Zarna Surti on Celebrating Women of Color and Indian Beauty Secrets

Ignorance may be considered bliss by some but to Zarna Surti, it’s the equivalent of blindness. Formerly managing editor at Nasty Gal, Surti set out to correct a major media oversight she observed while working in the fashion and entertainment industries: women of color. With the release of Tonal Journal—her newly launched independent print publication that spotlights strength, ambition and beauty in women of color—you could say she more than accomplished her mission. Half magazine, half coffee table book, Tonal is a diamond in the dwindling print rough of today’s digital domineering era. In its first volume, Surti explores different skin tones, ethnicities, and the stories behind 60+ contributors. Keep reading to get to know the woman behind the book, as she talks to us about colorism, Indian beauty secrets passed down to her, the mind-blowing air dry fact we didn’t know, and more. 

Job title: Founder & Editor in Chief of Tonal Journal

Neighborhood: Silver Lake; Los Angeles, CA

Originally from: Nashville, Tennessee

Tell us about the inspiration behind Tonal Journal. 

Tonal came out of the need to create a physical print project, up until then, my background had been primarily digital and I wanted something you could feel, touch, and interact with. I wanted something that took us off our screens and into human interaction and touch. I also knew I wanted a space to celebrate women of color—I’d been working in the fashion and entertainment industry for years and saw far too many WOCs being overlooked and I wanted a project dedicated to us.

When did the idea to start Tonal Journal first come to you? Was there ever an aha moment about forming it? 

As far as the origin story, I was in between jobs at the time—I had just left my position as the Manager Editor at a fashion company and was starting at an agency a week later. It was the first time in years I was able to live without the pressure of my email inbox and I was really able to free my mind creatively. I was on my way from Los Angeles to Nashville to see my parents and started writing the word "tone" on a cocktail napkin, and as I started to play with it, it became "tonal." When I looked up the meaning it said, "relating to the tone of music, color, or writing." It was my three favorite things, and that's when I knew I had found the name of my print project. From there I chose to dedicate the project to celebrating women of color, and everything fell in line from there.

Photo: Bukunmi Grace for Refinery29

TBH I stalked your Instagram, and I noticed lots of amazing work that you either produced or directed. Tell us: what do you do (or used to do job-wise) when you’re not working on Tonal Journal? 

First of all, thank you! Secondly, I’m also the founder of Tonal Studios—a boutique creative agency that works with brands who align with our values of female leadership and diversity in the workplace. We do everything from video and photo work to editorial direction to design!

There are 60+ contributors and 288 pages in the first issue of Tonal. How would you describe these contributors? What can we expect to see in those 288 pages?

These contributors are my angels. Each one of them put so much love and time into the project, and they truly made this vision come to life. I was so lucky to have so many amazing people involved.

You can expect to see photo editorials, essays, and interviews of beautiful, strong, and inspiring women of color! 

When can we expect the next issue of Tonal?

We’re hoping to have the next issue out by the top of next year! Because it has a hardcover—we always say it’s half magazine, half coffee table book—the proofing and printing process takes a while, but it’s so worth it.

Tona Journal Zarna Surti

What would you say are the top reasons women of color are underrepresented, and what can society do to shift that?

I think it’s a lot of ignorance—when challenged with increasing diversity, most brands and people say it’s something they never even noticed was a problem. That in itself is a huge problem—society needs to pay more attention and put diversity and learning about various cultures to the forefront.

You created the podcast extension of Tonal Journal—where can we hear it? And what topics do you discuss on there?

You can check it out on our website tonaljournal.com or on iTunes. We talk about everything from online dating to pregnancy to what it’s like to be first generation. It’s so fun to record, I can’t wait to do more episodes!

What are your personal favorite podcasts to listen to?

I love This American Life, and How I Built This. The storytelling in This American Life is just so incredibly beautiful and as a journalist, I’m so inspired by the delicate and intelligent way they approach each topic. I also love hearing founder stories on How I Built This—it’s incredible to hear how companies like Starbucks, Carol’s Daughter, and Bumble started as such grassroots, small businesses.

Are there any documentaries about colorism, identity, and/or feminism that you would recommend?

I saw Check It recently and it really moved me. Also, Dark Girls and Ladies First!

Photo: Tamy Emma Pepin for Tonal

Where’s a good place to start if someone wants to get involved in the conversation about representing women of color?

Start by listening—listen to your WOC friends and family, hear their thoughts/concerns. Then do your research and figure out how to help. It’s not their job to give a step-by-step on what to do, sometimes that in itself can get exhausting. So listen and then find ways to help! 

In one of your Instagram posts you wrote, “So proud of my dad for giving back to his old school in Madhi—he funded a performing arts center & announced a college scholarship fund for five female students over the next five years…” It seems as though your family members are also feminists who are all for the arts (yay!). What advice would you give to millennials whose parents aren’t so supportive of their decision to pursue art or other creative fields? 

