I got a chance to sit with (who we kidding she’s my cousin I just texted her) Shabnam Hossine Khawja, a Los Angeles-based makeup artist and wedding planner. Besides these ventures, Shabnam expands her brands on Instagram, where she holds a whopping 104k followers. Because we’re related through marriage, I was able to watch Shabnam’s rise to success throughout the years, all the while maintaing her identity and kindness. Shabnam, like many other Afghan women in the arts/entertainment/fashion industry, has been the subject of scrutiny. I’ve always been immensely impressed by how she’s been able to keep her head high and scoff at the haters. I wanted to know more about how she deals with, and views her multi-faceted identity, as an Afghan woman, as a Muslim woman, and as a makeup and event planning master.
Shabnam, did you always know you wanted to be a makeup artist and event planner? Give us a little background of how you got to be where you’re at today.
Hi! Well initially, no. I wanted to be a doctor and was seriously pursuing it for a while. After high school, I enrolled in math & science prerequisite classes. Makeup was a hobby I honed in on by watching YouTube videos. I started experimenting with makeup on myself, and quickly my talent was recognized by my friends and family. I was getting asked to do makeup for birthdays, weddings, and other parties. As this was happening, I was also gaining more followers on Instagram, who were recognizing my work. I worked at MAC for 3 years, but I always felt I could do more independently. My plans of pursuing medicine changed as I began to build more clientele and I became honest with myself. I knew in my heart this is what I wanted to do and that I loved waking up every morning to make people feel like their most beautiful selves.
In terms of event planning, my family has always worked in this field. I had experience in it from when I was a child, and I realized I could do it by myself through the networking and connections I made.
Did you always identify Instagram as a platform for your businesses? Or did you just post for the fun of it?
Not for event planning because I had been doing that even before the launch of Instagram. But makeup, most definitely. I think it’s a savvy way to showcase your talent.
Afghan parents usually want their kids to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. For a while, you pursued the medical profession as well. Did your family believe in your talent, or did they want you to pursue another profession? Do they support your success now?
Initially, my parents didn’t take it seriously and wanted me to pursue medicine. They didn’t think makeup could be a real career. But they’ve seen how far I’ve gone with it and they 100% support me now. I think a huge part of bringing them to that place was showing them how serious I work. I have 10-hour days sometimes, working events and doing makeup back-to-back. Sometimes I don’t even feel like doing my makeup in the morning if I have a shoot at 5am – but a makeup artist always needs to market themselves!
You work in an industry that many Afghans make fun of. “All Afghan girls are makeup artists” is something I’ve heard before. But knowing you and seeing the miracles you perform on faces (lol), what do you think about the negativity your profession receives Have you met hurdles because of this, from our own community, or from those outside of it? How have you encountered any negative stereotypes, both from Afghans and non-Afghans?
A lot of Afghan and Middle Eastern women have a natural talent for makeup. It’s easy to call oneself a makeup artist, but in reality, a perfect liner and a nude lip doesn’t make you a professional artist. I don’t think a lot of people know the amount of work we put in to actually build a clientele & to perfect our own skills. I’m constantly learning. I want to eventually work on skin discoloration and acne – so many young girls are battling with bullying and pressure to have flawless skin, and if I can give them the tools for fighting that, I’d love to. In terms of the negativity we receive as MUA’s in the Middle Eastern community, of course people make fun of me. People say things like “makeup is fake” or like I’m working in something that tells girls they can’t be their real-selves. I don’t agree with that. People – men and women – alter their bodies for their own reasons. You think I have 14 shades of nude because I wanna impress a guy? No. So what’s wrong with working in something that makes me and other girls feel like the best version of themselves? I’ve been told I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but a lot of people don’t understand how much I’ve put into something I’m good at. Also, I don’t know how it’s a bandwagon when women have been applying makeup for literally thousands of years. It’s sad that many Afghans can’t just appreciate someone who loves what we do. I love what I do! Doesn’t mean you have to love it also.
What’s the relationship between your profession and your identity as an Afghan-American? For instance, young Afghan models or actors may feel they have to compromise their “Afghan-ness” in order to succeed in the entertainment/fashion industry. Is this applicable to you at all? Do you feel that you have to somehow choose between being Afghan and American?
