A transformational time for transformational people: My interview with fashion and beauty influencer Mikki Taylor

For 30 years Mikki Taylor was beauty and cover director for Essence magazine, where she continues as editor-at-large. She is also the president of Satin Doll Productions and author of the critically acclaimed Self-Seduction and Commander in Chic: Every Woman’s Guide to Managing Her Life Like a First Lady. Her latest book is Editor in Chic: How to Style and Be Your Most Empowered Self. Over the years, she has become known as the country’s leading authority on inner and outer beauty for women of color. She inspires women—and men; she inspires me!—everywhere to own their lives, celebrate their beauty, and live lives of purpose with style and distinction.

I was fortunate enough to meet Mikki Taylor decades ago in the early days of my skincare company, Murad LLC, when I used to visit Essence magazine offices several times a year. I was delighted to visit with her again via Zoom. Here are the highlights of our conversation, the totality of which is available to watch here.

Murad: Hi there, Mikki. How are you? It’s so great to see you again! I don’t know if you recall, but we used to meet in New York several times a year when I’d visit on behalf of Murad Skincare.

Taylor: Yes, I remember very well! I remember our many visits to talk about products, particularly for hyperpigmentation.

Murad: Right. Right. And your support gave us such a head start because the product would work so well for women of color.

Taylor: True that. Those were groundbreaking days! It was about seizing the opportunity to share with our audience what products really worked for us.

Murad: Absolutely. And the coming too of cosmeceuticals, cosmetics that work like pharmaceuticals. They were a big deal at the time too, because they were new: alpha hydroxyl acids and the hydroquinones that worked so well for everybody.

Taylor: Yeah, everybody was looking for what we used to call a “doc in a box.”

Murad: And you were known as the leading authority on beauty and style for women of color even way back then. Now you’re a motivational speaker. You’re an actress. You’re an author. I don’t know how you do all of those things together.

Taylor: Well, I read somewhere that opportunity likes those who use it, and I really took that to heart.

Murad: I have a similar saying, “Magic only happens when you create your own.”

I’m looking at some of the books that you’ve written: Self-Seduction and Commander in Chic: Every Woman’s Guide to Managing Her Life Like a First Lady. You’re advocating an opportunity for all of us, if we think about it. People tend to think, “Well, I can’t imagine being a First Lady.” But really they can. It’s just a matter of not thinking of themselves as less than they are.

Taylor: That’s right. And then my third book, Editor in Chic: How to Style and Be Your Most Empowered Self, really speaks to inner and outer beauty and the qualities that make for great style in an important way.

Little did I know when I wrote the book that it was sort of a pandemic primer—a beauty and survival guide that helps you move from beyond merely surviving to thriving, which is what we’re all meant to do.

Murad: Absolutely, and I love your idea of daily inspirations in your Editor in Chic book. The idea that beauty should be inside and out is so important. Most people look at the superficial, but health and beauty are synonymous. Your book gives people an opportunity to ask themselves, “What can I do? What things can I make happen for myself?” It’s not just about having Botox injections or something like that. It’s everything about caring for yourself. I believe it begins with health, which is the foundation for beauty from the inside.

I believe you started your beauty training very early. Did you work at your mother’s salon in Newark, New Jersey, in the early days?

Taylor: I didn’t work there, but I guess you could say I came of age there. It’s where I really got to see the transformative power of beauty. I realized that women weren’t just getting great hairstyles, they were getting affirmed and informed. They came out of the salon looking good, but also feeling good. I understood at that point that when it came to beauty, you shouldn’t have one without the other. Outer beauty without inner beauty is just deception, or a costume. And if you have inner beauty you can’t help but have outer beauty.

I think that’s where the two linked arms and stayed with me so that by the time I got to Essence as beauty editor I knew how important it was to affirm our cultural definition of beauty—which is that beauty is not transactional; it is emotional. It encompasses how we celebrate and express ourselves.

