Julianne Hough as the “New Black” or Was It Just a Halloween Costume?

Julianne HoughJulianne Hough made headlines over the weekend for wearing a Halloween costume resembling a regular character on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” played by the actress Uzo Aduba. Hough’s costume featured an orange jumpsuit, her hair in bantu knots, and dark skin. The party was barely over when photos of her, identifying her dark-skin makeup  as “black-face” on social media, forced her into an apology for it:

“I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”

So, was it really “black-face” or just a costume? Can darkening a white face ever be anything but disrespectful and demeaning?

It’s hard for me to imagine how Hough got past her own mirror and out on the street in that costume. While I don’t think this was an attempt to mock or demean anyone, there should have been a moment while she watched the transformation from white to black that should have stopped her. This is a favorite character to her and a favorite actress, I get that, but that’s not what Halloween costumes are all about once you become a grown up. Kids dress up like Superman and it’s cute and you understand they love Superman. But grownups dress up like Superman and it’s just funny, it’s a joke.  You don’t dress up like Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi out of respect. Grown-ups mean it to shock, to hurt, and to offend.

And that’s what happened here.  Somewhere along the way to that party, this clever idea of dressing up like actors on your favorite series went wrong. There were plenty of opportunities for her to dress up as other characters on the show or on another show – because it’s funny, as a joke.

But, you know, there is something so deeply disturbing about coloring your skin in this way.

I sang in an Italian opera festival years ago. We performed three operas in repertory with all Italian principals and an all-American chorus and orchestra. Over the course of several weeks, we performed in both of the main theaters in Spoleto and in a small theater in Rome. The operas were Don Pasquale, Orfeo and Eurydice, and Treemonisha by Scott Joplin. The first two were standard opera fare at the time, but Treemonisha is kind of an oddity and it’s quaint. Like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, it requires an all-African American cast.  Our Treemonisha cast was all white.

The production began with two singers kneeling down in front of an open trunk. They gleefully pulled out costumes and dressed in exaggerated motions, pulling on tops and skirts.  Then, as if they had discovered pots of gold instead of pots of black makeup, they opened the pots and started smearing paint on their faces, smiling all the while to the audience. Then the curtain came up and there we all were, dressed in similar tops and skirts and our faces made up to be what this Italian production crew thought was “Black.” It was real, old fashioned black-face.

The Americans complained. We told them that it was hurtful and that it reminded us of the darkest hours of American history and the struggles in America at that very moment, but the response was just, “We are just dressing up. Where is the harm in that?”

We were offered a choice: to go along, or be sent home and replaced by Italian singers who were eager to sing our parts. I was furious and stunned, but I needed the job at the time and I stayed with the festival. I was able to convince the director to let me do my own makeup because I figured if I had to endure this, I would do it at my own hand.

I can remember the first moment when finally, my whole face was covered in paint. I remember sitting in the makeup chair, looking into the mirror and not seeing any part of my self looking back. I was completely lost. There was a woman I had never seen before sitting in the chair, wearing my costume, crying. After that, I waited until the last minute before each show to put on my make-up and took that paint off the second I was offstage after the curtain calls, avoiding mirrors. That image called up to me every one of my friends who was not cast in some production because it might “say” something if the producers cast a Black Micaela in Carmen or a Black Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Certainly, in those days, there could never be a Black Lucia or a Black Gilda, and it became for the longest time, a way for opera companies to discriminate against African American singers.

Julianne Hough made some really poor choices in wearing that costume. Next time, let’s hope she chooses to dress up like a witch or a sexy kitten.

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on Open Salon and Red Room and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is also a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus.  www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Twitter at @nilesite.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Stacey Huggins/CC License

  • This is an incredible story. Thank you for sharing. It reminded me of something from my childhood.

    • Anne Born

      Thanks, Amy. This girl clearly lost her way on this one.

  • Joan Haskins

    This piece is so moving, Anne. Your own story is remarkable, and I appreciate this very much.

    • Anne Born

      Thanks, Joan. It’s kind of remarkable that people fail to see how hurtful this can be.

  • Linda Seccaspina

    Excellent– just shared it on facebook and Twitter

    • Anne Born

      Thanks, Linda – much appreciated!

  • Cheryl

    “Grown-ups mean it to shock, to hurt, and to offend.” BS, BS, BS!!!! I have never dressed up for Halloween to shock, to hurt, or to offend!!! Most of us dress to look cute, sexy or scary. Dressing as her favorite character from the show was showing her respect for the person and part. Were all the white girls supposed to only go as the blondes, brunettes or redheads? And only if that is their natural color for goodness sakes? i guess we will start being arrested for dressing as anything but ourselves in the future!! I’m getting so tired of this new type of offense!

  • Anne Born

    Cheryl – I’m glad you go for cute, sexy, or scary. That’s what makes Halloween fun. In this case though, if Ms. Hough had stopped her characterization with the costume or the hair and the costume, we all would have seen it as honorific.

    • Cheryl

      No one would have known who she was pretending to be.

  • Anne Born

    Except that she went with a group and they all dressed up as the characters from that show. If the only way to portray someone is to get into black face, or to darken your skin to this extent, much better to stick with witch or sexy kitten.

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