Why ‘The Sopranos’ Beauty Still Resonates 25 Years Later (2024)

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By Taylore Glynn

Why ‘The Sopranos’ Beauty Still Resonates 25 Years Later (4)

Photo: Anthony Neste/Getty Images

The Sopranos pulled in 12 million weekly viewers at its peak, so like most of America from 1999 to 2007, my family spent many Sunday nights in front of the TV waiting to see who lived and who got clipped. For me it was also a time to revel in the beauty aesthetic I hadn’t really seen before on television. What I saw on my screen—in all its glorious Italian American gaudiness—mirrored the women I saw at the malls, ShopRite, the cleaners, and the boardwalk down the shore. Today the women of The Sopranos are all over my social feeds—almost as honest in their excess as they were when the HBO series premiered 25 years ago.

For audiences outside the tristate area, the show’s characters came across as caricatures that could only exist in crime dramas: Take Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), the connected and privileged suburban mother of two adorned with frosty eye shadow and diamonds that may or may not have fallen off the back of a truck. Or Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), the cheetah-swathed 20-something with XL acrylics and tendrils hot off the curling iron. But for Kymbra Callaghan-Kelley, an Emmy-winning lead makeup artist and Jersey girl just like me, inspiration came from everywhere around her.

“That’s where I pulled from,” Callaghan-Kelley shares exclusively with Vogue. She joined the crew after the pilot episode was filmed. For the remainder of the show’s six seasons, she translated the in-your-face Garden State glam for the rest of the nation. Too much was never enough; put two on, take none off—and then add more. Soon after Callaghan-Kelley signed on, she realized she needed an extra hand to nail that ethos down to the fingertips, so she did what any Jersey girl would do: She called a friend from high school.

“Kymbra called and said, ‘I want Carmela to have pink-and-white acrylics—I want that for her,’” recalls New Jersey–based manicurist Maria Salandra of the early-aughts status manicure that became the matriarch’s signature. “It was the rich thing to do, especially back then.”

This remains one of The Sopranos’ many defining themes: class, wealth, and the illusion of wealth. Beyond the mansions, Harry Winston sapphires, and bird feeders stuffed with cash that showed audiences outright where the money was, it was the makeup, hair, and manicures that helped quietly reinforce the status quo among the female characters and their families, even when the looks themselves were loud.

“Carmela was a wife, a mother—she made the lasagna,” says Salandra. “She was the person in that home who kept that family together, as much as she could have. She also had to play the strong one for everybody else too.” She says customers and “Sopranos crazies” who find her on Instagram still show up to her Cliffside Park salon, Red Hot Nails, asking for The Carm. “People recognize that look as being in a different category and really look to that design and think, I’ve arrived.”

According to Callaghan-Kelley, the rest of Carmela’s image reflected that near-perpetual state of put-togetherness. “She had a full face of makeup at all times—I went through every color that you could possibly imagine,” she says of the products she applied on Falco. Those looks often included of-the-moment details like thin, filled-in brows, pencil liner wrapped around the entire eye, matte and frosty eye shadows, and creamy lipsticks of all shades. Most of the products she used also came from a luxury department store counter, adding another layer of reality to Carmela’s character.

“When the series ended, the sales at the makeup department of the Saks where I used to shop dropped 10%,” laughs Callaghan-Kelely. “I used to spend a couple of thousand dollars on [Carmela’s] makeup. I bought Chanel. I shopped there so much that the makeup artist at the counter knew my name.”

But if someone’s adding a screenshot from the show to their mood boards at any given moment, there’s a strong chance Adriana is its focus. Girlfriend to Tony’s nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Adriana and her beauty ethos captures what most people interpret as the Sopranos aesthetic: Think small-barrel curls with a voluminous boost via side part (“the higher the hair, the closer to God,” Salandra adds), dramatic lipstick, steely shadow, high ponytails, and full glam for the gym.

Photo: Getty Images

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“She was a complete 180 of Carmela,” says Salandra of the character’s look. While the manicurist frequently designed long red nails for Adriana—among the hundreds of press-on sets she created for the cast, including the Bada Bing dancers—she also incorporated zebra print and rhinestones into her designs: “Cheap kind of stuff, because that’s what she was meant to portray.”

Kathrine Narducci, the New York City–based actor who starred as series regular Charmaine Bucco, was well acquainted with the aesthetic before she joined the cast. She grew up in New York City and landed roles in films including A Bronx Tale, The Irishman, Capone, and the forthcoming Alto Knights. Fezco’s bat-swinging, blue-velvet-suited grandmother in Euphoria? Yes, Narducci, playing a boss in every sense of the word. But unlike Falco and de Matteo, Narducci got the everywoman treatment in the Sopranos makeup trailer.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

“Charmaine was the voice of reason on the show,” Narducci says. “She and [her husband] Artie were legitimate. They had a real business, they weren’t crooks. Charmaine’s look was more demure, more low-key.” And while that contrast kept her character rooted in reality—with working-class Charmaine struggling to keep a failing restaurant afloat while Carmela and Adriana enjoyed the illicit spoils of the waste-management business—it left Narducci hungry for glamour.

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“They played me down so I didn’t look like the other women. I always begged them: ‘Can’t I dress a little more sexy?’” she laughs. Creator David Chase and the makeup team finally gave Charmaine her makeover moment in season three.

“They gave me this great short, purple, low-cut dress, and they did my makeup and my hair a little different,” Narducci recalls. Her plain ponytail was upgraded to an intricate updo, her typical gloss was swapped out for mauve lipstick and dark liner, and an early-aughts-era smoky eye eclipsed her typical barely-there lash extensions.

“Even off set, [the actors] seeing me walking around like that had a very powerful effect,” she says. “I looked like one of the mob wives, and I was so f*cking happy. It just made me feel sexy and powerful. From there, Charmaine’s story took a bit of a turn.”

Narducci adds that while people have always responded positively to the beauty aesthetic of her “connected” characters, women most frequently express their admiration for its boldness.

“[It’s about] being powerful in the everyday world,” she says. “It’s so badass for a woman to come out f*cking fitted with big glasses, big hair, and makeup. It’s such a fun, powerful look because it’s saying, ‘I don’t give a f*ck. This is me. Yeah, look at me.’”

Maybe that’s why my feeds are suddenly abundant with hairspray-stiff curls, smudged and smoked waterlines, and pink-and-whites reincarnate, despite the complicated nature of the trends’ origins. It’s full-throttle decadence, and after years of clean-girl makeup and quiet luxury, we’re all tempted to floor it and drive it like we stole it.

Why ‘The Sopranos’ Beauty Still Resonates 25 Years Later (2024)
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