Photo courtesy of Vanessa Azar.

The Influencer's Insight: Vanessa Azar Is the Beauty Blogger Challenging French Brands To See Black Women

Our third feature in this four-part series highlights Vanessa Azar—the Cameroonian beauty blogger and businesswoman who does it all.

"The Influencer's Insight" is our four-part series for April's theme "The Hustle." The series features women content creators who've achieved influencer status through their social media platforms. These influencers will give their insight on how they built their brand, challenges they've faced, influencer marketing tips and more.

The third part of the series features Vanessa Azar of beauty blog, Vanessa's Secrets. ICYMI, read part two here.

Vanessa Azar is the Cameroonian-Lebanese beauty content creator behind her blog, Vanessa's Secrets.

What's her secret, you ask? Triumphing over two distinct adversities: the loss of her mother and a period of severe depression brought on by terrible bullying. The details behind the latter are reserved for a blog post she hasn't quite found the strength to write, but will certainly come with time.

At 31, the trajectory of her career is one she's been working towards her entire life. Azar shares that at age 7, she was gifted a Polaroid and documented her family's travels with a photobook. As a teen, she filled a journal. The internet wasn't a thing then, but when the boom hit, a Skyblog centered around a Gossip Girl-related theme came. Later, when she moved to France from Douala, Cameroon, she opened a private blog for her sister in Canada and a friend in Florida. She made it public out of curiosity and it was viewed by 80 eager followers. At 23, she was hacked and from a year of darks days, came an understanding of how important it is to be happy to have a notable beauty blog.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Azar.

A scar remains, but the way in which she's managed to control her narrative is worth noting. Describing to us what a typical day looks like, Azar wakes up early to do her hair and makeup for an hour, shoots for a brand, changes her clothing to attend a press event for the launch of a product or magazine and returns home to gossip on Skype about anything and everything outside her blog. It's no surprise that behind the glitz and glam is a simple girl who wears no makeup or heels, is down to earth and typically found in her pajamas.

She's come a long way. In 2013, she was a writer for France's notable Stiletto magazine. A number of the companies that would come to her would be from the relationships she formed while working there. The first was a cream brand and later, Estée Lauder would come knocking. Her hustle was comprised of emailing brands at the start of her career but at this stage, they reach out to her.

Brands like MAC, Jo Malone, Mizani, L'Oréal and Chanel have sent her an arsenal of nail polishes, fragrances, mascaras and foundations. The beauty has a penchant for timeless products that work and have for years thereby straying away from trends. The Estée Lauder group holds a special place in her heart because of its social aspects and support of women from all walks of life. She's even spearheaded an initiative selling their products to use the profit to assist a school. "[I blog] to change how brands portray us and how we can impact the industry," she says candidly.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Azar.

As you could imagine, Azar has faced some challenges. "French brands are crazy for a 'certain' black image; darker with bigger lips. They want one person to represent us all," she says. "Brands don't know what to do with relaxed hair or the many different tones of black women." This firecracker plays no games when it comes to advocating for her own. She attended a Clarins event in which she was one of only two black people there, and responded by sending them a harshly worded letter about their lack of representation and shades available at their makeup stations. The result of this act was rewarding, to say the least. The brand took heed and expanded the shades they had available across their product lines. In a day and age where black women account for a large portion of profit for beauty companies, we should always be regarded. Individuals like Azar should be applauded for speaking on our behalf in spaces where there are less of us.

We also discuss pay, another hurdle. Where some companies have a strict budget they adhere to, others pay white bloggers in Europe more than their black counterparts. When negotiating, Azar inquires as to the criteria being used, like followers, engagement and experience.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Azar.

She's also passionate about her home country and the broad narratives available to us. "We have a strong heritage and stories we should lift. I want to show how it looks like to be an African woman my age living, working and blogging," she says. Azar's sought and collaborated with brands from the continent for free just to give them exposure they may not be afforded another way. In Cameroon, she created a sandal with the designer of Shoes by Vidal. When attending last fall's Heineken Lagos Fashion and Design Week, she dawned the designs of Style Temple, Grey Projects, Mazelle Studio and House of Izzi. More recently, she can be seen slaying in Andrea Iyamah and Tongoro Studio.

She's currently based in Lagos working as a project manager for Trace Nigeria and has her sights set on working with Marc Jacobs, Guerlain, South Africa's Lulu & Marula and Skin Creamery, Nigeria's Epara Skincare and opening up a living, breathing beauty temple—home to dermatologists and a variety of products that work for women with melanin.

Azar laughs as she refers to her work as "passion pay."

"It's not a career when you are being paid to do something you love." She has always felt this way.

Audrey Lang is an alumna of Northeastern University and a Boston-based site merchandiser. A surveyor of life who's enamored with all things fashion, art and Africa, keep up with her on Instagram and Tumblr.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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