By Carson Mlnarik
Between vintage tees, Spice Girl reunions, and a Sex and the City revival, it’s no secret that we love nostalgia. The idyllic print ads of the 1970s and ’80s in particular harken back to a halcyon era worthy of Pinterest aesthetic boards and think pieces, but they also represent a time period when racism, sexism, and homophobia ran rampant in advertising and culture as a whole.
Though Hollywood and the beauty industry are now beginning to scratch the surface of diverse and inclusive representation, photographer Julia Comita and makeup artist Brenna Drury are imagining what would have been if they had gotten the memo decades ago in new virtual photo series Prim ’N Poppin’. Utilizing a stunning pool of queer, transgender, nonbinary, and BIPOC models, the duo recreated poses of the pinup era with striking dedication to detail and complete disregard for the heteronormative, fair-skin standards that dominated the times. “It’s sheer! It’s queer! It’s shiny and it never smears,” one caption reads.
The collaboration came to be after Drury slid into Comita’s DMs back in the summer of 2019. The two New York-based creatives were equally excited about a vintage-inspired project but quickly realized a glaring hole in their source material: a total lack of inclusivity. “Something we talked about a number of times is how the beauty industry as a whole has really shaped the way we look at ourselves and how we look at [and] judge other people,” Drury tells NewNowNext. “If these advertisements were the norm of the time, where would we be now?”
The opportunity to recreate these photos and their accompanying copy allowed both women a chance to right some of the wrongs that the industry let slide. As a queer person, Drury admitted that some of the vintage ads made her feel “quite uncomfortable” initially. Their new Luscious Lip Sheen ad, for example, features queer models Ava Trilling and Coral Johnson-McDaniel in an intimate moment before a kiss and was a way for her to create the type of representation she wished she had seen as a kid.
“[It’s based on a vintage ad featuring] a woman who’s not smiling, she’s just very stoic,” Drury explained. “And there’s a man very close to her face almost like he’s about to… give her a kiss. That struck me because I always felt uncomfortable in certain situations with men, but I felt like that was just the norm. That’s what sexy is. That’s what love is. I’m supposed to feel differently.” The new photo, she says, is an “ode” to her experiences in queer relationships, and her way of showing that “it doesn’t have to be man and woman to have that type of passion or love.”
Both Drury and Comita understood the importance of inclusivity going into the project, but its message found new resonance once they met their diverse pool of talent. “Having the community together on the shoot day was awesome,” Comita tells NewNowNext. “Naturally, there were a lot of conversations that were sparked on set about people’s experiences, what it was like for them looking at the advertisements when they were growing up, [and] how they feel about the industry now.”
These discussions from the shoot – which took place in November 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic put restrictions on in-person productions – inspired the duo to build out the project’s website to include interviews with talent on how a lack of representation affected them growing up and the ways it remains prevalent today.
Nonbinary Black model Cory Walker, whose fresh face is seen modeling tongue-in-cheek makeup remover “CakedOn,” wrote for the site that while they felt “invisible in a lot of ways” growing up, it’s been “a beautiful healing mess [to] go from being a kid who never sees a reflection of themselves to dreaming up better than what currently exists.” On the other hand, Coral Johnson-McDaniel, who is featured in the queer-coupled Luscious Lips ad, admitted in their interview that “societal beauty standards” had become so “rooted” in their brain that “it took years to unlearn and still has its aftereffects today.”
The importance of representation is certainly not lost on Comita or Drury, who both struggled to see themselves reflected on the small screen at different points in their lives. “One character that I related to growing up was Daria,” Comita says. “She’s the gothy girl with the glasses and… she’s just like, ‘I don’t really care if I’m cool or not.’”
Drury, on the other hand, fondly recalls seeing herself reflected in Logo programming as a young queer teen even though, at the time, “no one could know [she] was watching,” as well as in But I’m a Cheerleader which she initially viewed with a family friend and her sister. “I watched it again by myself after because I wasn’t trying to seem too into it… but that’s one of my favorite movies to this day,” she says.
In addition to course-correcting representation in the ’70s and ’80s, the project also serves as a challenge to other professionals in creative industries to step up their game. The site includes an “Allies” page featuring inclusive modeling agencies; skin, makeup, and hair brands; and mental-health resources. “I would love it if brands looked at something like this — that looks like a professional, finished ad — and said, ‘Wow, we can do that too,’” Comita explains. “It’s not that hard.”
Prim ‘N Poppin’ might be “recreating vintage advertisements to be inclusive,” but as Comita points out, the ’70s and ’80s weren’t that long ago, and the heteronormative beauty standards engrained in society at that time are still largely pervasive in today’s culture. Despite the fact that we’re seeing more LGBTQ and POC representation in advertising, the industry is still largely fatphobic and biased toward fair complexions. There’s still work to be done, and both Drury and Comita plan to spend part of this year researching grants to secure more funding to expand on the project with additional ads, as well as video and live-panel components.
Still, their biggest hope is just to help underrepresented communities feel seen, and to keep the conversation going. “We would love to challenge our fellow creatives… to consider diversity in their own work and how the work that they’re doing impacts others, how others will perceive it,” Comita says. “It doesn’t matter how many followers you have; you have a platform. Let’s be conscious creators.”
View the full Prim ‘N Poppin’ photo series online here.