Acclaimed hairstylist to the stars, Michael Angelo is internationally noted for his work amongst fashionistas and celebrities alike. These days however, Angelo is equally likely to turn up at a vocational training salon for rehabilitated child sex slaves in Cambodia as he is to be found behind-the-scenes of a red carpet.
For him, work in international human rights is the perfect balance to his day job, where he is immersed in the dizzying world of celebrity beauty.
"A lot of the conversation is about perfecting a highlight and making sure a lip color lasts for 10 hours," Michael said. "Every once in a while I go home and scratch my head and say 'God is that what I thought about all day?'"
Throughout his career Michael has often wondered, "How do I balance such a superficial world with the reality of life?"
This reality became strikingly apparent to Michael when he read an article about child sex trafficking in Cambodia, showcasing the work of Somaly Mam, a former sex slave who now works to rehabilitate former child sex slaves and end international sex trafficking.
"I remember this description of the young girl, and how she reeked of filth and sperm and sweat and was wearing a smear of red lipstick across her face and it really struck a chord. And so lipstick became the impetus."
Fixated on the use of this daily beauty tool as a both a symbol of enslavement and as a possible weapon to brandish against sex trafficking, Michael set out to educate a broader audience about the cause, and his critically acclaimed exhibit, The Lipstick Portraits, was born. In order to draw a broader audience to the issue, Michael, also an accomplished photographer, showcased beautiful photos of strong personalities, as opposed to the shocking and often heart wrenching images typically associated with cause marketing.
"The project engages an audience interested in fashion and beauty in a cause. It tempts them in rather than clobbers them over the head."
Michael knew he wanted 100 percent of the proceeds from prints sold to benefit the Somaly Mam Foundation, but had a hard time getting in touch with Somaly to include her in the project.
Undeterred, Michael booked a flight to Cambodia to speak to Somaly in person about the project. Upon his arrival, he was directed to a hair salon, where he was told he would find Somaly. A fitting locale for their first meeting, Michael found himself at one of the Somaly Mam Foundation's vocational training sites, where former sex slaves receive job training to enter different industries, including the beauty industry.
Naturally, "I put down my bag and picked up a pair of scissors," said Michael, describing the crash course in Western haircutting he proceeded to give the girls. His partnership with the Somaly Mam Foundation solidified, the next step was recruiting the 55 prominent celebrities to be a part of The Lipstick Portraits, an arduous task at first, but according to Michael, when Susan Sarandon signed on for the project, it gained formidable momentum.
The exhibit features personalities ranging from Susan Sarandon to Dita Von Teese to model Selita Ebanks. In the photos, Michael explains, they've marked themselves with red lipstick as a sign of solidarity with girls forced to wear red lipstick while being sold as slaves. All of the profits from print sales, catalogues, and t-shirts support the Somaly Mam Foundation as well as raise awareness about a largely ignored issue amongst a powerful circle of influencers.
Michael plans to continue his work in the international human rights sphere and strives to "motivate my whole industry to find ways to contribute."
Tonight, he is in Los Angeles to accept an award for the campaign from the Global Action Forum and next fall, he'll team up with the Body Shop to showcase The Lipstick Portraits during the Clinton Global Initiative to coincide with the delivery of their petition, signed by seven million supporters, to protect children from sex trafficking to heads of state and diplomats in attendance.