Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner Takes Beauty Inspo From K-Pop

If you ask anyone what the meaning behind the color yellow is, they might answer happiness or sunshine. For Michelle Zauner, lead vocalist and songwriter for Japanese Breakfast, author of New York Times best seller Crying in H Mart, and one of Time's 100 Most Influential People of 2022, the color means flat-out jubilation. That's why yellow is featured so prominently on the cover of her latest album, Jubilee (which was nominated for two Grammy Awards). Zauner built her look at the Grammy Awards around the joyful color with a bubbly Valentino dress; stretched-out, geometric nails; and highlighter-yellow eyeliner. "All I can do is have fun and look interesting," Zauner jokes about her experience at the Grammys. 

And she always looks interesting. The burgeoning star's stage presence is formidable, marked by rope-like braids, monochromatic ensembles, and vivid eye shadow looks. Zauner grew up surrounded by beauty, her Korean mother imparting skincare wisdom to her from a young age. In her book, Crying in H Mart, Zauner talks about how much of an impact her mother's cultural background made on her growing up, and that extends to the lens she views beauty through. I recently caught up with Zauner over a video call and found myself speaking with someone I wish I could be friends with—the singer is real, funny, and self-deprecating. Read our full conversation below.


(Image credit: Getty Images/Jeff Kravitz)

What was it like to attend and be nominated at the Grammys?

It was wild. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would end up there. And it was really fun. I feel like I went in with a pretty good attitude. For me, it was just such an honor to be a part of that prestigious of a conversation that I was totally okay with losing. I was just genuinely happy to be there. One thing that was really fun about the Grammys is that 50% of the show is just these crazy performances of such a high caliber. That was a really cool experience that I don't know if I'll ever have again. And I kind of just went in being like, I know I'm going to lose these two awards.

Along with that, I wanted to ask you about the significance of the color yellow for you since it's obviously so prominent in your album cover and your Grammys look, and I see your wall is also yellow.

Yeah, I was going through a big yellow phase. I think that Jubilee was the first album that I started thinking about [it] in the context of my discography. The album cover for Psychopomp is this kind of melancholy sky-blue color and Soft Sounds is kind of like a dark, moody red and black. I knew very early on that the album was going to be called Jubilee and that the theme would be this very broad exploration of joy. I feel like yellow is the most joyous color. It's also prominently featured on the X-Men Jubilee, the character. I also weirdly feel like there is an element of reclaiming being Asian in a way. 

I knew that I was going to be wearing a yellow dress, that there would be this kind of yellow warmer tone to the album cover, and that for the cycle, my theme was going to be wearing a lot of yellow, which proved to be a lot more difficult than I thought it was. A lot of designers don't really make too much yellow. So it was really limited for a while. And then when I saw that Valentino dress, I was like, oh, it has to be that. [It's] such a perfect combination of something that's very vibrant and yellow and feels kind of goofy and weird but also is very chic. 

I loved it. And I loved your beauty look as well. Did you have a hand in figuring that out? How did that come together?

I feel like I'm still really learning how to navigate that world. Getting hair and makeup is still such a luxury. I always thought that [with] the hair and makeup, people came in with all these ideas. And then the day of, they're like, "Okay, so what do you want to do?" And I was like, I don't know. I sort of started collecting more looks because I've realized that that's actually my job. So Alexandra French did my makeup, and she's worked on Euphoria. I knew that I was in really good hands. We just decided to do a highlighter-yellow eyeliner to go with the dress. 

Preston Wada did my hair. And I knew that I wanted to have really long braids because one of the first lyrics on the record is "untying a great knot and it unraveled like a braid." So I've also worn a lot of braids because that sort of felt like the thesis statement for the record. I also wear braids on the album cover, so we wanted to recall all these things that we had laid out for the cycle.


(Image credit: Getty Images/Rich Fury)

Do you have any big beauty inspirations?

I always really love whatever Dua Lipa's doing. I feel like Dua Lipa always has really great hair and makeup looks. I also always feel like I'm getting inspo from a lot of K-pop bands. I feel like their hair and makeup are always really on point. Preston actually does Jennie from Blackpink's hair. I actually have shown him references of Jennie's hair before, and he's been like, "Oh, I did that."

I really like Simone Rocha and Sandy Liang campaigns. They do a lot of stuff with braids and younger, more colorful makeup. Those are my main influences.

I just want to say I absolutely loved Crying in H Mart. It was probably my favorite book I read last year. And I know you recently celebrated your one-year anniversary of the book, and I just wanted to say congratulations. What does it feel like to have such a deeply personal book be such a big success?

