A Considerable Town

The Bizarre World of Makeup Artists, Where Ovals Are Perfection and Monsters Are Beautiful

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Thu, Aug 2, 2012 at 8:00 AM
click to enlarge Spots? Why not. - PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN
  • Photo by Star Foreman
  • Spots? Why not.

When the International Makeup Artist Trade Show rolls into town, it brings with it a million tiny pans of eye shadow -- and the utter conviction that the right shade of lipstick can change your life. At the Pasadena Convention Center, where the trade show took place earlier this summer, beauty is the main concern. Conceptions of beauty, however, are as varied as the people in attendance.

For professionals like Donna Mee, who is teaching the Perfect Beauty/Advanced Artistry workshop, scientific principles hold true. "The epitome of beauty is the oval. The epitome of beauty is not to have cheekbones -- it is to have high prominent cheekbones."

Mee specializes in corrective techniques. The list of undesirables that can manifest on any given face are infinite -- large pores, oily skin, wrinkles, crooked nose, weak chin. All of it, right down to a person's bone structure, can be fixed by the strategic application of makeup.

The methods are highly specific. Take brows, for instance. You could write a dissertation on brows -- in fact, Mee is doing just that. Her book, Eyebrows for Dummies, is forthcoming.

You know you've applied the right makeup, she notes, because it feels "like looking at someone through a sheer, tinted veil of chiffon." She summons a memory from a recent photo shoot. "This girl came in," Mee says of the model. "I was like, 'Really? She looks like a troll. Oh God, I thought, I gotta cover that shit up.' " Shit thusly covered, the transformation was so magical that, afterwards, Mee reports, the girl could not stop snapping pictures of herself.

The convention has barely started and already one young woman, Phadra, a slight waitress of 24, has blown her budget on $100 worth of eye shadow. She seems unperturbed by the amount of product now in her possession. "I have two big boxes of eye shadow back at home," she says.

To her, ideal beauty is about the eyes. Today, her eyelids are aggressively shaded with purplish black and chartreuse.

Her friend Amber's concept of beauty isn't tied to one facial feature. The perfect face, she believes, is mainly about technique: "It can be goth or whatever, as long as it's done correctly." Her eyebrows are meticulously drawn, but in green -- like two fuzzy caterpillars perched on her forehead. Clearly, to some women, the parameters of the beauty ideal extend farther than oval-shaped faces.

Makeup, for that matter, is no longer even the exclusive provenance of women.

"Guys can wear makeup, definitely," says makeup effects student Fredrick Faith. "Ladies," he advises, "pop a bit of foundation in your man's moisturizer and see how many compliments he gets."

Asked if he wears makeup every day, Faith nods yes, then reconsiders: "Well, every night." Sometimes he accents his cheeks with hot pink blush and cakes his brows with concealer so they all but disappear. "When you open up the forehead like that, it's incredible," he says.

To him, ideal beauty pushes a few buttons.

Other guys prefer a natural look -- like themselves, only better. "Yes, I have makeup on right now," says fitness model David Kimmerle. To the abiding interest of a half-dozen girls with cellphone cameras, it is practically the only thing he has on right now. Kimmerle, who is manning the South Seas Skincare booth, is wearing South Seas Island Tan Matte Bronzer, a pair of shorts and a serious expression.

"The ideal beauty?" he says. "She would be worried as much about her inside as her outside. She would not wear a lot of makeup." His pectoral muscles twitch as he talks.

"This is not my natural color, by the way," he adds. "This," he says, pulling down the waistband of his shorts, "is my real color." The girls giggle.

Like any other scene, the professional makeup world has its rock stars. One of them is the artist known as Kabuki. In New York, he attended "the nightclub school" of cosmetology. Each night, he'd turn himself into a blue-faced Hindu goddess, say, or a gold Thai dancer. He'd encrust his friends' eyelids in jewels, cover cheeks in lace and turn eyelashes into insect wings.

When Kabuki walks into the auditorium -- pale, lanky, dressed in black -- a hush descends. A model lies supine on a recliner onstage, her body covered in a gold shroud. Kabuki kneels, his slender hands fluttering over the girl's upturned face, painstakingly applying rhinestones with a Q-tip.

"I had a really strange trajectory," he murmurs. "I used to go around to agencies and drop my book off. They wanted to know what famous photographers I was working with, but I wasn't working with any." Then he did his first fashion shoot with Stephen Klein for Italian Vogue. After Klein picked the craziest looks from Kabuki's portfolio, Madonna called him. Soon, this guy who'd been wearing lipstick since he was 14 was doing makeup for Dolce & Gabbana couture runway shows plus Gwen Stefani, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga.

"I can do whatever I want now," he says. "But as far as my favorite things, they tend to be androgynous." Beauty, to him, is inextricably linked with strangeness.

Colors are building up on the model's face now. Using the back of his hand as a mixing palette, he brushes and dabs and blends and blots. It is like watching paint dry. It is watching paint dry.

He stands up. The model's eye socket is a moody swirl of color: mauve, violet, indigo, yellow and crimson. "It's pretty," he says, examining the girl's face critically. "It's like a sunset on Mars."

click to enlarge Barney's Burman's makeup for Star Trek
  • Barney's Burman's makeup for Star Trek

Odd and beautiful are two sides of the same coin. "I find character beautiful," says artist Barney Burman, who won an Oscar in 2010 for makeup in Star Trek. "Not something poured out of a mold. But take a beautiful face and put a scar on it."

Walking the convention floor with his young son, Burman stops to observe a guy painting a pair of prosthetic webbed hands at one of the special effects booths.

"Like monsters?" suggests his son.

"Sure. Monsters can be beautiful," Burman says. But not the webbed hands in front of him: "Not that. That's chaos. That's a mess. It's uninspired." Anjelica Huston's witch in Captain EO was beautiful, he says. Or H.R. Giger's alien, in Alien.

"Predator?" offers his son.

"There's a certain beauty and elegance to that one," Burman says.

"Many of us makeup artists strive for elegance," he continues. "The original Frankenstein was elegant ... the Hunchback of Notre Dame ... Bjork."

He finds Bjork's off-kilter smile and asymmetrical face quite beautiful. "Perfect symmetry does not exist," he says. If it did, he suspects, it would look pretty damn weird.

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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