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.
Scheduling an interview with Kirin Bhatty during the height of Oscar-bait movie releases — and the kick-off of awards season — was not an easy process. When the in-demand celebrity makeup artist found a moment to jump on the phone with Fashionista, she had been up since 4 a.m. to prep "Crazy Rich Asians" breakout Awkwafina in a tawny, dewy beauty look to announce the Screen Actors Guild nominations.
On a non-stop roll, the incredibly warm and friendly (especially for someone suffering from sleep-deprivation) beauty guru also just finished out Tessa Thompson's "Creed II" promotional tour. Highlights included a mod cat-eye look for the New York premiere and a fresh, natural face for her Entertainment Weekly cover story with Michael B. Jordan. She also created Awkwafina's glam red lip moment for one of the magazine's "Entertainers of the Year" covers. Bhatty's roster of inspiring, empowered cool-girl clients also includes Freida Pinto, Jenny Slate and Zoe Kazan — the latter kept the artist busy during the "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" launch for Netflix.
Like many of her colleagues, Bhatty, born to first-generation Pakistani immigrants, fell into celebrity makeup artistry. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in English, she initially sought to pursue beauty or music journalism. "As a child of the '90s and 2000s, you watch every movie with a strong female lead and she either works in advertising or at a magazine," Bhatty says.
Settling back in Los Angeles, where editorial opportunities were scarce, she landed in magazine advertising sales, but pined to join the creative side of the floor. "But I didn't know how to make it happen," she recalls.
Then the Great Recession of 2008 gave Bhatty a push — or a lay off, rather. So she temped in various fields and, through a friend, landed an assistant gig with industry icon Lori Taylor Davis, Global Pro Lead Artist at Smashbox Studios. Then followed 12 years of assisting, working her way up, landing her first celebrity client — probably Jessica Paré of "Mad Men" — and creating long-lasting relationships along the way.
Known for her fresh, light-handed beauty aesthetic, her warmth and her confidante-level and always-professional client-artist dynamic, Bhatty is also an inspiration in her own right, paving the way for diversity, representation and inclusion in front of and behind the cameras. Representation is actually one of her favorite discussion topics, along with her strategy for tackling so many A-list clients during awards season. Here are the highlights of our talk.
How did training under Lori Taylor Davis help set your path to become a celebrity makeup artist?
She just took me under her wing and was like, 'this is how it works; let's see how you do.' I had my first day on set and I never wanted to be anywhere else. I was addicted. I loved everything about it. I loved the photographers; I loved the models; I loved everyone on set; I loved the mood boards. I didn't really know I had that talent until somebody like Lori unlocked it in me.
I would do an eight-hour day in an office and be miserable and felt like I worked 24 hours, but then I'd do a 14-hour day on set — days and days in a row — and it felt like nothing. That was it and I then started assisting for several years, made a lot of mistakes, learned from that, and that's how you pay your dues. Lori taught me a lot about that. I was on set with her doing the beauty campaigns and I was stuffing the boxes with gifts for other makeup artists that now I share a roster with. So it's really cool to come full circle.
How did you learn the technical aspects of the job?
When I was working with Smashbox, I was working on real women and real faces — all textures, all ages. That was really a big passion of mine when I was coming up and it really helped me. It's very easy to work on somebody who is paid for their face. It's another thing to actually work with someone who is a normal beautiful woman. It's much more a challenge to empower someone that you're working on by enhancing what they have and making them feel good and you're giving them your light. That's also the difference between working in the celebrity realm versus editorial. Because, on the celebrity side, it's all about your relationship and connecting and creating together.
With makeup artistry, whether you go to school or not for it, your best teacher is going to be getting on set, getting that experience, shooting, doing terrible test photo shoots over and over again. You grow and you grow with the people around you. A great piece of advice I got when I was assisting was, 'make friends with the other assistants.' Also, fashion shows are great experiences because you learn how to be fast.
To make it, especially in the celebrity realm, you have a little bit of hustle in you because it's not easy to make this your only job. There are so many of us. The industry is saturated. It really just came from really grinding and doing every job: always saying 'yes,' assisting artists, learning from them and their wisdom, so that I could learn how to do a lot of faces.
How did you find your first big break as a celebrity makeup artist?
When I was trying to figure out what kind of makeup artist I wanted to be, I tried everything: grooming, weddings, editorial and advertising. I thought maybe I'd do movie or TV. [I didn't want to] limit myself by making up my mind without trying everything. But I craved connection and, especially in advertising, I wasn't getting that. Every time I had somebody in my chair, a model or whatever, I just wanted them to feel good when they left and I wanted to feel good, too. I found that the way to do that was not being on set and going to shoots, [but it's] being in somebody's home and being a part of their life.
So I narrowed down what agencies in Los Angeles were responsible for connecting people with celebrity [clients]. Starworks was the agency of my dreams and they signed me.
I would say, for a lot of people of color, who are artists, we get put in a box. Some of us only get the opportunity to work on people who look just like us. When I got to Starworks, they were so open about what I could do. I wanted to do every and all ethnicities and it manifested itself because I am a very diverse artist. I get to work on everyone, which is very cool, and unfortunately more on the rare side. It shouldn't be, but it is.
What challenges have you faced as an artist of color working your way up in the industry?
When you get on the job, it's tough. I don't always fault people for that because I think most people are just trying to do their best, and they don't know better. But often times, I'll be on a set where I'm the only one, who's of any color. It can feel very isolating. You also carry such such a huge responsibility on your shoulders in a way because you want to be a good representation and it shouldn't be that way.
