By Lily Herman
For many people, makeup is an integral part of identity that builds confidence and provides new avenues for self-expression. Cosmetics are tools to make a statement about who you are and how you see the world. Some people use concealer to buff over blemishes; others tap highlighter and winged eyeliner to explore their gender expression. And for some, like 21-year-old Matt Bernstein, doing makeup is a way to educate others — while simultaneously contouring like a pro.
A photographer and digital creator, Bernstein’s artful Instagram compositions blend cut creases and politics into seamless palettes. His posts usually consist of a pithy and biting political message — “I was born gay, you were taught religion” and “Exposure to heterosexuals never made me straight” are two standouts — spelled out against a backdrop of impeccable makeup looks. Sometimes Bernstein presents the work without captions, letting each message speak for itself; other times he includes tweets, news article clips, and videos to explain the timely stories that inspired his look of the day. His unique take has earned him almost 200 thousand followers in the past year.
“I want to have a laugh with people who follow me, but I also want to keep people updated with current events and news,” he tells MTV News about the overall vibe of his profile. But it’s become so much more than that to both Bernstein and the hundreds of thousands of people who support his work.
The artist’s foray into makeup began in the mid-2010s, when he was attending high school in a conservative area of New Jersey. And while he favors the Morphe x James Charles, ColourPop Pride, and Nix Ultimate Brights palettes nowadays, his first beauty look was DIY: He used Wite-Out to paint French tips on his nails. (“It was a thing that a lot of people commented on, but they weren’t necessarily mean about it,” he recalls.) Soon after, with his friends’ encouragement, he was experimenting with eyeliner and eyeshadow. The end of his high school experience coincided with the 2016 election — and when Donald Trump was elected president, Bernstein began looking at his new hobby differently. “That’s when things felt more grave and important,” he says.
About a year ago, Bernstein realized that he had an opportunity to draw more attention to causes he cared about by using his face and body as a canvas, and he began experimenting with rainbow makeup — a nod to the LGBTQ+ community — as a signature look. While the artist has used Instagram for several years, he originally saw the platform as a tool to promote his freelance photography work, which mostly centered on queer subjects and gatherings; eventually, he decided to merge his dueling passions for beauty and visual art. “I just wanted to do my own thing really badly, and as soon as I felt like I was good enough at makeup to put it out there without it looking wonky, that’s when I started,” he explains of the shift. “I wanted to keep the same political influence when I was doing photography and transfer the medium.”
Now, he spends two-plus hours per day on the makeup he showcases in each Instagram post, in addition to another two or three hours photographing and prepping his work for upload. The simplicity and accessibility of Berstein’s images — which, he says, are not heavily edited — are a conscious choice. “When I deliver those messages directly on my skin, there’s added impact because I’m really taking ownership of what I’m saying; it’s on my body. It’s really unapologetic, and that’s really what I go for,” he says.
Makeup has long been utilized by the LGBTQ+ community and is integral to the movement’s politics of resistance. Glitter is a symbol of queer identity with a legacy that spans decades. Buying and using beauty products is an inherently political decision for many trans women and nonbinary people, one that can have serious consequences. Makeup is also a core facet of drag culture, which drag queen Sasha Velour recently called a “political and historical art form.”
This long history continues today, and it is proliferated across social media. On Instagram, creators like ALOK, Adam Eli, and Jacob Tobia make space for LGBTQ+ self-expression; they’re straightforward about their political beliefs, and how fashion and beauty choices intersect with them. They join creatives like YouTubers MannyMUA, PatrickStarrr, and NikkiTutorials, as well as makeup artist Ariel Tejada and photographer Quil Lemons, as critical members of digital beauty culture, thanks to their undeniable talent, their brazen messaging, and the inspiration they provide to young people trying to navigate their own selfhood.
“Seeing other people [speak up] in their own spheres … and being unapologetic is really inspiring,” Bernstein says. He cites ALOK, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, and the writer Florence Given as role models; while each person’s style stands out to him, he also appreciates their bravery and vulnerability in sharing their experiences online. “[Their] outspokenness is fantastic,” he says, noting that he often felt like he didn’t have people to look up to when he was a teenager.
For many young people, especially those who live in isolated or conservative areas, their first exposure to queerness and expressions of gender beyond heteronormativity, as well as affirmation and celebration, is often through digital platforms like Youtube and Instagram. It’s a corrective to a more traditional media model, where authentically LGBTQ+ narratives are still a minority. Only roughly 8.8% of characters who were series regulars on broadcast television during the 2018-2019 season were canonically defined as LGBTQ+, and less than one-fifth of the 110 releases from Hollywood’s biggest studios in 2018 had an LGBTQ+ character; both of these stats are major leaps forward from the relative erasure of previous years.
Yet finding your community and identifying with affirming role models in real time can be a lifeline for marginalized groups, whose identities are often politicized by outsiders even if they’re trying to simply live their best and most honest lives. And now as much as ever, visibility for the LGBTQ+ community can serve as a crucial act of resistance to bigotry that is trying to intimidate people back into hiding. There was a 42% jump in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes from 2017 to 2018, and at least 22 trans people were murdered in 2019, a disproportionate number of whom were Black trans women.
Like his role models, Bernstein’s work highlights the intersection of politics, identity, and style; he purposefully harnesses the power of the Instagram beauty community to keep people informed. “I’m aware that I live in a bubble in New York City politically and a lot of the people that I follow don’t,” he says. “I want to engage America and the world at large in that way — [and explore] how concepts of gender and sexuality are being viewed not just in New York City.” Yet he is also keenly aware that supposedly progressive places still have a long way to go, too; according to the New York Police Department, New York City had a 20% increase in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in 2019 compared to 2018.
Bernstein is also aware that visibility isn’t always safe for a lot of people — and he’s understandably leery of brands that harness LGBTQ+ tastemakers without uplifting the community in an authentic way, a trend known as pinkwashing. While the artist has appeared in Pride campaigns for makeup giant Maybelline and fashion house Polo Ralph Lauren, even creating his own filters for brands like Chroma Stories, he is still selective about which brands he chooses to work with. “I have some really fabulous relationships with brands that respect my art and respect my platform so much, and I’m really grateful,” he says. “But I’m well aware that I don’t appeal to the entirety of the beauty world because I’m so outspoken. I love makeup, but that’s not the only thing I care about. I want to tell a full story. If a company doesn’t want to buy into that, that’s okay; that’s not where my priority is.”
He’s most proud not that he’s built a brand or a following, but that he’s fostered connections with other young people seeking community online. “One of the most gratifying parts of doing what I do has been the response from people who are in a similar position that I was, who don’t have a lot of natural exposure to other LGBTQ+ people,” he explains. “I never set out to be that person for someone; that’s not really a tangible goal. But hearing what [other young people] have to say and how they’re getting through things is what inspires me the most.”
And while some people try to police him in comments or DMs, often by claiming that makeup shouldn’t mix with politics, he has a message curated expressly for them: “You can do whatever you want on your Instagram,” he says with a laugh.