Ten-year-old Farris Benko has brimmed with assurance since she was in diapers.
Her mother, photographer Gray Benko, remembers being astonished when at age 2, her tiny redhead spotted a 5-year-old at a restaurant and told her parents she was going to introduce herself. “She marched right over and said, 'Hi, I’m Farris,” remembers Gray.
Two years ago, Gray began to notice that Farris’s spark was dimming. Her confident daughter suddenly seemed full of self-doubt. Stressed about how to help her, an idea dawned on Gray in the middle of the night: Take something Farris already loves doing — wacky makeovers on friends and family — and use it to empower her daughter.
That’s how Farris Does Faces, an Instagram portrait series of successful women and their words of wisdom, was born.
Since Gray and Farris, who live in Summerville, S.C., launched the wildly colorful campaign over the summer, over 20 people — including NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Paralympian Emily Gray, and six-time Grammy Award winner Kacey Musgraves — have been photographed.
Gray, who is Instagram famous in her own right with some 56.8k followers, admits that Farris doesn’t totally grasp how big a deal the makeovers are just yet.
“At first it kind of bothered me that she didn’t get it,” says Gray. “But then I realized that it’s actually a great thing because as she gets older, she’ll realize that she can accomplish all of those things and she shouldn’t be scared of it. Like Farris said, ‘What’s the big deal about being an astronaut? It’s just a job.’”
“I didn’t know it was a big deal,” Farris chimes in as she fiddles with a do-it-yourself slime kit she received for her birthday the previous afternoon.
“I think that’s awesome,” says Stott — the astronaut — when told about Farris’s reaction to her NASA career.
After getting a message from Gray over Instagram, Stott signed on to be part of Farris Does Faces because she loved the idea of using the portraits to promote self-confidence.
“I can think of so many times where I took myself out of the running for something really interesting because I didn’t think somebody else would pick me,” says the retired astronaut who took part in two spaceflights and spent 104 days living and working in space on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
So good, in fact, that Stott wore her crazy Farris makeover — complete with yellow eyebrows and blue eyelids — all day. She admits she got some odd looks, but she says, “Who came up with the idea that you just have to have eye shadow on the lid?”
Julia H. Engel, blogger turned founder of clothing line Gal Meets Glam, is known for her perfectly assembled looks but stepped outside her normal look for a makeover by Farris.
“I love seeing young girls creating goals and ambitions, and seeing them through,” says Engel. “They will make up our future women leaders someday. The best motivations come from within and being young is the perfect time to pursue your wildest dreams.”
Perhaps considering her own newborn daughter, Clementine, Engel says, “The sky can be the limit, because unlike most adults, kids think more freely than us and often try more things without fear. Continuing to encourage them and support them in their efforts in figuring out what they want to do is incredibly important.”
Paralympian Emily Gray had no prior connection with Gray or Farris, but was equally thrilled to be asked to participate. For the cancer survivor, amputee, and three-time Paralympian, being in the photo series was as much about promoting belief in oneself as it was an opportunity to show people the face of a proud amputee.
She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when she was 11. After several rounds of chemotherapy, she writes on her website that doctors gave her a choice: “Get a hip replacement and most likely die, or get her leg amputated at the hip and have a chance to live.”
“To be honest, it felt like quite a lonely time in my life,” she says, now 28. “It happened around the same age as Farris, but I didn’t have social media. I don’t feel like I had a ton of role models, especially female amputees. I would have loved to have this kind of opportunity to see a female amputee being proud of their prosthetic.”
Farris’s mom hopes the takeaway is the same: that we all struggle to feel like we’re good enough.
“I loved the idea,” says author Jenny Mollen Biggs,. “Farris is at that age that’s the last time society allows you to — I don’t know — be fully embraced. The minute you hit puberty, you become something scary and a threat.”
That kind of freedom is something to cherish, she says.
“Right now, she can just be truly this expressive, creative being without thinking about some of these issues that older girls do,” says Mollen Biggs.
Still, allowing a 10-year-old to express that creative freedom on her face was a little daunting for Mollen Biggs. “I was like, oh my gosh she’s really just scribbling all over me. You see the colors come out and you say ‘I don’t know if can pull off a teal eye,’” says Biggs. “I looked a bit like Tammy Faye Baker and the Joker, but there’s so much freedom in it.”
But it’s a look that even an internationally known musician can get behind. When Farris met Kacey Musgraves before a recent performance in Charleston, S.C., the otherwise unflappable tween was rendered speechless.
“It was very awesome because I knew there were a ton of people cheering for her and, I mean, I just got to hug her, and they all wished they could do that,” says Farris.
Like each of Farris’s subjects, Musgraves offered some thoughts that Gray hopes her daughter keeps to herself:
“When I see photos of myself or watch a performance back, I can definitely be my own worst critic. I try to allow myself to learn and grow and not be too harsh on myself because at the end of the day people just want something real and not something that’s unrealistically perfect.”
Whether that message has sunk in yet, it’s hard to say. In between teasing her little brother, begging for ice cream, and reminding her mother that she’s the only one of her friends without an iPhone (“Not happening,” Gray says), Farris remains equal parts in awe and unfazed by the women she gets to meet.
Of course, that could change should Farris’s three favorite women agree to be a part of Farris Does Faces.
So what do you say Taylor Swift, Ellen Degeneres and Lizzo? Want a makeover?