“Do you want to go to an eyebrow competition in Long Island next week?” an email from my editor read in early June. I had just started at Teen Vogue a few weeks earlier and was both confused and intrigued at the same time. Nonetheless I figured, why not?! “No idea what an eyebrow competition is, but yes, absolutely. I’m in!” I quickly replied.
Since I got into writing, I have come to love the unique opportunities this career path has afforded me — I’ve had plenty of chances to try new things and put myself into interesting situations. I’ve tried naked yoga, been on the set of a porn shoot in Los Angeles (yes, that actually happened!), and flown to Russia to interview designers about making genderless clothes. Truthfully, there’s not much I wouldn’t do for a story. Bleach my brows? Sure! Buzz my head? Okay! Get Botox on my feet? Sign me up! (Note: None of these things have happened, at least not yet).
Anyway, back to the eyebrow competition. I arrived on a Monday afternoon at the Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York — the same place where Taylor Swift had filmed the “Blank Space” music video and where Kevin Jonas got married. Iconic.
As the car drove along the winding driveway, I noticed two pink Benefit Cosmetics signs flapping in the wind. It was an overcast summer day, but the flags were a happy shade of pink and seemed to welcome me to the ominous, old castle. The interior of the expansive space was covered in all things pink and academic for the 2019 edition of the Benefit Brow Search — a contest the company has been running for the past three years. This year’s theme was Arch Academy, so naturally all of the contestants were decked out in faux private-school uniforms. The pink plaid decor everywhere reminded me of Legally Blonde and Cher’s infamous yellow plaid outfit in Clueless, while the competition itself reminded me of The Bachelor but, you know, for the beauty world.
I arrived just in time for the “Student Council Presidential Election,” and along with the judges, mega beauty influencers Patrick Starr, Nikita Dragun, Desi Perkins, and Ale La Chula, and the brand’s global brow expert Jared Bailey (dubbed the Arch Academy’s headmaster), listened intently as the contestants gave short speeches detailing why they should win the competition. The golden prize? A cool $50,000 and a yearlong contract with the brand.
Let me tell you, these speeches really showed the 20 individuals’ passion for brows and beauty. There was a lot of raw emotion, but some of the individuals whose presentations that struck me most were: Kameron Lester, who talked about his experience living with HIV and the experience of being a boy in beauty; Maria Fassrainer, who talked about using beauty to challenge stigmas against Latinx women; and Karen, who spoke about being the daughter of Chinese immigrants, the lack of representation in the media, and how makeup allows her to be her own canvas. Did I mention she even made “Karen 4 Brow Queen” button pins?! In the midst of the three hours of heartfelt presentations, the PR rep turned to me and said, “Wow, I’m in my feelings, aren’t you?” Yes; yes, I was.
That night lying in bed, cozied up in Benefit sweatpants and a sweatshirt, I wondered how the brand could possibly pick just one person to win when everyone was so damn passionate and talented.
The next day, I arrived at the castle just as the history class was getting started. For this activity, each contestant was given a brow style from a different decade and a range of art supplies to turn their brows into masterpieces inspired by the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, and so on. The result? Rainbow studded brows, multicolored feather brows, metallic foiled brows, and so much more. Not only was each person’s creation truly magnificent, but their selfie-taking skills were next level. In every corner of the room, people were posing for pictures (some even brought their own lighting equipment!) and documenting their experience all the way through. It was as if beauty Youtube/Instagram had come to life right before my eyes.
From there, the contestants got into their teams (prior to the competition, each one was hand-selected by the four mega influencers) and competed in a field day activity, which happened on the lawn of the castle and involved a baseball bat, a hula hoop, and a large bouncy ball. Decked out in clear plastic ponchos (it was raining), they ran from one side of the lawn to the other. And of course, there was lots of cheering and smiling, and obviously some eyebrow styling in the mix. Can you hula hoop and use brow liner all at the same time? I know I can’t.
Later, I had the awesome opportunity to get my eyebrows done by Bailey, who shared with me his expert tips on how to get the perfect power brows. Every week, Bailey, who believes he was once abducted by aliens as a child (I heard the full story, and honestly it sounds legit!), travels around the globe doing people’s eyebrows and helping them feel good about themselves. Sounds like a cool job, right?!
Explaining that brows have always been at the core of Benefit’s business, Bailey told me that a few years ago the company decided it wanted to start give aspiring makeup artists, beauty influencers, and creators a space to come and learn from the brand. During the first brow competition, which was camp themed, the brand realized the event was so impactful that they had to make the brow search an annual thing.
Throughout the event, it became more and more evident that for these folks eyebrows are more than just two patches of hair above the eyes. Over the course of the four days, I learned that for these beauty fanatics, eyebrows are a vehicle for deeper meaning and a hotbed for creativity and self-expression. Even though only one of the contestants won (Kameron became the first boy ever to win!), you could tell that these folks still gained something major — each of them had found a sense of belonging and established some deeper self-confidence.
Amidst all of the pink decor and multitudes of beauty products, friends were made, tears were shed, and so many hugs were had. It was like the ultimate slumber party. And they had Benefit’s Brow Search to thank for all of it. “These people are bonded for life,” Bailey said.
Attending this event wound up feeling like the perfect welcoming into my new position at Teen Vogue — and gave me even more drive to discover and share the ways in which makeup and beauty can be real safe spaces for all kinds of people. Ultimately, I came out of the experience with a deeper connection to the beauty world and truly, the best-looking brows I’ve ever had.
Look out on the brand’s Instagram for info about how to apply next year!
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue