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Undocumented immigrant turned celebrity makeup artist, Shennel Patrick reflects on her journey

By Shennel “Nelli” Patrick

Shennel Patrick is a Grenadian-born, New York-based, celebrity makeup artist, beauty expert, and content creator. Her work has been featured in Essence, Teen Vogue, VIBE Magazine, Bravo TV, the Today Show, and more. 

Finding Beauty in my Ashes is probably one of my super powers. 

Currently, my ashes are piled at the crossroads of a junction, and I don’t know what’s next. But, what I know for sure is, it’s a beautiful unfolding and I’m excited about what’s to come.

I apologize in advance for this article not being about my five most loved beauty products or a step-by-step on how to achieve the most flawless makeup.

More authentically, this is the story of my path to discovering the virtue of beauty. Makeup comes off. True beauty is what’s left when the mask is stripped away. It is found in the nakedness and depths of you. Sometimes it’s the ashes. True beauty is total – mind, body and spirit. 

Moving to New York

I resented the idea of moving to New York. It felt like my mother was giving me away… again. My mother must have sensed or seen my sadness as we all stood there waiting for me to board my flight. Family in tow. Going to America was an occasion; a big old family bus trip. My mother moved closer to me and questioned my lack of excitement and emotions. “After all chile, all likkle children want to go to America.” It’s the immigrant dream! 

It wasn’t mine! As a little girl I wanted to BE more than I cared to dream. 

In reality, perhaps my dream as a little girl was to feel loved. I dreamt of a home that felt like love and belonging. I dreamt of what it would be like to be doted on by my parents. I dreamt of feeling safe. I dreamt of looking in the mirror and loving the reflection in front of me. Confident, worthy, beautiful all felt like far-fetched dreams, but it was who I wanted to BE. That and a kick ass attorney or journalist! As a child my worth was always validated by my academic and gifted prowess. School and books were my childhood escape from reality. 

After I sat my CXC examinations, I applied and was accepted to a few NYC community colleges, so that offered a soothing balm about migrating. 

Dreams, Prayer & Faith

My mother may not have been equipped to teach me many things, but she taught me how to pray and inadvertently how to connect to Spirit. So no matter how uncertain, scary or dark the road I’ve traveled, I knew how to ground myself in prayer and faith. I deeply honor my mother for that. So, off to the Big Apple I went. I’d faith it till I made it there. 

Dreams may defer, but we all came into the world with a destiny that’s appointed and divine. I didn’t walk with this knowing when familial breakdowns and traumas greeted me in New York. I didn’t walk with this knowing when I had to abruptly drop out of college. I didn’t have this deep sense of knowing when I found myself on the cold, unfamiliar streets of NYC, dragging three huge suitcases into the subway station, on the 5 train to Uptown, last stop – heading to a friend who said yes to me staying with her while I figured this thing out.

Being Undocumented

I didn’t have the awareness that my faith and purpose were under construction when the reality hit me that I was actually undocumented in this country, and all the roadblocks and ramifications that came with having no ‘papers.’ I spent almost 20 years in this country undocumented and fighting for that piece of paper. Thank God I found beauty for my ashes before that fight was over. There were mighty plans with my name on it, that not even my immigration status, my self doubt or all the dreams seemingly deferred could get in the way of it. Remember, divine destiny means that the only thing or person that can get in the way of that is self. 

Like so many undocumented immigrants, I lived in shame and fear of my circumstance for many years. I knew for certain God wanted more for me and from me, but after years of setbacks, failures, closed doors and feeling written off, I was broken and covered in a veil of shame and fear. 

That veil was lifted when Emma came into existence. I became a Mom at 23. Although motherhood wasn’t a dream I dreamt either, my daughter is certainly part of God’s plan – divine destiny. She is the light and love of my life. 

Becoming a mother saved me

So, I’m a new mother with new insight and responsibilities, and a little one’s future to think of. I had to start dreaming for her. It was like my soul gained a new pair of eyes. I started seeing myself and taking serious inventory of my life. As I write this, it sounds like a great awakening. Ha! 23-year-old Shennel had no idea what that looked or felt like, so the beautiful unfolding was lost on me. I was terrified of failing at motherhood. At the time, I didn’t believe I was enough of what she needed or deserved. 

