Patti Harrison is late for our manicure, but it's because of a hair emergency. "I went to get a blowout and they gave me Shirley Temple curls," she texts me. "I spent 15 minutes trying to brush them out."
When she does finally walk into the tiny Chelsea nail salon, she looks like she could be in a shampoo commercial, Shirley Temple curls combed out into curtain of dark hair, expertly applied cat eyeliner in place, lips slightly overdrawn. She assures me she wouldn't normally be this glam — although I've never seen Harrison look anything short of stunning — but in a few hours she'll be walking the red carpet at the premiere for season two of Shrill.
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Harrison, a regular on the underground comedy circuit and a writer for Netflix's Big Mouth, was a standout on the first season of Aidy Bryant's Hulu series as a scathing receptionist always ready with a withering glare and a devastating one-liner. Thanks to the show's hair and makeup team, she always looks effortlessly cool — a look she says she also aims for IRL.
As we had our nails done in preparation for Harrison's big night, the actress clued me in on some of her most heavily guarded beauty secrets, hair mistakes, and why she's scared of getting massages.
Do you do square or round?
I did round this time.
What's your usual go-to nail moment?
I usually do gel in bright colors because I feel like your fingernails are so small that you can't really do anything to them to make them look outlandish other than if you've got, I don't know, sad to say it, swastikas or something bad on them. So I'm very sad to say that. But I think it's just bright colors because I hate looking at my hands.
I don't know. It's like the main thing you see in this reality.
So you don't gesticulate a lot?
I do, but I don't look at my hands when I do it.
Do you have some deep-seated trauma about your hands?
I think... probably. I remember my mom telling me I had really witch-like hands? Yeah.
She's full of things like that. She's very blunt when it comes to body stuff. All my sisters are fucked up because they all have complexes that are given to us by our mom.
Are a lot of them specifically around beauty?
Yeah. We had one sister in my family specifically that my mom would just openly point to in public and say, "This is the pretty one." [Laughs] It was messed up. She thought it was funny, but it gave us all brain damage.
Does she still do that?
Not really, but it took us having many individual meltdowns [and saying], "Mom, you can't say stuff like that." I remember one time, I had just got out of the shower and I was putting on pajamas and she walked in and I was in my underwear and she was like, "You get fat in some places, but you know, you're really skinny in others." Just very matter-of-factly. And I'm like, I'm going to tear your jaw off your face. She just knows how to specifically how a devastate someone.
No one can devastate you like your mom.
Yeah. 100 percent.
What is your beauty routine like?
I don't think I have a good one. Historically it's been inconsistent and I think I'm pretty bad to my body and specifically my skin. I just thought I never had money to spend on cosmetics or any sort of skincare, so I was always using that 35-in-one natural soap for everything. It's pretty unsophisticated. Now I use Kiehl's and that seems to work, and sometimes I'm afraid it's because it's bleaching without telling me it's bleaching. Because I'm like, "Oh my skin is all one tone after I use this face cleanser," and that can't be good, that fast. It's right away. But my brain was immediately sated. So that's worth all the billion tumors inside me right now.
Is there something you can't leave the house without? My mom always says she can't leave the house without mascara on.
My concealed carry. No, I don't have anything. I think mascara, maybe. I really feel that when I don't wear makeup I look like, unfortunately, one of those Java coffee worm aliens from Men in Black. I feel like that's my body shape and what my face looks like when I don't wear makeup. I've been trying to be more comfortable leaving home without it, but I normally wear makeup if I have the time to put it on. I think that's a good dysphoria thing too. Anything that makes me feel safer, that I'm not just going to get clocked or something. Mentally I feel more comfortable.
See, I sometimes think a lot of makeup makes me clockier?
Yeah. It's like if you put it in certain places. And that's something that I still haven't figured out. Because sometimes I'm like, "Oh I put concealer here and for some reason I look like my dad. Exactly like my dad. I guess I can't highlight that area anymore." And I usually overdraw my lip a little bit. Even if it's not a high pigment thing. I'll use something that's close to my actual colors and cheat it out a little bit.
I like beauty that's enhancing what you already have rather than creating something that's not already there. Do you feel the same way?
When I don't fill in my eyebrows I look crazy, because my eyebrows are so weirdly over-tweezed. So I do draw them, and I draw them out a lot bigger than they would probably naturally be. And it changes the way my entire face looks. And I think that's why everyone who's ever slept with me is so violently shocked when my eyebrows are gone. Sort of like, this isn't it. This is not her. This is not the woman I was sleeping with.
I do think there's a weird shame with that. You know, you're not changing the way you look. You're enhancing, and then you are changing the way you look, which is fine. I don't think that should be stigmatized. It's not our fault, it's the system.
For Shrill, is the hair and makeup process collaborative, or do they have a set look they want for you?
It's really great. Jessica Needham is head of hair. My hair person is Bree Moffett, she's an angel. Aidy really pushed to have really, really pleasant people to be around. Morgan Muta is my makeup person. They work with wardrobe who will say they want kind of a Cher from Clueless thing or something. And so they'll talk to us about the ideas they have and then we go from there and see what we're comfortable with. But they are super flexible.
[Nail technician asks if Patti wants a massage. She says no.]
You don't want a massage? Not even if it comes with a happy ending?
The first time I got my nails done, someone just came up and started really wrestling me and it was so... Nope. Just fight or flight response. It's just... I have massage trauma, which is cool. My older sister is a massage therapist and when she was going to school for it, she would adjust me and I never liked it and she always made me do it and it was always really painful and she wasn't very good at it so it was a situation where I was like, I'm not in control of my body.
Did she get better?
She did. She's good now. I would cry. Now we have an amazing relationship.
Have you ever been put in a hair and makeup look on set where you look at yourself and say... absolutely not?
Not on Shrill but I have in the past. I've been in situations where I've cried because I look so bad or because I felt it was a bad experience. I had an experience with a hair person where I was asked me to come to set hair and makeup ready, and I liked the way that I looked, I did a good job. And then I got there and we did a rehearsal, because it was a live improvised bit on a show and we did a rehearsal. It was really fun. And then for the taping they had a studio audience in and they were like, okay so before you go out, for the actual taping hair and makeup are just going to take a look at you, but they think you look great. If you feel comfortable, great. So I said, okay, cool.
And so I went and the hair person was like, "Alright, come sit down, I'm going to fix your hair." And I was like, "Oh well I feel good." And she was like, "Well, your hair looks crazy." And I was like, "Oh it looks crazy?" She said, "See all this stuff? Maybe I should fix all these flyaways." And I was like, "Well, I just have a lot of breakage. I don't think it looks bad." She was like, "It looks really bad. Can you please sit down?" It just put me in the worst head space. This person is just telling me I look like shit. The way I do my hair, on a daily basis. And it just bummed me out really badly. And then it was in front of a bunch of people too. So it was really embarrassing and made me feel bad, but... now we're actually engaged. Things are really rocky, but we're going to go through with it because our families are really pushing us to.
Tell me about your clip-on bang journey.
It has been the best journey. I shot this movie where they asked, "What would you think about bangs for this character?" I thought it would be really cool to have bangs, but I didn't want to cut bangs into my hair because my hair is fine and thin and I've just had weird layers that I've been trying to grow out of my hair for a long time from a bad haircut that I got. And they were like, okay we can just do clip-ons, and we did it, and every time I wore them I felt so powerful. Because it just makes your hair look a million times thicker than it is. And then they told me I could keep them afterwards. And I was like, "I don't know if I'm going to wear these." Because people think it's funny, but also people wear extensions and wigs and it's just more fake hair. Why is it stigmatized?
I don't know if I'm going to wear them much longer. My cap was this week, because I think if you wear them too much you get the track pattern and it pulls your hair and you get bald spots and stuff.
I think you could pull off that look though.
Yeah, little bald patches. You're kind. You glow when you give compliments.
What was the bad haircut?
