Since the ’90s, Blige has been slaying red carpets, music videos, and performances with curated outfits that evoke a signature style. But for her Oscar-nominated role as sharecropper’s wife Florence Jackson in Mudbound, Blige was asked to let that all go.
The “Thick of It” singer spoke to The Cut about her physical transformation for the performance. “I’m used to my nails now, and I’m addicted to lashes,” she says of her signature style. For Blige, performing as Florence required some mental rewiring as well as a new look. “I’m Mary J. Blige. I mean, like, this is what I do. I wear wigs, I wear bob wigs, and I had to completely strip down to my own natural hair texture, which I’ve always been afraid of,” she says. “Dee [Rees, the film’s director] stripped me down all the way to what I truly am, and people were complimenting me. People were saying how beautiful I was. I didn’t know I was that beautiful for real. You understand what I’m saying? I didn’t know that.”
Growing up as a tomboy, Blige reveals it took her a long time to embrace the glammed-up life of a pop star. Her first producer, a then-19-year-old Sean “Puffy” Combs, encouraged her to lean into the hip-hop style she’d already cultivated. “What I loved about Puff is he immediately saw — I mean, instead of a tight dress, he put a baggy Armani suit on me with some Teflon boots. I wore a miniskirt sometimes, a pleated miniskirt, but I wore boots with it,” says Blige. Eventually, she did grow into the comforts — and places to hide — that nails, lashes, and a wig can provide, and for Mudbound, she had to unlearn the beauty lessons she’d spend decades cultivating.
It’s a notorious cliche that women who alter their appearance for a film often end up Oscar winners. But aside from winning awards, other women of color in Hollywood have spoken about how stripping down for a role has taught them to see themselves in a new light. Viola Davis, for one, described the bravery it took to leave her wigs behind on the red carpet. “I wore a wig in the Jacuzzi. I had a wig I wore around the house. I had a wig that I wore to events. I had a wig that I wore when I worked out,” Davis told Vulture in 2014. “I never showed my natural hair. It was a crutch, not an enhancement … I was so desperate for people to think that I was beautiful. I had to be liberated from that [feeling] to a certain extent.”
It took Jungle Fever for Halle Berry to break out of what she called “gorgeous girl roles.” Once she did, she says, she was able to be more ambitious as an actor. When Mariah Carey appeared as a welfare caseworker in Precious, much of the conversation was about her makeup-free appearance. Carey may have complained about the less-than-glam character at first, but eventually she thanked director Lee Daniels for allowing her to disappear in the role. “They don’t know it’s me and, to me, that was a great gift that [Lee] gave me to be able to really go that far away from who I am,” she told Rolling Stone. Even Beyoncé has had her moment in the harsh glow of a glam-free spotlight: She “threw the glamour out the window so easily and so joyfully” to gain 15 pounds as Etta James in Cadillac Records. Blige now joins their ranks as a woman who knows her beauty, with or without the wig.
Blige may have gained a new perspective on beauty, but there is one lifelong lesson she’ll be bringing to the Oscars: “If your feet hurt, you have to go home early.”
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