren’t created with dark skins in mind. At one stage I hunted down stage make-up, but after all of 10 minutes the oil-based formulas oxidised, looking brown-ish and dull.
But the fire had been lit. Determined, I stalked every beauty counter and ignoring the fact that I couldn’t afford it, stopped at the new Nars stand. Picking the brightest shades I could – an eyeshadow duo called Mad Mad World in a vivid blue and green – I swiped it on my hand and the colour was seriously bright. I eagerly handed over my cash and skipped away (with a giddiness goths probably shouldn’t have).
I’d realised that if I wanted make-up to show up on me, I needed really good, strong pigments. Back then, the cheaper brands didn’t cut it – the big US ones (Mac had opened up too) seemed to work.
But I resented that I had to spend 10 times as much on make-up as my peers and it didn’t quell the internal fire of feeling like an ‘other’ in a group already on the edge of society. Being a brown goth was tough on the purse as well as tough on my already tortured soul.
A whole new world
But things were about to shift. I moved to London to intern on a rock magazine in 2007. This was unlike anything Wales had to offer – the vast melting pot of London meant that there were goths of all shades and they looked awesome.
I remember one Bulleit-fuelled conversation in the toilets of London’s best goth pub The Intrepid Fox in Soho (now a Byron burger, sadly) with a black cybergoth and Asian gothabilly.
“Babe,” slurred the former, “us goths of colour gotta stick together.”
Over the next few days I kept muttering it to myself – “goths of colour”. I’d finally found something – a label to explain ‘me’.
From that moment, I made a mental note of what make-up every other ‘goth of colour’ wore. A mixed-heritage girl working in a bar wearing white eyeliner introduced me to inverting the customary black liner for dark skin. I tried it out at a gig with a neon pink eyeshadow and had tonnes of compliments from strangers.
And while black nail polish didn’t have the dramatic signalling of ‘goth’ against my skintone, the bright white polish I spied on another girl at an Avenged Sevenfold gig did.
The key, I finally realised, wasn’t paleness, but contrast. It didn’t make sense that I’d consciously rejected the confines of society’s beauty norms, just to pander to another set. I could make ‘goth’ anything I wanted it to be.
A happy goth?
Ten years on, so much has changed for goths of colour. There’s a YouTube tutorial for every skintone and subculture, and the beauty industry has evolved to a place where it (mostly) takes dark skins into account before products are designed rather than as an afterthought.
While the high-end brands still offer a bold colour pay off, goths of colour with less cash can get the shades they need from brands such as Sleek and NYX too.
And Instagram and Pinterest are a playground of inspiring people just like us, in a way my young, Wales-bound self could only dream of years ago (check out #gothsofcolour and #browngoth for inspiration).
In fact, with individuality being so strongly asserted today, I can resolutely say that it’s never been a better time to be a goth of colour.
And for those who aren’t of the gothic persuasion, let Halloween be the night you embrace your alter ego. Go forth and be merry (ish).
Images: Republic of Photography / Rex Features