Kenny Davis all dolled up with green flame eyeshadow and a sharp highlight. Image courtesy of Kenny Davis. 

Kenny Davis walks up to our interview wearing a black corset, structured Doc Marten boots, aquamarine blue and black braids and a pearl-embellished cat eye that could cut you. In a gray sea of students wearing sweatpants, Lululemon leggings and Uggs, Davis stands out.

“This is just an everyday look,” she tells me.

Medill third-year Davis started wearing makeup when she was 14. She used it as armor to shield herself from the judgment and sneering looks from peers and members of her Bowie, Maryland community. Today, 20-year-old Davis is a content creator in the beauty space and has amassed a significant following on TikTok and Instagram, where you can find her sharing tutorials on specific techniques like how to achieve a pink flame eyeshadow look. Makeup that she once used as a shield she now uses as armor that fuels her confidence.

Davis refuses to be pigeonholed. She has flirted with various aesthetics – from emo to fairycore. She also doesn’t want to be seen as just a makeup artist and prefers the term creator as her style and interests are constantly in flux.

“Showing up authentically as myself in all spaces, I feel, gives others permission to do the same,” said Davis. “Like, why can't you wear a corset to class, too?”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mzizi: What drew you to makeup as a form of self-expression?

Davis: I’m not going to lie, it started with me wanting a glow up. I went to predominantly white schools and noticed that all of the girls were wearing makeup, and I wanted to as well. I grew up in a Black household, and my parents were quite strict with all that stuff. I also grew up with messaging that Black women could not wear colorful makeup or have brightly colored hair because we’d look ‘ghetto’ or ‘unprofessional.’ When I started following creators who looked like me and loved color as much as I did, I thought, “damn, this could really be something!”

Mzizi: Makeup is often misconstrued as changing how you look or putting on a persona that isn’t reflective of oneself. What do you make of that?

Davis: Oh, it pisses me off! My parents thought I was obscuring my natural features and that I was doing makeup to hide my beauty, or that I was trying to be fake or please other people. As time went on, they understood that it was the exact opposite. Makeup makes me feel beautiful, it’s my expression, it’s my armor, it’s what I use to tackle the day. I have never felt more beautiful and confident, even with my natural, non-made up face. The beauty is already there, makeup just enhances it. It’s also just fun.

Mzizi: Where do you get inspiration for your looks? Break down your looks for me.

Davis: Raggedy Royal, a creator on TikTok, changed the game for me! She is a Black femme creator who uses bold colors and is really adventurous with her creativity. To see a Black woman wearing bold eyeshadow and matching the makeup looks with her outfits, that was it for me. That was a spiritual experience. So, I have my full-on creative looks that I do for my Instagram. I don't really go outside with them because I do them in the dead of the night like at 4 a.m., film some content and then wipe it all off. That’s when my creative expression is at its highest. I also have more everyday looks, which are very low effort on my part.

Mzizi: Talk me through your day. What is a typical day like for you?

Davis: I sometimes wake up early enough to film a ‘Get Ready With Me’ where I show off my outfit or the makeup look for that day on my Instagram or TikTok. I then head to class and on some days I’ll film outside, but I normally get uncomfortable stares, so I don’t do that a lot. I get my homework out of the way in the afternoons. After dinner and club meetings at around 10 p.m. or so, I’ll sit at my makeup desk and plan out a look and content for the next day. I’ll then get started. A look can take about three hours, or sometimes six. I’ve had to pull a couple of all-nighters. The next day, I do it all over again.

Mzizi: As a beauty influencer and content creator, how do you see the online beauty space changing?

Davis: The influencers are definitely getting younger and younger, and there seems to be a push for non-conventional makeup, and a lot more niches, from 60s-inspired looks to e-girls. I think that’s inspiring from a creative standpoint. On the other hand, people steal from Black creators all the time. White creators will often steal makeup looks from Black and other creators of color without properly crediting them for their work. Don’t even get me started with Hailey Bieber and the brownie lips, like, girl, we’ve been doing that.

Mzizi: What’s your favorite and least favorite beauty trend?

Davis: I don’t like the ‘clean girl' look.’ I feel like it has racist undertones and I think we would need more time to examine that. Right now, I’m really into special effects makeup and really scary makeup. I’ve been experimenting, and, come Halloween, I’ll have it nailed.