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How Sir John, Makeup Artist to Beyoncé and Joan Smalls, Is Conquering Both the Red Carpet and Fashion

Insane talent helps. And also getting fired.
Sir John. Photo: L'Oreal Paris

Sir John. Photo: L'Oreal Paris

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

"I’ve had to explain my name every single day for the last 33 years," laughed Sir John when I met the newly minted L'Oreal Paris celebrity makeup artist in NYC last week. Maybe now he'll have to explain it a little less often. (For the record, his grandmother named him, and yes, it's the name on his birth certificate.) Besides representing one of the biggest beauty brands in the world, Sir John has also been a primary member of Beyoncé's glam squad and has worked with the likes of Joan Smalls (remember that violet Met Gala lipstick?), Karlie Kloss and Naomi Campbell. As his name has portended, he's become makeup nobility.

But it didn't happen overnight. While he gave me a cat eye and glowing skin, Sir John and I talked about his career and how it all happened, including getting fired by MAC, giving up makeup and getting "brushed off" by Naomi Campbell. 

Fashionista: How did you get started doing makeup?

Sir John: I’d been in school for arts since I was six years old. I went to a performing arts high school and grew up in upstate New York. My mother immersed me in painting and things like that. Makeup happened by mistake. In college [in Atlanta], a friend of mine was a model and she didn’t have a makeup artist. The photographer asked me if I could piece together things in her bag and give her a face — it was a local magazine. I did and he said he liked it and asked me if I could come back the next Saturday and do the same thing for $250. I was 18 and a struggling college student and I didn't even know it was a job. I had no idea people did it for a living.

Did you even have makeup to bring to that next shoot?

I had to go out and buy makeup. I had a tackle box! Fast forward, and I ended up working for MAC Cosmetics for a while. I worked at a MAC counter. MAC transferred me to New York and I opened the Soho Bloomingdale’s counter. Working at a counter is a completely different world than what I’m doing right now. The counter is honestly the best teacher. You’re working with 50 women a day from all different walks of society and ages. It teaches you so much.

How long were you with MAC?

I got fired at 22 for being late. Then I went into visual merchandising. I let go of makeup altogether and I started doing windows. I was doing the windows for Bergdorfs and Barneys and I became the men’s merchandiser at Gucci for a couple of years. That was fun and I could express creativity.

How did you get into that?

Completely by mistake also! I was at [Henri] Bendel freelancing as a makeup artist and I met the visual director who was putting on a huge holiday display. I was like, “Hey I want to be a part of this. Can I help?” And he said, "Come tonight and spend the night in the store, like everyone does in visual." He offered me a full time job at Bendels. After that I did Bergdorfs for holiday and Gucci. That was my whole world for a couple years. No beauty at all. I didn’t even touch a makeup brush. I wasn’t taking it seriously.

But obviously you got back into it somehow. 

I had an associate who I worked with at MAC, named Yadim. He has a Maybelline contract now. We worked together when we were babies. We went our separate ways, but we met up later when we were like 24 or 25 and he was working for Pat McGrath at the time. He said, "Hey, I think you should meet this lady, she’s so amazing, and you’ll get to travel." At the time, I didn’t even have a passport. So I met Pat at a show in New York and she asked me at the time, “Are you going to be in Italy two weeks from now?” And I was like, "Of course, yeah I’ll be there!" I left the show knowing, I need to get my ass to Italy. I did, and at that show I met Naomi [Campbell]. The first show was Dolce; I did Prada the same afternoon. I was [with Pat] for about a year. I left and started working with Charlotte Tilbury. I love her! She’s been my mentor. 

Did you do Naomi's makeup?

No. They told me, "Don’t talk to her, just leave her alone." I idolized her when I was younger. At the time I didn't see anyone who was ethnic in fashion, so it was super inspiring. I met her and I said, "Hey I'm Sir John. I’m going to be on Pat’s team." She sort of brushed me off, but a week later I got a call from her people to work with her [for red carpet.] She was great. She was the first celebrity client I ever had.

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So when did Beyoncé come into the picture?

I was with Charlotte when I met Beyoncé. She introduced me to Bey at Tom Ford’s womenswear show, that first one in 2010. Charlotte didn't even say her name, she just said, "You’re going to do her." She pointed to her name, and I was like, "Is there a model named Beyoncé?" We had just done Liya [Kebede], and Julianne Moore was at the show and Daphne Guinness — all of these amazing iconic women. And Joan Smalls, who was a baby. She wasn’t even known yet. I thought I was being pranked or something. 

