In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
It's the ultimate 2018 American Dream success story: A New York City kid, raised by Albanian immigrant parents in the Bronx, becomes an entry-level Sephora employee and then works his way up, eventually turning pro, linking up with Kim Kardashian and becoming one of the most sought-after, world-famous makeup artists of a generation. That's pretty much exactly how it went down for Mario Dedivanovic, aka @makeupbymario, the social media handle by which he's immediately recognizable to his 4.2 million followers around the globe.
In addition to brand partnerships with the likes of CoverGirl, Marc Jacobs Beauty and Laura Mercier, he hosts Master Classes that sell out in minutes and draw thousands of attendees and counts a slew of celebrities — Gabrielle Union, Naomie Harris, Kate Bosworth and Bebe Rexha, in addition to the ever-loyal Kardashain — amongst his clients. As if that wasn't occupying enough of his time, Dedivanovic is also about to become a television personality via Lifetime's Kardashian-produced "Glam Masters," which premieres on Wednesday. The veteran makeup artist is at the top of his game, and to reflect on his career is to reveal where the perfect combination of timing, talent, loyalty and ballsiness can lead.
"I was pretty ballsy. I took a lot of risks from an early age," he tells me over the phone. He'd give advice to Sephora shoppers even before he was technically authorized to do so; he pursued a career his parents weren't exactly thrilled about; and in 2008, he took a chance by aligning himself with a certain up-and-coming reality star before anyone could have predicted her subsequent meteoric rise. "She's had such a massive influence globally in the world of beauty and she's had such a massive influence on my career as well," says Dedivanovic of Kardashian now.
We caught up with the Insta-famous makeup artist for a look back at his impressive career trajectory this far — and to get a glimpse at what's coming up next. Read on for the highlights.
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Tell me about your background. Did you know from a young age that you wanted to work in beauty?
Growing up, I never knew anything about makeup or even really thought about it. My sister wore makeup and there was always makeup in the house because my mother was a cleaning woman for the L'Oréal building in Manhattan. She'd come home [with makeup they'd give her].
You never had any kind of inkling that you'd want to pursue a career in beauty?
From the time I was a very young child, I was inspired by beauty — models, interior design, beautiful homes. I didn't have much growing up, and we lived in a small basement apartment, so I wasn't surrounded by that much beauty. I always looked outside to see beautiful things. I'd ask my dad to drive me to Westchester or wherever they had beautiful houses because I wanted to see the lawns and the homes. My mother would clean these beautiful apartments in Manhattan and I'd beg for her to take me with her, because I loved to go and see the homes, the design, the furniture, the artwork. I didn't know at that time what that feeling was, but it was me being inspired. The feeling of being inspired was so powerful to me, and then when I discovered makeup later on that feeling came back, like I had found my calling.
How did you first come to that realization that beauty was your calling?
When I was 17, I graduated high school and went to look for a job in Manhattan with my mother and I walked into a Sephora, not knowing what it was at the time. It was the first Sephora in the United States; this was in 2000. I immediately felt overwhelmed by the feeling that I wanted to work there. It just looked so cool to me: Everyone had black suits and black gloves on; it smelled really good.
I eventually wound up getting hired as a 'fragrance consultant.' They put me by the door to say, 'Welcome to Sephora!' to every single person. Because I was near the door, there was like a lipstick gondola nearby, and women would ask questions. I just started giving them advice... even though I wasn't supposed to [laughs]. I quickly became obsessed with makeup and began to research and study it after work.
When you first started experimenting with makeup did it come to you naturally, or was there a learning curve?
I had always liked to draw and paint — nothing serious — but I was always creative. In the beginning, it really came naturally to me. The first makeover I did when I was at Sephora took me three hours, but it came out really beautiful. I'm good at manipulating materials and things, so I think that just translated to the face.
Once you decided that you wanted to build this into a long-term career, what were your next steps?
I started doing research. I don't think I even had a computer at that time; I went to the library and started researching makeup artists and the entire industry. I was so fascinated. I'd get all of the magazines and immerse myself in everything that I could — makeup artistry, hairstyling, photography — and then I started meeting photographers and building my book little by little.
I started booking gigs outside of Sephora even before they had hired me as a makeup artist; I was still working there as a fragrance consultant. I remember when I booked my first gig: It was for two singers who were doing a cabaret show. I think I charged them $25. I literally didn't have a makeup kit — I had a Nike shoebox with some makeup in it and brushes that my manager at work had given me. We could all choose what kind of gratis we wanted [at Sephora]; I never took the fragrance, I always took any makeup I could get. That's how I started building my kit.
I eventually left Sephora and went to work with Lorac Cosmetics, becoming their regional makeup artist, traveling around New York and New Jersey. At the same time, I was building my portfolio and I began assisting. I assisted makeup artists for several years — never full-time; it was always a few days a week here and there because I was also making money doing my own thing on the side.