I think that there's kind of a disconnect because that's always just what I've done as an artist; it feels very natural to me. I don't think much about having exposed myself. I guess I just feel really lucky. I feel like it can be very easy to come off as an unlikable character. And the only way that I know how to cope with that is just to be as truthful and earnest about myself and my work as possible. And I'm really glad that it went well. I don't know. I hope that I can repeat it. I feel like I just tried my best and have been really rewarded handsomely, and it couldn't have gotten any better. I'm kind of in that place where I'm waiting for some kind of backlash, but it hasn't happened so far.


(Image credit: Getty Images/Timothy Norris)

I feel like you're probably safe from that. In the book, you do such a good job of talking about how your cultural background has really shaped you as a person. I was wondering if you could talk about that in terms of beauty.

Yeah, I mean, I grew up with a mom who was very into beauty. She used to work at a makeup counter when she was younger, and she wanted to be a model. She instilled a three-step skincare regimen in me from a very young age. My mom was begging me to use a toner when I was like 10 years old. I've always really grown up around it. I was always a tomboy and really rejected that. And I think in some ways, I really looked down on beauty and my mom's fascination and the importance she put on self-care as a frivolous housewife activity when I was younger. 

Now that I'm older, and especially now being in my 30s, it's so important. I always think of my mom when I do these things. Obviously in Korea, skincare is super important. And I feel really lucky that I did have exposure to that at a young age. And I do thank my mom for telling me not to make wrinkles at a young age now that they're slowly starting to form. I'm like, oh, maybe these would be way worse if my mom didn't tell me to do that. Now I understand why my mom was always chasing me around with a hat and sunscreen. I feel like the skincare market has just blown up in such a huge way. And it's just another one of those things that I really regret not listening to my mom earlier. But I am glad that I know about these things now. And it's something that I can really think about when I do my skincare regimen. I always like to think of my mom and the little tips that she gave me when I was younger.

I love that. What is your skincare routine?

My skincare routine is pretty minimal right now because I've been breaking out a lot. So I've been going to the dermatologist and trying to figure out what's going on. But basically, I use an Alastin cleanser and serum. And I just use CeraVe Moisturizing Cream. And prescription acne lotion. Minimal right now just because I'm trying to figure out what's going on with my skin.

That happens to all of us sometimes. Do you like expressing yourself through makeup?

I do. I feel like it's become a big part of my pre-show routine, where I have to do my makeup and I feel like I'm transformed slightly into a little character. But I think that I used to be pretty minimal with that type of stuff. As I became more experimental in my fashion, I also became more experimental with beauty and have really loved incorporating more colorful palettes. I usually do just a bright eye shadow and bright eye look. But yeah, it's been fun getting my hair and makeup done professionally because you start learning a few more tricks from people. If I'm about to get really busy on a tour, I try to reward myself with a colorful eye shadow palette to mix things up on the cycle. I just went to Sephora yesterday and bought a new Urban Decay palette to try to make the upcoming busy month more fun with new looks and stuff.

What are your favorite makeup products? What do you keep on rotation?

I use the Anastasia eyebrow pencil. That's a major must-have. And then I use a Nars concealer. My palette right now is an Urban Decay palette for eye shadow, and I also like the Pat McGrath eye shadow palette. I also just got an Urban Decay sparkly eyeliner that I'm excited to use.

If you had to leave the house in five minutes, are there any beauty products that you absolutely would not leave the house without?

That was me before this Google Meet. My priority was the Anastasia brow pencil because I'm Asian, so my brows are really sparse and light. So that makes a huge difference for me to do brow pencil. My skin is really bad right now. So a Nars concealer. If I had time, mascara.

I'm using a Laura Mercier mascara because I saw, I think, Maude Apatow's Vogue Get Ready With Me, and she was like, "This is the mascara that they use on Euphoria that makes us all look like we have false eyelashes." I kind of love the way that false eyelashes look in photos, but I hate the way that they feel. I always feel like I'm half asleep, and it just feels really uncomfortable and heavy. 

And you like it? You think it lives up to the hype?

Yeah. I also just recently bought an eyelash curler because I've never done that. I have really small eyelashes, and so I'm hoping that that will pump it up. This is Caviar Volume. 

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Associate Beauty Editor

Katie Berohn is the associate beauty editor at Who What Wear. Previously, she worked as the beauty assistant for Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and Prevention magazines, all part of the Hearst Lifestyle Group. She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a major in journalism and minor in technology, arts, and media, and earned her master's degree at NYU's graduate program for magazine journalism. In addition, Katie has held editorial internships at Denver Life magazine, Yoga Journal, and Cosmopolitan; a digital editorial internship at New York magazine's The Cut; a social good fellowship at Mashable; and a freelance role at HelloGiggles. When she's not obsessing over the latest skincare launch or continuing her journey to smell every perfume on the planet, Katie can be found taking a hot yoga class, trying everything on the menu at New York's newest restaurant, or hanging out at a trendy wine bar with her friends.