Heather McMahan Is a Budding Beauty Icon


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“Let’s talk beauty, even though I have a hair extension holding on for dear life,” Heather McMahan tells me. She’s fresh from her first performance at Madison Square Garden the night before, where, true to comedy’s lopsided ratio, she was the sole female performer at the Garden of Laughs charity event amidst the likes of Tracy Morgan and Jon Stewart. McMahan’s shiniest-bulb-in-the-chandelier presence seems suddenly everywhere: hosting the Oscars red carpet, starring in her first Netflix special, in your feed commenting on the blessings and indignities of millennial womanhood. With her Instagram stories and her podcast, McMahan has built a rabid fan base from her intrepid takes on everything from grief to thigh chafe. Now, at 37, she’s finding the success she’s worked years for. ELLE.com caught up with the comedian in between stops on her tour.

When I saw your live show, I was stunned at how many women in the audience were dressed in homage to you in your signature cheetah print. You have this magical quality of making people feel like you’re their big sister or best friend. How do you foster that?

Heather McMahan: My comedy has always been so raw and real. I’m a woman out there hustling in a man’s world, trying to do the damn thing, all while making sure my Spanx doesn’t roll down, my mascara isn’t running, and my eyelashes stay on. It was funny, last night [at MSG], all the guys showed up in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and I have full hair and makeup and an extra set of diamonds on, because that’s the way I like to present myself. I love fashion. I love putting on the glam, and I think my audience knows I’m going to show up for them in a glamorous way, but also, I’m going to be real about it. I’m not getting paid by beauty brands. I’m an eczema warrior, just hoping I don’t have a flare-up, you know what I mean? I’ve been very honest about beauty, and there’s nothing more annoying to me when celebrities are like, I didn’t get work done. If you’re getting Botox, J. Lo, just be fucking honest. But I’m at Target like everybody else, trying eighteen different lip glosses to figure out what I’m not allergic to.

You’re a white woman from the South, which comes with its stereotypes. You seem to have fans on either side of the aisle, so to speak, and you’re not afraid to speak up for women’s rights.

I feel like women from the South have always been put in one box, but we’re far more progressive, and educated, and worldly than we get credit for. The iconic women that pushed me to be where I am today are these strong, Southern women I grew up around. And because I tour as a comedian, I see everybody. I see all walks of life. I’m not just in LA or New York – I’m trucking across the country. And I’m a woman. If you’re a woman and you have a public platform and you’re not standing up and talking about things that are important to us, then you’re doing it wrong. And I really feel strongly about that.

You just hosted the Oscars red carpet and have a yet-to-be-announced special coming out. Has your beauty ethos changed since you’ve become more visible?

96th annual academy awards arrivals

Mike Coppola//Getty Images

I’ll tell you, the more photos you take on the red carpet, the more you want to start googling plastic surgeons late at night to figure out where you can get a nip and a tuck. It’s been a wild, double-edged sword. I’m so confident, but then when you see yourself on the screen, you’re like, Oh God, the camera really does add forty pounds, as confident as you can be. I don’t get to do what a lot of other people get to do before the Oscars. They’re doing their saunas and their facials. I’m in a Sky Club in Cincinnati right before I go to the Oscars. I’m always traveling, so I’ve learned to take my stuff on the road with me. That’s probably why my bags are always overweight – I bring a full beauty kit. I do my own makeup when I’m on the road, and of course, I have a great glam squad when I’m doing big events [Kasey Spickard for makeup; Kristin Heitkotter for hair], but I’ve had to learn how to do a lot of it on my own. On Instagram or TikTok, I’ll have no makeup on. I’m very comfortable with being raw, but then when I glam, I glam hard. I only have two looks: a troll underneath the bridge who tells you riddles so you can pass, and full Victoria’s Secret model. There is no in between. It’s all or nothing.

Your mother, whom you and your husband live with, is a recurring figure in your comedy. Has she passed down any beauty advice?

two women wearing red dresses

Brooke Johnson

Heather McMahan with her mother, Robin.

