Meena Harris on the Meaning of Beauty and Her Skincare-Forward Routine

·7 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy Ulta
Photo credit: Courtesy Ulta

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Meena Harris is continuing her phenomenal year.

The lawyer, best-selling author, and founder of the media company Phenomenal (which just won a Tony Award for co-producing the musical A Strange Loop, and recently acquired Reductress) is now starring in an Ulta Beauty campaign. Called Beauty&, the campaign encompasses everything from T-shirts to podcasts to philanthropic initiatives, with an aim to “move the industry forward, widen the lens of beauty, and inspire all to reclaim beauty on their own terms,” according to a press release.

“It really was a fun challenge to think about what beauty means to me,” Harris tells “Ultimately, I derive inspiration from the Toni Morrison quote, which I’m not gonna get this completely right, but it’s to the effect of, beauty is not something only to behold, but it’s something that one can do.”

Meena—who is the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris—says, “There’s a lot of power” in the idea that beauty “is not just about consuming or admiring, but also creating and sharing it with your community.” It’s exciting, she says, to see a major retailer like Ulta focus on beauty from many angles. “Thinking about this equity lens, deriving power and access, and finding places that are inclusive of underrepresented group—that's really inspiring, and that's why we’re excited to participate.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Ulta
Photo credit: Courtesy Ulta

In addition to Meena Harris, the campaign features New York–based artist Timothy Goodman and Chicago-based artist and muralist Emmy Star Brown. The three designed tees, out now, inspired by the campaign’s message and made from recycled materials. Ulta Beauty is also making a $200,000 donation to the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit supporting the mental health of teens and young adults.

Ahead of the launch, speaks with Harris about what beauty means to her, the importance of representation, and a few of the products she always adds to her cart when she stops by her local Ulta store.

Who are some people who embody that word beauty to you? You mentioned that Toni Morrison quote.

I think of [beauty] as a call to action. People who are leaders in their respective spaces, I think, are doing the work of sharing beauty. Look at Michael R. Jackson, the playwright who created A Strange Loop, which is the musical we just co-produced. That show is something that he's been working on for literally 20 years. And it's so specific, in the specific experience of the main character, but in it—Michael talks about this—there's universality, and it's about finding universality in this specificity, and it's beautiful. It's also provocative. It is, some might say, subversive, but it's on his terms. It's something that Broadway has never seen before. It's historic; it has now been recognized, amazingly, by this institution for being excellent.

In Michael doing that, and sharing that with the world, others can feel empowered. It's really about action, and about making sure there's more people who can come after you, and [do so] in their own way—not just having the one player, the one brand, or the one example.

One thing I think you're already getting at is the relationship between beauty and culture. How do they relate or influence each other, in your opinion?

To me, it's less about what influences those things and more about what we derive from within ourselves versus what we're getting from society or culture. When we talk about representation—not just for its own sake but also changing systems and actually getting access—it's about that power to define who we are, what beauty means for us, in our individual, lived experiences, [instead of letting it be] defined by people or institutions that didn't have us in mind, or, maybe in the worst case, were intentionally excluding us.

On a more personal level, how do you approach your own beauty routine?

I used to be one of those people who knew what I liked, and I stuck with it for 20 years. With COVID, I had a reset, where on the one hand, I started wearing a lot less makeup, and then started focusing much more on skin care.

I also started being more comfortable in my skin. We as a culture, as a society, emphasize material beauty standards for women. Like, I used to never leave the house not wearing mascara. And now, I'll go out completely barefaced and feel confident. [I'm no longer] subjecting myself to things that don't resonate with me, that I'm letting somebody else define for me.

Photo credit: Courtesy Ulta
Photo credit: Courtesy Ulta

Then on the other extreme, [I am] also just having fun with new products and different looks. There's so much more information available to us now that certainly wasn't available to me, like, when I was in college as a young person trying out new makeup and skincare.

There's also been so much evolution in the science and technology of ingredients. As I've gotten older, I've started thinking more about toxicity and my health and what I'm putting on my skin, in my body, what I'm putting on my kids' bodies. And now I have access to retailers like Ulta Beauty that are really focused on providing those resources, whether it's the Conscious Beauty search filter, [where] we can see what's vegan, or the environmental impact. I'm exploring a lot more, too, looking at emerging brands that I've discovered through Ulta. I know how important it it for those brands to get access to a real retailer like that. Like Live Tinted, which is a brand I love.

Perfect segue. Let's say you have, like, 30 minutes just to run wild in Ulta. What's your game plan?

I think my go-to would probably be the sections where they have emerging brands. I have my essentials; maybe I'm getting my Lancôme eye makeup remover. Or, to be more linear about it, I could do it by different routines, like hair. I just started playing with dyeing my hair for the first time, and I'm using Redken color-safe, sulfate-free products.

Moving down, skincare is a big one for me: cleansers and serums and moisturizers. SPF, that's a big one. Live Tinted has a great SPF that I love. For nails, I like OPI. I'm buying Pattern Beauty for my daughters. I use that for their hair care. I have different standards for them than I do for myself—I'm probably a little more stringent in terms of nontoxic stuff, or thinking about what works on their textured hair, which is very different from my hair. So yeah, if I had unfettered, unlimited access, I would probably be there for, like, a week.

Is there a current beauty trend you're obsessed with?

This is kind of old, but that whole "clean-girl aesthetic." I thought it was kind of funny, because what does that mean? You take a shower? But I'm definitely someone who appreciates a good light, easy look that's not a full face of makeup. Something related to it that I've been doing is not wearing any foundation or concealer at all. I [used to have] this feeling that I had dark bags in my eyes and I had to cover them up. Now, I basically just use bronzer as contour…maybe a highlight, and then mascara.

I'm trying to think of what the trends are. Sometimes they're way too involved, and I'm like, "What's the simple, like, old-person trend?"

Well, I love your nails, and they remind me of the Hailey Bieber glazed donut nails.

That's funny, I literally just showed my nail lady, and she's like, "Oh, that's the metallic powder, I don't have it." And I'm like, "No, I actually know how to do it!" Everything's coming back too. I used to get nails in high school; all the Y2K stuff is coming back.

Is there a trend from the past that you wish you had skipped out on?

Yes. The dark lip liner and clear lip gloss. I definitely did that. And then, of course, over-plucking my eyebrows. That's one of the big ones that I hope never comes back. Do you remember there was a [social media] filter? And some people are doing it now, they're bleaching them. I was like, "I refuse." I'm also never letting my daughters pluck their eyebrows, ever.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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