#SpheresOfQueer: Zah Sampson talks finding himself through art, becoming a skinfluencer, and collaborating with Fenty Beauty

I’m used to doing a double-take every time I scroll through Cape Town-hailing content creator, musician, and makeup artist ZAH’s socials.

Usually it’s because of his makeup masterpieces. But midway through May, he posted a screenshot of his beautiful face featured on page three of the Weekend Argus, and the caption read: “Cape Town makeup artist chosen to partner with Fenty Beauty.”

Already a big fan of ZAH’s work, him being chosen to partner with Fenty Beauty – Rihanna’s makeup brand – as it was finally scheduled to reach South African shores had me slip-’n-sliding into his DMs to get to know the boy behind the makeup a little deeper.

ZAH grew up in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, in a very religious household. His mother was raised Catholic, and his father Muslim, something he mentions as having caused many challenges for his parents. “I got to see first-hand the ins and outs and many trials of religion that played a role in how my parents chose to raise me and my sister,” he explains.

While he speaks of Islam with a great deal of respect, he also credits it as the reason he no longer has a relationship with his father. My heart breaks when he confesses, “Sometimes I wish people weren’t as governed by a book. I’d still have that special bond with my dad if it didn’t have such a huge impact on his love for me. Raised by love unconditionally, until a condition came along – I am gay.”

Coming out presented a whole new set of challenges for ZAH: bodyweight traumas. “I was out, but what was I going to do with it? How do I be gay? All I saw were hot men with great bodies. This is what I wanted, this is what would make me feel seen,” he reasons before adding, “So in 11th grade I went through drastic measures to lose the weight. I was overweight and within a year lost half my body weight. But it didn’t change how I felt inside. I was still a fat boy on the inside.”

We talk about turning to art to express and ultimately find yourself, and he tells me about his post-high school, pre-makeup magician pursuits – studying jazz piano at the South African College of Music. “Being a creative has always been at the forefront of my life. In everything I did, I added that creative touch and at the time, music was all that made sense to me. Music was my life and I fell in love with it since before I could remember,” he tells me.

He played many solo gigs and went on tour with SAMA-nominated singer Jarrad Ricketts for some time before, as he explains, “life happened,” forcing him to leave college and to get a job working in a call centre. He’s miserable as he describes his soul-sucking experience, “I had lost myself. I had no sense of direction. All of a sudden, my life revolved around surviving, paying rent, and doing it all over again each month for three years. Not the space for a creative. I started using food as my outlet again and very quickly found myself back at square one. I really disliked myself.”

We fast-forward to the beginning of lockdown, which marks the beginning of his makeup journey. Cheekily he says, “I started watching my best friend do her makeup and one day I decided to sneak into her room, grab a few of her brushes and start painting my face. I don’t think I looked at it as makeup, but rather art. Everything is art, if you look close enough,” he reasons.

In three years, he’s mastered the art, built himself a substantial army of followers and worked himself into a position of power, a place where he gets to make the demands. He places inclusion at the top of his list of requirements from brand partnerships, and realises his worth as he says, “It’s great that brands “see” me now. Because I’m not necessarily ultra feminine but also not hectically masculine, I find it so difficult to fit in. You know? About two years ago brands were still calling inclusive “Only fem guys and women”. Now I know what I bring, and that is my inclusion. This is how I sell myself now. As I am. Truly authentically myself and I’m making that shmoneyyyy.” The more we talk, the more he seems to step into his power. And when I ask about his current Fenty collaboration, he wears his crown with pride as he concludes, “I was told that Fenty would be coming to SA and I would be one of the content creators chosen by ARC [beauty conglomerate] to represent the brand. I literally died. Me? This queer boy is going to rep for Rihanna? Dead! What an experience. I was flown to Joburg to be part of the official launch and even got to meet Hector Espinol, Rihanna’s makeup artist. Yeah, I know, right? Yep, that’s my life now.”

Check out Part 1 of #SpheresOfQueer featuring Yann Horowitz here.

Check out Part 2 of #SpheresOfQueer featuring MOONGA K. here