My sister and I are so lucky to have our mother. She’s old-school glam. My older sister and my mom are so petite, so there were no hand-me-downs. I was getting hand-me-downs from my dad. But I learned to do hair and makeup early. I did everybody’s makeup for prom. But my mom’s so funny. She’s 76, doesn’t look a day over 40, and she’s really into natural beauty. This woman puts olive oil on her face. She makes her own sunscreen. She’s making her own lip gloss. Her natural sunscreen will either give you the most beautiful tan of your life or you’ll fry. It’s hit-or-miss.

You’re constantly on the road touring. How do you stay grounded amidst the chaos?

I have a panic attack about every nine months. I supplement the shit out of my life. I travel with a full pharmacy. If you get anything from gangrene to a UTI to a sinus infection, or need a pregnancy test, I got it all. I’m going to be honest with you: I play catch up. I have four days where it’s just chicken tenders at an airport and a comedy club, and then I’ll have two days of health. I’m not going to preach that I’ve found the balance, because I haven’t. When I get off the road, or I get a month off in the summer, I treat myself well. I’m in this part of my career where I have to just keep going. My husband will sometimes look at me and be like, You need to slow down, take the day off. You’re going to be burnt out. So, it’s a challenge and I’m trying to figure it out. And I just keep a full pharmacy with me at all times. I’m the pill girl. You know what I mean?

You recently turned 37. I love that we’re moving away from the narrative that if women don’t find success in their teens or twenties, we’ve missed our opportunity. How does it feel to have success at this point in your life?

Great question. My mom had me at forty. She had a full career with the airline biz and then she was like, I want to be a mom. There’s a lot of pressure, especially being thirty-seven, about kids. Literally, women do everything. Also, nobody wants to say it, but I’ll say it: You will miss opportunities if you have kids. In the back of my mind, that’s constantly there. But I think it’s cool to have success later on. I’ve been in this business forever, and it’s just now, in the last five years, that things have started to click, but I feel like I’m so much more mentally prepared for it now. I’m still doing too much, but I’m glad to have success now. Also, in this interview, I’m saying my age. Women used to never say their age. Let’s shout it from the rooftops. I would rather tell people I’m fifty-seven and then them be like, Wow, you look so good! Also, I have such a deep voice and big boobs. I always, even in my early twenties, would audition to play an older role. When we were growing up, I never once had to show an ID to get into a club, and all my other friends had fake IDs. At the bar, I’d be like, These are my stepkids. Just let ’em in.

What’s your best beauty advice?

I always say, if you’re having a bad day, go get a spray tan. Spray tans make me feel alive and well. I live by them. My favorite thing is after a comedy show, I’ll have two margaritas and then I’ll go back to my hotel and do my own spray tan. It’s kind of a joke on the road. People are like, How bad is Heather’s spray tan going to be the next day? Because it’s like, how drunk was I when I did it? Whatever makes you feel beautiful, go for it. And that’s me always having a bag of pills and my spray tan kit in my suitcase.

In the past few years, there’s been a shift away from body positivity to body neutrality – the idea that it’s OK to simply feel OK about our bodies. As someone who talks about body image, do you think this is progress?

Do whatever the fuck you want to do. If you want to get on Ozempic, get on Ozempic. If you want to put on weight, put on weight. I’m so sick and tired of people commenting on this shit. My weight has fluctuated my entire life, but I’ve always been a bigger girl. People try and put you in this box, especially as a woman, when it comes to your size, your height, just any of your physicality. And they don’t do that for men. Everybody gets onto these people who are on Ozempic and it’s like, listen: If you’ve never been a big girl, I don’t want to fucking hear it. If you’ve never been a chubby kid, then I don’t want to hear it.

On your podcast and in your special, it’s so fun to hear that some of your biggest fans are big stars themselves.

heather mcmahan

Brooke Johnson

I was at a party for the Emmys recently, and Sophia Bush came up to me and she was like, I love you! And I was like, Wait, what? It’s so wild. Mandy Moore and Hillary Duff came to my show in LA. Literally two icons from my childhood. I love what I do and I’m so glad that I get to make people giggle, and that’s all I want. I just want to bring joy to people. It’s not more serious than that. It’s not deeper than that. Let me take you out of your shitty day. Let me make you laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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