How did you get into celebrity and editorial work?
I met a celebrity photographer, Fadil Berisha, who is Albanian like myself. A model I'd worked with called him and said, 'I met this Albanian kid, you should meet with him, he's talented.' This was when I was 18 or 19, and I met with him and he gave me a chance. He had me come in one weekend to shoot with him, and I got really good images for my portfolio. I began assisting some of his makeup artists and then I went on to assist some of the greats in the industry.
But before that, I had assisted some makeup artists for smaller magazine shoots, commercial jobs and catalogs. Then I began assisting bigger makeup artists and was doing fashion magazine covers, cosmetic and fashion campaigns for brands like CoverGirl, Max Factor and Dolce & Gabbana. It was very different types of artists. Some were very glam artists who did celebrities, and then I assisted some high fashion artists, so I got a taste of all of it at a really young age.
Can you share any of the names of the people you worked with most back then?
I usually don't, but Billy B. was one of the celebrity makeup artists that I assisted back in the day, and Kabuki. I worked with him for over a year. That's where I really worked on all of these massive campaigns and shoots. We were on set with Steven Klein all the time.
At what point did you feel like you'd really established your career?
It's tough to say. I had an agent from a pretty young age, about 20 or 21, but even with that, I still struggled. I always kept some kind of freelance position in retail. When I finally left retail it was because I'd gotten a job at Fox News, doing the anchors' makeup. I did that one or two days a week, just to have a little bit of steady income. This was 2006 or 2007.
That job must have been such good training for perfecting the skill of on-camera makeup.
Oh, definitely, and the pressure — they would come in late and have to go on live. That's where I really learned how to work together with a hairstylist and get it done. I'd be doing liquid liner while they'd be blowing their hair out, so I really learned a lot from that experience.
Was there ever a specific moment when you remember feeling like you'd gotten your big break?
I got my first magazine cover for a magazine called Philadelphia Style. They sent a car for me and I went to Pennsylvania and I thought it was such a big deal. I was on set and I called my manager at Lorac to quit over the phone. In my mind, I was like OK, this is it, I'm doing a magazine cover! [Laughs] Then reality set in once it was done.
I was brave in the sense that I never let myself become really comfortable. I remember when I got my first ad campaign, and I think it paid $5,000 a day. To a young, 20-something, that's huge — $15,000 in three days. I just remember calling my mom and telling her what the rate was for the job. Nothing impressed her because she didn't want me doing this kind of work. Throughout the early years, everything I did was to try to make my parents proud. Doing that campaign was one of those moments where I was like, OK, I can do this.
Through word of mouth, I started working regularly with celebrities like Natasha Bedingfield and some others. And then I met Kim. It was 2008.
Tell me more about meeting Kim — did you know it would be a turning point for your career?
Sebastian Smith, a photographer I worked with often, called me one night and said 'Hey, I'm shooting this girl tomorrow for a magazine cover, her name is Kim Kardashian.' I didn't really know who she was. Season one of her show had just aired. I almost said no because I had to work at Fox News that day, but he convinced me. She just loved the makeup I did for that shoot so much. She kept asking what I was using throughout the entire process, and she was taking selfies nonstop. This was right around the time when her fame started to pick up nationally in the U.S.
After the shoot, she asked me if I would take her makeup shopping to buy everything I'd used so she could take it to LA for her makeup artist to use. I took her makeup shopping, we went to Henri Bendel and bought a few things that I'd used on her on the shoot that day. That was it.
How did your professional relationship with her evolve after that?
She started requesting me for whatever she had, and she started getting more and more famous. Kim was so busy. A typical celebrity will release a film or an album, so they work a lot for a few months doing promo. But with Kim, it was literally 365 days a year. There was something happening every single day, whether it was a shoot or red carpet or her show.
She also had a blog. This was a time when celebrities didn't really credit their hair and makeup [teams]. There was no social media, so where were they going to credit them? But Kim had a blog and had me answer questions for her fans. Then one day she asked me to shoot a makeup tutorial for her blog. I almost didn't do that, either, because I was really sick. I was going to cancel, but my friend who was shooting [the video] was like, 'get up!' We created a tutorial of her Vegas Magazine cover shoot and that went on her blog and onto YouTube. That video and the reposts of it have since been seen hundreds of millions of times around the world.
I had all of these Facebook and MySpace messages from people all over the world, asking makeup questions. I'm talking about hundreds of messages. So it all started like that. Kim was incredibly loyal, and I was loyal to her and loved working with her. Her face was just kind of made for me, and when I started working with her I was able to establish my style of makeup. It just so happened that that style that worked really well on her and that was the style that she loved for herself.
How would you describe your aesthetic and approach to makeup?
