Alicia Keys

There was no way Alicia Keys’ voice in the beauty industry was going to be like anyone else’s.

“I have sat with so many people,” the Grammy winner told Beauty Inc, explaining that landing Oakland, Calif.-based E.l.f. Beauty as a partner for Keys Soulcare, her community-first, clean, cruelty-free “beauty lifestyle” line launching Dec. 3, “felt natural — the right energy, the right people, the right timing, the right understanding of the story we need to tell, that I’ve been on the journey of finding myself all these years.”

Over two decades and multiple albums, she’s taken the world on the journey with her, sharing the struggles in her lyrics, activism and best-selling 2020 memoir, “More Myself,” which traces her evolution from dreamer to creator to full-wattage “light worker” do-er.

A quest for truth in her image and identity has been the common refrain, one that reached a crescendo in 2016 when Keys stopped wearing makeup, igniting a debate about beauty standards and self-esteem. Going makeup-free for an album photo shoot was “the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt,” she wrote in a Lenny Letter essay at the time, inspiring countless women around the world to follow her and post selfies with the #nomakeup hashtag.

Although Keys does now occasionally wear makeup — it should be a choice, she writes — her vision for Soulcare is more than skin-deep. The first products, or offerings as she calls them, are a candle, face cream and face roller that can be used together in a ritual practice. They each come with their own affirmation and are designed with “me time” in mind.

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“I realized we talk about skin care, hair care, body care, nail care, but we never talk about soul care,” she said. “How do you lift your spirit up and look at yourself as a whole person on this deeper level that a lot of times we don’t pay attention to or understand? I know that personally because on my latest album, ‘Alicia,’ I realized I wasn’t opening up all the sides of me. I knew the sides I was comfortable in, but I wasn’t as familiar with these other sides, so getting to know the full, whole you, even parts that feel murky or undiscovered, that’s the beauty. That’s where the inspiration comes from. And you can’t ever get to the bottom, there’s always more to discover.”

“We immediately saw a connection to what Alicia wanted to do,” said E.l.f. chief executive officer Tarang Amin, sharing that the initial concept for a clean skin-care line quickly morphed into a more expansive, category-busting, beauty lifestyle brand launched as a digital community first.

“She had been thinking for years of doing something in beauty but hadn’t found partners who spoke to her broader view. Even in our first conversation she challenged the team to think bigger and transcend beauty to create something deeper that moves beyond product to content, conversation and community,” said the executive, who led the mass beauty brand to its seventh consecutive quarter of sales growth in November, with second-quarter net sales at $72 million. “And there is real authenticity to her story — when she had that epiphany. She’s been quite transparent about the struggles she’s had with her own skin, and not wanting to cover up any more and let her inner beauty shine through. It’s a very empowering message.”

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys  James Bailey/Courtesy of Alicia Keys

A native New Yorker whose hits have included “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Fallin'” and “Girl on Fire,” Keys, 39, has sold more than 40 million albums since her 2001 debut, “Songs in a Minor,” and won 15 Grammys. She’s serenaded President Obama at his first inauguration, worked to fight AIDS in Africa through the Keep a Child Alive organization she cofounded, petitioned for racial justice and equality by launching the We Are Here Movement, and took part in the Women’s March for women’s equality.

A mother to a blended family of five with producer/entrepreneur Swizz Beatz, she’s also learned the hard way the importance of carving out time and space for self-care.

A self-described “concrete jungle version of a free spirit,” Keys has engaged in a range of wellness practices on the way to becoming a soulful lifestyle guru, including HypnoBirthing, Kundalini meditation, kemetic spirituality, journaling, learning the power of no, setting boundaries and active listening, all detailed in her memoir.

“A lot of women have a real issue with putting themselves first and I would love to remove the guilt or the martyrdom from the idea that you can take care, be good and find time for yourself,” she said of her mission to create community by launching a robust editorial web site, keyssoulcare.com, on Sept. 29, two months ahead of offering the Sage + Oat Milk Candle, Skin Transformation Cream and Obsidian Facial Roller for sale there and on ulta.com. Based on Keys’ own skin-care experience, the products were developed with dermatologist Dr. Renée Snyder, cofounder of clean beauty pioneer W3ll People, part of the E.l.f. brands umbrella.

“Sage is an ingredient that’s important in my life. I’m big on clearing space, a lot of times I have to move in places that are unfamiliar to me, at least before now, and even now in spaces that are familiar, I want to make sure any energy I’m holding onto is purified, cleansed and clear, so sage is such a great tool for that,” said Keys of the candle with a sweet, nutty fragrance and the affirmation, ‘I shine at full wattage.’ “I use candles and incense a lot to set intensions and say prayers, to ask for whatever it is I’m needing or looking for.”

