Despite her stature and ranking as one of the most highly decorated athletes of all time, there is something familiar about Venus Williams’s voice when we talk about EleVen by Venus Williams, her lifestyle brand, which she recently expanded to include skin and lip care in collaboration with clean beauty retailer Credo. The familiarity in her voice isn’t from hearing her narrate a Nike commercial—like the recent one about her and her sister’s record-breaking wins—or her countless on-camera interviews. What’s most recognizable in the four-time Olympic gold medal and seven-time individual Grand Slam winner’s voice is the excitedly girlish tone when talking about the practicality of a flexible LED mask; why eyeliner is part of her uniform; and her dog Harry, who she calls “very emotional.”
As we reach the topic of anti-aging treatments, that’s when the self-professed beauty junkie really lights up. When it comes to which laser actually makes her skin glow, or how long it takes for her butt to peel after a full-body treatment, it really does feel like a chat you’d be having with a girlfriend or next-door neighbor—not one of the biggest tennis stars in the world. Hearing her excitement, you know the fierce competitor is just like us at her core: “I love beauty. I love makeup. I love hair. I love clothes. That’s just me,” she says. Here, we go point by point with Williams about turning 40, her next moves on and off the court, and why she considers herself a beauty and skin-care fanatic.
What is your first beauty memory?
My first beauty memory is using my mom’s lipstick. She loves red lipstick, and I remember putting it on and it not going on right because I was just a kid, but she said, “Venus you look really pretty with that lipstick, but you might need some help putting it on right.” It was really nice and encouraging of her to say, but it really was all over the place. I grew up in a very conservative home, so we weren’t allowed to wear makeup. The first thing we bought were those colored lip glosses that were really popular at the time, and we’d wear those thinking we were actually doing something.
Having such a close relationship with your family, what beauty rituals have you picked up from those closest to you?
My mom taught me to moisturize, moisturize and moisturize. She used to do it so much that we would always tease her about it, but now we see that it really does work. Now, I moisturize like crazy, too. Just recently my sister Lyn gave me an LED mask that I am really into because it’s flexible and you can use it while you’re walking around and doing other things. Oh, and exfoliating. My mom also taught me to exfoliate, which I always do. I’m a fanatic about exfoliating.
What about you? Have you influenced your family since becoming a skin-care enthusiast?
Yes, now I’m the expert because I’ve read so many books about it. I pay attention to what ingredients are being used, what promotes cell renewal and what works best for my skin type. So, I’m the one now buying everyone the creams and moisturizers I love to use. When I get obsessed with something, I end up ordering more boxes of it because I want to share it with everyone else.
Some of our first memories of you include those iconic beaded braids. How would you describe your hair evolution since then?
The braids were really just how we did our hair as children—that was a common style at the time. The origin of braids go back to African culture, and a lot of African American children grew up wearing their hair like that. Now, I change my hairstyles and hair colors based on my mood more than anything. I change it up a lot! For instance, last summer I had three different hairstyles. I like to throw highlights in during the summer months, so I’ll have it shorter, lighter, different colors, braids—it really depends on how I’m feeling. My hair is an expression of that. I have it in braids when I’m playing, like now, but when I’m not playing, I change it up often.
What were some non-negotiables you wanted included in your EleVen products before they got your OK?
Working with a team like Credo, there really never came a point where we had to have a conversation about non-negotiables. They are the top when it comes to safety and what is considered really clean and nontoxic. I knew whatever we worked on together would be of the highest integrity, safe, good for us and good for the environment, and that is exactly what happened.
Tell me about the importance of sunscreen on the court. You must go through a lot of it.
I actually learned from my sister Serena. I would see her using SPF all the time and wearing long sleeves on the court, and there I was, never wearing any. I would watch her and she wouldn’t just apply, but also reapply, and she was really conscious of the sun. For years up until my 30s, I didn’t wear any. I felt like, “Oh, I’m African American, so I have built-in sunscreen.” But that’s not the case of course, and I saw that it was really necessary. Now, I know it’s essential, especially for anti-aging, so I’m very diligent about applying it. I’ll apply one layer and let it dry, and then apply another one. I don’t know that it actually helps to double up, but I do it anyway because it comes off when I’m sweating. I also reapply while I’m playing, but I feel like it’s really doing something to layer it on twice, even if it’s not.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you have sensitive skin. What works for you and what doesn’t?
