Culturally, there’s a big conversation around inclusivity and fluidity, particularly in the makeup world, which is a bit ironic considering the current political administration that continues to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. Despite that, this community continues to push ahead faithfully. This month at W3LL PEOPLE, I sat down with two of our three founders, James Walker and Shirley Pinkson, to chat all-things PRIDE, including queer culture, identity, and self-growth in business.
Walker, a Santa Fe, New Mexico native, may be living a simpler life back in his hometown, but he’s certainly present and vocal about how growing up Latino helped shape him into the man he is today. Similarly, Pinkson grew up in a cultural conflict of coming out to parents who had very high expectations of her. She found her truth in educating an industry through more than only makeup, but also through empowerment and activism.
Unapologetic about who they are today, this dynamic duo found truth in who they are by growing up outside the status quo. Their 30+ year friendship speaks volumes on authenticity, companionship, self-discovery, including an immense expression of individuality that will have you blushing with PRIDE.
We all know there’s struggle with being queer. However, being Latino and gay more often than not adds another level of challenges. Culturally speaking, was there hardship in coming out to your family?
Shirley: “I didn’t come out until I was 32. The bar was set high for me as the daughter of a high ranking Puerto Rican military officer, who I know now had his own challenges and life pressures. At the time, I wasn’t clear about my sexuality. But I knew I was different, and I definitely knew I couldn’t talk to my parents about it. Later on in life, I learned that I could. My father had a really, really hard time with me [coming out] and now he doesn’t. Fear drove their reactions initially.
My mom was always so open. When I did come out to her, she simply said to me, “I’ve been waiting for you to tell me.” Hearing this could have saved me so much inner conflict. I found myself often being everything but who I was. When you get to this place where you finally begin to let go and start living life how you truly are meant to live it…everything changes.”
James: “When I was coming out, HIV was just on the scene. I was scared. I didn’t know what was going on. The fear that it engendered on a general level was attached to being gay. Not only were you not supposed to be gay during that time, but you were considered to be like a disease — a disease spreading diseases. It was a dark time for me. The conversation at play was based on ignorance and fear. It made it challenging to have a dialogue with myself, much less those around me, including my parents. Though I identify with being Mexican, my last name is Walker, which made it tough to “fit in,” within a predominately Latin community.
Back to Pride and W3LL PEOPLE, there’s a theme here I keep hearing about change and feeling different. Was there a point in developing the brand you thought about the type of community you were going to build?
James: “When it comes to pride and as I think about this month, I love that on the national level it’s gotten beyond being gay or not. I think for W3LL PEOPLE and for me, the celebration is about that. We are all different. Although, I felt very different and excluded as a young man, and still do to a degree, that’s going to be my walk in the world. I’ve learned to really love that about myself. I celebrate that within myself and I see that as an actual strength that I can bring to the family and to the community.
I often asked myself, “Why do we have to do things the conventional way when we can do it our way? Why create products that have a preservation for ten to fifteen years?” Let’s not do that. It feels good to own that, be that, and hopefully create a brand, team, and community that’s all about that. What better name and platform than W3LL PEOPLE — a celebration of humanity…”
Shirley: “…and choice. Choice. It’s the choice to make and have better options for yourself. It’s the choice to make yourself feel empowered. We talk about our transparency as a brand, but there’s also a lot of transparency in who we are. We haven’t shied away from being gay business owners. It’s been something we’ve been proud to talk about since day one.
Being able to start a brand (together) that’s built on positive and free choices, transparency, and individuality is uplifting. It’s not just makeup. We’re used to people not liking things we do and the choices we make, but there’s no fear in that anymore. To be able to speak to the brand fearlessly without having to hide anything is even more powerful.”
As a business owner, were there any challenges you faced while building a brand and discovering yourself?
Shirley: “I think I chose my career to help me find my identity. In doing makeup, I was surrounded by strong, creative personalities. I’ve always been really attracted to strong personalities, partially because I was too afraid of letting my own out. There was this inability to express myself fully. However, I was lucky enough to do that through work. It was a positive experience for me. In terms of challenges, I’ve been judged for who I am, but I’m happy to say who I am has always prevailed in the work I do.
In terms of negativity in the workplace, a lot of it was on the outside but never within the space I was in, because frankly, a big part of my network were the ‘black sheep’. On the other hand, being a business owner, I caught myself coping with being fearful and second guessing if those around me knew if [James and I] were gay. This was/is based on that residual fear I carry with me. Since the brand is our baby- you protect your baby- and you catch yourself becoming that very neutral person. I have a challenge with that from time to time.”
James: “When I started my career in marketing, even though it’s a creative field, it’s very much a good ol’ boy network. Showing up in New York as this budding young gay man in a very much men’s business was very challenging. I definitely did not share who I was and spent a lot of time sublimating a lot about myself.
When we landed on W3LL PEOPLE, for me, it has been a pure joy on a personal level because it has offered me a home to be gay, out, and confident. That has been a big deal for me as a gay entrepreneur because it didn’t exist, so we had to do it ourselves. We created an environment where I can be myself and we invite those who might feel maybe a little different, or those who may not have a home, to be part of ours.”
What lessons can you share with other LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs about creating a successful brand?
Shirley: “What I would express (not just to queer owners but to any owner) is that all workspaces should be open workspaces. It’s that old saying, ‘We’re only as good as our team.’ Since day one at W3LL PEOPLE, we’ve always felt that we’re only as good as the people behind us or who are standing with us. It’s really that simple.”
James: “If I was sitting across the conference table from a young girl, a young kid, or individual in transition, I would look them in the eye and say, ‘you are not alone and know that it ALL starts from within.’ Ultimately, you will have to find the love and understanding you seek from within. Once you do that, it all starts to fall into place’ If you can muster the courage to simply speak your truth, people may not like you, but they’re probably going to respect you. And I’ll take being respected over being liked any day of the week. That’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in life.”
What would you tell your younger self?
Shirley: “I have a lot to say to my younger self! I have a son, so I look at my two year old son and think of my younger self and what I don’t want him to experience. Speak and act from a confident, good place. Don’t shy away from who you are.”
James: “I would give myself a hug.”
Did you have a role model that made an impact on your life?
James: “My grandfather. He was a Mexican rancher. He embodied this Zen without even knowing what that meant. Being able to spend time with him in nature and in solitude with animals – I didn’t realize it at the time how much it was going to form the man I would become.”
Shirley: “For me, it’s my mom. My mom is a tiny force to be reckoned with. She moved to the U.S. with my dad and didn’t speak a word of English. She’s 5’3” powerhouse. She didn’t really care what people thought of her, but she always acted with her heart.”
If you can say thank you to someone when you were coming out who would that be?
Shirley: “My James.”
James: “I would say New York, not an individual, but the community there. I had no idea the love, freedom, and the joy I would discover in my community. New York gave me that.”
Shirley: “It did it for me too.”
What does pride mean to you?
Shirley: “Freedom. Be who YOU ARE. Freedom for everybody, not just for gay humans but for everybody.”
James: “I’m with her.”
As a way to show support for LGBTQ+ communities during Pride month, W3LL PEOPLE is donating 5% of sales to The Trevor Project all month long. Join us in supporting and standing together for LGBTQ+-inclusive policies.