Popular movies and the pages of magazines are filled with radical makeovers where disheveled or down-on-their-luck rough diamonds are primped, polished, and coached into paragons of feminine ideals: Think of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl-turned-cultured English duchess in My Fair Lady, or Vivian, the Hollywood hooker who emerges a sophisticate after a trip to Rodeo Drive in Pretty Woman. In our society, the “makeover” mandate is generally uncontested—the goal is to look better, and to class up. But imagine you waltz into a beauty parlor and, veering from convention, you offer a fearless, laissez-faire “you know what, do whatever you want.” And now, imagine that your first stop with your new look is an art fair.
This is the prospect fairgoers were offered yesterday morning during the preview of PULSE Miami Beach, where New York-based artist Erica Prince staged the latest version of her relational project Transformational Makeover Salon (2014–present). In a booth-cum-beauty salon stocked with kaleidoscopic makeup palettes, false mustaches, and stick-on earrings, its walls dotted with multicolor wigs, Prince gave collectors the opportunity to sign up for a 20-minute radical makeover session. While this is a condensed iteration of a process that typically takes Prince several hours, the premise remains the same: Participants fill out a preliminary, self-reflective survey, snap a “before” selfie, and relinquish control.
“This was something that I had actually been doing since I was a kid; I used to do this for fun with girlfriends,” Prince told me while the morning’s first subject, an actress and writer from Los Angeles named Nikki Taguilas, snapped an obligatory iPhone selfie. The 30-year-old artist, who generally works with drawing and sculpture, admits it took a while to accept the makeover as part of her otherwise object-based practice. But since taking the plunge and branding the experience, she’s developed a meaningful project that brings to the surface a fundamental tenet of art: its ability to transform our sense of self.
Case in point: Taguilas, whose brown hair had been tucked beneath a jet-black bob and her lips painted with a deep metallic blue, was preparing to take a spin through the fair in her new, unlikely Goth persona, snapping her fingers with unabashed excitement. “I went from very small-town Mexican girl to feeling like a ’60s model. I feel like I should be doing drugs at a very cool party,” she said. “I do love this lipcolor though.”
But according to Prince, the physical results of the makeover—a gender swap or a new hair part—aren’t the goal. “I’m hoping this will be an opportunity for people to see themselves in a different light, in an effort to gain perspective on who they are everyday,” said Prince while gearing up for her next sitter. “It’s a more psychological experience; to see the world as a different person other than your everyday self helps you empathize, identify your own perspective, and understand your defaults.” At an art fair in particular, she said, where people are hyper-aware of their images, “I’m throwing a bit of a wrench in that; people that signed up are incredibly brave because they have no idea what I’m going to turn them into.”
Prince’s next subject, then, made for an ideal target. Katie Higgins, Artsy’s director of art fair partnerships, was making the rounds when a conversation with Prince’s receptionist, her own hair a fantastic split between turquoise and yellow, landed her in Prince’s chair. After Higgins filled out a survey and answered a series of questions—What do you consider the most accurate characteristic of your astrological sign? (Capricorn; neuroses); What most concerns you? (the future)—Prince got to work.
“I can relinquish control,” said Higgins, convincing herself, as she closed her eyes and Prince began to dust her lids with a canary yellow. “I’m a Capricorn, so relinquishing control is quite challenging.” For Higgins, whose job involves sales, partnerships, and business development, nearly every conversation has a component of selling oneself, as she tells me. “I do feel like I have a second persona that is more extroverted and outgoing than my normal self.” Right on cue, Prince swiped a crimped, platinum bob from a hook on the wall.
After putting the finishing touches on Higgins, her eyes lined with turquoise and her lips painted a baby pink, Prince spun the chair around, bringing her face-to-face with her reflection in a mirror. Higgins’s jaw dropped. “I usually read people’s energy and try to figure out something I know they would never do in real life,” said Prince. “The hyper-femme spacey thing didn’t seem like it was your everyday,” she told Higgins. “I react against what people are projecting a little bit.” Indeed, Higgins explained that she would naturally have been inclined to something darker. “This is definitely uncomfortable for me—but I think it’s just this from now on,” she laughed.
After snapping a selfie and filling out the post-makeover survey, Higgins was on her way to a day filled with meetings with a number of art fairs. (She lost the wig.) “I think I can probably get through most of the day with the makeup,” she said. “It’s Miami.”