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How Emily Cheng Went From the Department Store Beauty Counter to Yara Shahidi's Full-Time Makeup Artist

She's been working her ass off for more than a decade — and in more than one country.
Yara Shahidi at the 2018 MTV Movie Awards. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Yara Shahidi at the 2018 MTV Movie Awards. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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.

As 2.5 million (and counting) fans and followers know, Yara Shahidi's Instagram feed is not only full of encouragement to take on your civic duties, but also of loads of inspiration to be adventurous and confident when it comes to unexpected fashion, gorgeous natural hairstyles and stunning beauty looks. It's way too easy to fall down (and click through) the rabbit hole of tags, especially since the gracious "Grown-ish" star always makes a point to credit her glam dream-team behind those much-photographed, discussed and emulated looks — including her makeup artist, Emily Cheng. (Hey, that's how I started following her.)

Cheng first met the actress, Harvard freshman and activist a little over a year ago in a moment of pure kismet — more on that below. She immediately became the in-demand multi-hyphenate's go-to artist responsible for those dreamy and at times experimental looks, like the thick metallic blue winged eyeshadow at the MTV Movie Awards (above) and glossy liquid gold lids at the Met Gala. To the general public, it might seem like Cheng appeared almost magically, but she's been working her ass off in the fashion and entertainment industry for over a decade — and in more than one country.

What sparked Cheng's interest in a beauty career wasn't the glam Hollywood red carpet or following the trajectory of another celebrity makeup artist. As a teenager in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada, she would go with her friends to the department store beauty counters for makeup application before crucial high school events, like prom or picture day, and always end up disappointed with the results.

"Being Asian, I have monolids," says the Taiwanese-Canadian artist over the phone during a visit back to Vancouver. "I remember walking out and thinking I looked so crazy."

Cheng's experiences with makeup artists who weren't skilled — or interested — in showcasing and enhancing her facial features inspired her to take matters into her own hands. "That definitely piqued my interest as to how I could learn to do my makeup properly," she says.

While at university in 2005, Cheng took a six-month (and ultimately, permanent) break for a course at Blanche MacDonald Centre, Canada's major fashion, makeup and beauty school — and never looked back. She quickly landed a position at the Laura Mercier counter in Vancouver's luxury department store Holt Renfrew.

"That's where I would say I got the bulk of my training because you're working on women of all different ages and different skin tones and faces," says Cheng. During the next decade, she went freelance and and found success (and loads of bookings) doing hair and makeup for commercials and wedding beauty with about "75 to 80 percent" Asian clientele in Vancouver. But Cheng had even more ambitious goals.

Emily Cheng. Photo: Courtesy

Emily Cheng. Photo: Courtesy

"I've always had sights set on New York or Los Angeles," says Cheng. In September of 2014, she picked up and moved south to sunny LA, where she immediately applied for her work visa and started calling around to agencies. 

She soon landed assistant positions with celebrity and fashion makeup artists Monika Blunder and Marla Belt. "They were not only incredibly talented, but so helpful," says Cheng. One day, she expressed an interest to Belt in working backstage at fashion shows. Paying it forward, the established New York-based makeup artist contacted a colleague who helped Cheng land an assistant position under the legendary Pat McGrath — her first of two "game-changer" breaks. She then spent the next two years traveling to fashion weeks around the world with McGrath's team.

"I feel like that felt so far out of reach that I didn't even think that would be attainable," says Cheng. "Everybody knows Pat McGrath. She's an icon, so that was unexpected. I would say was one of the most invaluable moments of the last few years."

Looking back, she does consider herself "fortunate" to be a member of such a tight-knit community of makeup artists who are all generous with references and leads (and vice versa). That — and a touch of really good timing — led to her second and really major moment.

Along with fellow up-and-coming makeup artists, Cheng would regularly hit the festival circuit. "So, it's a thing," she explains. Artists will set up shop locally at celebrity-packed extravaganzas, like SXSW, Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, to be on call for assignments from agents or via the hustle, which is Cheng's approach since she isn't currently represented by an agent. "It's a really great way to meet clients and also build that community of artists. It's a lot of fun. I reached out to people and contacts and relationships I had built in the last few years and let them know, 'Hey, I'm here in case you need anything.'" 

