Holly Carlson dancer, artist and model
It’s not everyday that we come across a belly dancing, artist who models on the side and is obsessed with professional wrestling. So when the opportunity arose we jumped at the chance. Meet the enchanting Holly Carlson a multi-disciplinary artist, here she talks to us about the challenges of making it as an artist, race, self-acceptance and how a fateful tarot card reading helped her to find her passion.
What is your heritage?
My mum is Zimbabwean and Portuguese and my dad is English and Danish. I was born and raised in London, England.
Where did you grow up?
North West London – Camden Town to be precise. No matter where I end up, it will always be my home.
How did you start your career?
I have always drawn or painted since childhood, it’s just something I did. I didn’t go to art school as I wasn’t really into the formula of it. Instead I went abroad and studied French on a whim, but continued to draw. I started pursuing dance as an adult. I had always loved it and dabbled in it briefly at school.
One day, I went for a tarot card reading and they suggested that I start belly dancing. I was skeptical at first, but after my first lesson I was completely hooked. It’s been a love affair ever since! I’ve never been with a modelling agency, yet somehow it’s always been something I’ve done in some way or another. When I do get to model, it’s something I really enjoy. A few years ago I just decided to follow what I loved doing, no matter the sacrifice and that was that.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge in your career?
I have to be honest and say finances. Like many others in creative fields I have to subsidise what I do with endless jobs that enable me to survive financially but they also drain time and energy away from my real ‘life work’. I know that’s nothing new, but these days it seems more extreme since the arts are so underfunded now. No one has any money and everyone wants stuff for free.
Other than that, I would say having to define myself to others is a constant challenge. As an artist I express myself in different mediums, whether that be on paper or through my body. Classing myself under just one subcategory doesn’t feel right, as they inform each other, but people tend to want you to define yourself as ‘this’ or ‘that’. If they can’t put you in a box then they’d rather not bother because it’s too time consuming for them to decide whether or not to take an interest before they see what it is you do. This has also made finding some kind of representation, like an agent or agency a struggle.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that I’m constantly expressing myself and discovering more about myself in the process of creating which can only be a good thing. I love dressing up, getting into costume and having a story to embody is so fun for me. I also love the people I meet from all different walks of life.
What do you dislike the most about your job?
This is more external, but I dislike the fact that artists aren’t generally considered desirable candidates for anything ‘official’ or government related things, it can make life difficult sometimes. I also have moments where I dislike how vulnerable what I do makes me feel, because I’m always exposing some part of myself to the world, but I remind myself that it’s a key part of the growth that comes with it.
Working in the creative industry there is sometimes the pressure to always look good, what is your view on this?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel that pressure sometimes. I’ve gone on a real journey with that.
When you’re rejected or unsuccessful in getting something you want, it’s really easy to get pulled into the cycle of self-loathing and not feeling good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, fair enough etc. etc., even if you’re a relatively grounded person who knows better. I think all girls feel that way at some point even if they’re strong confident women.
I enjoy making myself look nice. I feel like, if you take away the pressure of being required to look good all the time and replace it with the curiosity and fun you can have when experimenting with what makes you feel good and look good in your own eyes, then taking care of your appearance becomes really enjoyable. Tend to it as an exploration of what you like aesthetically as well as what excites you from the inside out and it becomes a lot less low-self-esteem inducing.
It took me a really long time to be accepting of my appearance and what I saw in the mirror. I still get days where I don’t feel great about myself, but I try to nurture that rather than strive to look like someone else. As much as I love getting dressed up, I’m far too lazy to wear make-up everyday. It means I don’t always show up everywhere looking flawless, but as long as my skin is relatively clear and my eyebrows aren’t too wild, I think I’m ok. In reality, there’s no one way to look “pretty”. We’re most beautiful when we feel comfortable in ourselves
What does your hair represent to you?
