Fashion at the BET Awards is bold. The annual celebration of Black excellence is all about exuberant style and last night’s show was no exception. Between Lil Nas X delighting in Richard Quinn’s latest collection, Cardi B announcing her pregnancy in a bejeweled Dolce & Gabbana catsuit, and Naomi Campbell stunning the crowd in golden ruffled Gucci, the event didn’t lack for statement fashion. Still, no one embodied the evening’s outré vibe better than host Taraji P. Henson.
The actress served as the night’s emcee and its most versatile fashion star. With multiple outfit changes, hairstyles, and beauty looks, Henson kept the party going while paying tribute to the Black Hollywood icons who’ve inspired her. For Henson, the thoughtfully crafted homages to women like Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Esther Jones, the vaudevillian who inspired Betty Boop, tied into the night’s theme and own experiences as a performer. “This year’s theme is ‘Year of the Black Woman, and it just feels right and about time!” she shared via email. “I’d been to so many of the previous shows, and now I’m the host—it felt like a full-circle moment.”
To reflect that spirit, Henson and her stylist Jason Bolden sought to reference industry trailblazers. “We leaned into that. Everything connects to a Black woman that Taraji is inspired by or looks up to,” explained Bolden. “From Erykah Badu, Tina Turner, and Diana Ross to these incredibly powerful and strong corporate women who she knows.” Each celebrity was represented through a runway piece that seemed pulled from their closet. Ross was a glittering Greta Constantine cape worn over a matching catsuit, a nod to the gold lamé ensemble she wore to play the Super Bowl halftime show in 1986. Henson channeled Turner in a choppy blonde wig and a gold sequin mini-dress akin to the gilded Azzedine Alaïa creations the star wore throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Even future legends received a fashion shoutout—Henson changed into plum Dundas to do her best HER impression onstage. Henson credits the success of these throwbacks to Bolden and her glam squad. “It’s all Jason, he’s amazing, and I trust him completely,” she says. “We’ve been working together for so long; he knows exactly what I like and what I don’t and is just always the best partner for big moments like this.”
The clothes were on point, but the complete transformations wouldn’t have been possible without Henson’s beauty experts. With hairstylist Tym Wallace using products from her TPH from Taraji haircare range, makeup artist Saisha Beecham creating a series of accurate period looks, and manicurist Temeka Jackson making custom gold-tipped nails for the occasion, every detail shined. “I trust my glam team, let them play and just have fun,” says Henson. “They’re the experts. I did some hair prep with my haircare line, but other than that, I just let my team do their thing, and I think they crushed it.”
Thanks to Henson’s tributes, Zendaya bringing back aughts-era Beyoncé outfits, and Queen Latifah’s lifetime achievement award calling to mind decades worth of hip hop fashion, 2021’s BET Awards gave respect to the past. Still, the night wasn’t only about looking back. As host Henson set the night’s tone, she kept her red carpet style au courant in a gown from Atelier Versace’s spring/summer 2020 collection. “She wanted to be her full fabulous self, and that incredible Versace was pure Taraji,” says Bolden. ‘She was like, ‘I’m a woman of a certain age, I love where I am, I love who I am, and I’m not afraid to indulge in what makes me happy.’ She’s such a ball of laughter and joy, someone who doesn’t dress for other people but truly considers how the clothes make them feel. So when we tried the sample, and it zipped right up, we just knew it was meant to be.”
The night’s significance went beyond clothes. “I just felt [so] honored,” says Henson. “It’s culture’s biggest night, and I wanted everyone to have a good time and celebrate. I was so excited for everyone to watch at home and for there to be an actual in-person live audience. We had a few surprises up our sleeves; it was definitely a night to remember.”