The celebrity makeup world is not a hugely diverse world at all. If you take a look at the top roster, there's really not a ton of diversity, but it's so much better than it was and I hope that it continues to grow in an progressive way. As an artist of color, every year, it has felt a little bit better and a little bit more open and currently it feels the best it's ever felt — in a sense that I don't feel alone. Now I get messages from different artists all the time who want to assist me and they're every color of the rainbow and I love that.
Models of color — and customers, in general — often face the frustration of encountering makeup artists who have a limited range of products and/or don't have the interest and supposed skill-set to work on a diverse range of faces. You do it and you do it so well. Why does it seem to be so hard?
First of all, it's not hard. It just comes from knowledge and experience. When I was assisting my mentor, Lori, she was very keen on teaching me how to work on everyone. Because she works on everyone. At Smashbox, when they were shooting beauty campaigns, they shot every ethnicity. All the events that they had, every type of woman would come — young, old, every ethnicity — and it was important for me to learn to how to handle every skin tone, every shade.
If you're going to call yourself a makeup artist, you should be an expert in your field. And being an expert in your field means understanding all skin tones. I don't think it should be one of those things like, 'I only specialize in fair skin.' 'I specialize in dark skin.' No, it's skin. If you're specializing in something — heavy-handed, light-handed, glow-y skin, matte skin, more editorial looks with color — everyone has a style and an aesthetic, and that I'm OK with. But I'm not OK with a style based on, you only do one race.
I get the question a lot of, 'how do you work Asian eyes?' or 'how do you work on brown skin?' I'm just like, are you kidding me? That's not a real question because they're eyes — meaning that whoever you work on, you work with the shape that you have. If someone has a hooded lid or a monolid, a deep set eye or what have you. As an artist, it should just be about enhancing that shape and being an expert in your field means you can handle that.
You also work with clients who are active and outspoken about inclusivity and representation in the entertainment industry, like Tessa Thompson and Awkwafina.
I work with Freida Pinto, too. It was such a dream to work with her when I finally got the chance. When she was coming up, she was really the only visible woman [of South Asian heritage in Hollywood], and so it was exciting for me. Now it's not as uncommon and I love that.
Your clients are all the ultimate 'Cool Girls.' How did your roster come to be?
Well, I met Jenny on a shoot and we just bonded instantly. I just really loved her spirit and we really got along. I always joke, you could get all my clients and put them in a room and have them all eat dinner together. I would want them at the same party. I'm a sensitive person, so I love that in others and seek that out in others. As you start to grow as an artist, especially in the celebrity world, you end up getting paired with people who sing to your strengths.
Also, aesthetically, I love a 'less is more' approach to skin. In general, I like women to look like the best version of themselves. I'll always enhance instead of recreate.
One of the best compliments I ever received on Instagram. A young woman was looking at a picture of Awkwafina and messaged me and said, 'thank you for not trying to make her eyes... what they're not.' For me that meant so much. I don't want to recreate anybody or adhere to the idea that her eyes need to be bigger or wider or whatever to be important or beautiful. That shape is stunning. It's just as stunning as a round huge eye, or a wide eye or a deep-set eye and it should be valued in the same way. Working with Asian women, it's important for me to portray that in my work.
Also working with Indian, Pakistani and South Asian women, I never lighten the skin and a lot of artists are asked to do that. I honor that beautiful brown skin. As you know, in Asia, there's a huge colorism issue. I cannot subscribe to that because it pushes this idea of self-hate, self hatred, and I'm not here for that.
I have a lot of 'cool girls' on my roster because they want to feel like themselves and be themselves and portray that to the world.
How are you going to juggle all your clients during red carpet and awards season, especially since you have at least one nominee, Awkwafina?
I'm already bracing myself. That schedule is still coming into play, but in years past, I've definitely had three people a day and it's exhausting. A lot of it is your clients' kindness and willingness to help you and be flexible. Like, someone will go earlier or later. It doesn't always happen and then you have to miss and it's terrible, but that does happen.
Also, there's the role of the assistants. Because if you have three clients, that means you're leaving the assistants with the other two clients that you've left. They manage the touch-ups. They make sure if somebody eats a sandwich, there's not spinach stuck anywhere and lipstick gets reapplied. If someone needs to take a quick nap, concealer is reapplied. They are wizards behind the curtains in a lot of ways. Sometimes they're the last eyes to see your client.
Having a nominee, there's an extra amount of pressure because there's a dress moment; there's a stage moment; there's a carpet moment. It's scary sometimes and you take on that actor's burden. If your client is stressed, you have to then be way less stressed. You have to counterbalance. We always practice aromatherapy before we start makeup. It lets everybody in the room take a break and center themselves. It sounds new age, and it is, but I'm with it. It lets us connect with each other.
You're non-stop busy right now, but how do you see yourself growing your career? What's next for you?
Continuing to work with all sorts of women who are empowered and who want to feel beautiful. At the end of the day, I'm a makeup artist because I like to make people feel good. For awhile, we had a wave in makeup that was all about heavy coverage, but we're seeing a return to artistry and skincare, and I’m excited to be a part of that.
For a pet project, I'm an avid jewelry lover. I love jewelry. I collect it — it is my passion other than makeup. If I could find a way into that space one day, it's my dream of dreams. It's also something that's very deeply rooted in Pakistani culture. So I'd love to find a way to honor that part of my heritage in that way. That's in the retirement plan. When I'm an old lady living in the mountains somewhere, I'll start creating jewels.
Follow Kirin Bhatty on Instagram @kirinstagram.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner