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.
By now, it's been well-established that social media has turned those who might otherwise be beauty enthusiasts into downright industry powerhouses. People like Marianna Hewitt and Jackie Aina have been able to build entire businesses through channels like Instagram and YouTube.
But while Katie Jane Hughes definitely leveraged Instagram to get to where she is today, her path has been slightly different from your average influencer's. For one, she's not shilling her own products; for another, she isn't known for doing one signature style of "Instagram makeup" — and that's because her actual beauty signature is experimentation.
"As soon as I started to wear makeup myself, and the crazy changes of makeup styles that I did go through — which were terrifying, now that I look at it — you have to go through all of those to find your signature style," she says. "And I don't think we ever really land on our signature style; I think that we land on different signature styles throughout our lives."
That means that followers of Hughes will learn how to do something she dubs "Big Mac Energy" (yellow lids with bright red-lips) one day, and how to layer Weleda Skin Food under Glossier Haloscope for a glossy highlight the next. That sense of playfulness is partially how Hughes got where she is today as an in-demand makeup artist. A few years ago, she began experimenting with the kind of editorial looks she wanted to do professionally on her own face and posting them to Instagram.
From there, she grew a huge following pretty organically; now, she works with brands like Glossier and the newly launched Rose Inc., creating looks for campaigns. It's a bit of a leap from where Hughes first began: She learned how to do nails and was working with brands backstage at fashion week, even though her real passion was in makeup. But while it may seem to the outside world that Hughes is undoubtedly, well, "making it," she's not resting on her laurels just yet.
"I'm not where I want to be, and I feel like that sentence — 'I'm not where I want to be' — is something that I don't take lightly, because I don't think any of us are ever where we want to be," she says. "There's always room to grow, room to develop and learn more stuff."
We chatted with Hughes about how she made the jump from manicures to makeup, why she remains so accessible on Instagram and how working within certain beauty brands prepared her for her job today. Read on for the highlights.
When did you first become interested in beauty?
Really, back when I was a little kid, because my mom was a singer and I always used to watch her put her makeup on before she would go on stage. She would have these scarlet-red lips, these black lashes that were super-thick and bushy and beautiful, and loads of bronzer. She was just super, super glam. Seeing my mom transform into this stage siren was really cool.
I wanted to do music too, initially. You know, music and beauty really weirdly go hand in hand. I think you'll find a lot of people who are talented in music and are also talented in makeup. I don't know what the actual tie is, but it's often a common thread.
What were your first jobs within the beauty industry?
My first job in the makeup industry was at an Estée Lauder counter back when I was 17 in my hometown of Birkdale, in Merseyside, [England]. It was the first time I started finger-painting with eye shadows, and I remember getting kicked under the counter by my manager, because I was like, "Yeah, just use your fingers for all these eye shadows, it looks great!" and she was like, "No, you could be selling brushes!" I was like "Whatever, I like the way this looks with my fingers." I just painted Rosie Huntington-Whiteley for a Rose Inc. shoot with my fingers for one of the looks, and it's a funny, full-circle kind of situation.
I didn't really love that counter experience and that counter lifestyle, but you have to go through it; it's training, and it's an integral part of doing makeup. You have to learn on real people before you learn on models.
From there, I was 17, 18, and I got a job in a nail shop and learned how to do nails. I was a manicurist for about five years, doing nails in salons, and when I moved to London in 2008, I started to do nails in London in a fashion environment, which helped me connect with all these people. I knew I wanted to do makeup, and that was a very much a stepping-stone career for me.
Then I began assisting people who wanted someone that could do nails, as well, for jobs where there wasn't a manicurist on set. It was a weird, fortunate situation to be in, because people wouldn't necessarily [hire an artist to do] their nails with their makeup — which I totally get now. Even though I was already there in my head, I wasn't being taken seriously by my peers.
