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How Nam Vo Went From Strip Club Makeup Artist to Viral Instagram Beauty Sensation

An in-depth look at the career of the Kylie-Jenner-approved #dewydumplings originator.
Nam Vo. Photo: Courtesy

Nam Vo. Photo: Courtesy

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.

There are plenty of well-known celebrity makeup artists nowadays. But how many of them can say they spawned a social media phenomenon? Through her hypnotizing #dewydumplings posts, Nam Vo has single-handedly turned strobing streaks of highlighter across your face into an art form with an obsessive Instagram following. But her ability to make viral, oddly satisfying videos swiping luminizers along cheekbones — whether on herself, or her celebrity clients like Kylie Jenner and Chrissy Teigen — is just one of her talents.

Her work has been featured across magazines like Elle and British Vogue, and she's worked with clients like Marc Jacobs Beauty, Ole Henriksen, Oribe and Bobbi Brown. But before becoming the self-proclaimed "queen of glow jobs," Vo paid her dues as a makeup artist: She sold cosmetics at the mall, done bridal makeup in her hometown of San Francisco and worked as a strip club makeup artist before making it big as a celebrity artist with a massive social following.

Vo took some time to chat with Fashionista about her path to success (including the most surprising moment of her career), the inspiration behind her viral makeup trend and her latest crossover into the fashion world with designer and friend, Yumi Kim. Read on for the highlights.

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So, why makeup?

I guess because I'm not that good at other things. When I was a child, I didn't really pay attention at school, and I think that beauty is really powerful. Ever since I was a child I was fascinated by how makeup can affect one woman. I just always loved glamour, and I was so into fashion magazines, models, actresses… it was something that I just naturally gravitated toward. I've been doing makeup since I was a baby. It's all I've ever done. I worked in retail for, like, two seconds, and did a service job once as my first-ever job, but other than that I've been doing makeup my entire life.

How did you get your professional start in makeup?

When I lived in the [San Francisco] Bay area, all I did was bridal makeup. Then, I remember moving to New York City with barely a dime. I used to come with my friends every June, because that's when all the good sales were going on in the city, and every time I visited I fell more and more in love with it. I was so fascinated by the energy of the city. I knew if I stayed in the Bay my career was going to plateau, so I said, 'fuck this, I'm gonna go pursue my dreams.'

Everybody warned me about how tough New York was, how different the people were, and how different it would be for a little California girl. But I didn't expect it to be as tough as it got — every agency I went to rejected me. I was really depressed by how hard everything was getting, and I have such bad A.D.D. so I was a terrible assistant, which didn't help the situation. So, I ended up working at Penthouse — a strip club — as a makeup artist. I was still doing bridal makeup, but I'd also do strip club makeup. 

Finally, one thing led to another, and I was working at Elle Vietnam for a while. They had zero budget, but I was doing everything from model casting, to casting stylists and photographers and assisting in photo retouching. It gave me a chance to act as a Creative Director. Makeup was, of course, the main part of it, but I was doing everything. That really helped me prepare to play as Creative Director for the campaigns and other projects I work on now. That helped me build a strong editorial book, and then it led me to glossier jobs.

Instagram was another tool that helped skyrocket your career. Could you tell me more about your experience with it?

I was never really good at Instagram, but I think I just learned how to work it, I figured out my audience, and I gave them what they wanted, which was everything glow-y. I've understood Instagram a lot better within the past two years because before then I didn't really know how to make a video go viral. But once I figured it out, it all kind of took off from there. Instagram is such an interesting place, because before it if I wanted to book something for Allure I would have to submit my book along with 50 other makeup artists and I'd just have to cross my fingers and hope for the best. But now, all they have to see is my Instagram.

How do you juggle your career as a makeup artist while maintaining your social accounts?

It's seriously a full-time job, girl. I travel non-stop, and then I'm working on campaigns and building content, and it's actually really hard. But, I just feel extremely lucky to be able to do all of this. There's a lot of talent out there, there are extremely talented makeup artists that are working at the mall counters, but they don't have the opportunities that I'm lucky enough to have. But, I also think it's a rat race — especially living in New York City. It's never enough: You hit 100K followers, but then when are you going to hit 1 million? Sadly in this business, we're always about the uphill climb. We never want to stop achieving. I feel so lucky to have gotten as far as I have, but sometimes I have to step back. I don't want to get too caught up in the race, or else I'll never be happy. It's been a tough, grueling road, but I'm truly grateful to be in the position I am now.

What does it takes for a makeup artist to find success on Instagram?

You have to know your brand: Do you want to work in movies, bridal, celebrity? I do a little bit of everything, which is kind of rare, but knowing what you want to pinpoint yourself as is tough. And it's also hard to start a page and grow an Instagram following, especially in 2019 vs 2015. There are a billion makeup artists to follow now, and many of them are extremely talented. So, you have to set yourself apart to gain exposure.

When it comes to social media, you can't pretend to be someone else. Talk about your life: If you're getting married, talk about your preparation for the wedding. If you have acne, you should talk about it and give reviews of what's working and not working for your skin. You just have to be authentic. If a brand wants me to do some heavy, over-the-top, pancake-y makeup, I wouldn't be the right person to do that for them and I'd probably turn it down. You just have to understand your brand voice; figure out why someone should follow you.

A lot of my ultra-highlight videos are filmed right in my living room, and my followers love them. You just have to understand what your content is. I don't know where things will be 10, five, even two years from now. But, for an artist — whether you're a makeup artist or even an interior designer — you just need to create a brand of your own and make it stand out.

