Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Jessica Alba and Rachel Zegler on the Unifying Power of Latina Beauty

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Both Jessica Alba and Rachel Zegler are used to being outspoken and staying true to themselves. For Alba, the founder and chief creative officer of The Honest Company, it’s in the name of her multimillion-dollar brand. Zegler, for her part, has gone viral for her honesty, once famously telling an interviewer that she took a movie role “because I needed a job, I am being so serious.” She’s since joined the SAG-AFTRA picket line to fight for better labor and payment protections. ELLE brought Alba and Zegler together for a more honest conversation—on beauty standards, how they’ve felt their Latin identity has been perceived in Hollywood, and the spiritual threads that tie Latinas together even when, like these two, they’ve only just met.

ELLE: Do you prefer the term Latinx or Latina?

Jessica Alba: I identify as Latina personally.

Rachel Zegler: Myself as well. There’s a lot of interesting vocabulary policing that happens within the community when it comes to the use of Latinx. In Spanish, it’s not really pronounceable. It would be latin equis, which is not a thing that we say. I’ve heard Latine.

JA: That’s what our [employee resource group] at Honest uses. The broader community would prefer to identify as Latiné. A lot of Latinos or Latiné people really dislike Latinx. It’s kind of like calling us Hispanic, which is another thing that a lot of people don’t love and identify with. It’s a reminder of the Spanish conquistadors who forced a lot of our communities into speaking Spanish, ripping away the Indigenous customs and cultures. But it’s layered and complex. It’s hard to find the right way to communicate, and for all cultures and communities to feel seen and heard.

ELLE: What do you remember about beauty growing up in your culture?

RZ: I feel like a lot of things were pushed in my face, including very white Anglocentric beauty standards. But I felt like I had to search harder to find people that I related to, when it came to the way that I looked or the way that I felt about myself. Jessica, you were one of the examples I could find when I was a kid. Then also Shakira who was from the same city that my family is from in Colombia, Selena Quintanilla, and Selena Gomez. I feel really, really blessed because of that, but also thanks to social media, it was really easy to find a lot of people who were saying that [Anglocentric beauty] wasn’t what the standard should be.

JA: I did not have a ton of examples of diverse beauty icons. I liked the ’90s supermodels, probably because of Azzedine Alaïa and his influence on beauty and pop culture—he celebrated brown skin, big lips, big boobs, and big butts, and was celebratory of Black and brown beauty and mixed people. But in entertainment, in Hollywood, it was very Caucasian. When I was coming up, there were iconic beauties like Salma [Hayek], Jennifer Lopez, and Selena. And I love old Hollywood femme fatale and glamour icons like Rita Hayworth, Sofia Loren, Lauren Bacall, Lupe Velez, Brigitte Bardot, Veronica Lake, and Catherine Deneuve. But as a young actress, I aspired to redefine “the girl next door” and felt like Hollywood wasn’t capturing it.” I was really determined to pave a path for girls who didn’t fit a typical mold of Anglo/Caucasian, along with fighting the character archetype of a damsel in distress or leading lady who purely served the male storyline. I felt it was important for my characters to actually have opinions and be strong-willed and strong-minded. I didn’t always win but now as a producer, I feel I’m better positioned to create content that represents our culture in a more accurate, dignified and aspirational way.

I’ve always hated Hollywood’s stigmas and the stereotypes around our culture and community. Framing us in far too many narratives in the context of drug cartel worlds and domestic help, it’s just so limiting. I’m third-generation, from Mexico. I grew up in California with my grandparents, who lived through the era of the Great Depression—they lived through extreme racism and segregation towards the Mexican American community. Surviving through challenging times meant they often felt they needed to assimilate, keeping their culture, customs, and traditions confined within the privacy of their home and shared only within their tight-knit circle of friends and family. It’s refreshing to see how Latinos from diverse backgrounds and communities are now reconnecting with their cultural pride. The legacies of our ancestors, far from holding us back, have become the very shoulders we stand upon. Witnessing the younger generation confidently celebrating their heritage is inspiring—I get so much joy seeing young millennials and Gen Zs like Rachel and Selena Gomez standing up and saying, “Don’t try to whitewash me or erase who I am.”

ELLE: Did you feel tension between American and Latina beauty standards growing up?

RZ: I grew up with a Colombian mother and an American father, and my Colombian culture was so close to me. I always felt accepted and loved. Then, in my first movie ever, I played a Latina, and all of a sudden to the wider community, it wasn’t enough to be X, or I didn’t look X enough because there was too much Y. But when I was growing up and it came to feeling beautiful in my own culture, I absolutely did. I grew up with my Aunt Rosi bringing home traditional Colombian dresses, and my sister and I wore them all the time; they made us feel beautiful. A lot of things about my own self-perception and my beauty, in regard to my culture, didn’t matter until I became a public figure. And then it started to become a problem that was brought to the court of public opinion, and people have not stopped talking about it since.

JA: Wow, they’re still doing this. I thought they stopped doing that with me.

RZ: Unfortunately, it just does not end.

JA: Us mixed kids. They really won’t let us live or embrace anything. Will they?

RZ: Simultaneously two things and nothing at once.

JA: It’s so interesting. I thought that we’d moved past this, but—

RZ: Definitely not.

JA: For me, I didn’t see myself at all and felt like there was a gap to be filled. I feel super blessed that despite all the people that told me I wasn’t going to be successful in Hollywood and gave me every reason to not pursue a career in entertainment, I powered through. I feel like a lot of kids got to see themselves in me, that they mattered, and that there was a stage or a space that they could live inside—prior to my small contribution, it was harder. That’s also what motivated me to lean into myself as an entrepreneur on top of the entertainment side, to also show that people matter. We also belong in those spaces as well, and not just in the way that the media wants to portray us in our community.

