​liza mandelup on the meaning of beauty

We talk boxers, proms and weaves with the director of our Real American Beauty series

by Tish Weinstock
24 August 2015, 11:46pm

From the ghettoes of South LA where getting your weave did is about so much more than just hair, to a prom obsessed town in Long Island where perfect ideals of beauty are being rammed down the throats of young girls by their competitive mothers, filmmaker and photographer Liza Mandelup has travelled across America to explore the many faces of beauty, just for i-D. As the final episode of her three part series, Real American Beauty, airs today, we catch up with the LA-based director to unpick the meaning of beauty.

What was the idea behind the series Real American Beauty?
It started as a series about the different subcultures that grew out of barbershops and hair salons in the US, but it ended up being more about what people coming from all different backgrounds and situations do to feel made up and beautiful. Confidence is something that comes from the inside, but there's definitely a ritual that some people go through to express it on the outside. I was interested in exploring why people align themselves with certain aesthetics and where that comes from.

What was it about the women of Mr@Ms that interested you?
I came across Mr@Ms while doing a casting for another film in Watts. It's a really rough neighbourhood in South LA. I started asking around and everyone pointed me towards Mr@Ms. The second I walked in I realised that this place was special and I knew I had to film there.

What do you think is so significant about these women wanting to get their hair styled in certain ways?
This salon is more than just a place to get your hair done. We went there about seven times over the course of this project and there were some customers I saw every time. It's a place to hang out, meet up, relax and feel safe.

In the prom episode, one of the girls asks, "what if we were all blind, what would beauty be then?" what are your thoughts on this?
I think that's the point of the whole series -- as much as aesthetics are interesting and style is inspiring on many levels the more interesting story in all these pieces was the personal one -- who these people really are and what they have to say. Wherever we found people who put an emphasis on how they looked there was a back-story as to why that was so important to them.

How much pressure are these girls under to look a certain way and what do you think the effects will be on their self-esteem?
There definitely was a ton of pressure from these girls. Everyone is trying to look one specific idealised way and that's just not realistic. I think a lot of the girls I met knew that it was ridiculous but the pressure is all around them - they partake in it because it's all they know in their small town.

What interested you most about the young boxers?
I love people who are dreamers. All these boxers wake up everyday and live for a dream. They work hard for a dream. They want to be the best in the world. I'm really drawn to that type of person in my films… people who live in a world where dreams and reality are somewhat blurred.

For the women of Mr@Ms Salon and the prom girls of long island, there is an emphasis on beauty that is inevitably linked to their self esteem and social status, but for these young boxers it's more about pride in appearance, strength and ambition, do you think beauty is gendered?
I don't think beauty is gendered -- in all three episodes there was some cultural trend that made looking a specific way important. How you look is not to be confused with who you should be or what your doing on this earth, its more about what you align yourself with and how you present yourself to the world. I thought it was really interesting the way certain trends are so particular to a tight community and understanding that community was important in understanding those trends. A lot of times people were getting done up to stand out but it was also to feel closer to the person they want to be. The boxers, for example, look up to other boxers who are winning fights, and they see they have this cool line work in the hair and fresh cuts at every fight. You need to be confident in the ring and having a fresh cut helps.

Where do you think self-confidence begins and vanity ends?
It's funny because sometimes I think about some people who have a really cool "style" or "look" and it has nothing to do with a beauty regimen and getting done up or even what they're wearing -- it has to do with the way they carry themselves and the energy they have. If going to a salon and getting your hair done is what gives you that extra boost to carry yourself a certain way than go do that! How you look is a form of expression and understanding where these different forms of expression came from is what this series is about. The thing we focused on in all three episodes was going to tight knit communities that had their own version of what they considered to be looking beautiful and we wanted to share that with an audience.

What does beauty mean to you?
To me beauty is confidence and individuality. How that looks can manifest is so many ways but it's always beautiful.


Real American Beauty
liza mandelup