I always knew that I wanted to rebrand when I moved to the U.S. in 2013. I was Butter London's global ambassador for about three and a half years, and I moved there to be with them because they were also wanting [to launch] makeup. I thought, this is the perfect opportunity to go from nails into makeup.
I started putting makeup more at the top of my priority list, and then when I left the brand in 2016, I just disassociated myself with nails completely. It was like, this is it, this is where I'm going to cut ties with my nail past. A lot of people don't even know that I used to do nails now, and it's only been two years. It's quite amazing how [social media has helped] going cold-turkey into makeup.
How did social media help you make that transition?
I honestly don't think I would be where I am now without social media. I never really assisted for anyone because of the nail thing, so I definitely took a different path. I think that it would've taken a lot longer, and I think that social media is changing the game for so many talented creatives like me. It's become this mini-agent and given us a platform to show what we can do, and what our styles are.
For me, my social media blew up because I was basically posting creative looks on my own face that I wanted to do in an editorial setting, but I wasn't really getting to do it because editorial was so neutral and natural. Only the biggest and the best makeup artists would get to do the creative stuff.
If my Instagram was what it is now, but four years ago, the people that take me seriously now would not have taken me seriously then. I strongly believe that. I don't think there's anything wrong with what I just said, I think it's just that things have to get there on their own, and people have to get there on their own. Even though I was shooting a few editorials and a few branded things every month before my social really took off, you didn't really get the opportunity for jobs back then, in 2014 and 2015, to do the creative stuff that we get to do now because of social media. People weren't as expressive on social media like that.
Where did you get the idea to use your social media as a platform?
I was seeing a lot of what I would call "Instagram makeup" on Instagram, but nothing else — that heavy brow, that heavy contour and that heavy lip, and the cut crease and the liquid liner and all of the things, the lashes. That's totally fine, and I loved watching those tutorials; it's not my style or my aesthetic anymore, but I was there at one point in my life. I genuinely have such a deep appreciation for it, because it's really fucking hard to do that makeup. I actually tried to do it on myself a couple of times, just out of the sheer fun factor. I had to stop halfway through, because I couldn't actually do it.
I'm okay with that, because it's not the style of makeup that I do, and it's not the style of makeup that I think I would ever get asked to do on set, which is what I care most about. My makeup in an editorial setting and an advertising setting, because that's my career. The Instagram stuff is really just a bonus, cool little side project for me. It's my passion project, being able to educate women and men and whomever wants to wear makeup around the world doing the similar styles that I do on myself.
I really like feeling like I've got a minimal, fresh complexion; quirky, cool color combinations that inspire me. I think that I put something out there that spoke to me as a creative and [it resonated with people] because they didn't find that many accounts like mine. Now my Instagram is literally my agent; it books me every single one of my jobs.
Why is it important to stay accessible to people who follow you?
Because it's like, without them, what's the point? Without actually helping them reach their beauty goals, or inspiring them to try something new, to get closer to what they want to be at that period in their life, what's the point? It's very hard to engage back sometimes, because it really takes everything out of you when you're just feeling a little bit like you don't want to be on and you just want to do nothing.
People notice that you're not there. It's funny, I was away for a week and somebody was like, "Is everything okay? I haven't seen you on Instagram," and I'm like, "No, I'm good, thank you so much for checking in, but I just needed to take a week off." It's amazing that people would notice that, but it's also amazing that it takes that much work. I don't think of it as work, I think of it as a hobby that just takes a lot of my time up. But everything relies on engagement. Why do it if you don't have the time to engage?
How did the experience of working within a brand prepare you for what you do now?
I don't think I would ever work with a brand exclusively ever again. Not because it was bad, but because I really, really love being able to use multiple brands. Back then, I did use multiple brands; I just wasn't able to talk freely as much to the public about what I loved and used, because I was always talking about that brand — and I wanted to talk about that brand, because I had a big hand in some of the product development.
