On the Runway
By ELIZABETH PATON
LONDON — Three weeks after naming the 17-year-old makeup artist James Charles its first cover boy, CoverGirl, one of the largest cosmetics companies in the United States, has announced another first: its debut CoverGirl in a hijab.
Nura Afia, 24, a Colorado native, first started watching online beauty tutorials in 2011 while breast-feeding her baby daughter, Laila. Married at 18 and caring for a child by 19, Ms. Afia spent a great deal of time at home. It was then that she started looking on the internet for new and exciting ways to experiment with makeup. She soon saw what she felt was a gap in the market and began creating YouTube tutorials of her own.
“While there was a lot of content focused around fashion and how to dress, there were still very few videos out there for the massive audience of observant Muslim girls who love beauty and are constantly on the hunt for cosmetics,” Ms. Nura recalled during a telephone interview this week. “I just felt there was a real void — especially in videos produced by Muslims living in the United States, and because the dramatic looks many women who wear hijab choose to wear can take real practice. So I decided to have a go at creating videos myself.”
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Fast forward five years to this month, when Ms. Afia signed on the dotted line to become CoverGirl’s latest ambassador. She will appear in commercials for the beauty giant, not to mention a giant billboard in Times Square, in New York, sporting the new So Lashy BlastPro mascara, alongside celebrity representatives including the TV actress Sofia Vergara and the pop star Katy Perry.
“When I first saw the email from CoverGirl earlier this year, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Ms. Afia, who has more than 215,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and 13 million views of her video tutorials and who has previously teamed up with Revlon. “I actually took two or three days to reply because I thought it must be fake.
“I felt it had to be some sort of joke given they had never had an observant Muslim campaign face before.”
That may be true. But after decades of narrow definitions of what can constitute mainstream beauty, the appointment of Ms. Afia comes as more and more consumer brands feature a range of faces, faiths, races and lifestyle choices in advertising campaigns.
And according to Ogilvy Noor, the Islamic branding agency, the Muslim personal cosmetics and care market is now worth more than $54 billion, a figure that is expected to reach $80 billion by 2020. Shelina Janmohamed, the group’s vice president and author of “Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World,” said this week that faces like Ms. Afia and the British blogger Amena Khan, who was signed this summer by L’Oreal, indicated a sea change in the personal care industry.
“These appointments are part of a growing recognition that the female Muslim community has a significant role in the development of this market,” she said, “and that consumers increasingly want to see their versions of themselves and their lifestyles reflected back to them by the beauty industry.
“There are millions of Muslim women who are very keen to both express their faith and also appear fashion forward. Self-presentation using makeup — particularly if they choose to wear a head scarf — is key to how they feel they can fit into wider society.”
Ms. Afia agreed, saying that growing up she had felt uncomfortable wearing her hijab in high school and that she had received thousands of comments from fans applauding her for helping them find ways to express themselves using her cosmetics techniques. (She also noted, though, that she received plenty of negative messages from Muslims who felt she was a hypocrite for both trying to cover herself and wearing attention-seeking makeup).
“Frankly, I feel proud to be part of a movement that is showing the hijab in a positive light for once. The more of us who can wear them as representatives of these big household names on TV or billboards the better,” she said. “It is a reminder that the hijab can take us to amazing places, and not hold us back from achieving our wildest dreams like some people say it will.
“These brands aren’t exploiting us. It’s more about including us and making us feel like we matter. It’s about them finally showing us that they know we are beautiful, too.”