I wanted to cut my own hair, my hair was just a blunt chop and it was really long in the back and I wanted to be able to put my hair in a ponytail but have little wispies come down. So then I cut my front bangs to long bangs and then it just grew in really weirdly and bad. It looked okay, when I did it. It didn't look that bad, but it just took so long, my hair was so slow to regrow. That's really frustrating.
Is that the worst haircut you've ever gotten?
Well, one time in college, I brought a picture of Rihanna's red bowl cut into the campus salon. And what they did is they kept it long on top, but they pulled it all up into a ponytail and they buzzed off the sides. And so the hair that was long hung over the short hair. But I'm Vietnamese. When my hair's short, it grows straight out of my head until it has enough weight. So the hair, when it started to grow out, it was long, but then the spiky buzz cut underneath started to grow through. So it was poking through and the haircut, when I got it, I thought it looked cool. It only looked cool for like two weeks and then it looked like full shit for a really, really long time. And now I'm here.
Do you watch beauty tutorials on YouTube?
No, but I did the other day. I think it was like 2AM and I was bored. I watched 45 of those Vogue morning routine videos, back-to-back for a really long time.
Whose was your favorite?
I don't know if I had a favorite. They all kind of bummed me out a little bit. How many chemicals people think they need to be putting on their face. When I see someone put that much chemicals on their face...what's getting through? If you put a cleanser and toner on, and then you put a hydrator on, then you put on a moisturizer, and then you put on another tonic. There's so much stuff, I don't feel any of that is getting in to your...
You think that's all bullshit?
I don't think you using that much stuff on your skin. I think it hits a threshold and then you're just putting gunk on your face.
If you were to do one of those Vogue beauty videos, how would it go?
I would already be in a full face of makeup. Full matte makeup and then I would just put more makeup on. That's why I like watching them. It's when people have no makeup on, they're already so hot. It's the fact that they wear makeup, like, wow.
They always look better when they don't have any makeup on.
Exactly. It's camera makeup because you're always seeing people with camera makeup. And camera makeup makes you look like shit. It makes you look so old. It makes you look like Tammy Faye Bakker, god rest her soul. We love her. We miss her everyday. Tragic figure. I'm sorry to drag her and use her name as an insult, but truly, I've been trying to think about that in my own makeup routine.
I used to never wear makeup. And I remember my sister one day was like, "You should really put on mascara or something." And it was one comment from her that made me say okay. And then I remember a friend was like, "You really need to tweeze your eyebrows. You have mean eyebrows." And I was like, okay. It's one comment from a person who was your friend that's well-meaning but can change the trajectory of your entire life, for the rest of your life.
But what about the opposite. If I say: "Honey, you're beautiful exactly the way you are," then you'd just never wear makeup again.
It works exactly like that. That is you. That is how it works.
With beauty, at a certain point you have to stop and say, "That's enough."
It's all arbitrary. I'm trying to think if I've ever received good beauty advice and I think good beauty advice is advice that just makes you feel better and less anchored on the way that you look in our society. And usually it's advice that's... you're harder on yourself. If your sense of beauty is based on if you're pretty enough for other people to want to give you a big nasty kiss, then chances are they just love that you're meat. They love meat. So you don't have to worry about every perfect detail when a person would be happy that you're just a piece of meat that wants to kiss them back.
At the end of the day, you're just a hole.
And sometimes you're a bunch of holes. Well, sometimes. Depending on if you're clean or not.
What's the best compliment you can get?
A compliment that I give a lot when I think someone looks pretty is that they look fresh faced, they look energized and they don't look tired. They look like they're ready for the day. And that's what "fresh faced" means to me. You look great. You look glowing.
Well, the worst thing someone can say is that you look tired.
"Oh, you look tired. Are you sick?" I used to lie and say I was sick at work all the time. Then people would say, you look really sick, you should go home. That's what I get. Lies open the gateway to darker truths.
Don't steal it. It's going to be the title of my streaming show on OWN.
Welcome to You've Been Served, Rose Dommu's alternately irreverent and incisive look at beauty, ranging from the deeply personal to pop cultural — essays, product guides, interviews with artists/influencers/specialists and deep dives into the beauty industry's impact on internet culture.