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why wearing no makeup feels more revolutionary than ever

#nomakeup selfies have come and gone, but last night Alicia Keys bared her face and soul at the VMAs and it was totally radical.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
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Aug 29 2016, 8:10pm

Photography Paola Kudacki

Alicia Keys has freckles, a fact which somehow remained a secret to the public — during the 14 years while she accepted her 15 Grammy awards, 9 Billboard Awards, and 4 VMAs — until this summer. How could something so integral to a person, and also something so surface level, have been hidden for so long? Had I only ever seen pictures of Alicia Keys taken in the sunless depths of New York winter?

But in May, the singer, actress, and activist published an article in Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter detailing her decision to go makeup-free from then on. More than a simple statement of a routine change, and much more than a nod to a viral hashtag, Key's piece was a manifesto — about finding freedom from self-censorship.

"Before I started my new album, I wrote a list of all the things that I was sick of," she explained. "And one was how much women are brainwashed into feeling like we have to be skinny, or sexy, or desirable, or perfect." She no longer wanted to cover up, she wrote, "Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing."

Illustrating the article, and beautifully embodying her intention, were portraits of the singer by photographer Paola Kudacki. They were taken, Keys explained, not long after she'd left the gym. Her face is bare and post-workout radiant. Cascading down her nose and across her cheeks and forehead are sprinklings of freckles which were entirely MIA in the videos to her mega-millennial classics "Fallin'" and "A Woman's Worth" (her blue eyeshadow and airbrushed foundation years), and in the numerous glossy fragrance and cosmetics campaigns she's starred in since.

Related: Alicia Keys fights the power on her forthcoming album

And while I will never look that good while exiting a gym — TBH, where even is my key tag, has anyone seen it? Does it still work? — now I can hear Alicia's (beautiful, perfect) voice in my head reminding me that comparing ourselves to other people is precisely not the point. "One of the many things I was tired of was the constant judgment of women," wrote Keys in May. More than the image of her beautiful makeup-less features it's that voice of honesty and self-acceptance that matters — the one she's helping to amplify in other young people's minds. That's what feels radical.

Last night, at the 2016 VMAs, Keys took the stage as the first presenter of the night and manifested her intention on a bigger scale still. Not only was this probably the most widely watched of her public appearances since May (in June, she performed at the BET awards, without a smudge of concealer, to 7.2 million viewers), but she also used her visibility to expand the significance of her mission.

"Incredibly, today marks the 53rd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech," she began. "And in honor of that, I want to share with you a little poem." She then dropped some chills-inducing lines hitting at the divisions people make according to "difference, sexuality, and skin." "We can break these walls, we can build these walls, between each other," she said, before launching into a rapturous acapella finale about the need for love.

All the while, Keys' bare face was a perfect, vibrant metaphor for her words. There she was, a woman — and specifically a woman of color — visibly taking a stand against the social constraints and expectations surrounding her self-presentation. Who was refusing to be censored. And who was encouraging us to see past perceived skin-deep differences. And she wasn't doing it on Instagram, where you can hide behind filters and artful camera angles, she was doing it during a live televised event. In Madison Square Garden. Watched by likely near 10 million people. It felt totally real, and epically major-key in a way that no other #nomakeup moment has before.

At the end of her Lenny piece, Keys describes the power she feels in being true to herself. "And I hope to God it's a revolution," she adds. Her speech last night, delivered just a month before she's set to appear, makeup-less, on the first gender-balanced judging panel on The Voice (one of the most watched TV shows in the US), certainly felt like the start of one.

Related: Beyoncé's VMA squad included the Mothers of the Movement

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Text Alice Newell-Hanson