May 13, 2023 -Shennel Patrick sparkles with delight as she learns I’m calling from Jamaica. The conversation takes a delightful turn. The Grenadian-born, New York-based makeup artist, beauty expert, and content creator, widely recognized as “Nelli”, yearns for her homeland, especially during the extended New York winter.
Patrick’s work has been featured on several media platforms, including Essence, Teen Vogue, VIBE Magazine, Bravo TV, the Today Show, and more. Her high-profile clientele includes the likes of Chimamanda Adichie, Cynthia Bailey, Ashley Blaine, Khadeen Ellis, Robyn Dixon, and others.
Before captivating audiences with her extraordinary makeup artistry, Patrick was an undocumented teenager in a foreign city with minimal support. It takes a little persuasion to get her to discuss this challenging period of her life. She prefers to focus on the positive, insisting that dwelling on negativity would have hindered her survival and subsequent success. As I share my mother’s similar experience as an undocumented immigrant, she agrees, “It’s crucial to discuss the reality many Caribbean people face.”
Patrick left Grenada at the tender age of 16. “I missed my graduation and ball,” she jests. She confesses to having been “pretty naive” upon her arrival. A year and a half later, she discovered her undocumented status, causing her dreams of law school to be abruptly put on hold. This realization, coupled with a shrinking support network, left her grappling with potential homelessness and working any job she could find just to stay afloat.
Despite her naive outlook, the birth of her daughter jolted her into responsibility. At 23, Nelli became a mother and found solace in beauty and makeup, which, to her surprise, transformed into a career. “It gave me an identity,” she shares, “and opened numerous doors.”
Celebrating Black Beauty
Patrick has built her career around the celebration of Black beauty. She enthusiastically states, “I adore creating luminous, bronzy skin against bursts of jewel tones.” Her striking work has garnered attention from several media outlets, including Essence, Vibe Magazine, and Teen Vogue, among others. One glance at her work, and her talent is indisputable. She masterfully enhances black and brown skin tones under any lighting conditions, making them glow radiantly.
We discuss how black skin is often marginalized in the world of film and photography. Patrick articulates that the camera has historically been a biased tool. Traditional photography training propagates a range of longstanding biases, where “light skin” is considered the norm, and camera settings are calibrated to prioritize pale skin tones. Patrick acknowledges the restrictive nature of such practices when working with Black skin.
Despite this revelation being new to Patrick, she assures me that it will inform her future discussions. However, she hasn’t been oblivious to its implications in her field. While she provides her own studio spaces, she has also collaborated with photographers and filmmakers as an on-set makeup artist. She admits to having encountered biases and limited understanding among some colleagues who fail to recognize the “limitless potential of dark skin.”
Patrick’s makeup chair doubles as a therapy space. Not only does she accentuate the natural beauty of dark skin, but she also offers a safe space for intimate conversations. “I recall a 60-year-old woman from Grenada who came in one day,” Patrick reminisces. They discussed life in the big city, their shared homeland, and their experiences in the U.S. amid rising xenophobia following the Trump election. Patrick notes that society often disregards the beauty of older women, assuming it fades between the ages of 40 and 60.
The second time beauty rescued Patrick’s life, it was in a more direct, tangible way. In 2016, a horrific car accident left her bedridden and unable to walk. Facing yet another hurdle, she turned to faith. “I made a promise to God that if He would allow me to stand on my feet again, I would use my gift,” she shares. “I promised that I would serve with purpose, or not at all.” Her miraculous recovery forged a mantra she still holds dear: “I transmute pain into purpose.”
Starting a business is no small feat. While success stories often take center stage, most entrepreneurial ventures face significant challenges and don’t survive in the long term. At the end of every interview, I ask, ‘Where do you see yourself in the future?’ and ‘What advice do you have for prospective entrepreneurs?’ Shennel Patrick’s response is refreshingly candid. “I am uncomfortable with the current season in my life.” She openly admits that she doesn’t have everything figured out.
Her journey serves as a poignant reminder that success is not linear – it ebbs and flows. Despite her victorious battle with immigration, she is also grappling with the closure of her brick-and-mortar business.
Yet, in the face of these challenges, Patrick remains steadfast, “Sometimes life hits you in a way that you have to sit still and listen to the one who guided you here,” she smiles.