Beauty

Salem Mitchell On Knotless Box Braids, Boundaries, And Navigating the Internet

The model spoke with NYLON to celebrate her first product collaboration with Wildflower.

Salem Mitchell has been online for a long time. And unlike the majority of people who have been mindlessly scrolling for over a decade, the 22-year-old has a lot to show for it — from countless travels and meaningful relationships, to a bountiful modeling career that has set everything else into motion. Thankfully, it couldn't have happened to a better person.

Speaking with Mitchell on the phone for a brief 30 minutes, the self-awareness and authenticity that has garnered her campaigns with Gap and Fenty Beauty — and nearly one million followers across all of her platforms — was undeniable, a confirmation that what she puts out into the world isn't a veiled cover-up of reality. Its those qualities about her that led Mitchell into her latest project, her first product collaboration with Wildflower, the beloved Gen-Z phone case brand founded by Sydney and Devon Carlson and their mother.

"I've always been a fan of Wildflower, and I've always been a big fan of Sydney and Devon," Mitchell shared. "I thought they were so cool, and then I met Devon a couple months or a year after [moving to LA]. I love Devon's platform because she is so authentic and fun and real. I was with her the other weekend, and she is somebody who will take a picture, doesn't really edit it and just post it. I don't really see that a lot anymore, so that's what I really like about her."

To celebrate the sell-out collaboration (currently available only in limited case sizes), Mitchell spoke with NYLON about life right now — from her relationship with beauty, accepting modeling as a career, navigating the internet, and staying mindful in quarantine.

Courtesy of Salem Mitchell

What your relationship to beauty was like growing up, and who did you look to as the epitome of beauty?

Growing up, I definitely viewed my mom as the epitome of beauty and I just always thought she was so stylish. I had a very young mom, too. She had me when she was 20. So I thought like, 'Oh my gosh, she's so cool. She dresses fun.' We were always doing fun things. So I just thought she was the epitome of beauty. And was sort of like who I look to just because in mainstream media and magazines, all the things I was seeing on TV, there weren't really a lot of people that looked like me. That wasn't something that I particularly had an issue with because I just don't think growing up I had the mental capacity to sort of understand that conversation about representation.

Did it complicate how you saw yourself?

I do think that it definitely did hinder my ideas about beauty toward myself. I never really wanted to wear my hair natural and that's something that has stemmed into my adult life. I really just never felt like I fit into what the traditional standard of beauty was. And that's totally okay because now that I'm older, I learned that that's not something that is necessary at all, but it definitely was a little bit of a roller coaster. I also think it's interesting to note, too, that I think it's so funny because nowadays when I post pictures of myself from when I was younger, I tend to have always looked the same. I think the only things that have changed about me are my style and my confidence.

But a lot of times when I post pictures from being a kid, people will be like, 'Oh, you were always cool. You were always pretty.' And it's funny because I really appreciate the sentiment, but a lot of it is like one day everybody just woke up and decided that I was pretty and one day everybody woke up and decided that the look that I had was beautiful. I went to school with the same people for seven years and while they were all very sweet to me, there was a shift when I became more popular on social media; and when my features became more trendy, everybody decided that I was beautiful. And so I think it's super funny how everybody's like, 'You were always good looking,' and I'm like, 'No, you guys never really accepted what I looked like until one day out of the blue.'

Your modeling career kind of took off was from a moment of you reacting to that, too. What were you planning on doing before you started modeling?

I genuinely had no idea what I was planning on doing before this happened. And I mean, I love modeling and it's my career and it's a very big part of my life, but I think that there are so many lanes and I still don't know all that I would like to do in this lifetime. But on the contrary to a lot of the people I grew up with, I was one of the people that was clearly like, I don't know what I want to do. I'm not going to feel pressured to figure it out. I remember being 17 and about to graduate and I went around to every single teacher and I was like, 'What do you think I should do? I don't really know what to do. '

But it wasn't something that I thought was a real career. I didn't think it was something that was a possibility and I didn't think it was going to transform into what it did now. So I'm grateful that it did and it's something that I always was interested in, I just didn't view it as a real job the way that some of my friends now have more real jobs than I do. A few think that creativity is not as strenuous as other careers.

Courtesy of Salem Mitchell

How do you feel like your relationship with beauty has evolved in the last couple of years, especially since you've kind of taken more control of your career?

I think it's just as much of a rollercoaster. I definitely think that I have become more confident. Especially now that I'm an adult, I personally feel like obviously there are those conventional standards that people equate to beauty, but I think that beauty is more of an energy and it's a confidence. And I think it has to do with your style, how you present yourself, like the colors you wear. I think all of those things sort of encapsulate what makes me feel beautiful. So I think the older I get and the more I feel comfortable experimenting with my look outside of just what I was born with, it only encourages and makes me feel even better.

But I do think that while I am always getting really positive compliments and I really appreciate them, being in the public eye and doing a job that relies on what you look like and how good your skin is and walking into a room full of people and having them decide she's going to work for this or she's not, it puts me back to where I was when I was a kid. I feel like it's never ending and I think especially when you do modeling, and that's something that I always try to tell people, make sure your mental health is in the right place because you are going to get picked apart, whether it's intentional or unintentional, for the sake of the shot.

You have almost a million followers combined on all of your platforms. Does that affect you mentally in any specific ways and how do you decide what you want to share and what you keep private?

I've been working on that a lot this year, especially with all of the different things going on in the world, I think that we're all being a bit more vulnerable and it's confusing because it's like, once again, another rollercoaster. But growing up, when I first started my platforms, I think that people really gravitated toward me because I was so authentic and because I was just like a normal girl and I still am and I think sometimes when I do post people are always refreshed by my authenticity and my vulnerability.

