He's part of Beyoncé's entourage and is one of the most sought-after editorial and celebrity makeup artists. He trained with Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath. He's an ambassador for L'Oréal Paris, and in 2016, was crowned InStyle's Makeup Artist of the Year.
You'd think all that success would go to Sir John's head, but I've gotta say—he is one of the most down-to-earth and genuine people I've EVER had the pleasure of interviewing.
Let's get one thing out of the way first. The name on his birth certificate really IS Sir John (last name Barnett). ("I've had to explain my name every single day for the last 33 years," he told Fashionista in 2015.) As one of the few artists who straddle both the fashion and celebrity worlds, he lives up to that title, and more.
Thanks to L'Oréal Paris, I got to sit down with New York-based Sir John when he was in Toronto last month—and found out how he got started, his favourite makeup tricks, and what it's like to work with so many famous faces. I hope you love him as much as I do!
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I love glamour. But I like a minimalist approach to glamour. With some people, it's very Jersey, Long Island—like excess, excess, excess—whereas it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.
I feel like glamour is any kind of aspirational quality in a look. Someone should want to wear what you have on. Just like they want to wear your dress or your haircut, they should want your eyeshadow or your lipstick.
I love symmetry, I love contrasting visuals. Anything that is visually arresting and not too busy on the eyes.
What type of makeup do you think you're known for?
I think I'm known for skin, so they say. A lot of makeup artists, they're not necessarily well-versed in [working with] different complexions. But when you're a makeup artist or a hairstylist in 2017, you're like a doctor. When someone goes to a hospital, they don't necessarily say, "Oh, I don't know if I can work on that kind of body type" or whatever. No, they just go to work.
In this multi-culti world we live in, you should really know how to deal with every hair texture, every complexion, and not even think about it. Everything else is the icing on the cake. If I can give someone a beautiful complexion, everything else is going to look so much better. The lip will be more impactful, her eyes will be easier to do. Skin is the basis for everything.
So that would be my look, I think. That or using one colour to give a sense of impact. For example, that Met Ball purple lip back when no one was wearing purple. It's that one statement—having that one thing that adds an exclamation point to your look.
I think many women can relate to that, because when we look at social media and we look at makeup trends, there's a lot going on. But if you can take just one thing—your eye or lip, or even your skin—you can make it the focus.
Also, I want whoever I'm working with to turn heads a bit. It's not popular to say this nowadays, but that doesn't always come from doing more. That doesn't always come from the extra contouring and lashes. It can actually come from pulling back. In a sea of everyone who is wearing short, tight dresses, it's actually refreshing to see a woman who has a dress that's long. Or when everyone's wearing big hair, wear a top knot. It's that contrast.
Who are some of your most famous clients?
Well, we have Beyoncé, but we also have Joan [Smalls], we have Karlie [Kloss], we have Chrissy Teigen, Viola Davis, Serena Williams, Liya Kebede...
Do you prefer doing editorial or red carpet?
I prefer editorial. I like to be on set. I like being under good light. I'm not a fan of music videos at all—I don't like the hours. It's too much time commitment for me. I've been on video sets for 17, 18, 22 hours. At that point, you're just like, riding on fumes.
Is it more fun working on celebrities or models?
The world I live in is more model-based, not celebrity. Celebrity is very Los Angeles. The work we do that's creative is never on celebrities, because celebrities have a formula they like to stick to. They are very safe. Celebrities are very much like, "I can't do that because that's this person's look." They have a formula they don't move in and out of. But models are like, "Bring on the looks, bring on the looks."
Which makeup looks are you most proud of?
My favourite look would probably be something I did on Joan. Any of the work I do on Joan is when I get to really, really have fun. I loved the blue smoky eyes I did for the CFDA Awards a couple years ago.
I loved the Vogue Mexico cover we did. And Joan and I did a video for this website called Nowness with this videographer named Barnaby Roper. That was one of my favourite jobs to date.
How do you change your approach when you're on set versus something like a concert?
If you look at Bey for example, concert makeup is completely different from editorial. If you look at her Elle cover, it's so soft and subtle. There's a freshness that we wanted to keep, to make her look youthful.
