For many, cosmetics and beauty products are more than just make-up. It’s a type of armor, war paint, and decoration, all in one. With just the gentle sweep of a few brushes, a person can reimagine themselves any way they like, erasing perceived imperfections and boosting confidence.
Steph Aiello, a professional make-up artist with over 100,000 Instagram followers under her handle @uwalk_iglide–knows better than most people the transforming power of make-up. After surviving not one but two devastating car accidents, Aiello was left a quadriplegic, but has still become a powerful symbol of beauty, positivity and perseverance.
Folks spoke with Steph about her Instagram success, why cosmetics are more important than people realize, and how beauty has given her a larger voice in the wake of her accident. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell us a bit about your Instagram channel, and your rise to beauty vlogging stardom.
When I originally started on Instagram, I actually launched a different channel [for beauty vlogging] in fear of being teased for my limited hand function. While editing, I would crop my hands out so no one could see them, and I started building a following. When I met Tyra Banks, though, she encouraged me to stop being ashamed of my hands, and instead to make them part of my brand. Since then, I have tried to be open [about my disability], hoping to encourage others that every [level of] ability is beautiful and art has no limitations.
Can you tell us about your accident?
On Oct 24th, 2010, I was in a car accident. I dozed off behind the wheel. One of my passengers and I over corrected the car and we launched off an overpass. My friend was in the back seat sleeping and she didn’t make it. The survivor’s guilt has been rough. I hope I’m making her proud. Two months after my first accident, I was in a second accident on Christmas Day where we were hit by a drunk driver. I remember being in the car in shock that it had happened again. I almost lost my mom that day; I’ll never forget the fear in her voice.
What was the hardest thing to get used to, after your accident? How did you rebound?
The hardest thing was learning to try. Everything that took no conscious thought before my accidents suddenly took all the mental and physical strength I had. There was a point where I just stopped trying. I felt like it would be easier to accept my life for what it was. It wasn’t until almost a year later when that thought changed. One day I woke up and remembered my dad saying to me “there’s no such thing as can’t” and I completely snapped out of it. I wanted more from my life and I realized no one was going to get it for me but me.
How has having a disability changed the way you apply makeup?
Being a quadriplegic has changed my entire makeup routine. I now have to open containers with my mouth and lace eyeliner wands through my fingers. It was a challenge to find what works for me but now it’s second nature and I don’t even think about it.
Some people dismiss beauty vlogging as frivolous. Why do you think makeup and cosmetology matters?
Makeup matters because it’s not only art but a form of expression. Every morning I can paint on my canvas exactly what I’m feeling. It’s not only a second voice, but a release for me to be me.
What do you think are the obligations or responsibilities of being an influencer, especially when it comes to disability?
Influencers have an obligation to be honest with their followers. We need to empower others, encourage them to keep trying and practicing. After all, smokey eyes don’t come easy!
As for me, an influencer who’s differently-abled, my obligation and ultimate goal is to encourage my community not to lose sight of who they are. If they loved beauty before their diagnosis, then keep loving it! Like I’ve always said, my injury doesn’t stop so I can live my life, so why should I stop living my life because of my injury?
Through my beauty blogging, I was also able to become an ambassador for the Wings For Life World Run, a global running and wheelchair race. That opportunity has opened so many doors for me but more importantly allowed me to share my story with people from all walks of life.
What does beauty mean to you, and how has having a condition changed that?
Beauty has always been a passion of mine, but nothing like it is now. Now it’s an outlet for me to have a larger voice. It’s a way for me to show everyone that there really is “no such thing as can’t”.
What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time?
I’d tell myself that the key to my future happiness is to fake it until you make it. Once I started to fake all the confidence I wasn’t actually feeling, especially as a woman with a disability, I was able to see all of the positive influence I was actually having on other people. I faked it until one day I realized that I was finally becoming the woman I always knew I wanted to be. That was the biggest milestone of my life. There’s nothing like the feeling of being proud of yourself.