I’m lucky to have parents who support me in my creative endeavors, but as a first generation Indian-American, there are plenty of things that are difficult to discuss with them, so I have an understanding of how difficult things like this can be. I would recommend really thinking through your decision to pursue a creative field and sit down and talk to them about your five year plan. Sometimes, creative fields are just scary for parents because they want you to have an income and be able to support yourself. Show them that you’ve thought the idea through and have a plan!

Photo: Zarna Surti

Okay, shifting gears—You have GORGEOUS curls, and after reading your Refinery29 story about Indian hair stereotypes, we must know: What's your signature curly hair routine? 

Thank you! I have a pretty intense routine, haha. I start with OUAI Curl Shampoo and SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Conditioner. While I have conditioner in my hair in the shower, I brush it with a Wet Brush, and then when I get out of the shower I dry it with a microfiber towel. From there, I second my hair and apply DevaCurl’s Leave-In Conditioner, followed by OUAI's Hair Oil, and then Bumble and bumble’s Curl Defining Creme. If I’m in a rush, I’ll diffuse it just a bit, but if not, I prefer for it to air dry.

I’ve also been toying with Aveda’s Volumizing Tonic—I love putting it on my roots when it’s wet because once it dries and you use your fingers to amp up the roots, it really adds a good amount of volume.

On the second or third day, I’ll spruce it up with OUAI's Dry Shampoo and Finishing Creme. 

You also have lovely skin. What does your skincare routine look like? 

Thank you! I’m a skincare addict, haha. I started really taking good care of my skin a few years ago, and I can see all of the difference. In the morning I use La Mer’s Cleansing Oil, Beautycounter’s Rejuvenating Radiance Serum, La Mer Eye Concentrate Cream, Panacea’s Daily Facial SPF, and Dr. Roebucks’s Bondi Hydrating Mist. In the evenings I use Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser (I love that it doubles as a makeup remover!), La Mer Eye Concentrate Creme, and Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Deep Moisture Balm.

I also try to mask 2-3 times a week and love Beautycounter’s Charcoal Mask and Caudalie's Glycolic Peel Mask.

Photo: Carmen Chan for Tonal

Who cuts and colors your hair?

I’ve been going to Liz Sustaita for over 3 years and she has worked MAGIC on my hair. She understands how to cut hair so beautifully—I always leave with the best movement and texture. I just recently started coloring my hair again and have been going to Anja Burton! She’s a genius.

Do you have any hacks for getting the perfect air-dried curls?

If you’re going to air dry, I learned in my teen years it’s helpful not to change environments. For example, if you go from your house to your car to work, the different temps and environments can change the way your hair drys. I try to just wake up and wash my hair earlier so it dries fully!

In your opinion, what is the difference between American women’s approach to beauty vs. Indian women’s approach to beauty?

I think it depends on where they are. Indian women in India definitely have a more holistic approach, I’m sure that’ll change and is changing, but Indian beauty is really rooted in natural products. My mom always has the best DIY skin treatments.

Zarna Surti Tonal Journal

Are there any Indian beauty secrets you learned from mom or grandma?

They are all about keeping everything natural, healthy, and glowy. My mom makes these great tumeric face masks that I love. My grandmas always rubbed tons of coconut oil in my hair and told me to sleep in it and wash it in the morning. It made my hair so soft! That ritual of sitting on the floor cross-legged while they put coconut in my hair—that’s one of my fondest memories with both my paternal and maternal grandmas.

What would you tell girls who aren’t confident enough to embrace their natural texture but want to?

Live life and spend less time on your hair, haha! I still straighten it sporadically and play with styles, but I’m 90% curly. It feels so good! I used to feel like a slave to my flat iron, and planned things around doing my hair. It sounds so silly, but I’m sure plenty of women can relate!

Photo: Lisa Says Gah for Tonal

I noticed you were part of the Sexy Beast LA x Virgil Abloh and Jenny Holzer tee. What role did you play in that creative process?

That was such a beautiful collaboration! I was connected with the program director at Sexy Beast a few months ago. From there, they asked me to be part of the shoot, which I was so proud to be a part of. I also have another event coming up with them and Society6 next Saturday called Girls Art Now! 

I also noticed your super-chic interior aesthetic! Do you have any favorite furniture sites, shops, or flee markets for good interior finds?

Thank you! I love the Rose Bowl Flea Market, Melrose Flea Market, and places like Sunbeam Vintage. I look for really unique pieces and it’s so important to me to curate each piece.

A must-read book you’ve read or are currently reading:

I just finished The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. They’re both such amazing South Asian female writers—highly recommend both!

OUAI Hair Oil

Photo: Zarna Surti

Follow Zarna on Instagram: @zarna