Even Michelle Obama Turns to Rihanna for Life’s Biggest Events


Yesterday ushered in a new era of more humane, decent, and glam politics. Lady Gaga served us Hunger Games District One chic; Emma, daughter of very first second gentlemen of the United States, Doug Emhoff, made all of Brooklyn feel seen in crafty Miu Miu; and the White House coat game is now unparalleled between First Lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. But one woman, nay icon, nay legend, won the inauguration: Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama.

From the head-to-toe plum and burgundy ensemble by LA-based Sergio Hudson to the bounciest curls in all the land, this was MO’s event (and—oh, yeah—also the swearing-in of President Joe Biden). Her secret? The millennial women triumvirate of Pat McGrath, Glossier, and Fenty freaking Beauty. To see how the beauty look came to be and find out how to potentially recreate it at home, we chatted with the man behind the vision, the former First Lady’s longtime makeup artist, Carl Ray. (You may recognize his work on a certain ELLE cover.) Below, Ray breaks down the steps for achieving your very own MO glam (perhaps for a Zoom meeting), plus the process of creating such an iconic beauty moment.

How long have you been planning the Inauguration makeup look?

I started thinking about the look weeks in advance. I knew she would be wearing a mask and a monochromatic outfit. I wanted her to have a powerful beauty look that would need to be achieved by playing up the top half of her face.

Because of the masks, did you purposefully focus on the eyes?

Yes, absolutely. I knew that since her whole face wouldn’t be visible, the eyes and lashes would be the star of this particular look!

Do you have a name for this glam?

You know, I haven’t really thought about a name for the look, but it was definitely smokin’!

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We chatted with Obama’s hairstylist Yene Damtew and she mentioned you worked closely with the entire style team including Meredith Koop, Christy Rilling, and Damtew. How did you all collaborate on the look?

The entire glam team has been working together for some time. We each have our own creative elements that we bring to the look and all complement each other. We really allow each of our creative outlets to shine to make the former First Lady look and feel her very best.

How long did the final look take?

I don’t generally time how long it takes but allow myself 30 to 1 hour. I can work quickly with her given how long we have worked together.

Do you play music and chat in the beauty chair?

We always have fun in the chair! No music this time – we just laughed and caught up on life. I’m very lucky to be able to call the former First Lady both a mentor and friend.

We are saying Mrs. Obama and her entire glam team “won” the inauguration. Twitter also adored the look. How does it feel?

It’s such an honor. I am humbled to be able to work with such a strong, confident, and iconic woman that is a role model to so many women everywhere. I knew that this was a monumental day for our country but particularly for women. Her entire look really was powerful and I am so glad that people loved it.

Michelle Obama attends a lot of events. What is the right amount of glam for a daytime inauguration?

I knew this particular event was going to be televised not just in the US but across the world, and given his historical occasion particularly for women, her makeup glam needed to stand out for TV, but I still wanted a gentle elegance. I went with a classic smokey eye that I felt was just the right amount of glam for a daytime appearance. Again, inaugurations aren’t your everyday daytime event, so we were able to dial it up a little more than a normal daytime look while still keeping it timeless and classy.

Ray’s step-by-step guide for achieving the Michelle Obama Smokin’ Look™

  • First, he started with foundation (a secret brand that he won’t reveal, yet!) and concealer. Mrs. Obama wore NARS creamy concealer and Fenty Matchstix Contour.
  • Next, he set the former First Lady with Laura Mercier’s translucent powder and the Iconic liquid highlighter.
  • For her brows, Ray used Anastasia Brow’s Dip Brow Gel, Brow Definer, and Clear Brow Gel.
  • Once brows were complete, he started on eyes: “I wanted an impactful smokey eye for the event,” explains Ray. “I was going for a dramatic glam eye that would really play well to the camera.”
  • Ray chose Viseart 01 Eyeshadow Palette neutral matte shades (taupe to black) that “blend and build effortlessly.”
  • For a little pop in the center of the eye, he applied Pat McGrath Divine Mink to the center of the lid.
  • Next, he applied Pat McGrath Labs’ Permagel Eyeliner in Xtreme Black and Fenty Flyliner long-wear liquid eyeliner. The Flyliner, he notes, is a “true inky black that stays put all day and night.” The Fenty liner goes on top of the pencil liner for a more dramatic look on the lash line.
  • Mascara was applied to the top and bottom of the lashes using Glossier Lash Slick.
  • Finally, he applied Lily Lashes for “that final POP,” says Ray. “They add definition to your eyes and enhance them to draw attention to your best features by simply adding length and color to your lashes and again, for TV, we really need to make things a little more dramatic so her eyes shine.”

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