No, I personally don’t feel that compromise. I show my pride all day; from working with Afghans in the industry, to modeling for brands like AFGClassics. I really make the effort to let it be known that I’m Afghan. I do this to encourage other Afghans who wish to pursue this industry. It’s possible, and you don’t have to abandon your background. I absolutely love doing looks for Eid or Nowruz. I love blending fashion from back home with fashion over here. I’m still American but I can call myself Afg-American without feeling conflicted.
There’s a lot of issues surrounding Afghan-American representation in the media, specifically the representation of young Afghan women. What’s your take on this? How do you deal with the haters?
For women it’s tough. I know that it can be hard to be in the fashion and entertainment industry in our community. A lot of people will never be ok with it, for whatever reason. But I don’t think that “bad” representation should allow us to give up our identities. I feel like even though our own community gives us a hard time, we should wear our nationality proudly, because Afghans, Muslims, and Middle Eastern people in general already have such a bad stereotype. Now I’m not saying that everyone should get in the fashion or entertainment industry to fight this stereotype, but I think regardless of what career path you go in to, never hold back who you are or hide it. It’s all the successes we make that will change the way the world sees us. So when I see people comment my pictures with rude things I make light of it, because I’m doing what makes me happy, and I want to be the best at it. I won’t let anyone ruin my future and the potential success I will achieve. I decided I can’t let my community make me feel guilty or wrong for what I love to do, and I won’t let outsiders determine who I am because of my background. I just have to represent myself in an honest way.
You’ve worked hard to gain respect in your field, having the chance to work alongside moguls like Anastacia, Lily Ghalichi and being an ambassador for Bellami Hair Extensions. What pointers do you have for other Afghan girls who want the same type of recognition and success?
It’s cliché, but practice makes perfect. I started doing makeup for free, just to build a portfolio. I used my family and friends to create looks that I’d post on IG. Use social media! It’s the easiest and most accesible way. Besides that, because we’re Afghan, we’re always going to have people telling us we should be engineers or something. So if you’re a young girl and you want to get in my industry, start now! Work hard and teach yourself everything you can. Maybe even find a niche – some artists focus on acne, some focus on wedding makeup, some do contour & highlight, and some work with plastic surgeons for reconstructive surgery. I have friends who work in Hollywood doing cinema makeup and it’s so fun! So learn what you want to do and work towards it.
What’s been your best experience working in the industry? Biggest lesson learned?
Probably doing all of this and being recognized as an Afghan-American. It’s awesome meeting non-Afghans who are curious about the culture, and getting the chance to share it with the world excites me. I like meeting young girls who want the same for themselves. If you know you’re good at something, who’s the world to tell you otherwise? Just follow what you desire. Biggest lesson learned, I’d say I learned the hard way that to be successful, you have to avoid people who like to put you down or be negative about your life. I just focused on my amazing support system and the people that push me everyday.
After speaking with Shabnam I began to ponder about the makeup and fashion industry in general. I couldn’t help but think of all the people who bash MUA’s for not having “real jobs”. It’s especially bizarre when this hate comes from other women. We live in a society where there’s immense pressure to be perfect, where pictures are photoshopped, where women are constantly policed on how and what they should wear on their bodies and on their faces. It’s not very realistic to me that women collectively would wake up one day and just decide not to be manipulated by mass media, so why all the hate towards MUA’s? They’re working in a profession that we propagate anyways. If the patriarchal systems in order one day decided to change the rules to say, “come as you are”, then sure, makeup would be unnecessary. But that won’t happen. I don’t see the proactivity in bashing women who choose to follow professions that are imposed on us anyways. Does that mean I’m supporting the idea that women have to be painted, superficial beings? No. I guess what I’m trying to say is that these MUA’s have found a way to work within the system that is oppressed on us anyways. If a homegirl can teach me how to contour, then I’ll take it, because I like how it looks – plain and simple. And if a homegirl can make a dollar off doing it, I ain’t mad at it for nothing. I’m all about women making their own cash, and if that means I can get pretty in the process, or that a burn victim can feel better about themselves, or that a woman can feel her most beautiful on her wedding day – paint away.
Shabnams work can be found at: