In 2017, fans saw the face of DJ, producer and overall pop innovator Sophie properly for the first time. For years before that, the pioneering musician, who tragically died last month at the age of 34, remained relatively undercover, hidden behind DJ decks; plastic slides the shape of coiled DNA covered album artwork where a face and a body might have been.
More like this:
Then, on 19 October 2017, Sophie uploaded the music video for a song called It's Okay To Cry, in which the artist stared straight into the camera in a moment of revelation. But what was immediately striking was the prosthetic makeup plumping the artist’s cheeks like a cherubic angel, as Sophie reassured us: "I think your inside is your best side."
The pioneering musician and producer Sophie led the way, appearing with prosthetic cheekbones (Credit: Transgressive Records)
It's Okay To Cry was an introduction to Sophie’s face, as well as to the artist's 2018 LP Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides. That was an album that linked transgenderism with transhumanism – the philosophy that we can reach our greatest potential by improving ourselves technologically. Songs like Faceshopping and Immaterial proposed that technology (including prosthetic makeup) could enhance our own self-presentation in ways that transcended the gendered, corporeal self. Through music, Sophie expressed the idea that, by creating new skins of our own, we could better express our insides, and our best sides, to the world.
It wasn't just a striking effect, but a seminal one. Less than two years later, the fashion label Balenciaga sent their models down the catwalk with similarly sculpted faces for their spring/summer 2020 collection at Paris Fashion Week. The show notes that accompanied the presentation explained that the models' prosthetic makeup was a "play on beauty standards of today, the past, and the future".
Catwalks have always been at the forefront of embodying speculative futures, and sure enough, ever since Balenciaga's Sophie-resembling show, prosthetic makeup has begun to cross over back to pop music, and into mainstream visual culture. No longer are such extreme makeovers the chief preserve of B movie horrors and mask-wearing metal bands. Rather today, prosthetic makeup is turning some of the world’s most recognisable stars unrecognisable – in recent times, the likes of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Lil Nas X have all incorporated it into their work to expand their artistic mythologies and to challenge the static nature of their own bodies.
A headline moment
However perhaps the most high-profile use of prosthetic makeup of late has been from R&B star The Weeknd, who has placed it at the forefront of his latest album campaign. In January of last year, he appeared in the music video for standout hit Blinding Lights with a seemingly busted, bloodied face. Then in March, the singer was decapitated in the music video for In Your Eyes, before several months later his head was reattached onto another man’s body in the video for Too Late, which evoked Gucci's prosthetic head runway. In November, he appeared at the 2020 American Music Awards with a face full of bandages; and finally in January this year, those bandages were removed for the video for Save Your Tears, to reveal a grotesquely swollen and contorted face, as though the singer's nose, lips and cheeks had been stretched like toffee.
Balenciaga's spring/summer 2020 collection show at Paris Fashion Week saw models sporting sculpted faces (Credit: Getty Images)
Prior to his Super Bowl performance in early February, The Weeknd finally explained his motivations for the nip-tuck visual narrative to Variety. "The significance of the entire head bandages is reflecting on the absurd culture of Hollywood celebrity and people manipulating themselves for superficial reasons to please and be validated," he said.
It's certainly no coincidence that high-profile stars are experimenting with prosthetic makeup and extreme makeovers in an age of body enhancement and modification, complete with the development of exoskeletons, functional robotic limbs, lab-grown vaginas, 3D-printed ears, bionic lenses, face transplants and cheaper plastic surgery. Such advancements have provoked various ethical questions, but, in contrast to The Weeknd, a growing number of high-profile artists have embraced prosthetic makeup as a way to celebrate what they see as a new age of liberation from the biological body.
For many of the generation who grew up on the internet, the multiple avatars, characters and bodies (whether that was a penguin on Club Penguin or a family of four on The Sims) they have occupied have long inspired them with the knowledge that they are not restricted to only inhabit one body forever – and now they have increasingly sophisticated material as well as digital means to play with their identity.
At one point Taylor Swift said to me, 'this is the most fun I've ever had' – Bill Corso
"My main question is, will we get to a point where people will be spending more money on their avatars rather than their corporeal selves?" asks Vasso Vu, a 23-year-old visual artist who has applied various prosthetic looks to up-and-coming US rapper Ashnikko. But while digital avatars and aesthetics give people limitless dimensions in which to create and imagine new versions of themselves, prosthetic makeup combines these possibilities with the material satisfaction that avatars can't.
What the use of them can also foreground is how our identity and gender is defined through forms of self-engineering, which range from makeup and wigs through to estrogen and testosterone pills. In that way, prosthetic makeup acts as a visual incentive for people to be anything they want to be.
Taylor Swift discovered its power for the first time during her brief adult goth phase around her 2017 album Reputation, specifically when she played a zombie in the music video for comeback single Look What You Made Me Do. Bill Corso, the Academy Award winning makeup artist who applied Swift's makeup, says that the singer immediately became engrossed in the process. "At one point she said to me, 'this is the most fun I've ever had'," he tells BBC Culture. Two years later, she enlisted Corso once more for one of her most ambitious music videos yet, for 2019 single The Man. It saw Taylor performing the role of an obnoxious cisgender man, dressed in a sharp suit with short hair and facial prosthetics, as she wondered how much bad behaviour she could get away with if only she were "a man". With the help of Corso, she was briefly able to inhabit this reality. Taking up space, spreading her legs across a subway carriage, Swift’s prosthetically-enhanced persona in The Man pointed not only towards the body's role as coercive cultural tool, but its arbitrariness as a way to enforce gender and gendered relations.
In the video for single The Man, Taylor Swift transformed into an obnoxious cisgender man (Credit: Republic Records)
It's an idea that Lil Nas X tried on for size last year, when the Old Town Road rapper became his musical hero Nicki Minaj for Halloween 2020. Then just earlier this month, he posted a video of himself sporting plastic breasts on Twitter and canvassed fans for their opinion.
Laney Chantal, the LA-based makeup artist who's also worked with the likes of Rob Zombie, Slipknot and Marshmello, has been collaborating with him on his prosthetic makeup-based looks since early 2020, when she was commissioned to transform him into a vampire for the video for his single Rodeo. "Once they get a taste for it, they want more," she says. "Prosthetics are about transforming people, letting people become someone else; letting people drop out of their own bodies for a second. I think it helps a lot of people. I notice that people get a lot more confident when they have these gnarly prosthetics on."
Chantal, whose work generally has a dark, sexy fairy-tale aesthetic, has been in the industry for just over a decade, having missed out on the so-called "prosthetics boom" of the 1990s, when visual artists and musicians like Zombie and Slipknot first brought them into the pop-cultural eye.
During the 2000s, CGI started to really come into its own, but people started to miss effects that were 'real' – Laney Chantal
While there might have been a lull of interest in the early 2000s and 2010s, the reinvigorated fascination for prosthetics effects today means they are becoming a greater part of the mainstream than ever before, appearing across all forms of visual culture. Today, when we think of prosthetic makeup, we might think of The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, or Angelina Jolie's Maleficent look, all of which made heavy use of prosthetics, and helped to usher in this new prosthetic makeup age. Chantal puts this upsurge down to an increased weariness with CGI. "During the 2000s, CGI started to really come into its own, but people started to miss the kind of Friday the Thirteenth, Texas Chainsaw Massacre stuff that was ‘real’," she says. "Now, the people who grew up with CGI are beginning to find it boring, and the nostalgic element is becoming fun again."
Lil Nas X is another star who has been playing with prosthetics, becoming a vampire in the video for single Rodeo (Credit: Columbia)
As the technological becomes less distinguishable from the human, we'll likely continue to see prosthetic makeup and effects occupy the mainstream conversation, both in a literal form (with more prosthetics-based fashion campaigns and more high-profile celebrities donning plastic) and as an all-purpose metaphor for the ways in which humanity desires to overcome its own limitations. "Enhancing our bodies is how we ease into humanity's next evolutionary step," says Frederik Heyman, a multimedia artist who has worked with forward-thinking pop stars including Lady Gaga. "It's something we have to accept and embrace, it’s unavoidable and already happening."
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.