Posing without makeup for PEOPLE's annual Beautiful Issue actually required more prep for Kat Graham than if she'd been wearing a full face.
"I started a juice cleanse. I wanted to try out my theory that beauty actually comes from the inside out when it comes to your health of your hair and of your skin," the actress and singer, 31, explains to PEOPLE in this week's Beautiful Issue. "This company, Suja Juice, they're so good. And I did that for three days, so it's actually been the longest prep I've ever had for any shoot — and it was no makeup and my curls!"
Graham admits that she only recently started to wear her natural curls.
"Hair has been such a great journey for me through this past year in quarantine," she says. "I really embraced my curls, which is not something that I ever did before. I really relied heavily on straight wigs and things like that. And now I'm finding ways to have looser curls, tighter curls, softer curls, stronger. I feel like I'm almost a curl expert, I'm not quite there yet."
The co-founder of wellness platform Modern Nirvana started out as a total novice when it came to beauty. Graham says she started wearing makeup around 15, but her mom didn't want to show her the ropes.
"I remember the first thing that I did was tried to pluck my eyebrows to get them a good shape, but my mom wouldn't let me pluck my eyebrows, so I shaved them," Graham recalls. "It was picture day, and it was a disaster."
PEOPLE's 2021 Beautiful Issue Cover Star Will Be Revealed on Wednesday, March 31. And for More Inspiring Barefaced Celebrity Beauties, Pick Up the Issue on Newsstands Everywhere Friday, April 2
Eventually, Graham learned how to apply makeup from her drag queen pals who she met during her early days on stage.
"When I first started releasing more music, the only people that would let me perform were gay clubs," she explains. "So I would perform, usually for free, to about maybe two or three people in the bar, and then that became my community. When I started to get asked to do more press and more red carpets, the only makeup artists that I knew were my friends, so they did my makeup for the first bit of press until they eventually taught me how to do my own."
Starring in The Vampire Diaries turned Graham into a red carpet regular — and she loved the glamour that came with the experience. "I would be the girl that would be the first on the carpet," Graham says. "I would just rush out to do a carpet. It's a bit silly now."
When the series started to wind down in 2017, so did Graham's sense of urgency.
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"I started to value my time more as an artist, as my own friend first and as a Black woman in the industry. I started to have self-appreciation more," the Switzerland-born star says. "I know that I'm in an industry that's constantly trying to remind me that I'm replaceable and between that and social media. How do you fight back and slow down?"
Graham soon realized "what's yours will always be yours."
"That happened probably in 2017 when I had to go out into the world on my own and really ask myself who I was," she says. "That only got reinforced during COVID, where I had to really make decisions based on wellness and being a better person and being somebody that was going to try and help people with my platform. I had a lot of self-realization."
That includes practicing self-love. "You've got to get into this self-love space," Graham says. "No matter how much work you get done, if you don't love yourself, if you haven't really accepted yourself, the work will never end. You'll always find something that you could just tweak, or if I could just have that, and it'll never be over. Give yourself an opportunity to heal. Because it takes a long time and you don't know who you might inspire if you just loved yourself."
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