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'Feeling pretty — that's a revolution': Simply Sámone lipgloss line centers Black women

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

Jassma'ray Sámone Johnson made her first lipgloss in fourth grade by mixing Kool-Aid and Vaseline on her mother's stovetop.

"I would just go down the street (to use my neighbor's Wi-Fi) and look up things to make in the house," Johnson said. "I remember, that week, I had tried homemade play dough."

Growing up in Des Moines, classmates made fun of Johnson's lips and said they were too big. But wearing lipgloss made her feel confident.

"I was like, 'My lips are pretty, what are y'all talking about?" the Iowa State University student said.

Jassma'ray Johnson at the Whistler Studio in Des Moines. Johnson's lipgloss line Simply Sámone was started this summer.

An outline of Johnson's lips are the logo of her cosmetic brand, Simply Sámone, which sells lipgloss and lip balms made with organic ingredients, like beeswax pellets and peppermint oil. The brand's goal is to "make people feel unapologetically beautiful in their own skin, while encouraging, inspiring and uplifting."

Johnson, 19, started making and selling lipgloss from her dorm room this spring. At first, she treated the business venture more like a hobby, taking orders through Instagram and delivering products in her car herself. But after quitting her part-time job at Hy-Vee this summer, Johnson decided to fully commit to her lipgloss line. She launched a website in August and started selling her products at Studio7 Salon and Spa in Ames and Vanity & Glamour Cosmetics in Des Moines.

Johnson said she experienced racist harassment at work and was asked to take down a Black Lives Matter sign at her cash register. About 50 demonstrators protested at the S.E. 14th Street location in Des Moines on her behalf. In a June statement to the Des Moines Register, Hy-Vee spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said it was "disappointing" that Johnson had not further discussed her complaints with the company.

"I really, really hate quitting," Johnson said. "I worked at Hy-Vee for three years and some change ... I was trying to hold onto it so bad."

► Related: Protesters at Hy-Vee demand raises for employees because of COVID-19, accountability for harassment

Now, though, Johnson is her own boss. All her lip products are handmade, and she dreams of selling lipstick, lip scrubs and T-shirts one day. She says being a young Black entrepreneur is empowering, but sometimes, "it feels like it's like it's a constant battle."

An activist herself, Johnson started focusing on her business against the backdrop of a national reckoning with systemic racism. As a Black woman, she says she struggles to be taken seriously. People often ask her to give them discounts on her $8 products.

"I feel like Black women are always disrespected ... we always set these trends and then people take it and they run with it, while Black women get ignored," Johnson said.

As Johnson and other Black girls were bullied for their full lips, white celebrities like Kylie Jenner have made lip fillers fashionable. Walmart, CVS and Walgreens locked up beauty products marketed to African-Americans in glass cases until this summer. U.S. courts are still divided over whether banning braided hair styles and locs at school and work violates civil rights laws, although some states have banned the practice.

► More: Keke Palmer, Gabrielle Union, more celebs share Black hair discrimination stories in PSA

"Black women are driven. Black women are fierce, resourceful, brave & resilient. Honor Black women. Uplift Black women. The lives of Black women and Black girls matter," Johnson writes on her website. She told the Tribune that she hopes to see Simply Sámone amplify Black women and people of all genders, races and abilities, so having diverse models is important to her — after all, "boys wear (her) lipgloss, too."

"That can change someone's whole perspective — seeing someone that looks like them (reflected in media)," Johnson said.

Johnson's love for lipgloss grew from watching music videos of Black R&B artists like Aaliyah and Mary J. Blige. The Simply Sámone lipgloss "Brown Bombshell" is inspired by "the Black beauties of the 90s."

"They would wear the shades, the bangs, the dark lipgloss ... (and I thought), 'that's so dope,' " Johnson said.

Hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige

In addition to running her own business, Johnson is an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. She's majoring in psychology and communications with a minor in African-American studies at ISU, where she is also a Multicultural Vision Program scholar. Balancing so many different passions, Johnson says beauty is part of her self-care — "sometimes you just gotta get cute."

► Related: Meet Des Moines' civil rights organizers

"There's so much going on in the world — not only with racism and sexism, but just being alive is a struggle. Waking up every day, that's a war within itself," Johnson said. "Sometimes, when I have bad days, I'll just be in my house playing some music, putting on a little outfit, putting some lipgloss on. Being able to feel comfortable in your own skin, feeling pretty — that's a revolution."

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.