There are so many things I love that I just can’t use. I use a lot of essential oils and I mix them with my moisturizers or use them on their own. But as far as products with a lot of actives in them, I know how my skin will respond, so I tend to stay away from anything too harsh that can cause a reaction. For anti-aging, I love the vitamin C serum from Asutra because it doesn’t make me break out. My skin is so sensitive, but anytime I can use antioxidants, I’m all about it. I also use a retinol and hyaluronic acid from Asutra—those are my favorite skin-care products that I use all of the time.
What about makeup? Do you have a certain philosophy or approach?
I have tons of makeup—more than I need—but I have a very “less is more” approach. I don’t like to have too much makeup on my face because then I just feel like the girl who has too much makeup on, and when I show up somewhere, people are just thinking, “Why does this girl have SO much makeup on?” I know a full face is THE look, but I don’t like to feel like something is sitting on my skin, so I’ll warm up a little foundation in my hands and put a light layer on my face. I also try not to wear heavy eyeliner because I think it can make you look older if you’re wearing too much. I do love a good cat-eye, but it has to be executed the right way or you end up with too much eyeliner around your eyes and that’s just not a good look. It really has to be about the skin underneath looking good and the rest really falls together. But, less is always more for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have a lot of makeup in my collection, because I do, but I really just end up collecting it all.
I’ve worn more eyeliner on the court than off the court. It’s been part of my uniform.
What are your must-have, holy-grail makeup products?
I mean, there are a lot. So, I would definitely say a brow makes a big difference. If you’re going to pick one or two things, I would say focus on a good brow product and some amazing mascara. If you can get your brows going and your eyes popping, you’ve won the battle. Sometimes a little eyeliner, too. I’ve spent so many years wearing eyeliner, I think I’ve worn more eyeliner on the court than off the court. It’s been part of my uniform, but like I said, you have to be careful about how much and where you place it, or it can end up aging you.
How has it been turning 40? Have you noticed any new signs of aging as you’ve entered this stage of life?
I’m really fine with it. I’m really fortunate to have really good genes, honestly. I think a lot of times it comes down to that and how you take care of yourself. I was very naughty not wearing sunscreen for pretty much the first 35 years of my life, so I just hope it never catches up with me. That’s all I can say. And you know, I try not to eat as much junk food now that it piles on easier, which is a shame because I’m a junk-food junkie. I’m planning some visits to some health spas following this season if COVID doesn’t stop me. I’m really looking forward to doing some detoxing.
That’s surprising! I don’t think anyone would peg you as a junk-food junkie.
Yeah, I don’t present as one. But I am!
I feel like 40 is when you want to become best friends with your dermatologist. Have you tried any anti-aging treatments that really work for you?
Oh yeah, I’m all about prevention. I love Laser Genesis or anything that’s going to help build collagen. You can also try more intense treatments for prevention and correction like Ultherapy or Thermage. I’ve tried both and they’re both a little too painful for me, but they’re definitely two gold standards for anti-aging. I honestly like to keep it simpler and do something like a Laser Genesis treatment, some red light therapy, constant exfoliation and chemical peels. Nothing too crazy, but those sorts of things really turn over your skin and make it look beautiful. And if you keep it up and can continue your routine at home, you’ll be amazed at how well it works. Last year I did a wonderful whole-body peel. I want to do another one again this year.
Does your whole body peel?
Yes, I had to put on a face cover, sunglasses and a hat. And this was pre-COVID, so I didn’t have to wear a mask at that time, but when I was done, my skin looked unreal. It took about three days for everything to just peel off. My dermatologist in New York has incredible peels for the face and body, and the hands and feet peel so beautifully. And honestly, the butt peels so nicely, too (laughs). I love a good treatment. At the end of the year, I always like to book something like that.