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Through her regular festival presence, Cheng built up her celebrity portfolio and a core group of artist friends who often pass jobs onto one another, which is how she met Shahidi at SXSW in March 2017. Apparently her festival roommate couldn't accommodate the star because of another commitment, so referred Cheng. Coincidentally, she started following Shahidi on Instagram a couple months before. "Maybe I manifested it," she muses, of the possibly portending follow. Cheng jumped at the chance to meet with Shahidi and her mother Keri, who is also now a client. 

"We hit it off really well," recalls Cheng. "They had a lot of upcoming press, so her publicist reached out after to secure more dates, and that's just how it all began." 

Having chemistry with both Shahidis from the get-go proved crucial. The two are actively involved in the creation of the younger's red carpet looks. "They're both very hands-on because they're such creators themselves, and it ends up being such a process for the entire team because they're passionate about it, too," says Cheng.

Shahidi — who equally stuns in looks from heritage design houses, like Chanel (couture, obviously) and Prada (custom, of course), and edgier or under-the-radar designers like Fear of God or Spain's Teresa Helbig — is just as willing to be as spirited (and fun) when it comes to beauty. "She loves to play with color and texture and try different looks," says Cheng. "She really is a makeup artist's dream."

Of course, preparing a forward-looking schedule of beauty looks is a non-stop and ongoing process, especially considering Shahidi's demanding itinerary. The three are constantly brainstorming ideas, visuals and research to reference and archive for upcoming events. "We have a folder that all of us send looks: hair, makeup, inspiration, random things," she says. "It's fun. We're always coming up with fun ideas so that we're creating new looks." 

Unsurprisingly, a Shahidi red carpet masterpiece is a fully collaborative and all-hands-on-deck project, requiring seamless teamwork amongst Shahidi's full glam-squad: Cheng, stylist Jason Bolden and hairstylist Nai'vasha Johnson. "We have a group text," says Cheng. "It really does go hand-in-hand: the vision a stylist, or a hairstylist or a makeup artist has. If everybody has their own ideas, coming together on the day of doesn't work. It ends up being kind of a frenzy. If you think all that out ahead of time, it really does help execute a really great vision on the carpet."

The beauty aspect of Shahidi's stacked red carpet, promotional and speaking commitments organically (and quickly) led to a full-time job for Cheng. She estimates that 98 percent of her workload is dedicated to Shahidi, including all the associated travel, but Cheng can occasionally fit in another celebrity client here and there, like Julia Garner ("The Americans," "Waco") and Japanese-Australian "Deadpool 2" actress Shioli Kutsuna. Men's grooming jobs, a category built up from her commercial and festival circuit days, are even easier jobs to squeeze into her limited windows of time.

"It's light, fun work," says Cheng, about slotting in the guys' more straightforward hairstyling needs and light, if necessary, makeup applications. David Schwimmer is a regular, and she's also worked with Steven Yeun for a magazine shoot and, when he's not with his regular groomer in the U.K., Luke Evans, whom she first met at a festival in 2014. 

"He actually introduced me to a Tom Ford men's brow groomer, which I now use in my grooming kit," she says, of the look below at "The Alienist"'s Los Angeles premiere.

Luke Evans and his Tom Ford-groomed brows at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Alienist." Photo: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Luke Evans and his Tom Ford-groomed brows at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Alienist." Photo: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Cheng is understandably thrilled to be working with Shahidi all day, every day, although, she realizes that it's probably time to secure an agent. "That's probably the next step," she says. 

Cheng also works with beauty brands for one-off collaborations. She steadily built up strong relationships, dating back to when she was creating mid-aughts hair and makeup tutorials for Huffington Post Canada. These days, she looks to Instagram for helping her maintain and grow those relationships. Of course, having social media pro Shahidi as a client helps with the process.

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"I've learned a lot from her and her team and her mom," says Cheng. "Just the way they utilize their platform and their social media platforms. I feel like it helps our relationships with brands and artists' relationships with brands."

Eventually, she'd love to build those partnerships out further. With her Taiwanese-Canadian background, fluent Mandarin-speaking skills and understanding of enhancing and showcasing Asian features, Cheng has a dream goal to work with an international beauty brand in Asia speaking directly to their local audiences. 

"I could promote the brand or be a global ambassador of some sort, eventually," she says. "But definitely one that has an Asian presence." (Brands: hint, hint.)

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