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.
One of the most renowned beauty pros in the business today, Hung Vanngo is a perfect example of a makeup artist with both an impressive fashion resumé (his work has appeared on more than 500 magazine covers), and equally lauded red carpet work (A-list celebrities clamor to book him). He's built close relationships with fellow legends in the business — think supermodels like Helena Christensen and hairstylists like Harry Josh — as well as buzzy up and comers (Kaia Gerber, Kendall Jenner) and young Hollywood (Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson).
Vanngo's aesthetic is one that embraces the bold, but never at the expense of his clients' natural features; he'll make skin look its best, let freckles occasionally peek through, and never, ever be caught doing an "Instagram brow." Still, his work translates well on the platform. Having faced challenges early in life, Vanngo doesn't shy away from change in his professional career. He leans into new technology and learns from younger generations of makeup artists, using social media as a means of honing and sharing his craft. Maybe that's why he's racked up more than 375,000 fans on Instagram, all hoping to catch glimpses of his beautiful makeup — and also of his personality, which he's not shy about letting shine through. He let us in on all of that and more in the Q&A below.
Tell me about your background and what your childhood was like. Did you always have an interest in makeup?
I was born in Vietnam, and then when I was about six, we left Vietnam and lived in a refugee camp for three years in Thailand. I got to Canada at about eight years old, and I grew up and went to school in Calgary. When I was younger I was always painting faces; I used to paint in black and white mainly, mostly just faces. When I was in high school, I was fascinated with fashion, but I didn't know that I wanted to be a makeup artist — I thought I wanted to be a hairdresser. I always loved touching and playing with hair. But in Calgary, I never thought [I could make a career as] a makeup artist. I knew you could be a hairdresser in a salon. You could sell makeup at a counter, but even that's not really a popular thing.
But you were always drawn to the world of beauty?
I just always loved beauty and fashion. I was always fascinated by supermodels: Helena, Linda, Christy. But I was looking into hairdressing, and my family wasn't happy about that. They're supportive, but my older brother became a doctor and now he's a professor at a university. So they saw it as a pattern, that I should be like my brother. They weren't thrilled; in Vietnam, makeup and hair is really a female profession. They didn't think about guys doing those things.
So how did you get started working in the field?
My brother has always been my number one supporter. There's a beauty school in Canada called Marvel College, and he and I figured out our student loans and everything ourselves; three days after I graduated high school, I started school for hairdressing. Even when I was young I was always very focused. I think it's because we'd had a hard life and really appreciate every opportunity.
So how did you wind up doing makeup rather than hair?
I didn't finish school for hairdressing because they asked me to enter a competition, but the teacher gave me a photo of what I should do for it; she told me to re-create the look. There wasn't a lot of room for creativity, I felt put in a box and just didn't enjoy that. I got a job in a hair salon in Calgary, and they had a makeup station. I played with makeup all the time, and I fell more and more in love with it. It was a gift that I could style hair, but I never really loved it. My heart started leaning toward makeup. I started entering hair and makeup competitions, and on the weekends I started reaching out to local agencies and doing photo shoots. I had a friend who became my agent and I started to book time out of the salon because I really loved the freelance shoots. [My agent] suggested that I move to Toronto, which is the center of fashion in Canada. I gave up the whole salon thing and I stopped cutting hair.
And when did you make it to the U.S.?
I'd come to New York all the time to shop for makeup or get inspiration and just feel the energy. In 2006 I moved to New York, where I basically started all over again. I'm always open to change, and I believe that every time you move to a new place it's a new start. You can't expect just because you were a star makeup artist one place it's going to be the same. I signed with a small agency in New York and when I moved I decided I wouldn't do hair at all, just makeup. Until recently I wouldn't tell people about my past with hair. I wanted people to take me seriously as a makeup artist and I want hairstylists I work with to feel secure. One of my closest friends is [hairstylist] Harry Josh; we work together all the time, but for the first few years we did, he didn't know [about my background as a hairstylist], but he loved my creative input. That's why we worked together so well.
What was your first big break as a makeup artist?