I don't even think if I ever did my own line — which I probably won't, because there's just so much stuff on the market, but who knows — I don't think I would even be exclusive to my own brand, ever. I just think everybody loves Chanel Soleil de Tan, and everyone loves Nars Creamy Concealer.
How do you choose which brands you work with?
If something goes in my kit professionally, it's 99.9 percent on my table at home. The best thing a brand can do if they know that an artist likes something is send them two, because they'll get double exposure from that person's social channels, if they have one, and then in their kit.
Texture is a massive thing for me; if something has a beautiful texture and reads beautifully in a photograph, then it's definitely going in my kit and in my table. Like, Weleda Skin Food is an absolute massive one for me, as are most Glossier products, like Stretch Concealer, I use at home and I use in my kit, as does Haloscope; Creamy Concealer from Nars is also on my table and on my kit, as is the Caudalie mist. There's so many.
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How do you choose which projects you take on?
This is another amazing thing about social media. I work quite closely with Glossier, where I do some of their shoots and I create some of their content, and I've seen a few products [prior to launch], but I was talking about that brand super-organically on my Instagram prior to working with them.
I always start talking about a product organically first, even if the brand approaches me and says, "Oh, we really want to work with you." I'm like, "Well, send me stuff, let me use it first, see how it feels, let me use it on my social and Instagram Stories, see if [my followers] like the product, if they're interested in seeing more, and then we go from there." I wouldn't just take a random product out of thin air and go, "Oh, look at this, it's cool!" It's not my style at all.
What's your favorite part of the job?
It's getting involved in the creative process from start to finish. I just worked on a campaign with Innisfree; the content will be out in September, but I worked on a project with them from start to finish where I weighed in on the casting of the girls, weighed in on the photographer and weighed in on the looks that I created for the campaign, and I'll weigh in a little bit on the editing. The same goes with brands like Glossier. It's more of that whole, full-circle creative process from either a branded or an editorial standpoint.
[From a] social standpoint, the best part of it is just feeling like you've made somebody's day and helped them achieve their beauty goals that they've struggled to achieve.
What's something you wish you'd known when you were first starting out?
Nothing really. I feel like about four years ago, I probably would have said that I wish I had known that it was more important to spend more time assisting and try to get on as somebody's first assistant for a good four or five years. But I think, because of the way my career took a turn, I'd probably be doing myself a disservice by doing that. I feel like my path took a turn that I didn't think it would take.
What advice would you give someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Find a signature makeup style that makes you happy, share it, post it, don't over-edit your content if you like that real-life kind of skin. Keep promoting yourself in a way, but not in an obsessive way; just do it in a very natural, organic way.
It's such a collaborative industry nowadays. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley found me on Instagram and was like, "I really love your work, I'd love to work with you sometime," and it went from me doing her makeup for an event in New York to working on a bunch of Rose Inc. stuff with her. You've just got to figure out who you want to create with and try to make that happen and learn from it and grow from it.
How have you seen the industry change since you started out?
There's definitely more room for the new guard of talent; the old guard of talent are doing a slightly different thing. They're launching brands and they're doing more collaborative things with brands, whereas the new guard of talent is doing more social collaborations and getting more of that airtime on editorial websites and editorial Instagram. Before I felt like a lot of the talent that would've been featured in print, like quotes about products and that kind of stuff, would have been the iconic, old-guard kind of crew, now I feel like it's much more my generation, the up-and-comers getting that space, which I think is awesome.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
I think I've done a lot of amazing things so far — I led a fashion show at Lincoln Center, that was a massive moment for me. I cried at the end of the show because there was so much pressure on it, and I was just so proud. I got emotional after the Rose Inc. shoot. There's so many things that I've done, I feel ungrateful to say that I haven't gotten there yet. But I feel like more of what I'm doing now is what I want to do more of.
I think if I did a collaboration with a brand that I really, really, really loved, that had my name on it somehow, that was super-organic and true to my brand as well as their brand, that would be a pretty special thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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