May 15, 2011, New York City–In a crowded room on the fifth floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion, attendees of The Makeup Show stared expectantly as makeup legend Billy B. took the mic and sat down. The man whose makeup artistry has graced the faces of Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill and Lady Gaga, shifted tentatively and cleared his throat.
“The most important ingredient is luck.”
Growing up in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Billy Brasfield was bullied relentlessly, simply for being different. “There were walls, though I [wasn’t clear about] what they were,” he says.
At the time, he didn’t even realize he was gay. All he knew was that he had to get to New York City. When the opportunity arose to escape small-town life via acting school in New York, he grabbed it. But Brasfield had no real desire to pursue a career in acting, and left The American Academy of Dramatic Art after only one semester, much to the chagrin of his parents.
Then, Lady Luck stepped in. With no financial support, Brasfield found himself at Macy’s, lying about previous retail experience in cosmetics, and landed his first makeup job. It was there at that very counter that Brasfield found the validation he’d lacked in his early life. And it was there that he was able to reclaim all of the power that the bullies of his childhood had taken away from him.
“The makeup industry is where all the freaks go.”
Before the likes of Kevyn Aucoin and Pat McGrath, the number of truly famous names in makeup was surprisingly tiny. It has been only very recently that makeup artistry has gained respect as a profession.
Brasfield believes that most makeup artists thrive on the validation a great makeup job can offer. Makeup artistry has become a “real” career choice, he says, and people who are in a cycle of constant self-reinvention and who have the need for reassurance now have a place to go.
Knowing this, Brasfield makes a point of warning everyone not to base their success as artists on his success. Instead, he instructs the group to know their goals, to be present and to stay open. He emphasizes that everyone should be aware of why they chose makeup, and to not pursue the wrong things.
“If there is a secret to my success, it’s [understanding how] 100% of your self worth [becomes entangled with your work],” Brasfield says. “There will always be someone better than you, but don’t ever be valid just by this. Every day I have to validate myself–but it has nothing to do with it. [Sometimes,] you’re just not going to get the job.”
“You cannot be everything to everybody. That does not make you a failure.”
Brasfield has no qualms about calling the fashion industry “a snobby, vile, stank world.”
In fact, he is not shy about telling the audience, “I will never work for [a certain popular fashion publication], because it’s a mafia.“ He adds later, “My opportunities have passed. It’s not sour grapes. It’s reality.”
But ever an optimist, almost in the same breath, he says, “Be open to all the things [a career in makeup] can be. I never thought, ‘Well, who does makeup for photo shoots?’ It never occurred to me. But once I was in it, I could see so many ways for you to make money as a makeup artist.”
That includes putting aside his ego to make a living doing what he loves.
“If [some lady] in Beverly Hills contacts me and says, “I’ll pay you $500 to do my makeup for an event,’ I’m getting into my car to make some cash,” Brasfield says, chuckling as the audience nods in agreement.
Despite his fame as a makeup artist, Brasfield admits he still struggles to make ends meet. But part of being a great artist is to always have some driving motivation, he says.
Wrapping up his keynote address, Billy B. offers one last bit of sage advice to the budding makeup artists in the room: “Never stop the struggle.”
The Makeup Show is organized annually by The Metropolitan Pavilion. The event just celebrated its sixth year in New York City. If you missed the New York show, you can catch it in Chicago from June 12 – June 13, 2011.
Watch Billy B. on his HGTV show Hometown Renovation and as a judge on Rupaul’s Drag Race.