Brown Girl Beauty Icon: Jody Watley
by Dre Brown
Published Nov 13, 2011
I have a confession to make: On days when I'm feeling especially fabulous, I become the star of my very own music video. Yup, lovelies, that's my "thing." I pop in the earbuds, crank up my favorite R &B "banger," and strut with the confidence of a soulful solo act with her own personal camera crew as I ensure my chosen heels stay in rhythm with the baseline.
I'm not sure when this recurring daydream started, but I'm pretty sure it has a lot to do with my life-long adoration of brown girl divas. They have always been beauty and style icons in my eyes and I recently had the chance to meet and get to know one of my all-time favorites, the fierce and fly Jody Watley. After being blessed with her attendance at the "Brown Girl Beauty Uncensored" panel I hosted at The Beauty Social last month, the gods smiled on me yet again with the chance to talk brown girl beauty one-on-one with this inspiring visionary.
For those of you scratching your head wondering who Miss Watley is, please understand that before Beyoncé was "running the world" with her girls or Nicki Minaj had you bouncing to "Super Bass," there was an artist carving out a very unique place in music history while representing brown girl beauty in a truly groundbreaking way. Her name was Jody and she was and still is a force to be reckoned with.
Stepping into the public eye as a teen dancer in the 1970s on popular black pop music show Soul Train, Jody instantly drew attention for her eye-catching fashion sense and cutting-edge dance moves. Later as a member of chart-topping group Shalamar, Jody held her own as the only female in the trio, and confidently showcased her knack for styling and image-building by creatively designing two of the band's album covers. But above all, nothing compares to Jody's solo success, at which point she was catapulted into the spotlight for both African American and mainstream audiences alike. There she remained album after album with all eyes on her elegant representation of a one-of-a-kind woman of color, which soon earned her a cozy spot on People magazine's 1990 top 50 Most Beautiful list and numerous features in some of fashion's top publications. Miss Watley may have been "looking for a new love" according to her popular hit song, but the world was looking for more of her!
Ironically, in getting to know Jody Watley I discovered that her brown girl beauty icon status actually stems less from the millions of albums she's sold over three decades and more from a combination of creative ingenuity, confidence, humility, and self-love cultivated long before she ever stepped foot on a stage. Raised by parents who instilled the values of poise and presentation, Jody grew up understanding the importance of taking pride in oneself and being an individual. "The individuality people associate with me came from my parents because they showed me how to put things together. My mother was the first woman I was in awe of. She was very glamorous. Dad was a snazzy dresser as well, and eccentric—which is where I get a lot of that quality. Having the parents that I did gave me a lot of determination and I was not afraid to be myself." Young Jody also didn't have to go far for additional beauty inspiration at home. "There was always Vogue and Harper's Bazaar around the house. I'd look at them and—though there weren't many brown beauties in them—I appreciated the classic looks." Developing a love for classic elegance from her mother and the pages of her favorite fashion mags, Jody would continue to favor and emulate this aesthetic throughout her career.
Like many of us, Jody was teased while growing up. She shares that though other children picked on her for being smart and having a large forehead, she rested her confidence in the words often instilled by her father: "It's not what others think of you. It's what you think of yourself. That's what matters." She urges that we women can often beat ourselves up, but must appreciate ourselves for who we are, the way we are.
Jody's own childhood beauty icons helped to reinforce her confidence and individuality. "When I was in junior high school Beverly Johnson was my top beauty icon. She would always carry herself with a certain grace and elegance". She also notes drawing inspiration from actresses like Judy Pace and Lena Horne, model Naomi Campbell, and the one and only Diahann Carroll, who Jody applauds for "continuing to
age with grace."
In looking up to Jody, it's not hard to see the influence of these iconic women in her style. I was not surprised to discover that in creatively concepting the cover of her debut self-titled album, Jody sought to pay homage to the essence of these starlets from the simplicity of the styling to the striking posing. "I didn't want to be sexy. I still don't see myself as sexy. I always go for classic elegance and mystique. I think a lot of my older photography and videos like 'Real Love' stand up through time because of that timeless approach," she explains. This album and its cover would help solidify Jody as a style icon for years to come. With later projects she continued to maintain an elegant approach, while still challenging beauty norms and stepping far out of the proverbial "box." "I always wanted to present something that wasn't run of the mill, and always had funky-ness and individuality."
Beyond setting new standards for beauty in pop music in general, Jody took her position as a representative for African American women very seriously. She admits that even as a teen dancer on Soul Train, when featured in an Ebony magazine article on trend-setting, she recognized her social responsibility to be a positive role model. Later in her career, she recalls battling challenges from record execs and the like for not being "black enough" because her unique style was contrary to many common images of black entertainers at the time. But Jody held firm to her individuality and continued to drive development of her image throughout her career. "I felt I was representing the black woman well, because I was broadening the bounds. I'm standing on the shoulders of [ground-breakers] like Diana Ross and Grace Jones." Jody shares that, in her eyes, the quintessential brown beauty is one who embodies a quiet confidence that emits from the inside out—a fearlessness. "I think I possess those traits, yet I'm still a work in progress," she adds
Nearly 25 years since her solo debut, Miss Watley continues to hold firmly the beauty values that helped shape her. "Be the best you! Everyone else is already taken," she urges Beauties everywhere. Now with her own record label, blog and cult following, Jody expresses her philosophy in creating new music and content that empowers brown girls from the inside out. She's also a living legend to brown beauties who've succeeded her in the mainstream spotlight. When asked about the current generation of "divas" of color and their contributions to brown girl beauty, she shares "I love Rihanna and appreciate her risk-taking. She's not afraid to change things up and push the envelope a bit. I also really like Erykah Badu's total individuality. She's not being dictated by industry standards or a slave to popularity." And, as she recalls the resistance she faced in her early career for crossing over from music into the mainstream beauty and fashion industries, she adds: "I feel like a proud big sister to all of the girls who have taken things to another level and are on my shoulders doing fashion layouts and taking advantage of the business opportunities more readily available to artists now."
After chatting with Jody, I was eager add her to my brown girl BFF list and crack the seal on her beauty "bag of tricks" to find out how a diva keeps up her beauty icon status for decades as she has. With a spirit as beautiful as her flawless skin, it was no surprise to see that laughter tops her beauty must-have list. I was happy to share in this regime with her as we enjoyed quite a few hearty "crack-ups" throughout our conversation. Beyond chuckles and smiles, Jody also trusts her brown girl beauty to the following go-to topicals and techniques:
"A great cleanser and doesn't break the bank. In this economy, every little bit helps!" shares Jody.
Jody simply regards it as "divine!"
"I put it in the fridge. It's perfect in the summer and is also a quick pick me up when I'm feeling sluggish," she advises.
Jody makes her own foot potions and adds: "We can work with what we've got, and the great thing is you know exactly what's in it."
Thank you Jody for your individuality, spirit, smile, bad-assness, and continued investment in positive brown girl images. With this testament of your beauty the cycle of brown girl inspiration continues . . .
Driven to infuse each encounter with joy-inducing laughter, Dre Brown seeks to offer those she reaches both something for the eye and for the soul. Based out of New York City, Dre splits her time between makeup artistry, hair styling, strategic marketing, writing and entrepreneurship. Follow her exploits on her blog: a Dre in The Life and her Beautylish series "Confessions of a Nouveau Natural Woman"