Our “How I Shop” series documents how prominent figures buy clothes. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. The same goes for beauty — and there’s a whole lot to unpack in the way we discover, test and purchase hair, skin, makeup, fragrance and wellness products. Now, we’re delving into all of it with “How I Shop: Beauty Edition.”
When it comes to the Fashionista (virtual) office, Gemma Chan has the superpower to thrill us every time she steps onto the red carpet — not just with her innate poise and elegance, but also her ease, boldness and thoughtful self-expression through both her fashion and beauty looks.
But, of course, the British actor and producer is so much more than a really good best dressed post (or gallery of them) — especially to me, a Chinese American, who’s been tracking Chan’s work since she perfectly embodied the formidable, ultra-chic and very aspirational Astrid in 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” (But, actually, watching British murder mysteries has been my ultimate comfort TV since forever, so, really, I’ve followed her since the early days of her career back home in the U.K.)
An accomplished stage and screen actor, Chan exhibits range, from playing superhuman Sersi in Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals” to duplicitous sniper Minn-Erva in “Captain Marvel” to a sharp book agent trying to convince Meryl Streep to turn in her pages in Steven Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk.” Chan has no fewer than four projects in the works as I type this, including Olivia Wilde’s much-anticipated “Don’t Worry Darling,” alongside fellow Brits, Harry Styles and Florence Pugh.
Along the way, Chan also uses her wide-reaching platform for activism — or “accidental activism,” as she told British Vogue in her September cover story interview. She regularly speaks out in support of API communities around the world; fundraising and spreading awareness during the anti-Asian hate crimes, which have proliferated the pandemic. Alongside Phillip Lim and “CRA” co-star Awkwafina, Chan joined the #StopAAPIhate movement in the U.S., while also launching the #StopESEAHate campaign in the U.K., along with Alexa Chung and Susie Lau.
Chan also conducts soft diplomacy by shining a light on global API talent during her headline-making red carpet outings. At the 2021 Met Gala celebrating the “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibit, Chan honored the first Chinese American Hollywood star, Anna May Wong, in a custom dress by Nepalese American designer and fellow activist Prabal Gurung — and nailed the theme in a meaningful and multilayered way. Most recently, she’s stunned in an out-of-this-world sculptural look by Seoul-born and London-based couturier Sohee Park’s Miss Sohee (top) and evoked an Old Hollywood dream in an oversize-bow and crystal-embellished cocktail dress by Shanghai’s Shushu Tong.
Last November, Chan became a face of L’Oréal Paris, and continues to use her expanding platform to amplify and uplift homegrown voices doing the work in their communities. In the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth televised special, airing Thursday on NBC, Chan will interview two honorees: Florida-based Briana Daniel, Founder of Street Team Movement, Inc, which provides unhoused individuals with showers, laundry services and essential hygiene items and New Yorker Michelle Tran, Co-Founder of Soar Over Hate, which combats anti-Asian hate and xenophobia through access to personal safety devices, need-based scholarships and culturally-competent therapy.
“To hear [Daniel’s and Tran’s] stories and the motivations behind what they do, for me, I just found it so inspiring,” says Chan, over Zoom. “We have a daily onslaught of bad news at the moment, and it really helps to look outwards and see that there are always people trying to help. These women, in particular, are doing such incredible things to uplift their communities. So it feels really great to be able to help shine a spotlight on them. I can’t wait for everyone else to get to know that, as well.”
Seeing Chan as a part of high-profile beauty campaigns feels especially significant for me. As a starry-eyed kid growing up in the Midwest in the olden days of yore, I’d compile pre-Pinterest beauty moodboards from pages ripped from magazines filled with people that rarely, if ever, reflected me or my heritage. In expanding the idea of who can be a superhero or star in a glossy beauty ad, Chan’s success in the industry let’s us dream even bigger — from kids wanting to save the world to my also-poised and elegant friend Jane, who now has an immediate answer for that “who would play you in your biopic?” game.
“I am encouraged by what we’ve seen over the past few years. It’s amazing and it’s about time that we’re celebrating the whole range of beauty that’s out there, whether we’re talking about race, ethnicity, disability, orientation, shape, size, anything,” says Chan. “I’m glad that you can open a magazine now and we’re seeing all of that being celebrated. Because, for a long time, it was very narrow: what we were exposed to, what we were looking at. We just need to keep going in that direction, really.”
Ahead, Chan shares her favorite edgy red carpet beauty looks, her professional makeup artist-approved method for a smudge-free red lip (also with a very cool and British moniker) and the skin-care trick co-star, friend and “Robb Stark” himself, Richard Madden, taught her in the “Eternals” makeup trailer.
What does your skin-care routine look like?
From when I would have been 12 or 13, my mum always was very much like, ‘cleanse, tone and moisturize and you can’t go wrong.’ So mostly it’s about taking care of my skin. It’s fun to experiment with makeup, but I also love days when I just don’t wear any and just let my skin breathe. It really it varies, but the foundation is just taking care of my skin, trying to get more sleep… failing to get more sleep.
What products do you always go back to?
My go-tos, the serums that swear by: a L’Oréal Paris Night Serum with retinol that I use at night and then during the day I use the L’Oréal Paris Hyaluronic Acid Serum, which moisturizes and plumps my skin and preps it for anything to come. So those two together are a great combo.