It represents self-acceptance and self-love. I spent my whole life not understanding my hair or how to ‘manage’ it and as a result, wishing it was anything other than what it was. For so long I hated that it wasn’t “like everyone else’s” (i.e. straight). I’m still learning what it likes and doesn’t like and how to care for it properly as opposed to just trying to mask it or make it something it isn’t. I think you learn to love yourself gradually through accepting and nurturing the different parts of your physical and mental being that make you you, until eventually, you reach the whole. I’ve always been a lot kinder to myself about the imperfections in my emotional and mental health than about my appearance.
Loving my hair was the last step in being ok with my physical appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I still have really bad hair days where I want to cry (what is it about hair that has the power to make you so emotional sometimes?), but now I appreciate my hair and its texture for its own magic. It’s a hair of mixed textures from both sides of my family and it’s so much more versatile than I ever thought it was. I’m trying to look at it from the angle of what it can do and not what it isn’t. If I really want to get poetic about it, my hair is really a physical representation of me; it goes its own way, it’s delicate and fine whilst appearing big and strong, it’s full of depth and unseen shades, it has a mind of its own…it cannot and more importantly, should not be tamed!
What are your favourite hair products and why?
I love Moroccan Oil. I’ve been using it for years now and it’s stood the test of time. Whenever I blow dry my hair it’s a must, but even when I wear it au naturel it’s really handy for my ends and restoring lustre. I like Boucleme’s Curl Cream – it’s a new addition to my hair care, but I use it to ‘refresh’ curls a few days after I’ve washed my hair. I bought this wonderful curl cream in Seattle that I LOVED. It was a local (Washington state) brand called Loma and it was their Curvy Creme. I’ve run out of it now, but I desperately want more. DevaCurl NoPoo is definitely a favourite – but again, another product I’ve run out of recently.
Have you had any major hair disasters?
Yes – when I was 15 and started bleaching my hair. I feel like bad DIY dye jobs are a rite of passage that few people experience these days with the desire to look fabulous on Instagram all the time. Anyway, I was redoing my roots one evening after school and just remember thinking that something wasn’t quite right and that I had left it on too long (my hair is a really dark brown with warmer red tones underneath, so I was like “I need to get the yellow out!”, not realising that this is what toner is for). When I took off the foils and started washing it out the front left hand side of my hair just fell out and what I was left with looked like little chick hair (right down to the colour). People at school thought I’d decided to be edgy and shave part of my head, alas, that was not the case. I wore a clip in hair extension for a little while until it was long enough to look like I was growing out some weird side fringe-type do. I mean it could’ve been so much worse, but at the time it really knocked my confidence.
When do you feel most beautiful?
When I feel like what is represented on the outside is the same as what’s on the inside. When I surrender to dance and allow myself to move freely, without inhibition. When I’m lying naked in my husband’s arms, completely at ease.
Tell us about your beauty routine?
It sounds naive, but I’ve only recently started incorporating actual skincare ‘routines’ into my life. I used to only cleanse/tone/moisturise if I’d been wearing make-up that day or if I felt I looked like I needed to. I’m really lucky in that I’ve always had pretty good skin so I didn’t suffer the consequences.
It was my sister who told me that I should start taking better care of my skin regardless of whether I’d been wearing make-up or not. I’ve always used Bioderma’s Sensibio H2O (a product I swear by), then I follow with a toner. I like Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel because my skin is on the oilier side, but I switch up toners quite often, alternating between that and gentler ones. Then to finish I use an oil, I love trying out different ones, but currently it’s Neal’s Yard Remedies Frankincense facial oil. During the day I use rosewater on my face, followed by Neal’s Yard Remedies Frankincense Hydrating Cream(I currently have the ‘Nourishing’ version, but the Hydrating one is a bit lighter and works better for me). Maybe there’s more I should do? I’d like to learn more about face masks but they intimidate me. I’ve been using all of these products for years now and I’ve never been unhappy with them, so I think it’s working for now. Sometimes I’ll use an exfoliating face wash in the morning – Neal’s Yard Remedies Purifying Palmarosa Facial Polish is amazing. You might be able to tell, I’m pretty biased towards Neal’s Yard products. I just find that I come back to them constantly.