That changes for me. My style back in the day was definitely different than it is now. I had a super glam aesthetic, where it was heavier with super light undereyes and really long lashes. It was extremely polished and glam. Now I still love a polished and glam aesthetic, but there has to be an element of softness to it and it has to be blown-out. I don't like very harsh makeup. It's hard for me to answer that question because it changes. I like all different types of makeup: soft makeup, dramatic makeup, I really do love all of it and I enjoy doing all of it.
How has social media has impacted your career, especially working with someone like Kim who is such a master and pioneer of using it?
Social media to me in the beginning was kind of a joke. I got onto Twitter because one of the anchors on Fox News put me on it. But I was always on Facebook and MySpace. And then when Instagram happened, and I was pretty late to join, I wasn't serious about it — I didn't post every single day, it wasn't a big deal to me. It wasn't until I reached about a million followers that I started to really see a change in everything, career-wise. Celebrities and clients really started looking at Instagram. Our portfolios as artists started to become obsolete. Celebrities and makeup brands would find me on Instagram.
When I hit a million followers and realized that it was growing really fast, I got serious about it. I set aside time every day to plan out posts and review my numbers. It became really a work thing, but something that I do genuinely enjoy as well. It's been such an amazing tool for me in my career. It's also a controversial one, I think, amongst my peers. Some people who have been doing makeup for 15-plus years like myself think it's ruined the business. But I saw it as something that really could work to my advantage.
I'm sure you have so many brands approaching you and trying to work with you. How do you decide which ones to partner with?
I've got to give props to my management team, who really help me with it. I turn down way more than I take on. We get approached every day by several brands [who want to] work with me in some capacity. I've never done a coupon code, I refuse to do any of that kind of stuff. How it works is: An opportunity will come in from a brand; it has to be a brand that I like and respect. I have to bring [the product] home, I have to use it, my assistant has to use it and sometimes my sister tests it. I get the different opinions and if it's something I believe in, I'll agree to do it. In 2017, I did 18 brand contracts.
You also really pioneered the concept of the Master Class — how did that first come about?
It was around eight or nine years ago, and people would message me on Facebook and Twitter with so many questions. I started thinking it's crazy that unless you're in LA, New York, Paris or London you're not going to have the opportunity or access to learning the tricks of the trade. So that's when I came up with the idea of doing a class for artists from all over the world.
The first class was 20 students. These were aspiring makeup artists, and they were seeing [techniques like] contouring for the first time in person. To an aspiring makeup artist at the time, it was mind-blowing. The classes started getting larger and larger; after [I hit] one million followers on Instagram, the classes really took off. It went from 20 students in that first class to upwards of 1,200.
Tell me about "Glam Masters." How did you decide to get involved and what was it like to shoot?
Kim told me that she was executive producing a show about makeup and that she wanted me to be on it — I don't even think it had a name at the time. I was so scared. I never had an interest in being a celebrity or a reality TV star. I have all the respect for them, but it's not for me. But when we started, I saw quickly what it was all about. It was an amazing, amazing experience and I wouldn't change it for anything. Kim knew I was kind of scared, and she told me, "Mario, just be yourself, say what you want to say when you're judging." And that's what I did.
I had an amazing chemistry with my fellow judges and with the host. We basically met for the first time on the first day of shooting, with mics on, under the lights. We've become really great friends. We laughed and cried together. It was quite an emotional experience because you're dealing with artists who have dreams, just the way you did when you were younger. Everything resonated with me. I could see how badly these artists wanted it, and you're breaking some of their hearts and making some of their dreams come true, so there's a lot of emotion that goes into it.
I also wanted to ask you about the collaboration you're working on with Kim for KKW Beauty. What are you able to tell me?
I can't tell you that much. But my 10-year anniversary with Kim is approaching in a couple of months, and so even before her line started, she told me that she wanted her first collaboration to be with me for her line, so we began working on it months ago. We tried to have it be something that's going to sum up our past decade of glam. She's had such a massive influence globally in the world of beauty, and she's had such a massive influence on my career as well. I just wanted the collaboration to reflect our 10 years of working together. We wanted to give the fans and followers something so that they'd be able to re-create any of the looks that we've done over the past decade.
What advice do you have for aspiring makeup artists who are just starting out?
I always say at the Master Classes I think the number one thing is to try and assist. You really learn so much about doing amazing makeup, and also set etiquette and professionalism and all of the things that go along with makeup artistry.
Secondly, I think for me it's about working hard, not saying no and not giving up on opportunities that come your way. You have to sacrifice — I sacrificed so much in my career in my early days. While my friends were going out clubbing all night, I was waking up at 4:00 a.m. for a press junket. I think all of that stuff really pays off.
Then of course, my mother — although she doesn't know much about this career — her advice was always, 'Whatever you do, just be a good person.' So that's always in the back of my mind. Be a good person and good things will follow.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.