Still undocumented, working as a nanny and other odd office jobs to sustain, I was so deeply yearning for more stability and grounding for her. I was yearning for more time to pour into her. I deeply desired to validate my self worth and purpose in life because my daughter is now watching. The shame and pain of dropping out of college, the failed marriage, depression and suicidal ideations were casting a veil, and my light was going out. I came here for more…My ashes were piled at the crossroads of a junction, and I didn’t know what’s next. 

In many ways I believe my daughter chose me as her mother to re-parent that unhealed little girl inside of me. She has brought me face-to-face with myself and some ancestral wounds of those who walked this path before us. She came here with a very old, wise spirit, one whom I couldn’t hide from if I tried. She has made me bold, persistent, aware and self-reflective in the most beautiful way. I honor my daughter, Emma and the ancestors who watch over us. Fourteen years in deep, she remains my greatest teacher and motivator. She holds a mirror to me everyday in ways that mandates and convicts my spirit to continuously heal and evolve. That mirror also gives me so much grace and reminds me that I am enough. It also reminds me when stillness is what’s required because healing is NOT a destination or my only soul mission.

A way out & new beginnings

After being fired from my last nanny position I saw it as my out. God gave me this gift that seems to naturally flow through me and I had people around me who genuinely believed I was good at this art form. I decided to give makeup artistry a try. I enjoyed doing it, and it was a means to an end. That’s all! Or, at least that’s what I thought. Although I was no longer enrolled in college and my student visa was expired, my dream of going to law school never felt deferred. 

I didn’t dream up this career in beauty myself. I was shifting and remembering I was worth more than my current circumstance. God gave me vision and confirmations so I went for it. I still chuckle at the first time someone paid me to do their makeup. I didn’t even know how to apply lashes. For two years I told everyone who booked that I don’t do lashes. Girl, what? But, they kept coming back. As successful as this journey has been, it has also been arduous. You can swiftly go from being booked all month to spending another month without work. I had to break through so many barriers, inner and outer shells, in order to build genuine relationships and a network. I just knew I wasn’t going back to nannying and it wasn’t my time to go back home to Grenada. 

The road to success

Every time the clientele or opportunity elevated, it would feel like a fleeting fantasy. I often describe it as seeing, hearing, smelling the dream, but you can’t touch it or taste it. A major high from a career accomplishment was often met by the reality of being undocumented, which would tell me that’s as far as I can go. I remember the excitement of the first time I was requested to work on a television production set. Then, the dreaded paperwork to fill out with all the ‘working’ requirements that I did not have. Turning down those jobs would crush me. 

In those moments of confusion I would go to God like the homey, as I still do. “God, You will never bring me this far to leave me. God, You see these people asking me about production work. I asked You for opportunities like these. You showed me this is where you want me to serve. You said my gifts WILL make room for me in the world. We talked about this! Hello, God! I trust You to keep going but You gotta hold me down with those promises, big Homey.” 

I remember the same gut-wrenching feeling the first time I was asked to travel internationally with a client and had to say no. That turned into many, many no’s for international and production opportunities. The ugly veil of shame and playing small would creep in to tell me lies about how far I can go. I eventually decided to shift my perspective and even my prayer. I started believing that I was being shown what’s already laid out for me once I got this obstacle out of the way. “Ok God! That shift in perspective changed my pursuit.” 

Realizing the Vision

I trusted this path, because God gave me vision upon vision. I knew why I’m here and who I’m called to impact and serve. I saw what’s laid out for me, so I was going where it took me. Greencard or not! 

A means to an end became a journey of evolution and a successful decade long career in the beauty industry as a professional makeup artist, beauty educator/expert and content creator. I get to paint the stories of impactful, successful Black women using makeup. My work has been published and televised. I’ve partnered with major brands and corporations on a mission to herald black beauty and shift Black beauty standards. There is much more work to be done, but a mighty work has already been done, and I’d be remiss to not stop and give highest praise and thanks for that. My gift did and continues to make room for me in the world, and yours will too. 