How would you describe your signature beauty look?
I don’t know if I have necessarily have one. Day-to-day, my beauty look is very relaxed. Then when it comes to evening or events, I like to up the drama a bit. Add some color. Maybe do a bold lip or a dramatic eye or both. I like to mix it up and experiment.
Of course, I’m obsessed with all of your red carpet outings, especially with ‘Eternals.’ I felt like you just had so much fun with the fashion and makeup. How does the red carpet allow you to just be adventurous and experiment? What are some of your favorite looks?
My goodness, there have been so many looks that I’ve really, really enjoyed. I love the opportunity to get to experiment and play around themes. So, with ‘Eternals,’ we played around with an otherworldly theme for most of the premieres. Also, I really loved this year for the Met Gala. We did an homage to Anna May Wong and Prabal Gurung designed a beautiful dress and [makeup artist Daniel Martin] did an acid green eye, which I was a little bit nervous about before, but, actually, I loved how it turned out. I’ve always wanted to push myself and try something different.
It’s been a busy period in terms of work and red carpets and doing a lot of press, so, to be honest, I get all of [the experimentation] out of my system in those circumstances. Really, during my time off, I’m in sweatpants and no makeup and enjoying that, I have to be honest. I definitely found during lockdown, or the first period of lockdown that we had, appreciating just actually brushing my hair, or doing something simple, like putting on a bright red lip — even if it’s just a Zoom meeting or something — that can really lift you as well.
What are your favorite beauty products, both for your day-to-day and also to really go all out?
There is a new eye serum, this hyaluronic acid with caffeine, from L’Oreal Paris, which is great. When I’m tired, I get puffiness under my eyes. So it’s always, for me, about what’s going to be a good product that will help de-puff and calm down and banish these dark circles. Also, there’s a great hair product from Davines, which is a texture spray, which I use most days, actually. It gives just the right amount of grit and hold, but isn’t too heavy and it smells amazing. What else? The body moisturizer, Vaseline Intensive Care Cocoa Radiant, I go back to time and again. Especially during the winter months, my skin gets really dry, so it’s great.
What about your night time skincare routine? What does that look like?
I know that we’re meant to do multistep routines and all the rest of it, but I often just go back to a good a wipe. Actually, maybe using one or two wipes and then a toner. It can be something as simple as micellar wipes, which I just find work really well. I wear waterproof mascara, and it gets that off, followed by a toner. Then, the retinol serum and eye cream and then moisturizer.
I like to start and end the day with face rolling, as well. It’s great to encourage drainage. I have thought, ‘oh, wow, I should definitely put on a sheet mask and then do over the top,’ but on a day-to-day basis, I just start with the neck to encourage the lymph drainage there. And then, I work my way up to the jawline, cheekbones, and forehead, just to get everything flowing. I’m not an expert.
How do you typically look and shop for beauty and skin-care products?
I find with beauty products, a lot of it comes through personal recommendations — so either friends saying, ‘I’ve just tried this product. It’s amazing, you’ve got to try it’ or someone that I’ve worked with, like a makeup artist or a hairstylist, just trying a product on me, and just going, ‘What’s that?! I have to get me some of that.’
Beauty is so personal and you really don’t know until you’ve tried it. I don’t have much time to go around and try, either. A lot of it happens to me, happens by chance for things being used on me for work or for shoots and things like that. So I’m very lucky in that sense.
What is one product or technique that you discovered during one of your red carpet glam moments or on set?
[Makeup artist] Val Garland, who I’ve done lots of shoots with, she’s always got amazing tips that she [shares] when she does your makeup. She’s teaching you as she goes along, which I find really, really helpful. She taught me this amazing way to do a red lip that’s super easy. I’m used to doing a very well-defined red lip, but then, obviously, if you then start eating and going through the night, that can end up halfway across your face. She teaches us — she calls it ‘a snogging lip’ [translation: ‘a kissing lip,’ in American]. She uses, actually, a fluffy eyeshadow brush to buff out the color at the center of the lip. It’s a diffused lip, which wears a lot easier than a traditional red lip kind of look.
What sort of beauty or skin-care recommendations have you received from costars?
I’ll tell you one thing that a costar of mine got me onto: Richard Madden was the one that got me on to the Foreo Eye Massager. We were always in [the ‘Eternals’ makeup trailer] at the same time every morning — three or four in the morning — and he’d be sitting in his chair with his eye massager. I though, ‘now I want one of those….’ So we ended up, both of us, simultaneously, using our, what we called our ‘eye-brators’ in the morning. He got me onto it.
You have so many projects going on. So what do you do for self care and relaxation?
I love to read, actually, that’s my go-to thing to do to relax. I’ve been reading some poetry. Recently, someone gave me a really beautiful book of poetry and I’ve been dipping in and out of that. The book is called ‘A Poem For Every Night of the Year‘ [by Allie Esiri]. I’ve been saying for years, ‘I must read more poetry’ and this is just a very accessible way.
I love a scented candle. I just appreciate having time; having time at home, or spending time with family and friends. There’s just nothing nothing better than that, especially after the last couple of years that we’ve had.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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