It’s so easy to have a conversation with Sahur Saleim, even if you’re a stranger that she’s just met. The 23-year-old popped up on Zoom, clad in a loose Metallica T-shirt, bare-faced with her hair pulled back into two fishtail braids. Never mind that she had just recovered from a bout of food poisoning over the weekend – you wouldn’t be able to tell from her upbeat, high energy tone. The makeup maven sounds exactly like how she presents herself in her video tutorials that have endeared her to 303K followers and counting on Instagram (@sahursart): bubbly, animated and sincere.

Since the beginning of her social media career, it is clear that Sahur stands for inclusivity. She doesn’t filter away her acne or the resulting post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and her beauty tutorials feature not only herself but also other women, showcasing her artistry on a myriad of skin tones, textures and facial features. Her latest venture, the eponymous makeup line Sahur’s Art, is inspired by fine art and runs on the ethos of inclusivity. Its products are vegan, alcohol-free and cruelty-free.

“Nothing gets approved till I’ve seen it on at least three different skin tones,” she says. “I cannot imagine launching a brand without inclusivity being at the forefront.”

As of now, there’s the Mona eyeshadow palette ($48), which features 10 highly pigmented shades, and The Kiss ($23), a long-wearing liquid lipstick range in five colours. There’s another eyeshadow palette that is “more fun” in the works, but Sahur is coy about the details. What she does share, though, is how she bootstrapped a business in the midst of a global pandemic, her strong stance on representation, and her journey towards self-acceptance.

Congratulations on the launch of Sahur’s Art (@sahursartbeauty)! What made you decide to create your own beauty brand?
It’s been one of my dreams ever since I was young. I did accounting and finance in university, and my plan was to work as an accountant for 10 to 15 years, save up some money, have my own salon and then launch my own makeup line once I have some sort of reputation as a makeup artist. But thanks to social media, things kind of sped up a little bit.

Your business is entirely self-funded, with no bank loans, no investors and no money from family. Was bootstrapping scary for you?
It was terrifying! I basically put all the money I’ve ever made, everything I’ve saved over the past two- and-a-half years, into the business. There were points when I thought that if this doesn’t work out, then years of savings would disappear into thin air. I had a lot of anxiety over it for a while, but eventually I came to see it as an investment in myself and my future – if I work hard and my brand is successful, it could completely change my life. I felt a lot more assured once I stopped seeing it as a waste of money.

You had to halt production many times because of Covid-19. What was the whole process like?
Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I started looking for a manufacturer in October 2018, when I was still in university, to help formulate the eyeshadow. It took me a whole year – a lot of labs have a minimum order quantity of hundreds of thousands of units, and it just wasn’t feasible. I eventually found someone in China that I was happy with and could afford, and by December 2019, I had my final prototype ready. I transferred the deposit to my supplier in January, right before the Chinese New Year weekend, and I’m sure you know what happened right after that.

As time passed, I just didn’t see the Covid situation getting better and I didn’t know when they could start work, so I decided to move production to Italy, even though it was going to be so much more expensive, and I’d have to restart the whole process. Within the next couple of months, Italy also started shutting down. The same thing happened with our lipsticks, which are manufactured in Turkey.

What was going through your mind when all of that happened?
Not nice things (laughs). I was an absolute wreck, there was so much uncertainty and I didn’t know what to expect. I persevered because I just really wanted to have a finished product to show everyone – I had been working on this consistently for almost a year and a half with nothing to show for it. I couldn’t let all this hard work go to waste.

How are your products different from what’s already out there?
First is the comfort matte formula. When I was formulating the lipsticks last year, I was also on Accutane for acne. Accutane ruins your lips – it dries them out so much. Throughout that year, I couldn’t wear any matte lipsticks, even though they’re my favourite. So without realising it, I ended up formulating my matte liquid lipsticks to be hydrating and comfortable, while still being matte. They’re really long-wearing as well.

Then there is our Mona palette. It’s vegan and cruelty- free, which makes it really hard to formulate intense colours, especially the reds because carmine (which comes from crushed beetles) is used to create the red pigments. It took a lot of back and forth to get that right. The formula is super easy to blend, and the palette is very beginner-friendly because I want people who are just starting to do makeup to feel welcome, not intimidated, by it. But it’s also good for those who are experienced – there are pops of colour that they can use to create more complex or fun looks.

One of the ethos for Sahur’s Art is that it’s inclusive. Why is that important to you?
It’s a given. Yes, I’m a makeup artist and I have experience trying so many different products. But if it only works for me, is it really a good product or does it just work for me, you know what I mean?

As I was working on the brand, I found that a lot of people don’t get as much representation as they should. I have a platform that I can use for the better, and because we’re currently only available online, I want customers to be able to see what the products would look like on them. So I tried to be very extensive for the campaign shoot. I had five shades of lipstick, but showed nine models wearing them. It was a lot of work to organise, but I think it’s important.

What does beauty inclusivity mean to you?
Including people from all walks of life and celebrating the way that beauty is across different cultures, sizes, shapes, hair, etc. I feel like brands can do more. You can have people who are very, very different. In Sahur’s Art’s campaign photos, there was a lot of contrast and juxtaposition, and I felt like that made them more beautiful.

Do you experience creative burnout? Do you feel social media fatigue as well?
Honestly, it happens very often, and what I like to do is to just step away a little bit. It’s normal, and it’s good to be a bit more understanding with yourself. I’m really lucky because my followers are quite understanding and compassionate too. I’ve never had people going like, “Ugh what are you saying, influencers don’t even do any work”. Instead it’s always, “Take care of yourself”, “Get some rest”, or “I hope you’re doing OK”.

On the flip side, how do you deal with mean comments?
I started at 18, and it used to affect me a lot. I had really bad acne at that time and didn’t think much of it, but I used to get really awful comments. They were all about my acne and nothing on the makeup look, which was discouraging. Mentally, it’s important to differentiate between a hate comment and constructive criticism. So if my foundation match looks off and people point that out, I’d be like “Yeah maybe they’re right, they don’t mean anything malicious by this”. Then there are people who are like, “Your face looks like a Crunch bar”. What do you gain from saying this? If someone is just being rude, you cannot live if you take it personally. I think misery loves company, so I never entertain that sort of stuff. I won’t reply. I don’t even delete the comments or block those people.

PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Alwyn Oh
HAIR & MAKEUP Sha Shamsi & Nikki Fu, using Chanel & Keune

This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Her World.