Latin Class

As Latina singers, actresses, and models take center stage in droves, Nely Galán celebrates their beauty and style, and remembers a time when role models were harder to come by.


August, 1997

Nely Galán
Watch out, Daisy Fuentes! Cuban-American media maven Nely Galán is a self-proclaimed “beauty-product freak,” owing to the dearth of products for Latina. In “Latin Class,” Galán recalls the confusion of living in a household “where I was raised to care about beauty” and coming of age in an all-American culture “where images of beauty were not Latin women but blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls.” Since then, she says, “I’ve learned to treasure what is considered exotic.” Galán, who owns an L.A. production company, is at work on a book combining beauty and career advice.

At the end of a long day at the office, my hair is dirty, which, for a Cuban woman, is worse than being caught without makeup on. (And mine wore off hours ago.) I’m desperate to drive down to the nearest Starbucks for a double shot of espresso, but I can hear my mother admonishing, “Don’t even think of leaving the house looking like that – you never know where you’ll meet your future husband!” Needless to say, the craving is nixed.

In Latino culture, beauty is valued. When our parents emigrated from Caribbean and South and Central American countries, youth and beauty equaled success for many women. “The most inviting bait catches the biggest fish,” my mother would tell me over and over. Fortunately, an appealing physical appearance is no longer the only path to success in the United States or Latin America, but even so we often feel subtly – or, where our mothers are concerned, not so subtly – encouraged to enhance our femininity, to use it as a tool in a society where we often aren’t expected to get very far.

I arrived in the United States at age three and grew up wanting both to live up to the old-world expectations of my parents and to fit in with the customs of my new homeland. When it came to beauty, this cultural tug-of-war often led to disastrous results.

Like most Latinas, I received an earlier introduction to beauty than my younger American girlfriends. As a toddler, I was doused with Royal Violets – the Love’s Baby Soft of Cuban-American colognes. At ten, I became the youngest Avon lady in New Jersey, secretly dealing tinted lip gloss for my aunt during my school lunch break. I spent hours staring at old photographs of my mother and her sisters in Cuba, praying that someday I would be blessed with large dark eyes, thick black hair, prominent cheekbones, and ripe red lips. I wanted to have curves I could pour into skintight dresses. I longed for my mother’s spiky heels. By then, of course, I already knew how to swing my hair flirtatiously, dance seductively, and smile mischievously. I was the perfect student – until puberty struck. With my thighs expanding and my hair growing faster than weeds in the backyard, my beauty ideal was shattered – it was apparent I didn’t look like anyone in those photographs. Nor did I remotely resemble the “all-American” beauties – those tall, thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered girls who seemed to populate every magazine, TV show, and commercial.

My mother came to the rescue with her natural skin-care remedies – cranberry and avocado facials, egg yolk with mashed bananas to make my hair shiny, body scrubs made from sugar and lemon. Body hair was my archenemy. I tackled my peach fuzz and unibrow (Frida Kahlo was not cool yet) with every product available, from electric tweezers to waxing to the Persian technique of threading (stringing hair together and pulling – ouch!). Jolen became my most trusted friend.

ROLE MODEL:Spanish-born Eugenia Silva was hand-picked by Oscar De La Renta to star in print and TV ads for his new fragrance So De La Renta.

By my early 20s, I fell victim to the beauty schizophrenia many Latinas will recognize: Paloma red or pink satin, Moschino or Ralph Lauren, hair that’s naturally wavy or blown stick straight, Renegade Red on long nails or Barely There on short ones, big gold hoops or tiny pearl studs?

I had to make a choice, and my Latina side won out. Bright-red lipstick, tight miniskirts, stiletto heels, and scandalous cleavage – I wore them all with a “Look but don’t touch” attitude. But in corporate America, books are often judged by their covers – something that is not necessarily true in Latin America – and despite my hard-earned business success, my image drew attacks from male and female executives alike, people who misinterpreted what I saw as a flair for fun and fashion as “fluff with no stuff.” I knew I would have to find a better balance, but where were my role models?