The biggest editorial I had in the beginning was for Shop Etc magazine. Amy Keller [now the editor in chief of Women's Health] was the first one to book me. Then there was a shoot for Numéro Tokyo with Helena Christensen who had seen my work; that was a big break in New York. It was my first time working with a legend, and that's also when I met Harry Josh. Helena really liked what I did, and the next week she requested me for three different covers. Harry could also see that I was capable, and so between them, they'd start recommending me to different people. Helena was shooting an i-D magazine cover in London with Eva Herzigova and Claudia Schiffer, and she requested me for that. That cover — the three of them all naked, black and white — turned out amazing. The photographer booked me for two other covers for i-D, and those really elevated me to people in fashion.
What do you think made people notice those covers at the beginning?
The thing is that there was almost no makeup. New makeup artists tend to try to prove themselves by using a ton of makeup. But it takes confidence to say "They're so beautiful, we can do almost no makeup." And from there people started noticing me and booking me more. I started in editorials and fashion, really no celebrity. That was when I started with The Wall Group, and the agency suggested that I try to do some [red carpet makeup].
I'm an ambitious person, and I saw that magazines were starting to use celebrities for their covers. So I was open to that. The first celebrity I worked with in New York was Camilla Belle. She was looking for a makeup artist for a BCBG show during fashion week. She really looked really great, she was really happy and booked me a few times after that. Then it was the Met Gala. I did a really dark lip on Camilla, and at the time not a lot of people would do that on a red carpet. She took a chance, and we got so much beauty press from that. That's when celebrities started to notice me a little more. I enjoy working with celebrities as much as I do working in fashion.
You have such a solid balance of red carpet and editorial work. How do you maintain that and make sure you're doing what you want to be doing?
Even from the beginning of my career, I've always liked to make my own decisions, because at the end of the day, I'm the one sleeping with the decisions. My agency respects that, and it's a team effort.
Of course I love celebrities, they've been wonderful for me, but I don't want to be locked into one thing. I started with fashion, and that's my main love.
Who do you look to for inspiration? Who did you look to when you were first starting out?
I used to look at the people who came before me, like Pat McGrath and Tom Pecheux, and now I've met all of them, and it's kind of surreal. Nowadays, I find I get inspired by everyone, even the young makeup artists just starting out. On Instagram, I'll take screen shots if I see a lip or an eye that's really amazing. Before, we were inspired by people who came before us, because they had a chance to display their work on magazines. But you can see so many people's work on social media.
Do you have a certain social media strategy?
I don't overthink it too much. I think you should be yourself. I know that some people force themselves to do social media, but you should post what you feel good about. If I feel like I want to post a piece of pizza, I'll do it. I don't have to put a filter on. People know when you curate your Instagram so much. I've learned from Selena [Gomez], she'll be herself. She's posted a video of herself eating a hamburger.
So it sounds like social media has definitely helped your career?
Oh, one hundred percent. We have booking calls in from countries all over; I haven't done any covers there, but they know me from Instagram. We have actresses from Bollywood and the Philippines requesting me for projects, and no doubt they were following me on Instagram. And cosmetics brands recognize your work, they all know who you are. Before, they had to look in a magazine or talk to agents. Now they can see your work and personality and how you want to be portrayed on your social media. I know there's a lot of heat going on about social media, but I think it's a great thing.
What advice do you have for aspiring makeup artists?
Hard work. I don't believe in laziness at all. I've worked with many, many people in the business who are very successful actresses, models, photographers, and I haven't met one successful person who is lazy. I also think it's important to be really open minded, open to the new, open to the change.
What's your number one makeup tip?
You've heard it many times, but I believe less is more. There's nothing more beautiful than simple, nice skin, a little liner, or a nice pop of color. Don't look at how people do makeup on Instagram and think you have to do it like that. Highlighter doesn't have to be popping in real life. On Instagram there are many different artists; you choose what aesthetic you're going to go for. A lot of people love a thick, painted-on eyebrow, and that's something I don't love. You won't see it on my Instagram. I always keep the eyebrow very natural and soft because that's my aesthetic.
This interview has been edited for clarity.