On stage, in concert, we go all out. We just go for it. I don't have the liberty of doing that editorially because those photos are going to live forever. She's like, "I want to be fresh-faced, I want to be young." So I say, "Okay." But in shows, I have to do more of a look because she's dancing, she's moving, she's sweating and we need more lip, we need more cheek.
What is Beyoncé's favourite makeup look?
She loves a statement lip. She's a girl who loves lips and minimal eyes. She's not really a huge fan of eyeshadow. So whenever we do an eye look, you can tell that I convinced her to do it. I gave her a glossy lid for a video that we were doing maybe four or five years ago, and she's been obsessed ever since. Sometimes, she'll even do it herself. She'll be front row at a game with her husband, and she'll be like, "Look what I did, I did it myself!"
I love that she tries. She's actually a really good makeup artist. Her and Joan. Joan is so good at makeup. You have to realize that these woman are photographed every single day for years, so they know makeup better than most makeup artists.
What was your inspiration for Beyoncé's Met Gala makeup that upset so many of her fans?
They hated me! Riccardo Tisci, who is the designer for Givenchy, sent me a picture and was like, "Hey, listen, I want it to be like this." It was this runway look of Kate Moss in the '90s at a Gucci show. The whole eye was covered in this dark colour. So Bey and I were like, "Let's make it more graphic." But the pictures on the red carpet are different from the pictures at nighttime. Daylight pictures don't capture the essence like nighttime pictures do.
Long story short, she was happy. I saw her the next day and I thought she was going to be so upset with me. She was like, "Babe, I felt good. I liked it." And I liked it, so that was it. The 'Fashion Police' and all these other people were very, very happy. But Instagram makeup artists were all, "We need to find him and obliterate him!" It was a little intense.
How much time do you usually have to do the makeup?
I usually have anywhere between 11 minutes to about 40 minutes. You're supposed to be really, really quick.
I'm going to tell you how I got my speed down. When I started doing makeup, I was working for Charlotte Tilbury during the daytime. But I needed money. I had a friend who was a makeup artist at MAC. One day, she's like, "Hey, listen, I'm working at a strip club in Queens. Can you come to the strip club and do some makeup with me?" I'm like, "Uh..." She's like, "It will be cash in your pocket every night." "Alright, I'm in!"
So I started doing makeup at a strip club on these girls, and this is how I got really quick. I met some really amazing women who happened to be in bad situations. So, it was just part of the journey.
How did you first get into makeup?
I got into makeup completely by accident. I didn't set out to be a makeup artist at all. I was in school for arts since I was six years old. What happened was I was at a photo shoot for a friend of mine who was a model. I only did [her makeup] because the makeup artist had cancelled on her. She was like, "I want to do this job. Can you do this for me?" Then the photographer asked me to come back the next week and do the same face.
And so I started working at MAC Cosmetics when I was very young. Like, 18. I got fired from MAC at 23 for being late. Then I started to do windows for Barneys and Bergdorf, and I was the men's merchandiser for Gucci for a while. I didn't do makeup at all for a couple years. I didn't even hold a brush for like, three years.
How did you make the leap to assisting top makeup artists?
A makeup artist I had worked with—we were buddies at MAC when we were very young—asked me, "Can you come to this show with Pat McGrath?" So I met Pat at the show. I didn't have anything to lose. I'm like, okay, whatever. Then she asked me if I was going to be in Europe at the Italian shows maybe a week later. So I said, "Hey, yeah, I'm going to be there. Sure, I'll be there." Mind you, I had no passport. I had no way of getting there. And not enough money to get there and stay there!
But I made it work, and I met her there in Italy. We went to Dolce. After Dolce, she took me to Prada, and then Blumarine, Versace, and all these other Italian shows. I did 70 shows that season with her.
How did you start working with celebrities?
That week in New York before I left, I also met Naomi [Campbell] backstage at one of the shows. Everyone was like, "Don't talk to her, leave her alone!" But I'm like, "Well, listen, I got this far, whatever." So I went and talked to her. She brushed me off. But she saw me at the shows in Italy and was like, "Oh, can you come to my hotel and do my makeup before this event?"