I praise God and honor my Ancestors for continuing to clear the pathway. Beauty – this path – it saved me… 

As my career and clientele grew, I quickly realized that most of the women who sat me in my chair were seeking a transformation way bigger than physical makeup. They were seeking to connect to themselves on a deeper level and it was part of my purpose to help them connect their inherent love of beauty to their emotional, physical and spiritual wellness. That is the essence of true beauty – total, mind, body and spirit. 

I felt a sense of belonging and worthiness when I chose to serve in the beauty industry. God is using me here! I felt myself healing and transforming here. For the first time in my life, I was being me, and it felt like enough. I didn’t need defenses and pretenses to operate here. The latter has been one of the most beautiful parts of my becoming. 

For many years, I lived with a deep-seated distrust of women. I operated with a very stoic defense mechanism so they didn’t get close enough to hurt me, shame me or envy me. I was carrying so much pain inflicted by women who were family, caretakers and friends. I knew that energy stored in my body was getting in the way of a deeper connection to my purpose, my work and the women I am called to serve. That stored energy was also metastasizing in my emotional and physical body as pain. I had to break down this wall, but the only way to do so was to face myself in the mirror and address the little girl in me who never felt safe or accepted. I needed to face my shadows. Some of the most transformative work you’ll ever embark on is shadow or mirror work. It’s hard, but necessary digging if you’re truly seeking the essence of your beauty. There is beauty for your ashes here. You are absolutely deserving of showing up for yourself in this way. 

Beauty is therapy – Beauty heals! 

Historically and culturally, the beauty chair has always been a safe space for Black women. It’s much-needed therapy Black women were afraid to seek out or couldn’t afford to seek out. There’s a level of trust and vulnerability here that holds space for inner transformations on all levels, in every aspect of a woman’s life. In my beauty educator work, I am very intentional about teaching other makeup artists how to harness that transference of energy in the most intentional way. I believe when you’re called to do this kind of work there’s a responsibility attached to that calling. In order to show up and serve with honor, I can’t only talk about it, I must BE about it! Much like the sense of honor I parent with… How can I lead someone to inner transformation if I’m not doing that work on myself? 

As an artist playing a small but very significant role behind the scenes of Black beauty standards, I also feel the responsibility to tell young Black girls the whole truth about the images we put out. It’s hair, makeup, lighting, posing and editing to trick the eye. It’s perception – the mask. What’s real and true cannot be perceived. It just is… 

My life and my story is a true depiction of beauty for ashes, and the mirror has consistently shown up as the great metaphor. Every deferred dream, disappointment and roadblock, the trauma, the trials, a near fatal car accident and learning to walk all over again at the age of 29, all led me to the mirror and a greater, more beautiful version of myself. Every crossroad led me to a greater path. 

Born and raised on a small island, in a quaint village on the countryside, in a very strict religious household, I remember hearing, “Come out of the mirror,” and “you doh tired look at yourself?” alot. The virtue of Beauty was skewed by religious ideologies. It was as if loving on your physical being was damn near sacreligious. As a Black woman becoming and navigating all that comes with it, therapy and my spiritual journey have all brought me right back to the mirror. The paradox of it all! 

So Sister Girl, I encourage you to return to your mirror and hang out there for a little bit. Do this especially if it feels uncomfortable. Keep coming back, I promise it gets easier. I promise you’ll eventually fall in love with her. Keep coming back until you find beauty for your ashes. When you do, remember the path, for many times you’ll have to return. 

The wisdom, the will, the backroads to the way is probably the gift I would impart to the 15 year old little girl standing at Maurice Bishop Int’l Airport with knots in her stomach and lumps in her throat about the great unknown. It’s the gift I give to my daughter, nieces, clients, friends and loved ones about their God-given beauty and divine destiny. Yet even so, your path to beauty and fulfilling your destiny is so uniquely yours – leave plenty room for what’s to be. 

You came into this world beautiful and worthy. Life happened and you forgot along the way. I hope that after you read this and consult with your mirror, that you start remembering the essence of your beauty.

Follow www.heynelli.com

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