You’ve also been vocal about being diagnosed with Sjorgren’s syndrome. How does that affect you and your lifestyle?
Well, I’m supposed to be gluten-free, but I haven’t been good about following that for a few weeks. I don’t know why, because I’ve been very good for a year and a half. So maybe that’s just…I don’t know. I gotta get right.
I think 2020 has been like that though. Everything’s upside down.
I think so, too. Yeah, I blame COVID. Other than that, I just need to get more rest. I think over time I’ve been able to adjust over the years and understand what works for me, so it’s gotten easier.
You’re competing again in a time when everything is so different than it used to be. Did the stay-at-home orders make training more difficult, or was it easier to focus?
It was nice because I shifted my practice times to four o’clock. That was so cool because I got to spend the whole day with my team, and then at four, I would go hit and it was like the world was really quiet. The light was even different and just really calm and I liked it. That was a nice time. I’ve never done that before. So, I just hit from like, four until dark. That was actually really nice.
How often and how long do you train when you’re competing?
I’m trying to modify my training while I’m on the road. I don’t lift as heavy in the gym, but it’s still a lot of work. For example, today I spent about two-and-a-half hours playing and we ended up going more, but that’s because lately I’ve had some stuff I’ve needed to work on. So, when we finished with our core, I said let’s go inside and hit some more. My coach said I was doing well and I replied, “Yes, because we’re doing extra reps.” So, today I trained about five hours. Now I’ll start to taper down to focus on Monday when I go back to play. I’ll practice for two and a half hours on the court, do an hour in the gym, and then the day before the match, I just shoot it out on the court to do some decent stretching. Then, I save it for the match.
Do you have any wellness or spiritual practices that help you stay focused during crunch time, like tournament season?
Yes, I think it’s really important to practice self-care, especially now. One of my favorite things are my essential oil diffusers. I use the lavender at night and lemongrass during the day, and those are very centering for me. Also, I have Bible study with my family on Saturday and service on Tuesday and Sunday nights by Zoom. Those are always grounding and remind me to be a good person and get my life right. It’s easy to go left, you know. These meetings are great reminders to not go left and reinforce that there’s nothing over there for you. Also, there’s so much more of a big picture than tennis. It can be very upsetting, not getting things right on the court. It can ruin a whole day. You have to be careful to stay positive because sports is so exacting. It can be a lot. You have to find ways to de-stress.
How do you de-stress when there is so much going on and you have to hit your marks each day?
You know, I listen to a lot of reggae (laughs). Also, my dog keeps me so happy. His name is Harold and he’s so cute and funny. He’s a really good guy. Whenever people see him, they just see the guy who’s just sitting in the corner being quiet, but Harold has a lot of moments in the day when he’s very emotional and he can barely move. Then he starts running around because he wants to eat, and then he’s crying because he allegedly can’t get on the couch, and I have to lift him up all day. He has a lot of ups and downs. Today I rolled the ball toward him on the court and he was so upset. It was going like half a mile an hour and he just looked at me so upset.
What has it been like to get back on the courts without spectators there to cheer you on?
All the work you do, before you ever step on the court, you do all of that by yourself. When you step out there for the match, you’re out there alone. While there are a lot of people from your team around, no one can help you; no one can advise you. It’s a one-woman show. So, in a lot of ways, this is how it always is. Of course, fans make the exciting moments even more exciting, but you know, the purity about what’s happening now is that this is how tennis actually is.
Do you think you’ve helped to shape the perception of female athletes? It seems it’s become more accepted for athletes to express their feminine side, but that wasn’t always the case.
I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that. I am who I am. I love beauty. I love makeup. I love hair. I love clothes. That’s just me.
We can’t imagine tennis without you, but how do you envision your future outside of competing? Can we expect more skin care and beauty?
Oh my god, yes. We’re working on so many things behind the scenes, so we’ll have to talk again when it all comes out. But it’s my life. It’s what I believe in. And it’s exactly where I should be. Wellness, skin care and beauty—it’s what I love.
Photography: Laura Metzler; Makeup: Natasha Gross; Hair: Nikki Nelms; Styling: Madison Guest at The Only Agency