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The eyelash guru takes a seat above his client Cynthia’s head. “See that little spot there? We’re working together to grow that back,” he says, gently nudging a single fake eyelash with a tweezer and glue into a gap between the hairs. Cynthia broke them curling her lashes. “Education is key in terms of applying these,” he continues. “I’ve been doing this for seven years, so I know.”
The guru, whose name is Ja’Maal Buster, dispenses all manner of lash wisdom. But occasionally he is stumped — he is only human. “I’m not sure what these ones are made of,” he says, peering at the small tray. “They come directly from overseas. They may be lab-grown hair. I’m sure they’re not other people’s lashes.” Then, with a dismayed expression, “I can’t see them pulling other people’s eyelashes out.”
Cynthia rises from the chair, her lashes newly full and radiant. “And I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Buster adds, blinking. “I only have one contact in today.”
When I ask whether he sees bad lashes while he’s walking around, he gasps, “Honey, every day!” He sees too much lash, too much glue. “If the first thing you see is big fuzzy caterpillars on their eyes, that’s bad.”
Buster has a personality that alternates between gregarious and demure. His adjective of choice when describing his personality is “amazing,” and for a long time, he thought he would be an actor or a singer or a TV-show host. “I knew I would be working in the public eye, but I didn’t know I would be working on the public’s eyes.”
He was assistant manager of the Dolce&Gabbana store in his hometown of Dallas, doing eyelashes on the side. Inevitably the lashes started taking over. He got fired. The next day, Good Morning Texas invited him on the show. On air, he gave out his cell-phone number. When people began calling him at a rate of 80 calls per minute, the Sprint PCS operator called to check on what was happening.
“Are you okay, sir?” she asked. “What’s happening? Hey, wait, are you that lash guy? I wrote down your number, too! Can I get in for an appointment today?”
Who else wants fake eyelashes? People you wouldn’t expect, including guys going through chemotherapy, whose hair has fallen out. And people you would. One of Buster’s wealthier clients spent $500,000 on her wedding, of which $20,000 was allotted for lashes. The bride had a champagne-and-lashes party in a hotel suite.
“Can you come to Cabo?” asked one desperate society girl. “My lash fell out.” When he was there, Buster did her girlfriends’ lashes, too. People go to extreme lengths to orchestrate the perfect face. A client from Paris flies out to Los Angeles three times a year to see Buster. She gets lashes made out of mink fur.
In a few days, he will be on Martha Stewart’s show. He met her at a party.
“And what do you do?” Martha asked.
“I do lashes,” Buster said.
“Oh?” Martha said. “What do you do to them?”
What he does — and this is where the real artistry comes in — is figure out how fake eyelashes can complement the shape of a woman’s eye and, in turn, enhance the shape of her face.
“Half the women sit in my chair and they think they know what they want,” Buster says. “It’s like, okay, say you’re a doctor. Do you really want big, distracting lashes? Or maybe you’re a Playboy bunny asking for natural lashes when everything about you” — he cups his hands to his chest like he’s holding two cantaloupes — “is unnatural.”
“They’re both important,” Buster concedes. “Any feature on your face is important. They complement each other amazingly.” But he knows that lashes are in the ascendancy at the moment. The late ’90s were mostly about the pursuit of eyebrow perfection. So much so that any hair beneath them was perhaps being neglected. It’s time for lashes to take the spotlight.
In the realm of fantasy eyelashes you can have, there are feathers and lace and diamonds. Hairs that crisscross like tiny fencing swords. Big wiry Mr. Snuffleupagus lashes. Slanted lashes that veer off to the side like windshield wipers. Blue lashes. Lashes with crystals clinging to them. Eyelashes encrusted with sequins. Lashes that are black on top, and orange underneath when you look up. Lashes that unfurl like falcon wings. Butterfly eyelashes. Lashes made of black fabric that make it look like moths landed on your eyelids. And so on.
Stunt lashes like these are perfect for musicians and actors and models and people who spend a lot of time traipsing up and down red carpets. He did Rihanna’s 3-inch eyelashes for her “Disturbia” video, and one of the three house calls he’s making today is to Paris Hilton to apply lashes that will last two weeks. But what really gets Buster fired up is making lashes look as realistic as possible to the point you can’t even tell they’re fake.
He lopes across the street to Saks Fifth Avenue to examine the wares. He walks with a touch of swagger, not uncalled for if you are angling to be the go-to eyelash guy in the Western Hemisphere. He is lanky, handsome with rounded boyish features and a thatch of curly, puffy black hair. He has small hands and long skinny fingers. Like the hands of a surgeon, people are always telling him. If he were a surgeon, he might be accused of having a God complex. Thus far, he has not seen lash work better than his.
Unlike most surgeons, he is self-taught.
Ironically, his own lashes are sparse because he has the problem where people pull out their lashes when they’re stressed. From this malady springs a deep compassion for those who are eyelash-challenged. “I can’t do everybody’s lashes in the world,” he says with feeling. “I wish I could, but I just can’t. I would die, probably.”
Over at Saks’ Shu Uemura counter, he pokes at some cubes of acrylic into which lashes have been embedded. He holds one up to his eye. They look like very small Damien Hirst sculptures — scientific, anatomical, pretty and just a bit unsettling. “I love these. Shu Uemura is the person who did the most to bring lashes back, especially couture lashes.”
The salesgirls at the MAC counter greet him by name. Of the crisscross lashes, Buster declares: “These are cute.” Of the MAC individual flares that you glue on one painstaking hair at a time: “I’m not a fan. They break off.” To one saleslady at another counter, who bats her large lashes at Buster coquettishly: “Thanks for letting us admire your lashes!” To me, quietly, as he turns away: “Poor thing. She needs to fix her lashes. They’re falling apart.”
Eyelash Guru Ja’Maal Buster; (310) 651-4344 or www.jamaalbuster.com.