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What inspired you to create #dewydumplings?

When people ask where this came from, I always say 'weird, quirky shit.' There's something so cute and cheeky when you say the word 'dumpling;' it gives you a certain happy feeling. I literally just blurted it out one day, and I didn't even think that it would get to where it is today. Now, I'm coming out with Dumpling Clothing, a collaboration with Yumi Kim. We're doing these really funky tops, and they have a dumpling on each nipple.

Why do you think dewy makeup is having such a moment right now?

Trends come and go, but beautiful skin is forever. There's something so interesting about Instagram makeup because although it's very over-the-top, it takes true talent and skill to execute it right. I think there's a lot that we all can learn from those trends. But at the end of the day, who doesn't want beautiful, fresh, glowing skin? It's really refreshing to see more of these natural looks. I'm a very skin-focused person, and even if you don't have the most perfect skin or your complexion is textured, I think that I'd rather look a little flawed than look like I have a pancake on my face. I think the glowy, natural trend is here to stay. I don't see people saying 'Oh God, remember when we all wanted to glow?' in 10 years. I don't think the natural look is just a trend, I feel like it's here to stay.

Skin care and makeup have gone hand-in-hand at this point. Skin care has become a huge trend of its own — everyone wants to have natural #dewydumpling skin. No one wants to wake up at the crack of dawn to put on a hefty layer of makeup anymore.

There's still a place for some of the heavier stuff, like contour. When I'm shooting an editorial or creating a celebrity look, I’ll still use contour but I’ll just make it look natural. When I do makeup, I think in terms of how the camera will read the face, so sometimes I'll use three different foundations. Your face isn’t one color, it's three-dimensional, so I always have to think about that in order to avoid flattening the model’s face. There's a place for the heavier items, but it doesn't mean that you have to overdo it.

Did you have a "big break" moment in your career?

I could tell you that it was the first time I was in Vogue or some other thing, but I really felt like I made it when I stopped being thirsty. The first time that I turned down a well-paying gig was really eye-opening, there isn't any other point in my life that made me stop and think 'Oh, wow.' Being an artist in this industry, you're so used to saying 'yes' to every opportunity that comes by. Earlier in my career, I would take gigs even if I didn't agree with the rate or the concept. But, I really felt like I made it when I started getting deals that I would turn down. I just didn't want to spread myself too thin, so I definitely think that I made it when I started turning away money. It was a new feeling for me, and it felt so good to be financially stable enough to start doing projects that I believed in, not just gigs that had a great paycheck. I was doing that in the beginning, and I feel like I made some mistakes.

Traditionally as a makeup artist, you get paid to do someone's makeup for a photoshoot and that's about it, but then all of this stuff on Instagram started taking off and I got more offers and for a short period that recognition made me very happy. It still does, but I think I got blinded and started doing projects that didn’t really align with who I was or my brand. They weren't tragic mistakes, but looking back I feel like there were definitely some jobs that I should've passed on. But, about three and a half years ago, I started feeling like I was in a position to say no — and it felt good.

You're a big inspiration to many makeup artists, but who inspires you?

I love Sir John. He's sweet, he's supportive of other makeup artists, he has great energy, and he’s an incredible makeup artist. He's the whole package. I also love Hung Vanngo, he’s super talented. I love Patrick Ta, he's also a friend of mine. On YouTube, I love ponysmakeup. She's so fascinating to watch, she looks like an Asian doll. Overall, there's a lot of really talented people, even ones we don't know about because they don't know how to showcase their work.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

It really depends on the day. If I'm working on a fun highlight video, everything is about natural lighting. So, I might own a client a highlighting video, but sometimes I'll have to delay it for two weeks because I have to wait for the magic hour. There's this one video I have of using a Supergoop product that made my skin super glow-y, and there was a meme created of it that went viral on Twitter. It's probably my best-performing video of all time, and I'm literally just sitting in the corner of my bathroom with a towel on my head. It came out so well because the lighting was great and it was the perfect moment to film. People think that it's easy just because it's an eight-second clip of me putting a glow stick on my face, but you really have to know your power moment to be able to get that perfect clip.

What are some goals you'd still like to achieve?

I'd really like to do Beyoncé's makeup. I'd love to make her into a dumpling. A lot of people would think that my next step would be a makeup line because everyone keeps asking me when I'm going to that, but I don't see that in my future for now. It's a very American thing to create a formulaic task list for yourself: You completed X, now you must move to Y. But I just don't know if a makeup line is the right move for me right now in my career. I just love creating beautiful imagery, and that's my main focus for now. Whether it's a video or on a model or even on myself, I want to continue creating beauty — I don't know exactly what that means at this point in my career, but for now, my motto is 'long live the glow.'

Lately, it seems like everyone is hopping on the beauty brand bandwagon. What are your thoughts on that?

I started to think about this a lot. I kept wondering, does the world need another highlighter? But, I guess it does, because people keep creating makeup lines and we keep buying them. So, I guess there is a demand, and I'm part of that demand. Maybe I don't count because I'm not a regular consumer, but I can never have enough. I think that the market is a bit oversaturated, but if you notice a need for it, understand what you're creating, and create a high-quality product, then there will always be people like me who need a different highlighter every day of their lives and will purchase it. 

What advice do you have for any aspiring makeup artists?

Lower your ego, work hard, show up on time, do what you love, and that's it. If you follow that, everything will be fine — trust me, and trust yourself.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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