I also have noticed the more your platforms grow and the more that you share, the more people feel inclined to be personal with you. And whether it's well-intended or ill-intended, it's something that I don't necessarily know if I'm comfortable with. So that's kind of led me to take it back a bit and kind of keep things to myself. And it sucks because I want to continue to be that authentic vulnerable person, but I just can't have people that I don't know feeling like they can cross boundaries. So it's really difficult to navigate.

How have you learned to navigate the bad stuff, but still really celebrate the good things that come from the internet?

I had such a strong tie to the internet growing up, and because the internet basically launched my entire career, so I'm always somebody who is looking at more of the pros than the cons of being online just because I have seen how much it has changed for me in my personal life and the access that it's given me. The things that I'm doing in my career translate in real life. Because I was discovered online, me and my mom are going to Sweden when I have a shoot and I'm seeing the world. And so I never want to negate that it does that because I want everybody else who's watching me to know this is a possibility.But it is really hard.

I don't necessarily have the answer for this because I'm just a 22-year-old girl who probably is subconsciously affected by all of the negative things, as well. But I think just doing your research on the subconscious ways that it affects your mind, that's kind of what I have been doing. I watched that documentary, The Social Dilemma on Netflix and everything there I already knew but it just kind of put another little message in my brain like, hey, maybe when you wake up, do other things before you check your phone.

I think especially with this year I had to understand that while it's really important to share stories and to learn about things and to hear what people have to say and use your platform, it's also good to take breaks because you can't just continue, especially as a young Black woman, to digest trauma every day. It's just not healthy. Like during the protests, I definitely was sleeping so much because I just didn't really feel like waking up. It was so draining to wake up every day and kind of ingest varieties of trauma.

What have you been doing in quarantine to keep yourself present and sane? I saw on Instagram you got a pole installed in your house, which is so cool.

Thank you. I actually was polling before quarantine. So it's actually kind of sad because I'm not able to go to the studio and I'm really hoping that they're doing well enough post-quarantine to be open. But because of COVID, it's a little opposite. I don't want to say that it's like a silver lining because there's a lot of tragedy and I don't ever want to negate that, but with a more creative career like modeling, there's not a lot of consistency. So prior to this, I was kind of all over the place. Always on edge thinking about where I was going to be next. I was traveling a lot more. I would have a plan for the day and then they would get taken by a casting or a meeting or a random thing that I wasn't anticipating the day before.

And because of quarantine now I actually have a little bit more consistency, which I would say is probably the opposite of a lot of people. So this year I really took the time to concentrate just on myself, my mental health, more journaling, taking more walks, calling my family more. All of the things that I was putting off because I was busy, I'm kind of doing now and I'm learning about balance and sort of figuring out what's important.

Courtesy of Salem Mitchell

Has it changed the way you feel about your job at all?

I think for me I learned that my job is not the epitome of who I am and that's kind of what this quarantine has helped me evolve with and figure out. I think especially when you have a career that is not only birthed by the internet, but being broadcasted on the internet, it's really easy to get lost in appearances. And this entire year period, I felt like it's not really necessary to compare what I'm doing to other people because that's not really what matters here. I think that this time has put everything into perspective for a lot of us and what's really important is our health, our wellbeing, our minds, and not really what we do.

Do you keep a beauty routine through quarantine when you're at home?

I do — I actually do every day. I just do my basic day-to-day beauty routine, which is just after a shower I do moisturizer, sunscreen, some Skin Worship Oil Dew Drops that I got from my aesthetician. And then I do a Glossier Boy Brow, [Saie] mascara, and lip gloss. And I do that every day. I don't know why but not only does it make me feel good, but once again because we are still doing Zoom castings and Zoom shoots, I kind of just always like to be prepared.

What about hair? Braids have been your go-to for a while.

Yeah, it is definitely my go-to and I mean, they are heavy, but I've been doing knotless braids instead of box braids, which kind of eliminates a bit of the weight because you don't do that knot to wrap the top. But also I would love to be a little bit more experimental with my hair, but a lot of the clients that I work with, they really love this look. So I'm kind of sticking with it until somebody asks for something else. But also it's a style that lasts a good month or two. And because it's not safe to continuously be getting my hair done and meeting up with new people that I didn't already know, it's better to just continue to stick to somebody familiar and a style that I don't have to continue to redo.

Let's get into the Wildflower collab — how did it come together?

The collab came about I think just because, throughout the past few months, I've really been loving their cases in my mirror selfies and I noticed too that one of the times they had reposted me. I saw somebody in the comments like, 'You guys should do a collab with her.' And they were like, 'We agree.' And I didn't really think anything of it because I was like, yeah, I mean, maybe it'll happen in a couple years when I have more of a following. But they ended up reaching out this year. So I'm just super grateful. And it's actually one of the things that I wrote in my journal. It's like that affirmation that spells become spells. So I'm just happy I wrote it down.

You mentioned loving Devon's personality and platform. How important is that for you to be on the same page with your collaborators?

It's incredibly important. It's hard because, once again back to social media, when you have a platform, you automatically become a role model or some sort of inspirational figure to some people whether you like it or not. That's just sort of like a weight that will be put on you. And especially with everything going on this year, it was very important to work with a company that I felt was listening, [that] I felt like was supportive of me and my community and also people that I respect as people because I think this year we've seen a lot of companies come out and not necessarily be for us the way that they thought they were. I'm just really happy to know that I'm putting pride in who I'm working with, and that if I send a new consumer base to them, they're going to be respected and they're going to feel represented.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.