Keys Soulcare Obsidian Facial Roller, Skin Transformation Cream and Sage Oat Milk-Candle.  Courtesy

An antioxidant-rich hydrator and exfoliator with bakuchiol, the Skin Transformation Cream was designed with Keys’ lifelong skin challenges in mind. “It’s super-amazing…there is gold in there, and so many other amazing ingredients that speak to natural elements. And it’s not heavy. Because I’ve had trouble with my skin, I’m always leery of things that could potentially make the skin react,” Keys said of the cream, designed to be used with the cooling roller for self-massage. “I have used jade and rose quartz rollers, I have never had an obsidian roller — it’s this black, beautiful lava stone,” she said. “I’m big on stones and I love the way they can help me access my energy. This one is about removing negative energy and helping you find inner strength. Rolling it on the face, it feels so good to be connected with that purpose.”

The offerings are designed to complement conversations and community happening on the Keyssoulcare site, which has a weekly e-mail newsletter and a range of uplifting and inspirational content under the verticals of body, spirit, mind and connection, including morning playlists, “astrologers we dig,” features about how to act against racism and the superpowers of stones. The site also spotlights a diverse community of “light workers” who use their platforms to spread positivity, such as director/photographer India Sleem, Orenda Tribe designer Amy Yeung and Black Women Raise founders forum creator Dee Poku.

“It’s the idea of uplifting others who are interesting and working on cool, innovative things that prompts us to go deeper and think about ourselves,” Keys said of the web site.

“We wanted to do something that hasn’t been done in beauty before, something that’s incredibly expansive. That’s why we have led with content, and Alicia’s fellow light workers,” added Amin. “Alicia has brought light and positivity to what has otherwise been a dark time. And she has been this beacon of light for years. We wanted to bring the essence of Alicia to life.”

In the works for more than a year, Keys Soulcare is E.l.f.’s first brand extension since the acquisition of W3ll People in February.

“I give a lot of credit to Desiree Perez, who is the ceo of Roc Nation, who represents Alicia. We separately got to the same place. Because Alicia wanted to do something in beauty, they did their job. Every major house was interested in doing something with Alicia Keys and yet every time she met with people, it wasn’t tuned to what she was all about,” said Amin. “The great thing about Dez is both her and Jay-Z have been friends with Alicia for years and she knew Alicia was looking for something deeper. She encouraged Alicia to come meet with us in Oakland. That first meeting, we hit it off. She loved the diversity of the company and that what she stands for she saw in this company — over 75 percent of employees are women, 60 percent are Millennial or Gen Z, we’re highly diverse all the way up to our board. We’re one of nine public companies with over 60 percent women on our board and 40 percent diverse.”

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys  James Bailey/Courtesy of Alicia Keys

“It feels so good being a woman of color who is more open and creative and connected to myself and my journey then I have ever felt, and being able to connect us together as different people finding our way,” Keys said of her new role as a leader in the industry. “I love that it’s happening in this moment.”

While some companies hit pause on new launches during the pandemic, E.l.f. forged ahead.

“Initially we were meeting in person, but we mastered the art of the Zoom collaboration,” said Amin. “If you’d have told me a year ago we’d be creating a new brand over Zoom and shipping her products and formulas to try, I would have said you’re crazy. But it’s part of our new normal. We feel this is the best time possible for this brand. People are hungering for this. But I would be lying if I didn’t say there were some changes along the way.”

Keys and E.l.f. teased the launch in October with a Soulcare Lounge digital event that garnered 6.5 billion press impressions, and the brand’s social channels often feature inspirational messages from Keys. “Alicia has over 92 million followers on social media. There were quite a few E.l.f. consumers who aspired to her so it’s a very broad audience she already has. Certainly women of color are included, but so are all other women. She is someone who appeals to younger, older, more diverse, mainstream consumers. That’s part of the power of her, her message is universal,” said Amin.

From sharing her love of green tea and manuka honey, ingredients that will make their way into the line as it expands into a full range of skin-care and body-care offerings in 2021, to offering input on texture, scent and mood, to being intensional about wanting to lead with community before consumers saw product, the singer was involved every step of the way. “The dream has been to help you and me find beauty from this inner place,” she said.

The brand is being positioned in the entry-level prestige category, with prices from $20 to $38. So far, reaction from retailers has been enthusiastic. “We will start this brand digitally, but we will have retail partners as well. The only one we’ve disclosed so far is Ulta Beauty…but in talking with [ceo] Mary Dillon and her senior team, their genuine level of excitement and what it means to them has been validating.…They expect this to be an important brand for them not only at launch but for years,” said Amin.

Keys is here for it, and already dreaming bigger for Soulcare — food, fitness, fashion. “It’s unlimited, there is no ceiling to this, the access points are many,” she said before adding with her signature lyricism, “That’s what I love, it’s not to be contained and constrained.”