Keyshawn aka Mississippi says that being pretty is her only strength in episode four of Starz’s hot new series P-Valley, which focuses on the lives of the employees at a strip club in the Mississippi Delta post-Katrina. But after just a few moments of conversation with Shannon Thornton, the actress who plays the gem-faced exotic dancer, it’s clear that the two do not have that in common.
The artist and actress, who at one point was on a path to becoming a fashion illustrator, has quite a few tools in her box. After beating the pavement for years in the difficult and complicated New York entertainment industry, the Connecticut-native became a pro at the hustle.
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In 2010 she landed a bit role on the series Blue Blood, but most remember her from playing Quinn Phillips on the hit show Power. She has quite the unforgettable face. And in this new role, that face is her money maker.
As Mississippi (which her “club regulars” love to sing out as M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter…), she plays the sweet, mild-mannered hot girl with very obvious baggage and even more obvious good looks.
Thornton chatted with ESSENCE to share how her character’s beauty looks are created, her own beauty must-haves, what she’s learned from playing a dancer, and why Black is so beautiful to her.
The show is set in a strip club so you all are showing a lot of skin. Your character is also “the pretty one.” So, what are you doing for skincare and keep yourself intact?
I’m really big about investing in facials and chemical peels and stuff like that to keep my skin clear. I’m acne prone, it’s oily. Every month we had so much makeup and with the dancing you’re sweating, and then they’re putting makeup on top of that. And we’re working 16-hour days sometimes, so I was having breakouts. And to calm that down a facial was very much needed and it made such a difference. That, and diet helps a lot with my skin. Staying away from dairy really helped with those hormonal breakouts around the chin and jawline.
What are some of your favorite looks for her Mississippi?
It’s funny because for the mood board for Mississippi the inspiration was a lot of photos of me. They had pulled photos from my Instagram account. So I’m like okay, that’s easy. For Mississippi, I had a conversation with my makeup artist Parra Thomas, and she’s amazing. I had an idea of how I wanted Mississippi to look. On the show, I played her very young and very childlike so I wanted her eyes to appear larger than what they are. So we always put color on the waterline to make her eyes appear bigger.
I love a nude lip and to have fun with eye shadow. So the nude lip was pretty consistent throughout the first season, and you just see her playing around a lot with cut creases and little sparkles. We’ll play around with glitter and [Thomas] will add little stones on my eyebrow, or something like that for fun. I really love beauty marks, so we added a couple of beauty marks on my face. I think for the mood, they wanted her to look very doll-like, so that was the goal there, and I think we achieved it.
And how does your character’s beauty differ from your beauty?
For me, I don’t think I’m as heavy on the makeup. I like to start off with a dewy face. I really love a natural look, especially in the summer, it’s all about skin for me. And if anything, I’ll pencil in my eyebrows and put on some mascara and lip gloss and I’m fine. And maybe some shimmer powder to highlight my cheekbones and the bridge of my nose. If I want to go out and look glamorous I’ll do something more bronzy, I love browns and golds. I love just looking like a chocolatey goddess — shimmery and pretty.
What are your ‘stranded on a desert island’ must-haves?
Almost all of my beauty products are Fenty Beauty by Rihanna. On set, I constantly asked for Body Lava all over my body. I’ve watched Rihanna put [new Fenty Skin] on her face and use the cleanser and everything. It looks like it’s so good; I’m really excited to try it. I really like Maybelline mascara in blackest black. I love this Black-owned brand that is also vegan, called Nolaskinsentials. And I love cocoa butter for the smell of it.
You took dance classes because you all are actually are doing that pole work yourself.
We’re doing a lot of it, but we all have body doubles. We went into what’s pretty much stripper bootcamp as soon as we found out that the show had gotten picked up to series. We had been training privately with dance instructors for about five months. And then once we got to Atlanta, we trained again throughout for another five months, almost every single day. I dislocated my knee the first dance rehearsal in Atlanta. That’s how intense it is, and we’re doing a lot of it. We got pretty good.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned about being a woman, about being Black, and about your beauty through this role?
One of the biggest things I learned from being on this set about womanhood is how beautiful and empowering it is to own your sexuality and how it’s okay to be sexy. We’re playing sex workers and there’s this huge stigma behind the word stripper, when in reality this is labor for these women. It’s a job just like any other job. I was worried before taking on this role about being judged. But when I just allowed myself to enjoy the moment, allowed myself to be sexy and not worry about what other people thought, there was something very freeing about that.
And I’m just so proud to be Black. We are so gifted and we excel in everything that we put our minds to. It was really wonderful to be on a set with mostly a Black crew, every single person in hair and makeup was Black, the show runner is a Black woman who is an absolutely brilliant playwright. The actors are mostly Black actors who are not household names yet. And we are showing up, and showing out, and showing you the beauty of Black culture, and we are shining a light on people who have been marginalized, and people who you don’t hear about often, or you don’t see represented in television and film.