Exclusive Interview With Rihanna’s ‘Princess Of China’ Makeup Artist: Kabuki

Rihanna on the set of the “Princess of China” music video and a photo of makeup artist Kabuki.
Photo: Courtesy of @BadGalRiRi’s Instagram/Kabuki

There is a lot of fuss to be made about Coldplay and Rihanna’s, to put it lightly, culturally confused “Princess of China” music video. From the golden Thai “Fan Leb” fingernails and winks toward the Hindu many-armed goddess Kali, right down to the samurai sword-wielding, “gangsta goth geisha” of it all, it’s enough to induce a serious migrane. The end result, cultural ambiguities aside, is a visually stimulating video short that pulls together many inspired pieces of Asian culture, but the disjointedness is pretty hard to ignore. One piece that does stay close to the track title’s specifically Chinese jumping point, though, is the makeup. The “Princess of China” beauty game employs elements of Chinese opera and is the handiwork of legendary makeup artist and current Artistic Director for Myface Cosmetics Kabuki! We caught up with him to discuss his work on the video.

A sketch of Rihanna’s makeup for the “Princess of China” music video by Kabuki.
Photo: Courtesy of Kabuki

MTV STYLE: Last time, we chatted about working with Rihanna on her music video for “Where Have You Been”, now we’re talking about another Rihanna project, Coldplay’s “Princess of China” video which features Ri. How were things different working with Rihanna on this second video?

KABUKI: The “Princess of China” makeup was a little bit more planned because I had already worked with her on “Where Have You Been” by that point, so I kind of had an idea of what she might go for. It was also a bit more of a character because it’s a Coldplay video that she’s singing in, so I felt she had more of an opportunity of playing a part.

That’s really interesting. From where did you draw inspiration for this character Rihanna would play in “Princess of China”?

The way I got inspiration for that was I did a drawing of her face. Sometimes I don’t like using other references because you can be tempted to duplicate that reference. I tried to, rather than use references, just use my imagination, and I really like the idea of a skinny eyebrow because I thought it really took her away from being herself and plays up that character. It was also really helpful for me to show her that [skinny eyebrow] on a drawing of her own face rather than show her an example from an editorial work where it might look completely different.

A sketch of Rihanna’s makeup for the “Princess of China” music video by Kabuki.
Photo: Courtesy of Kabuki

We love the full, bold lips you did for Rihanna in the video. What did you use to achieve those looks?

I used a lot of Lip Tars by Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. Because they come in like a million different colors and I can mix my own custom colors. In “Princess of China,” I used a kind of purple one that Rihanna wanted to get herself. I recently found out that they discontinued it, but maybe they’ll reinstate if Rihanna increases demand!

Would you say the lip tars were your MVP cosmetic for the video shoot?

Well, I also really used the Bobbi Brown skin palette because we did a lot of contouring and I used some sculpting powders from Mac which are kind of like blush but they’re more about tonality.

What was your favorite makeup look from the “Princess of China” video?

I like the Princess of China looks for different reasons. It was fun to do the skinny brow. Rihanna had to trust me on that one, but she loved it so much that she tweeted it immediately. That was the mark of approval, the instant tweet!

A sketch of Rihanna’s makeup for the “Princess of China” music video by Kabuki.
Photo: Courtesy of Kabuki

Were there any challenges in doing the “Princess of China” makeup to avoid it being racially stereotypical?

Well, my name is Kabuki, which came about because I have an admiration for Asian art. Its influence is ever-present in my work. I used some of the colors from Chinese opera, the pinks and the reds, and I had details like delicately cut-out peacock eyelashes and the pencil thin brow. I used my imagination and only did what I felt would compliment Rihanna’s face. All of these things combined give the looks their own charm and avoid stereotype. I wasn’t going to do a tiny little geisha mouth on her because I didn’t think it would look as good on her, and also, it’s a little bit cliché. She’s known for this cat-eye which could be interpreted as Asian-inspired, but it’s just something that suits her and is a part of her own look. For the skinny eyebrow, all I did was kind of take that idea and run with it a little bit. I did another makeup look for that video that was more new wave inspired, and it was almost more Grace Jones. But you can start to see Asian influences in a lot of things. It’s just the place that you come from. If you’re trapping yourself when you start out thinking about it by thinking, “Oh, how do I take this geisha look and impose it on her?” then it’s going to look like Halloween. But if you don’t take that approach from the beginning, you’ll come up with something new. You take it as a point of departure, but in the end, it’s all about whether Rihanna looks great or not.

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