Aja Naomi King on Makeup as Armour, Ice Baths and Being Inspired by L’Oréal Paris’ Women of Worth

Last night on International Women’s Day, L’Oréal Paris held its third annual Women of Worth gala, which honours Canadian women who volunteer in their communities and awards them $10,000 to put towards their causes. Nominees included Nicole White who started Moon Time Sisters, a project that provides menstrual products to those with little or no access in Northern Indigenous communities, and this year’s award winner, Lynne Rosychuk, who received an additional $10,000 to help fund The Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation which supports victims of domestic violence. It was an evening filled with moving speeches and stories–and plenty of tears. No wonder last year’s host, Dame Helen Mirren, said being at the event was better than attending the Academy Awards.

Before the festivities, we sat down with this year’s host Aja Naomi King, star of How to Get Away with Murder, to talk about makeup as armour, what it means to be a woman of colour in Hollywood, and why she’s into taking ice baths.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Before hosting this year, how much did you know about the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth program?

“I went to my first Women of Worth event two years ago in New York. You read about it and hear about it, but it’s not until you are in that room and hear [these women] talking about why they’ve made the decisions that they made to do these things [that you understand how powerful it is]. It is so overwhelming, so incredible, so inspiring. These women were like, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’ And they did. And I think that’s what makes it so powerful.”

I read that as a child you liked to watch your mom apply her makeup before she went to work, and that she seemed to really enjoy the ritual, rather than rushing through it or looking at it simply as another step in her morning routine.

“My mother was and continues to be a working woman, and I think for her that was her me time before starting a crazy hectic day. My mother works in television, which was, and still kind of continues to be, a very male-dominated work environment. And so as a woman—especially a woman of colour—it can be a bit of battle. For her it was almost like putting on her armour. It was about finding that sense of calm within her and not letting anyone destroy that.”

How did your mother feel about you wearing makeup?

“She was never like ‘you can’t wear makeup’ or ‘you can’t talk to boys’ or things like that. She trusted me. I was a goody-two shoes. For the bulk of my formative years I was in braces and glasses. My mom was like ‘you’re square and you’re a nerd. I have nothing to worry about with you.’”

What was the first beauty product you bought for yourself?

“I don’t remember the first, but I remember the thing that was the most impactful to me. I was at an age where I was really trying to explore makeup because all my friends were wearing it, and they were all looking so cute. I wanted to be able to do that too, but it was a struggle because I would buy eyeshadows and they wouldn’t show up on my skin. It was really frustrating. Then L’Oréal Paris came out with these high-intensity pigments, their HiP line [of eyeshadows and eyeliners]. I put one on and I was like ‘I can see it!’ When l think back to how that felt… I felt beautiful, and I felt like someone else thought I was beautiful, and deserved to be able to wear makeup and be included.”

You live in Los Angeles, the land of wellness. Are you into the movement?

“One of the biggest things that I’ve done for myself recently is that I don’t immediately look at my phone when I wake up in the morning. I actually have a morning with myself, instead of getting sucked into social media, email and text messages. That’s been really wonderful, to set my perspective and really key into myself. I really enjoy journaling during that time. And I love infrared saunas, with a bluetooth hook up so that I can listen to a meditation app. Lately, I’m also into ice baths. Every time I step out, there’s this feeling of renewal. Like, I can do anything!”

Knowing that your mom works in the entertainment industry, what has it been like for her to see things shift toward more inclusivity and transparency, and how do you both feel about these important changes?

“It’s been so great to see the tremendous changes over these past couple of years and the conversations that people have been having. But it has taken so long, and so many women have had to fight so hard just to get us to a place where we can be comfortable enough to really talk about things like sexual harassment and abuse, and then saying time’s up. I don’t think that would have been possible without the women who climbed to these places where no one could take their power away if they said something or supported another woman for saying something. [My mom’s experience working in television] was that she was always surrounded by white men. She had to be very comfortable being in a room with only white men, and being able to find her voice, speak up and disagree, which can be very challenging when you are afraid you might lose your job over being that one dissenting voice. We still have a ways to go in terms of making sure these boardrooms are diverse and inclusive, and that all these voices behind the camera are being heard.”

A key part of this movement is women lifting other women up. Who were some of your mentors in the industry when you were starting out?

“I loved watching Viola [Davis], Shonda [Rhimes] and Kerry [Washington] from afar, and seeing everything that they were doing. And then people who had been kind to me very randomly; my mom happened to know someone that was a friend of a friend of Angela Bassett and they asked her to call me to give me advice before I went to grad school. And she did. It was crazy! That’s why now whenever someone’s like ‘oh would you talk to my child about this, or have coffee with them,’ [I do it]. It’s so important to pass it on.”

See all the L’Oréal Women of Worth 2019 nominees and their causes below: