Courtesy of Dhonielle Clayton
April 12, 2017 at 12:04 PM EDT

 Beauty is the beast in Dhonielle Clayton’s latest book.

The Belles tells the story of Camellia Beauregard, a member of the Belles, a group of young women who control how people look, a precious commodity in their beauty-obsessed society of Orléans, where people are born gray until they’re transformed. Only Camellia wants more than just to be a Belle, she wants to be the best — the one chosen by the Queen herself to serve the royal family and their court.

But as Camellia — and readers discover — her dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Especially, when the Queen asks her to risk her life to help the ailing Princess Sophia.

Given the book’s focus on beauty (and its costs) EW caught up with Clayton to discuss her inspirations for her world and The Belles. Check out an exclusive excerpt and an exclusive cover reveal — plus a behind-the-scenes look at how it came together.


ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to tell this story?
DHONIELLE CLAYTON: When I was a preteen I went through this stage where I was obsessed with magazines. I started cutting out pictures of beautiful people from magazines and pasting them on the wall. Like body parts, hair textures, hair shape, eye color, lips… All these things that I really loved that I wished I could have. That’s where this came from. I write about things that bother me and this is something that Teenage Me was very bothered by: my body, it’s limitations, and why it didn’t look like magazines. I wanted to talk about a world where if you could change yourself down to your bones, what would it be like and what could you do?

Camillia is part of “The Belles.” How did you come up with that aspect of the book?
The world came first. I wanted to write a girl who was very ambitious and didn’t always know everything but felt like she did, and wanted to take risks. And I wanted to set up a hierarchy where she thought being the best and being chosen as the best would be the thing that she would want the most. But sometimes that doesn’t work out and I wanted to deal with what happens when you have a goal and the aftermath of those expectations not being what you thought they were going to be… I also wanted to deal with female friendships because in the book they are sisters. Camillia wants to fix the Belles so they can function in a unit where they both love each other and compete. I wanted to talk about how groups of women can be divided and how they can be very strong when they come together. So that’s something really important to me to get across to readers and explore in general.

What does all this, plus the idea of beauty mean to Camillia?
Her ambition is to be on top and being on top means making everyone feel like they’re the most beautiful person. But that can be a very slippery slope because what if a person can’t be pleased? What if what is beautiful continues to shift and change? It’s the problem I had when I was a preteen. Other things would come into trend and looking like that means you’re beautiful. So I was morphing myself and trying to figure out how to change my hair, makeup, clothes to continue to chase what was considered beautiful. That’s where that comes form.

There’s also a threat to Camillia within the palace?
There’s Princess Sophia, who is the daughter of the queen and she is very much a complicated character who has many of the same beliefs I had when I was a preteen. She wants to change herself and be the most beautiful. She’s a big threat. Because it’s a fleeting thing to feel like you were the most beautiful. Trends keep changing. The threat is both physical, because when you meet Princess Sophia she is quite the handful, and also an emotional one where Camillia falls into this cycle where she cannot please everyone and what that means to someone who actually wants to do that and be the best and on top.

What were some of the influences you drew on to come up with Orleans?
I was thinking of New Orleans, but I also lived in France and Japan and so I was thinking of both of those places as well. Because what it means to be beautiful in both of those places is very intricate and fascinating especially in Marie Antoinette’s court. So, there are nods to Marie Antoinette’s court and also Japanese beauty rituals and customs and geisha. Also to New Orleans especially in the 18th or 19th centuries when you had these hierarchies based on blood and how much African ancestry one had and the different traits that one would carry. So, I looked at all those things and tried to build a secondary fantasy off of them because these are places I’ve lived and spent time and love and respect.

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
I just want them to examine the media that they consume about their bodies. I really wanted to open up a conversation with women and girls in general about what they’re willing to do to their bodies to chase an image and how that image is constantly changing and shifting which keeps us on a hunt. It’s almost like a massive game that has been set up. We’re playing where the deck is stacked against us and we continue to do whatever it takes. “If I just get one more wax, if I just run one more mile, if I just get this new outfit, if I just get this liposuction…” We’re willing to do whatever it takes. I also wanted to talk about how we can not stop the cycle but examine it and think about the value we place on physical beauty and how it’s fleeting. It’s impossible to stay on top of things.

The Belles will be available for purchase until February 2018. But until then you can read the first two chapters exclusively on EW on the next page.

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