ELLE: The Latin American community is so diverse, from many different countries. When you think about Latina identity and beauty, what do you consider to be universal or central to it?

RZ: The common thread I’ve always been able to find with Latina people from different Latin American countries is that we all come from somewhere. It sounds very simplistic, but there is a history of struggle—it is proof that we deserve to be standing, anchored on the ground, because of where we’ve come from. You could go all the way back and look at the colonization, displacement, and gentrification of our neighborhoods. You can just go through all of this history of how we’ve been displaced, and the common thread you can find for all of us, Cubanos, Colombianos, Puertorriqueños, Mexicanos, we all come from somewhere, and yet we are still standing here today to tell the story. That has always been what I find to be a universal truth. When we meet one another, it’s like meeting a family member. It’s never met with any tension or friction. It’s always like, Oh, where’s your family from? Oh, we’re from that place too. We’re just a little bit up north. And have you experienced this in the workplace, and is this how it is? It spans over every industry.

It spans over time and space and it’s the most centric thing for me about being a Latina. My sisters also come from somewhere, and have been through so much [difficulty] in order to be able to claim their identity, and to say, “This is me and who I am and where I come from, and I’m going to continue to be who I am in spite of all of the hardship.” I do believe that Latine beauty is everything. It’s everywhere, and it goes beyond the physical. We are a very spiritual culture, and so our spirit is one that we recognize in other people on the street. I especially experience that living in New York. There’s a huge Latine population in New York, and we all just find each other. It’s one of the most amazing experiences I find about being alive.

JZ: Exactly. It’s the overcoming of the hardships and the pride in staying true to our culture along the way. For generations of folks, for safety reasons, we expressed our culture or customs inside of our homes and community, with music, dance, or food, because it was the one thing they couldn’t take from us. Growing up, music, dancing, food and rituals/prayer were where we came together as a family. A lot of us grew up with some version of a spiritual ritual, regardless of our country of origin, and our grandmas/tias/mamas have a lot of the same kind of prayers. They just put their flavor on it, like a little twist on the aloe vera plant that they would smear on you, or the tea they would make you drink for your tummy ache while they recited a certain prayer. Some of our Latina beauties are no-makeup makeup people, some are all about the skin care, and some are full-beat glam. It’s all of it. And I love that about us.

JA: Rachel, If you could start all over right now—which you can, because today is today, and everything that happened in the past doesn’t really matter. What do you want to do? What do you look forward to? What do you feel like your impact can be in whatever spaces you want to be in? What drives you to wake up every day and to keep going at it?

RZ: There were a lot of instances in my career, which has not been very long, where I’ve gotten baptized by fire. Sometimes it’s been in a very good way. Sometimes it’s been in a very bad way where I had to learn on the fly, take the crash course in whatever’s going on and move on fast, because you have to strike while the iron’s hot. You don’t know when you’re going to get another opportunity. If I could start all over, I would look forward to quiet, more than I did when I was 17 and 18. I would look forward to moments with loved ones, more so than what I do for work. I’m very blessed to feel the way that I feel. I’m sure that you can understand and relate to a certain degree.

JA: I’ve been through it.

RZ: I know you have. It is very hard to have so many people have an opinion on you and your existence as a human being. The noise was very, very loud for me when it came to my identity, who I was dating, the roles I was playing and how I was playing them, the men I’ve worked with in the industry and my worth being equated to theirs. It’s been really strange and definitely the quintessential “young woman in Hollywood experience” times 10 because it squeezed itself into my first movie coming out. I also look forward to the moments of exposition.

I work really hard to make the rest of the world see me as a person. And even though it’s a really hard thing for me to do, I want to do it. I’m not going to stop doing that, because I think too many people in this world see you and me, like we are puppets who do not have feelings, and we are on strings of production companies and conglomerates, and they don’t understand that there’s a person beyond what they see.

JA: Yeah, fame can be hard. It took me a while to deal with that one.

RZ: I can’t even imagine.

JA: There’s no course you can take to help you detach from things that are out of your control and have nothing to do with you. Being able to bring light and thought, to lift people out of a fog, to get them to think, get them to feel, get them to want to dance, get them to smile—we get to give them that escape. What a big gift that is, to be in that flow of creativity. So I hope you do trust that your journey and more of your identity and not attach to the fame piece, and know that your truth matters.

The more you connect with your quiet, without being in your head, but being in your soul, will make it clearer and clearer on how to detach in a healthy way and take the good pieces that can nourish you. I think about how in my head I was at your age and how tough it was. Now I’m like, What a waste of time and energy, when those people do not care about me like that. They would dispose of me in a heartbeat and be onto the next thing that they can dissect. I hope you get a release from that energy as soon as possible, and you lean further into your soul’s purpose and what you’re here to do, which is to bring joy and entertain people. So thank you for your existence and sharing your truth. That was really cool.

RZ: Thank you. And if anything, I can hold onto the fact that I won’t give a fuck in my forties.

JA: Actually zero. And then it starts going into the negative zone. You start giving less and less with each year that goes by, which is the blessing of age. I started giving less fucks in my thirties. In my forties, zero. None. It’s done. We’re done with that, sis.

RZ: I can’t wait.

A version of this story appears in the October 2023 issue of ELLE.


Headshot of Kathleen Hou

Kathleen Hou

ELLE Beauty Director

Kathleen Hou is ELLE”s Beauty Director. Previously, she held the same title at New York Magazine’s The Cut. She’s appeared in publications such as New York, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue India, Forbes, and Allure. She was also a co-founder of Donate Beauty, a grassroots beauty donation project started during the COVID-19 crisis, which donated over 500,000 products to over 30,000 healthcare workers across 500+ hospitals. 

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