there's a hidden meaning behind all the beauty looks in 'euphoria'

The hedonistic hit TV show layers hidden meanings beneath its characters’ makeup.

by Douglas Greenwood
01 August 2019, 10:03am

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

There’s a scene in an early episode of Euphoria in which two new-found friends -- drug-addicted teen Rue and new girl in town Jules -- build a bedroom fort out of quilts and take a pill together. It’s like staring into the cosmos from the comfort of suburbia; ecstasy and wonder literally etched across their faces.

In the old craft of Hollywood storytelling, there are several things that take precedence over makeup artistry. A solid script and a spattering of capable performers usually cut it, but few directors ever question what lip liner and eyeshadow might do to a character’s development. But then, few directors are like Sam Levinson: the Assassination Nation filmmaker who proudly spends his spare time deep in YouTube holes watching beauty tutorials. When he signed on to helm Euphoria, he knew that makeup would matter.

The show, already a massive hit in America and arriving on UK shores next week, dives into the lives of American high schoolers, navigating a world propped up by taboo sex, narcotics, house parties, dating apps and cam-girling, the fine line between fetishisation and fantasy blurred throughout. It stars a career-best Zendaya and queen of our hearts-slash-incredible trans activist Hunter Schafer as its most significant characters. And sure, it’s a little sensational, but it unpacks the semantics of how we communicate and express ourselves with terrifying precision in an addictive format.

Which brings us back to that aforementioned scenario: beneath the sheets of the tripped out quilt fort. Zendaya’s Rue and Schafer’s Jules are staring endlessly into each other’s eyes. Jules’s face is coated entirely in a fine layer of shimmering foundation, speckled with glitter; Rue is crying thick glitter tears: “I’m so happy”, she says.

This is the spellbinding work of Doniella Davy, a celebrated LA makeup artist who made Little and Chiron’s skin glow in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and painted a black-eye onto Timothée Chalamet for his role in Hostiles. Doniella is known for creating looks that blend in, that place these on-screen stars in the real world. That’s exactly what she does in Euphoria.

In the past three years the beauty industry has undergone a complete transformation, and that beauty revolution is an intrinsic part of Euphoria’s DNA. While most teen TV shows settle for a bare-faced look -- maybe a statement lipstick at most -- the makeup in Euphoria is pushed to its most potent extremes, becoming a character in itself. In fact, there’s a new look for every single character’s outfit change in the series.

How do you incorporate makeup into the life of a character who’s barely holding herself together? That’s something Doniella had to consider when it came to Rue. In the first episode, we're given a short biography of her life and addiction journey. We see her overdose during summer break and her struggle to adapt to a school routine while still dabbling in drugs. Throughout, Rue remains the most dishevelled of her schoolmates: her bare face is occasionally coupled with stark, if simple eye looks. The series’ fourth episode takes place at the town carnival. As Rue guides a friend she has unrequited feelings for through a complicated relationship, her makeup is styled to resemble a sad clown of sorts: glitter-gold upside down triangles over her eyelids, reminiscent of her teared look from episode two. It foreshadows how she’ll feel as she lets her friend and hopeful lover go. In the Halloween episode, Rue dresses as Marlene Dietrich. While everybody else’s looks pop -– Jules is rocking peach and gold glitter -– Rue’s eyes are sunken, painted purple with eyeshadow, eyeliner and smatterings of grey shimmer.

Rue’s makeup is smart, but it’s practically child’s play when you compare it to the grandiose looks of Maddy, the high school’s princess played by Alexa Demie. She goes out with Nate, the most desired, attractive and yet totally poisonous boy in class. Maddy has an attitude and reputation to uphold, and so her entire coterie of looks are flawless. It’s a stylistic choice she adopts as a child, and that are resurrected in her high school years, like the cutesy cherry accents on her wing liner, or the cosmic candy pop of her lilac looks.

