Sandra Riley Tang on the lip shade she’ll never wear, the contour she always sports, and who RRILEY really is
To quote a certain musical sensation, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. And neither can Sandra Riley Tang, it seems. The vocalist of one Sam Willows has shed her skin in 2019, emerging as RRILEY; the bearer of platinum blonde locks, flame-tipped talons, and some seriously blinged-out lids. A dramatic departure from her usual minimalist fare comprising winged liner and a nude lippie, it is change that has us sitting up and paying attention — which is exactly the desired effect.
"Most people know me from Sam Willows, so I wanted to create an image that was completely opposite of what people see when I'm in the band," she explains. "I wanted a reaction. For that to happen, it had to be something that was drastically different. And so, RRILEY's look was born."
Who is RRILEY, really? Almost just as importantly, who does her makeup? Are we to expect more fantastical beauty looks to come? Promotions for her new single, Burn, have left us more questions than answers. Ergo, we sat down with RRILEY and her long-time makeup artist, Sha Shamsi, to put out our burning (hehe) questions. Get comfortable, folks — because we're about to pull back the lid on Singaporean music's biggest enigma.
Is RRILEY your musical alter ego, kind of like Sasha Fierce is to Beyoncé?
Sandra: That would be the reference I would use, except I wouldn't dare compare myself to Beyoncé, for sure. [Laughs]
What were you trying to convey in your new single, Burn?
Sandra: Burn is mainly about having the confidence to step out of your comfort zone. It's about having something inside you that you really want to explore, but being scared of it. It is about having doubts and pushing all that aside to go out to and do it anyway.
Is that what you were thinking of when crafting RRILEY's look?
Sandra: Yeah, definitely!
Sha: We came up with it together. We had thousands of meetings, references, and arguments [Laughs]. They're positive ones, though! We even had trial sessions to try out the makeup, so we could determine what to remove and keep.
Sandra: It's quite funny. When I first brought up the conversation for RRILEY's look, I was like, "Sha, we're going to have to go crazier!" My makeup for Willows was pretty standard, so I gave her a lot of Drag Race references. I love how transformative their makeup is. And that's what I wanted; I wanted to transform. I kept sending her so many references, I think she got sick of it. On shoot day, she was just like, "This is what I'm going to do with your eyes. We're going to put all these crystals on it." And I was just like, "Okay!"
Sha: I allowed her to choose the colour of the crystals. See? Collaboration!
Clearly, you both work well together.
Sandra: I was really happy about the look as a whole. I used to be very conservative with my styling and my makeup. But in the recent years, I've become a lot more open and I really trust makeup artists like Sha a lot more. She knows what I like, what I don't like, she's willing to accommodate if I want to change this or tweak that to find a middle ground.
Sha: It really is all about collaboration. I would never force a look on someone; whoever I'm working on, they have to look and feel good. I have my ideas, but I need whoever is sitting in the chair to feel it. I always take a step back if they don't like it. I will push the people I know [laughs], but when I know Sandra really doesn't like it, that's when I back off.
Is there anything Sandra is highly resistant to, makeup-wise?
Sha: No red lips.
Sandra: And my eyebrows have to be very specific. They have to have a nice arch, they have to be clean...
Sha: It's a battle.
Sandra: I've been averse to red lips for the longest time. [Laughs] I understand my face really well, and I feel that I don't have a very "neutral" face where I can pull off all kinds of makeup. I had problems when makeup artists used to take a "template" of what works for most girls in Singapore, and they would put it on my face, and it would just look terrible. I had some baby fat, and a red lip just didn't do me any favours. It's something that I'm really strongly against, even today. Seven years later.
But you're adventurous with colours otherwise...
Sha: She'll do black lip shades, blue lip shades...
Sandra: I would do the craziest lipsticks but just no red. It's not me. When I have red lipstick on, I look in the mirror, I'll be like, "Who is this?" I think partly why it doesn't suit me is because my skin has a reddish undertone.
Do you guys fight?
Sha: [Laughs] She's a 500% girl, and I'm old. She's basically me when I was young! She has her own set of ideas; she knows what she wants. So, what I do is try to create looks that evoke a response, but not provoke her. It's fine balance to maintain.
Sandra: But that's the way the best things are created! You need to have a huge mess to find the good bits. I think it's great because we're so different in style — she's so editorial, and I'm not. I love how it all fuses together.
Sha: Our fights are crazy though, you should be on set. We are both strong personalities.
How long have you guys been working together?
Sandra: Around two to three years.
Sha: It was a struggle for me at first.
Sandra: I'll be honest. It was a struggle for every single makeup artist because I was very specific with what I wanted. It came to the point where I was like, "Can I just do my own makeup?" And I'd always feel bad! But Sha won, you know? She stuck around!
Sha: Sandra would come in with full makeup already done. [Laughs] I'd trust her enough to do her own makeup, though. She's so good that when she comes in, nobody can tell if I did her makeup or if she did it herself. My name is on the line, so if she comes in with her full makeup already done, I have to ask myself, "This is associated with me. How will I look?" When I look her made-up face, I also have to think, "Can I replicate this myself?" For me, I just really trusted her skill with makeup.
Sandra: It's also because I'd always check with her first. I'd do it and be like, "Sha, is this okay?" Because it's not like I want to overstep either.
Sha: That's where the issue of experience comes in. I came from theatre, so I know all about stage lights and performance. When she's performing, I know when to tell her to put on more makeup, what needs to be stronger... She does fabulous makeup on her own, though. There are some things she can do, that I can't, and some things I can do that she can't. Like, your nose job. [Laughs]
Sandra: Yeah, my nose contour!
Sha: It's a very specific contour. It's a learning platform for me. I learn every day, working with Sandra. She puts me in a position where I can learn from her, and it keeps me humble. I understand her, and respect her boundaries. It's a relationship of discovery. She's discovering me and I'm discovering her.
So you can completely trust Sha to do 100% of your makeup right?
Sha: Not yet. [Laughs] She will never.
Sandra: I'm like that with everybody! If anything, I trust Sha more than anybody.
Sha: It's not a sickness, I want you to embrace it! It's something you should be proud of. You need to learn to trust yourself more, because makeup is supposed to enhance, not dictate. When I craft a look for Sandra, I want her to love it. My own interpretation of Sandra is that she is a fighter, and when she loves something, it shows. So, I want her to love her makeup.
Sandra: When I love it, it shows. When I hate it, it will also show. [Laughs] I always want her input, though, because Sha is an artist. I would never be like, "I want it this way, and exactly like this" because if I was going to be like that, I might as well just hire an intern to do my face.
What was the biggest challenge when it came to crafting RRILEY's look?
Sha: Putting on the Swarovski crystals.
Sandra: It took so goddamn long!
Sha: It's because she can't sit still for too long.
So, can we expect a lot more dramatic looks from RRILEY now?
Sha: That's a secret.
Sandra: Yeah, you're just going to have to wait and see!