Have you ever wondered how celebrities develop their iconic looks and styles?
As intriguing and beautiful as everything in the entertainment industry looks, I was curious what really happens behind the scenes of these photo shoots and music videos.
Outside of wanting to understand how the inspiration and collaboration process works in developing celebrities’ styles, I wanted a closer look at entertainment’s business side. Perhaps there’s something even the average business professional can learn from.
I sat down and interviewed celebrity makeup artist Anthony H. Nguyen in a cafe in downtown Los Angeles to learn more about his work and the ecosystem of style and makeup. Nguyen has been the makeup artist for countless celebrities, including Katy Perry, Jessie J, Adele, Naomi Campbell, and Cindy Crawford. His work has been featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Style, and many other publications. He also works with clients for high-pressure red carpet events, music videos, and is currently on a feature film. Despite his high-profile clientele, one of Nguyen’s favorite things to do is work with underground artists, such as female rapper Brooke Candy.
Nguyen sheds light on the importance of creative freedom and the value of collaborating on more independent projects, saying, “I love working with underground artists because there is more freedom; there’s more room to experiment. Working with Brooke is great because she’ll let me have complete control with makeup, and that’s when I work my best,” says Nguyen.
Beyond his impressive resume, it’s clear that Nguyen is a true artist when looking at his work and own personal style. As we met in the cafe, his own look was subtle and understated, wearing all black, accentuating a single silver dagger earring for a little bit of dramatic flare.
Unsurprisingly, Nguyen’s passion for makeup stems from a love of storytelling and art.
“I had a lot of different hobbies as a kid; all surrounded by art. I loved theater, filmmaking, directing, and I would do makeup on whoever I was filming. I specifically loved doing horror films and did film festivals as an amateur filmmaker throughout high school, and I did a lot of horror makeup–like blood and stuff like that. I love makeup because everything comes together–the storytelling, the creativity, and the many different outlets it can be used in,” says Nguyen.
Despite Nguyen’s enthusiasm for makeup, he admits he never thought he would have a career in it because he was very closeted for some time.
“I was raised in a very traditional Vietnamese family, so that played a big factor in not really wanting to explore that world, even though I loved it so much; it came very naturally. So, once I became more comfortable with my sexuality, and coming out, that’s when I decided to just focus on one thing and do it well. So I focused on makeup,” Nguyen recalls.
Beyond his artistic talent, I noticed right away that Nguyen has incredible social skills and strong business acumen.
Here are his tips for winning over high-profile and potentially difficult clients, along with some interesting insights into how the entertainment industry works. Even if you don’t consider yourself creative or an artist, you can use this advice to excel at work.
1. Do your homework and work your butt off
Like with any client-facing work, it’s important for professionals to thoroughly research their clients and understand their needs before even meeting them. This is why Nguyen always makes time to know all his clients’ history, especially the “evolution of their looks,” paying careful attention to hair and style. “You need to be up to date with how they can improve their image,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen shared this interesting anecdote from working with Yolanda Visser from South African rap duo, Die Antwoord:
“Die Antwoord has a very signature look, so I researched all their videos, where they’re from, all their interviews, etc…They hadn’t done many different things with makeup, though. So that was my job: to first of all gain their trust; do all their signature looks, and then I could branch off and introduce new looks. So it’s not just coming right out of the gate like, ‘I want to do this and that, and make all these changes.’ No, you must fall in their world first.”
This advice on trust building isn’t just relevant for artists and professionals working in the entertainment space; it could be applied to consulting or any other service business.
2. Stay agile and don’t be afraid to try new things
Even though Nguyen is very detail-oriented and likes to try to “map out everything” he can in advance, things rarely go exactly as planned, especially in the world of makeup and entertainment.
“A lot of times things change, so you just go with the flow and make it work, and the outcome will be its own special thing. Sometimes it’s better than you planned, sometimes it’s worse. When it’s bad, we’ll all say, ‘That’s awful. Change it!’ But it’s always worth trying, so we’re always trying new things,” says Nguyen.
When reflecting on the iconic, attention-grabbing “orange splattery eyes” that Nguyen did for Yolanda in the photo above, he shares that things actually didn’t go according to plan at all, as none of the tools were working. “So then I asked [Yolandi], ‘I have an idea, but do you mind if I use a straw and kind of spit it on your face?’ She was like, ‘Yah, I don’t care.’ So I sucked it up and blew it! And that was the icebreaker because it was the beginning of the tour, and it kind of brought things down and set the mood for the rest of the tour. And we all loved the look,” recounts Nguyen. No matter what profession you’re in, a little bit of resourcefulness and agility can go a long way.
3. Inspiration is everywhere, but be sure to give credit
While Nguyen believes artists can find inspiration everywhere and anywhere, he likes to first look to fashion for ideas but loves anything with “fantasy,” ranging from old films, theater, and club kids. “That creates the base. And then after seeing the fashion and the styling, and also our setting, because sometimes it could be in studio or on-location as well. And then I create the makeup look for all that together,” describes Nguyen.
He explains that “club kids” and their “free-balled makeup” have a big impact on the fashion world. “I was a club kid back in the day, and I would do a lot of fun creative makeup looks, and it would change every night. …I’m 32 now, and things have drastically changed in the last 10 years. I’m kind of on the cusp where I’m old enough to see the differences, but young enough to try to keep up with what’s happening, both from a business and art perspective, ” says Nguyen.
We also discussed the dilemma of looks and styles regularly being “stolen,” without crediting the original artist or source of inspiration. He explains what often happens is “unknown, underground artists are doing a bunch of cool shit, and then a big artist sees it,…copies it, and then suddenly it gets printed in Vogue and something major.” Nguyen concedes that someone has stolen his looks at least once, but says that even though this is “negative because everyone should be properly credited and acknowledged,” it helps serve as a reminder and stimulus to keep artists “on their toes at all times and forces them to keep creating.”
While the internet can theoretically create a more transparent world through social media, it’s interesting to see whether or not more artists will be credited or plagiarized in the future. Nguyen personally believes that social media’s popularity amongst young people is actually leading to more “homogenized looks” rather than people blazing their own paths.
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