In the show’s second episode, she turns up to school wearing a Louis Vuitton co-ord, with rhinestones glued to her eyebrows and perfect hollowed out wing liner, the vacant space filled with blue shimmer. It might seem theatrical, but it blends in perfectly with Maddy’s character: someone you’ve come to expect would do the absolute most in order to get noticed. For inspiration, Doniella looked to an iconic photo of Nina Simone. Nina and Maddy shared a tumultuous family life growing up, which they both covered up with fantastical, creative shields. As trauma strikes for Maddy later in the series, in the episode Bonnie and Clyde 03, the romantic, pastel barrier of her eye makeup drops. She’s bare-faced and broken, almost admitting defeat.

But if Maddy’s makeup is on a downward descent as the series progresses, it’s the freewheeling former prude-turned-liberated dominatrix Kat, played by Barbie Ferreira, who has more to play with as the series goes on. In the first episode, as Kat finds herself at a house party surrounded by boys who tease her for being frigid and geeky, her looks are far more understated. She mulls over her body in her bedroom mirror with a ‘no makeup’ makeup look; only a hint of lime green around her eyes. But watch as she discovers that her body belongs to her, and she can be the one to weaponise it in order to make men fall at her feet.

Having discovered the fine art of camgirling and the findom fetish, Kat's confidence grows. She struts through the school corridors in a crimson lip, deep turquoise eyeshadow, swept back hair and a ‘Kitty’ collar. When Halloween comes around, she channels her inner power, choosing to dress as the legendary nun with a vendetta: Thana from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. While Thana was known for her blood-red glossy lipstick, Doniella decided to elevate the look for Kat, pairing it with black lip-liner, wet, spider-like brows, swooping red shadows and harsh, dark liner on Kat’s eyes and some teardrop inverted crucifixes. She might not be murderous, but she’s capable of metaphorically tearing every man in her path in two.

Which brings us to the character that Euphoria blesses with the most expressive, often heartbreaking looks: Jules. We meet the teenager as she cycles through the town; new there, still finding her footing. As a transfeminine girl, Jules’s narrative is complex, flitting from euphoric highs to gut-punch lows. In the show, her face becomes a canvas for that story.

Jules's first connections in the town are with the married, straight men she meets on dating apps, who give her the kind of toxic and necessary validation in a new place. She wants to be confident, even if her body language doesn’t say so. For her first days in school, as well as every time she goes on one of these hook-ups, she hams up the ‘feminine’ nature of her look.

Moody blue thick eyeshadow, laced with glitter; romantic blusher; the glossy pink lip -- her makeup is a defence mechanism when it needs to be. It manifests differently later in the series, as she tries to defend herself from a close friend who’s falling for her. When they meet up to go roller-skating she replaces winged eyeliner with a porcupine spike motif with violent pink accents to fend her friend off. But she is, at heart, a fun-loving character who isn’t afraid of her imperfections. Her most satisfying looks tend to be the ones that look haphazardly applied: clashing colours somehow sitting harmoniously on her eyelids, or her glittered, angelic eyebrows as she dresses as Claire Danes’s Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespearean epic for Halloween. There’s also a pivotal moment in the series, in which she’s about to meet the anonymous high school jock she met on a dating app for the first time. He calls himself Tyler, and she’s fallen for him through their endless back and forths online. On the night she prepares to meet him, her makeup is soft, sweet and tender. Previously, Doniella labeled it a “love me” look. If Maddy was Euphoria’s master of makeup, Jules is its messy and experimental spirit. She has a knack for beauty that she doesn’t quite know about, but isn’t that what makes all of these jaw-dropping looks seem so effortless in the context of a high school drama?

Through Rue, Maddy, Kat and Jules, Doniella Davy has gone deep into the corners of Gen-Z culture and dissected our Insta feeds to capture the spirit of teen America through makeup. It's a powerful tool to amplify our greatest features, beyond mere aesthetic and into the personal. Welcome to 2019, Euphoria says. The way we paint our faces is no longer an afterthought. It’s leading the conversation on how the next generation of artists could -- and will -- express who they are.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.