It’s taken a while, but finally, Latinas are hot – hotter, even, than the dark, handsome Latin men who have always had a place in the limelight. Rudolph Valentino, Ricardo Montalban, Desi Arnaz, Antonio Banderas, Andy Garcia, and Jimmy Smits have had little trouble finding an audience. The few Latinas who reached a similar status in the United States – Rita Hayworth, for example, or Raquel Welch – were cautious about revealing their roots. Of course, that was before Latinas became a major market force in the United States, spending $1.6 billion a year on beauty products, and an average of 27 percent more on cosmetics and 43 percent more on fragrance than other women in America.

Flash – forward to 1997. Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, and Salma Hayek are starring in major movies and making sizzling appearances at the Academy Awards and on the covers of such mainstream publications as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles, and Buzz. Latina models – Elsa Benitez and Christy Turlington – lead fashion. We have Lauren Velez, Elizabeth Vargas, Giselle Fernandez, and Daisy Fuentes on national television and Gloria Estefan, India and Albita onstage. These women speak proudly of their origins, covering the spectrum of the Latina palette – fair-skinned, dark-skinned, African features, Indian features, Mayan features, mestizas, trigueñas. They are Nuyorican, Cuban, Mexican, Venezuelan, Ecuadoran, Chicana, Puerto Rican – the list is long, the look real, sultry, confident, and full of attitude.

LATINA LOVERS: Salma Hayek, Daisy Fuentes, Cameron Diaz, Elizabeth Vargas, Jennifer Lopez

And yet, despite the fact that almost half of the 27 million Latinos living in the United States are women, barely a single beauty company has targeted this market aggressively. Skin-care and makeup lines that cater to our needs are few and far between, though Mark Sanchez, the Academy Award – nominated Mexican-American makeup artist, will soon be coming out with Sanchez Cosmetics, a line he has developed after years of blending tones and textures for the top Latinas in entertainment. No wonder the first question out of my mouth when I get together with a fellow Latina is “What color lipstick are you wearing?”

Sharing our secret is the best way around this shortage, and, being a product junkie, I know from personal experience what deserves a good word. For taming unruly brows painlessly, I discovered a razor-like gadget called El Perfilador that I could find only in Puerto Rico. Electrolysis is the best solution for other unwanted body hair, so long as you get a prescription for Emla, a numbing cream that eases the pain. Jolen is still a favorite for my arms. To keep my hips under control, deep massage works magic when combined with a cream by Georgiana, Manhattan’s cellulite guru. Prescriptives has the best foundations for covering up the uneven tones inherent in olive skin. Clinique’s Non-Streak Bronzer for men is excellent on darker skin. And, at a fraction of the cost of similar higher-end products, Avon’s Lighten Up Undereye Treatment is great for circles under the eye. To cover up dark circles, I brew bags of chamomile, stick them in the freezer, and then place them over my eyes. If that doesn’t do the trick, Laura Mercier Classique Secret Camouflage concealer is the answer. For the oily skin that affects many Latinas, Sisley face-buffing cream removes dead cells, and Noxzema Astringent is, for my money, still the most effective toner available. Kiehl’s Silk Groom and John Frieda Frizz-Ease keep curls smooth even in Miami; and for oily hair, Phytothérathrie’s rum-and-egg shampoo is great. The CamoCare skin-care line, sold at health-food stores, is a must-have because it is based on my mother’s favorite herb, chamomile. (When my car was recently stolen in Los Angeles, I asked the police officer to forget about the car and just retrieve the year’s supply I’d left in the trunk.)

Having experienced firsthand the painful lack of role models in the U.S. mainstream media, I have dedicated my career to creating an entertainment company whose focus is to promote Latinos. It is a mission that has helped me to feel more comfortable living in my own skin, and, looking at that old picture of my mother, I realize now that I fit in better than I – or anyone else – ever expected I would. Recently, I overheard my mom confessing to her girlfriends, “Who would have ever thought Nelita would turn out to be the real beauty of the family? I just don’t understand why she won’t pick a husband already and give us some grandchildren.” A husband. Grandchildren…well, that part of the equation is another story altogether.