And I also saw my job as being an advocate for us in boardrooms where we were not. Where products were being created where the audience wasn’t understood. Had I not had that background of watching my mother in the beauty salon, and even prior to that, watching her as a hairstylist and makeup artist for the late American icon that was singer Sarah Vaughan, I might not have understood that. But I knew that as Sarah Vaughn traveled the world she could find makeup offerings in Europe that matched our brown skin tones, but that weren’t available here in the U.S. yet—and I had an opportunity to change that.

Murad: Attitude is so much a part of beauty. My most beautiful patients were always those with self-confidence, or the feeling of being able to manage their lives in a healthy way. It wasn’t so much what God had given you, it’s what you did with it.

But then, since the early 2000s, I began to see evidence of the stress that we’re suffering from. I call it Cultural Stress, the stress of modern living, which is making us sit at home a lot more often and have everything delivered to us. We don’t go out. We don’t meet people. We don’t get that nice hug that we used to when we met somebody. We haven’t even been able to go to the hair salon or have a massage or a facial. These are the kinds of interactions that we’re missing so much with this COVID-19 social isolation.

I wonder what you say to your clients to help them feel good about themselves in spite of some of the cultural stresses that are impacting us these days.

Taylor: I have two sayings for this period. First of all, social distance does not mean social disengagement. Disengagement is a choice. It’s really critical that you surround yourself with people that push, polish, affirm, and check you. In my latest book, Editor in Chic, I talk about what’s known as a celebration circle. That’s a group of supporters who are essential to maintain because your greatness and your well-being were not designed to operate in isolation. So even in so-called isolation, you don’t want to cut yourself off from people. Thankfully, with technology, there’s no need to do so.

The other thing I know for a fact is that self-perception colors your entire life: how you see yourself, how you celebrate your beauty, how you own your life and your experiences. You get what you believe in life. So you have to understand the truth of who you are, how unprecedented you are, and know your value. When you know your value, that certainly sees you engaged in self-care. You understand that self-nurturing is not an option, but it is a necessity. It means that you will create time for self. It means that you will spend your dwell time in places and with people that make deposits, as opposed to withdrawals.

A lot of experts are saying, “You have to balance the news. You can’t be absorbed in the news 24/7.” Well, your mother told you that. Your mother told you to watch what you intake. So you really do have to make choices. You have to balance your power. You have to balance your energies and understand that you cannot give out of your lack. A lot of times women will tend to try to give more than they have. Even in this pandemic, we’re chief caretakers. But we have to realize that you have to take care of self first before you can give yourself away to others. So in that respect, COVID has offered us some gifts, if we pay close attention and if we operate by strategic intention in how we care for ourselves, how well we honor ourselves and our beauty, and then how well we give ourselves away.

Murad: Absolutely. I have a saying, “Allow the unique you to blossom.” We all are uniquely different and COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to have time for ourselves and understand who we truly are. Many people try to emulate; “I want to be like so and so.” You’ll never be like so and so because that’s who she is. But you have your own talents and unique abilities that nobody else has. Your power, in your own way, is so much better than following others’ strategy. People ask me, “What were your secrets? What made you successful?” And the truth is, there isn’t something I can share with them other than to find their unique talents and allow them to blossom. Trying to be like somebody else is not the way to do it.

Taylor: Well, it’s a joy stealer. That old expression that “comparison is the thief of all joy” is still true. And as singer Jill Scott says in my current book, pretending to be someone else is so much work, when your authentic self comes so organically. It is a joy to make self-discoveries as opposed to trying to mimic someone else. On a most basic level, I always say, “If the creator wanted another you, he would have doubled up.” So be the unprecedented you that he created and discover all there is to know about you. You have gifts that are needed in the world. You have to find your purpose, identify it, and then use all of it because the world is waiting on you to show up as yourself. But if you shrink back, if you try to mimic someone else, then you’re only going to live in the shadow of who you are meant to be.

