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How to Build the Perfect Pop Star

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood explains how she created Noni’s character in ”Beyond the Lights”

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In Beyond the Lights, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) plays Noni, a young singer thrust into the music-industry pressure cooker — one that seems to transform female performers into hypersexualized commodities. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) came up with the idea after noticing that her favorite genre, hip-hop/R&B, had lost its edgy playfulness, becoming more of a dark force that, in her opinion, objectifies women. ”It’s moving into an ugly, angry place,” she says. We take a look at how the filmmaker and her star created Noni, who embodies elements of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Rita Ora.

Lethal Nails
Noni’s bejeweled, clawlike nails — some as long as 1.5” — were crucial to her look but woefully impractical. ”I felt totally disabled the first time I put them on,” says Mbatha-Raw. ”Texting becomes a completely different thing. I couldn’t even undo a bra. I became very reliant on my dresser in the film.”

Hip-Hop Moxie
Laurieann Gibson, Lady Gaga’s choreographer, helped Mbatha-Raw master moves on and off the stage in treacherously high heels. ”We worked on the walk and accessing that sexually aggressive attitude and swagger,” the actress says. ”It’s about the swagger.”

Risqué Wardrobe
Noni’s barely there bandeau top and black leather miniskirt make up just one of her 30 revealing costumes. The most unpleasant? The white latex dress. ”To put that on, I literally had to cover my body in a lubricant,” Mbatha-Raw says. ”And then I had to have two people roll me into it. It was very inhibiting.”

Big Hair & Makeup Mask
A showy purple wig (designed by Beyoncé’s hairstylist, Kim Kimble) and a painted-on face are key to Noni’s public persona. ”Everything had to pop,” says Prince-Bythewood. ”It’s all about covering what is really there.” When Noni does strip herself of her stage armor and reveal her natural beauty, it’s an exhilarating moment of freedom.

Bondage Gear
An S&M theme runs through Noni’s outfits, from the dog collar and armbands seen here to a dress with a bodice made of 12 pounds of metal. ”Noni is literally and metaphorically in chains,” says Mbatha-Raw. ”She feels trapped in this world.”