Remembering Chita Rivera and Her Iconic Beauty Looks

The Tony Award winner stunned on and off stage.

Chita Rivera
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This week, the world lost a Broadway legend: At the age of 91, Chita Rivera passed away in New York. The actress, dancer, and singer had been nominated 10 Tony Awards (and won two), and was recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002 and with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 2018. Best known for originating the role of Anita in West Side Story, the Afro-Puerto Rican actress was an inspiration within the Latino community and beyond.

Rivera also shone on and off the screen, donning hairstyles and makeup looks that kept all eyes on her. Furthermore, the actress stuck to her signature style even as other trends came and went, taking inspiration from the striking stage makeup that she wore for so much of her life. Her style and appearance not only kept eyes glued to her during her shows, but they also defined her characters. In fact, her distinctive look served as the foundation for all future performances of West Side Story, including the landmark 1961 film and the highly anticipated 2021 remake.

Paula Kelly, Shirley Maclaine, and Chita Rivera in 'Sweet Charity'

Chita Rivera, on the right, performs with Paula Kelly (left) and Shirley Maclaine (center) in Sweet Charity.

(Image credit: Alamy)

Of course, Rivera was a talented powerhouse and possessed a remarkable charm that made contemporaries and audiences alike adore her. But she was also incredibly savvy when it came to beauty, and knew how to adjust her appearance to remain the star of the show long after curtain call. Below, I break down Rivera's signature beauty looks, from her buoyant hair to her showstopping makeup.

Pinned Curls

Chita Rivera and Ken LeRoy in West Side Story

Chita Rivera and Ken LeRoy perform in a stage production of West Side Story.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Rivera was of Puerto Rican descent on her father's side and of African, Irish, and Scottish heritage on her mother's side. As a result, she had gorgeous curls that she wore short and pinned to her head when she was performing in West Side Story. The look was all the rage during the mid-twentieth, donned by actresses from Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor, and even came back in the 1980s, albeit in a slightly different, much puffier incarnation. This chic, voluminous look became a staple in Anita's appearance in West Side Story, leading actresses from Rita Moreno to Ariana DeBose to mimic the look in their own portrayals of the iconic character.

This look works best with short hair like Rivera's, but to mimic it, simply curl your damp hair in traditional curlers, then pin them to your scalp. Let them set for a few hours (or overnight!) and apply hairspray before removing the curlers. You can wear the style loose or use bobby pins to bring the ends of your hair closer to your scalp, giving yourself a mock- pixie cut.

Bright Red Lipstick

John Kander and Chita Rivera attend the opening night party for the musical "Chita Rivera the Dancer's Life" at The Copacabana in New York City on December 11, 2005.

Chita Rivera on the red carpet with John Kander on the opening night of the musical Chita Rivera the Dancer's Life.

(Image credit: Alamy)

Red lipstick always screams glamour, which is certainly something that Rivera channeled throughout her illustrious career. Of course, Rivera often had to wear bright red lipstick while starring in Broadway shows such as Sweet Charity, but she evidently loved the look, because she wore it offstage, too. Her favorite shades of red include traditional, fire engine scarlet, along with summery reds infused with orange undertones.

Bold Pink Blush

Chita Rivera

(Image credit: Alamy)

Rivera liked to go for an overall rosy look, pairing her signature red lip with bright pink blush that gave her a youthful glow no matter her age. The bold colors of the performer's everyday makeup palette also reflected her days on stage, when all her makeup needed to be so striking that it could be seen throughout the theatre. While current trends dictate that we place our blush high up on our cheekbones, Rivera stuck to the classic practice of dabbing the pigment on the apples of her cheeks, giving her an eternal girlish blush. To easily achieve this look, simply smile in the mirror and dab blush on the soft, round apples of your cheeks that puff up as you grin.

Kohl-Lined Eyes

Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera in 1999

(Image credit: Alamy)

Eyeliner trends certainly come and go. Over the last decade or so, most people have worn their eyeliner in a thick black line applied only to their top eyelids with a liquid eyeliner. Rivera, however, stuck to her preferred method, which was so apply thick lines of kohl to both her top lids and her lower waterlines, complemented by light blue, silvery, or white shades of eyeshadow. The method certainly made the actress' eyes pop, and she almost always accentuated the look with a few swipes of black mascara that curled her lashes all the way up, making her look wide-awake and attentive.

Pixie Cut

Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera attends the Evening Standard Drama Awards at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1962. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When you're dancing and performing as much as Rivera did, you don't have the time (or the patience) to let your hair get in the way. While Rivera dabbled in other haircuts like the bob and the lob, she is best known for sporting a chic pixie cut extending just below her ears, which wore wavy, semi straight (as seen above), or in her natural tight curls. Her curl pattern made it so that no matter what style she chose, her 'do always looked voluminous—an effect aided by her signature choppy layers.

Shaggy Layers

Chita Rivera posing with The Beatles

Chita Rivera, along with Mike and Bernie Winters, poses with The Beatles.

(Image credit: Alamy)

Whether she was wearing a boy-cut, a pixie, or a lob, Rivera always opted for layers to give her dark, shiny hair some extra oomph. Sometimes, like when she met The Beatles in the playful photo above, she used some of her front layers as bangs, while other times she let her hair lay loose and spiky à la Joan Jett.

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at