I say that each of us should wake up every day excited to be who we are. There’s no greater joy than that. Does it cost something? Absolutely. You have to embrace the cost as well as the delight of being your true self. It’s going to cost you to stand in your beliefs. It’s going to cost you to celebrate the truth of who you are and to not go the way of the crowd. It’s going to cost you. You’re going to have to know how to separate the difference between feedback and criticism. You’re going to have to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you, who will nurture you in such a way that sometimes it’s going to sting, but it’s because they want to see you win, and they won’t let you settle for less.

These are the things that are critical to being who we are. We have to go boldly in the direction of our greatest self! Each of us ought to want to know what that is. I came of age with it. I had parents who basically said that “if the best is possible, then good is not enough.” They urged each of us to find out what our best was and to own it. That’s part of what kept us—when we finally got the lesson—from paying too much attention to the successes of others, and how others looked, and dressed, and where they went, and what they found joy in, and instead to find our own. I tell you, once you’ve discovered your own, you never will want to let go of it.

Murad: Absolutely. It sounds like we are simpatico. We’re talking the same language.

Taylor: Indeed. Indeed.

Murad: I sometimes ask people to take a piece of paper and draw a doodle, any doodle, on this blank piece of paper. They do, and usually it’s in the middle of the page. Then I say, “That doodle is what you today think your potential is. But the whitespace all around it is your true potential. You don’t realize it yet but give yourself the opportunity to explore all of the field around you.”

Another way I look at it is, when life throws you a curveball, hit it out of the park. Life threw me a curveball about 10, 15 years ago. I began to have trouble with my eyes. After my surgery, I had to keep my chin on my chest for weeks. But my wife suggested I try painting from that position. At that point, if somebody had said I was going to be an artist, I would have said, “You’re crazy. I don’t do art. I can’t draw a circle.” But I took my wife’s suggestion and today I have 600 pieces of art. Art has become my passion, something I never dreamed that I would have. So when things look bad, look for opportunity somewhere else. On that white space there’s a place for you that could be way beyond your wildest dreams.

Taylor: I think life also calls for each of us to have the courage to move out of our comfort zone, because that’s when you can soar into your power zone. If you stay in your comfort zone you’ll never know what you’re really made of. You’ll never know the possibilities or the opportunities that you could have seized and excelled at. You’ll never seize the moment because you’re trying to stay in that safe space, which, if you think about, is really too small. You’ve outgrown it years before, but it’s comfortable. And you’re still trying to fit in that same space when in fact there is a whole world out there for you to fill. So you have to have the courage to move out of your comfort zone into your power zone.

If I look at the current pandemic, I tell people to learn how to pivot and not panic. There are many roads that could lead to your destiny, and if one gets road-blocked, don’t stay there; keep moving. Some of the greatest inventions have happened during crisis times. They came out of necessity. It’s like that old expression: “Out of emergency comes of emergence.” So stay open to the possibilities.

Look at what’s happened in the beauty industry. If facecloths and masks are going to be with us in the future, look at the skin care products that’ll come out of that. If most of our interactions are going to be virtual, then there’s an opportunity for HD foundation and for other ways to embellish how we show up on Zoom.

However, if we’re risk-averse, or if we’re stuck in a safe zone, we’re also going to be success-averse. 2020 is a stretch moment in time. If we labor right, if we operate with strategic intention, we’re going to give birth to some amazing successes. That’s the way I look at it. It is a transformational time for transformational people.

Murad: Absolutely. What we need to do is to listen to you more often, and get going to the next level.

Mikki, I’m really so happy that we got to have this conversation because I feel like we’re basically saying the same thing, which is that each of can really become something special. There’s so much up to us, inner beauty and outer beauty. They’re all connected. When you feel good about yourself, you’re going to take better care of yourself. You’re going to eat better. You’re going to exercise. You’re going to do the things that relax you so you won’t be so stressed out all the time. It is up to you.

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