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When Lil’ Kim was preparing to release her sophomore album, The Notorious K.I.M., which was released in June 2000, NZINGHA, her then–makeup artist, had a few ideas.
First, she thought Lil’ Kim should work with David LaChapelle, the famed photographer known for his surreal, bright, and fantastical imagery. NZINGHA was friends with LaChapelle—he was a fan of her work, which was also bright and bold—and NZINGHA believed LaChapelle could capture Lil’ Kim as the superhero she always envisioned her to be.
“You know he’s a Pisces. So he’s kinetic,” says NZINGHA in her slightly faded British accent while sitting on a hot pink sofa in her Jersey City living room, wearing a royal blue chiffon dress. “I don’t know if they got on immediately, but I guess he hit a cord in her head and she approved.”
After that was sorted, they met about the album art. NZINGHA brought a stack of vintage fashion books and comic books to show her references and present her makeup concepts. One of those concepts was tattooing Lil’ Kim’s body with the Louis Vuitton logo. NZINGHA says she always liked Louis Vuitton because of its cocoa and beige palette that matched skin tones. She was also a big fan of Dapper Dan. During the ‘80s, a drug dealer she was dating bought her a top and matching skirt with the Louis Vuitton monogram logo made by Dapper Dan. Everyone approved the makeup concept, including Louis Vuitton. NZINGHA and her assistants spent six hours prepping Kim’s body for the shoot, which eventually ended up on the cover of Interview magazine (more on that later).
NZINGHA speaks about this in a laissez-faire way, as if she didn’t help create one of fashion’s most important images, but maybe that’s because this is only one of many ideas she’s contributed to the fashion and makeup industry over the last 35 years.
NZINGHA, who was born in the Bronx but was partially raised in the UK, had a life and lineage that prepared her for a career of producing innovative makeup and images that elevated her clients, particularly her Black clients, who were constantly being questioned about what type of image they should present to the world.
NZINGHA spent her childhood hopping from country to country because, unbeknownst to her, her father, a music teacher and political activist named Charles Peaker, who was also an executive officer for the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement and thus wanted by the FBI. Her mother Jean Gumbs was a part of the Grandassa Models, a group of models formed by her uncle Bob Gumbs, her godfathers Kwame Brathwaite and Elombe Brath in the ‘60s, and others that formed the The African Jazz Art Society & Studio, which promoted natural Black beauty with imagery, Jazz concerts, and events like a touring fashion show. NZINGHA also had a grandmother who was a seamstress who assisted a woman working in NBC’s wardrobe department, and a grandfather who was a professional photographer.
“It’s all in the blood,” says NZINGHA, who also credits her Caribbean background as a source of inspiration. “How I was raised expanded my visual palette.”
But NZINGHA didn’t know that being a makeup artist was a career until she saw the making of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video on TV, which featured artist Rick Baker transforming the cast into monsters and werewolves.
“I was in love instantly, but I didn’t know that that would be my path,” says NZINGHA.
But NZINGHA did pursue makeup artistry and started working her high school’s stage productions. She planned on being a lawyer until she worked as a makeup artist at an Avon event and a more established artist was so impressed with her work that she asked NZINGHA to assist her on a shoot for Black Hair Care magazine. NZINGHA was assisting and working based on natural talent; she had no professional training outside of a two-day course with an artist who worked out of the Il Makiage makeup shop in New York City and used to do Diana Ross’ makeup.
Eventually this led her to other jobs, including working with R&B singer Freddie Jackson, grooming Kris Kross, and moving to Minneapolis to work for Prince along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The latter work helped her land a makeup artist position on Janet Jackson’s Janet tour. Here, NZINGHA speaks about her journey as a makeup artist; the stories behind some of her most memorable work with artists including Mary J. Blige, Brandy, and Erykah Badu; and what she believes is her greatest contribution to the beauty industry.
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