[Beyoncé] was partitioned off in her own room in Mr. Ford’s office; I went in there and it was just one of those moments that I knew my life was going to be different. I did her makeup, but I knew that she was working with Francesca Tolot. She's been Beyoncé's makeup artist for years, so  I knew I was never going to see her again. She has this great lady who used to work with Diana Ross and Cher back in the '70s and she’s done Elizabeth Taylor’s Diamonds fragrance ads — this is an iconic lady. I wasn’t nervous, but I thought, This is the best thing I’ve ever had to do, ever

She loved [the makeup] and she didn’t even want to look in the mirror afterwards. I guess she liked the vibe that we had because she followed my career silently for a year or two. Then I got a call [from someone saying], "We want to offer you a contract with Beyoncé." I was like, I’m being pranked again! This is not real. They wanted me to sign a two year contract. The confidentiality agreement was the size of a Bible. 

So what was it like being part of her entourage?

We were touring. Tour was great, but it’s not really my thing. Travel is fun, but when you’re traveling at a pace like that and ... you don't even know where you’re waking up. But it grew me up in a sense that I learned a lot on the road. There’s no better way to get familiar with an artist than to be with them in that capacity. No matter what, if I’m having a good day or bad day, I have to see this lady every day. We gained a bond. I’m not going to say I’m her friend or she’s my friend, but I know we care about each other. This is where you learn a sense of the professional dynamic, that you have to treat your clients like they are not [your] friend. This is my client and her husband is not my friend — this is my client’s husband. If you want to keep that relationship through the test of time, you have to always keep that separate. No matter how close they want to bring you in, always remember this is work. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. In this business you’re never told why you’re not called again — you’re just not called again.

Was it hard to keep all the work you did on the Beyoncé videos secret?

I did nine of the videos. It wasn’t hard to keep it secret because the confidentiality agreement put the fear of God in you. There was no sense of admiration I could get [from telling someone] that was greater than what I had at the time.

Let's talk about your model work. 

My work on Joan and Jourdan and Karlie — the girls are my portfolio. They’re my "calling card" in a sense. That’s how Bey was able to know and appreciate my work —through seeing it on Joan. I remember one of our first conversations, and it was, "We love what you do for [her], that’s what we want you to bring here." It sounds old school, like a '90s makeup artist, but I’m thankful for the models. The models are the reason I’m here. I’m forever grateful to the girls.

What did getting an agent teach you?

[My agency] Streeters gave me a refining quality and a different eye to look at my work. I had to pull back. The confusing thing about my job and career — not confusing, but it’s a challenge — is that two sides of the business want completely different things from me.  Some makeup artists have the luxury of going to work and doing beautiful editorials. Some do only red carpet. When you do both, you have to compartmentalize what the celebrity wants. She wants to be more glamorous and she doesn’t want the "no makeup-makeup" look — she wants old Hollywood glamour. Then you go to New York or Paris and they want editorials about nothing. They want Chapstick and a bit of concealer. Sometimes you can go mad trying to be everything to every part of the business. But in 2015 you don’t have an option. There are so many moving components to the business. If you don’t embrace them and stay fluid and accept these things, you’re going to be ushered out.

How do you feel about social media? Some makeup artists get pretty opinionated on Instagram.

My page doesn’t belong to me as much as I think it does. You’ll never see me drinking or [pictures of] my friends or my family — that’s not the place for it. Your social media is not just your platform. You represent a lot of other people. There are a lot of political things that happened; I wanted to give a voice to #BlackLivesMatter and I wanted to give a voice to cruelty to animals, but we have to temper what we say and how we say it or you’ll marginalize your appeal to the masses. And that’s what you don’t want. It’s just not smart. That moment can be temporary. 

Any other advice for budding makeup artists?

You want to be in fashion before you do celebrity, because you want that refinement. The good thing about fashion is that it is the marker and the holy grail of aesthetics. If you have that eye, you can bring it anywhere. It’s harder the other way around, to go from celebrity or Hollywood to fashion. High fashion likes to grow its own people. I’m sort of in the middle.

We leave everything we have on the faces of the people that we work with daily. Don’t worry about being famous. Just do the work. Social media is a gift but also the curse. If you’re good and you do the work and you’re involved with being the best at that, everything else falls into place when you’re not even looking.