What are your favourite make-up products?
I love Rituel de Fille’s Enchanted Lip Sheer in Love Ache along with their Ash & Ember Eye Soot in Viscera. Kat Von D’s Tattoo Liner is great, you can never have enough good eyeliner. Mascara is something I’m always changing, but I’m using a By Terry one at the moment that I’m quite into. ‘Face’ make-up is still very new to me and I’m navigating it primitively; I’ve always loved doing heavy, colourful eye make up, lipstick and then nothing on the face. I still don’t know how to use foundation, or setting powders or anything like that. For performances I’ve now started to wear a little bit of Bobbi Brown Skin Foundation Stick to balance out some of the harshness of stage lighting, followed by their Nude Finish Illuminating Powder. I like that they’re not heavy at all and my skin can breathe. I feel like Bobbi Brown have the best shades for mixed skin tones in my opinion. By Terry’s Compact-Expert Dual Powder is a recent addition to my make-up bag for highlighting/bronzer and I love it. I’ve always been a fan of NARS eyeshadows too. I rarely take my make-up bag out with me, but I always carry a lipstick just in case – I like NYX’s Full Throttle Lipstick in Sandman, it’s a lovely warm red. I recently got into Charlotte Tilbury lipsticks oh my goodness, they are the best!
When are you most happy?
When I feel creatively fulfilled. Or when I’m dressing up – I guess I never grew out of that feeling of excitement and joy you get as a child from rummaging through a trunk or wardrobe and making yourself and your friends feel like a princess (I’m using that as a general term for whatever feels special for you).
What is your favourite book of all time?
It’s so hard to just pick one! Joan Didion’s essays have played a large role in my life (‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ and ‘The White Album’ in particular), but I love her novel ‘Play It As It Lays’ too. Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘Glamorama’ is another favourite as well.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I’m always listening to a lot of old music and making little playlists. Alice Coltrane and Heart are always on regular rotation. I haven’t really been inspired by much of what’s currently being celebrated as good music at the moment, so I’m always just listening to my old heavy metal albums. In terms of ‘newer’ artists I love Sevdaliza and Oranssi Pazuzu.
Who do you admire and why?
I admire my mother for never giving up on her creative pursuits, or letting age define her and also for raising my sister and me. Vali Myers because she lived fearlessly and completely in her own way in a world she created for herself as an artist, surrounded by nature and animals. My husband, Dylan (Carlson), for always following his creative vision regardless of what’s “cool” or what people want him to do, and for not giving a shit about “image”. He is one of the few people I know who really does not care about how he’s perceived, never worrying about looking cool to the “right” people (most people pretend not to care, but they really really do). It’s a rarer quality than you think, he’s a true artist in that sense.
You’re hosting a dinner party, who is on the guest list and what would be on the menu?
It would be equal parts feral, glamour and artsy weirdness. Vali Myers, Ru Paul, Dolly Parton, Thea Porter, Elizabeth Taylor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Anais Nin, Marjorie Cameron (though maybe the two of them would fight?), Sofia Coppola, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Bruce Lee, Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, with my husband Dylan as my co-host. I’m not sure what we’d eat…some kind of veggie feast. Middle Eastern food makes me really happy so let’s say that, but then there’d also be an array of deserts from all over the place, including a saffron tres leches cake and a cherry crumble with custard.
What is your ideal way to spend the weekend?
In languid productivity. Or just spending the whole day playing dress up, dancing, baking cakes, reading, watching the sunrise, going to a wrestling show, exploring a new city… It really depends. Sometimes my ideal day is to just be with the person I love and seeing where the day takes us.
Interview by: Abisoye Odugbesan
Photographer: Britta Burger