So I went to her hotel. Mind you, she broke me in. [laughs] But everything happened for a reason. With me, what you see is what you get. I'm this guy all the time, and you're either going to like it or you're not. Hopefully you like it. So it just worked.
When did you meet Beyoncé?
I met Beyoncé later on, when I started working for Charlotte. Back then, Bey was actually with a really great makeup artist. I did the best I could do; I just let it go, and I didn't hear from her for like, a year. In that time, I keep working, I keep assisting, I keep doing my thing.
Then I got a phone call from Parkwood offices. Parkwood is her company. I thought it was the IRS. I didn't know what was happening. Why was I being summoned to this company? [laughs] Basically, they asked me to sign a contract for a couple years to go on tour with her, to do videos and that kind of thing. The confidentiality agreement was like, so thick. Then I said, okay, I need an agent, I need a lawyer, I need all these things.
Bey's been great and I've met some other really amazing clients. Serena Williams is awesome. She's one of the loveliest people I've ever met.
Since you signed a confidentiality agreement with Beyoncé... what was it like working with Pat and Charlotte?
Finding a team that worked for me, which happened to be the Charlotte team, was crucial early on. I did appreciate the intensity and the "go, go, go" environment that Pat's team offered. And also the knowing that every job we did influenced the market. I said to myself, "This is a great place to learn a trend or technique. This is a great place to score a few stamps on my passport." But I found Charlotte Tilbury more my speed.
She's all about making a woman feel glamorous. It just radiates from her. She is that person and she lives it every day. She just brings herself to work and it carries out into her clients. She also really cares about the people who are working for her. She still calls me to this day. She introduced me to Beyoncé at Tom Ford's first womenswear show. She introduced me to Mario Testino.
What she did is she allowed me to be myself. When you're an assistant, you're told to be seen and not heard. You're supposed to be quiet and in the background, and fade away into nothingness, I guess—just only pop out when they need something. Being an assistant is a really stressful place to be. It doesn't breed confidence in your ability or your artistry. But one thing Charlotte allowed me to do is she said, "Hey, listen, I want you to be yourself. I don't want you to wear black every day. I don't want you to have to dumb yourself down to make me feel a certain way. I'm already here."
When she said that to me, it was like, the most eye-opening experience in my career. I was like, you know what? I can be me, I can be this guy and not have to be this cookie-cutter person in fashion that I thought I had to be when I first got here. So, just being yourself and living in your own lane is so powerful, especially in this age of social media where you look at your phone and you're always bombarded by what everyone else is doing every single day. Every editor, every makeup artist, every hairstylist. [The idea of] just loving your own formula and your own special sauce, if that makes any sense, was the biggest lesson I took away from Charlotte's team.
Then L'Oréal came about, the InStyle Awards came about. Also, editors are my best friends. I have my best conversations about beauty with editors. I happened to have those guys as my buddies and not so much the fashion people, and that's when my career started to shift.
Do you travel light or do you pack a huge kit like Pat?
I wish I did have tips on how to [keep my kit small], so I didn't have to pay overages. I have a suitcase that separates. It's actually a snowboard case. Burton Luggage is great.
If I'm doing a do and go—a do and go is when you go to some house and you do the makeup and go; you don't have to stick around—I'll pack a very light bag. Just complexion, lips and that kind of thing.
What are the products in your kit that you can't do a job without?
For me, concealers are life or death, because sometimes, in a pinch, you can use concealer instead of foundation. If I don't have any time, or if my kit is farther away from me than I have time to run and grab, I'll moisturize the skin and use my fingers and concealer to give coverage where I need it and blend out where I don't.
Beautyblenders are these sponges we have. Any of the sponges nowadays are like the Holy Grail. They're like an extra hand, or your magic eraser. I like to go over [the skin] with the sponge to make sure there are no fingerprints, so that things are blended smoothly. So this is like your airbrusher.
Pointed cotton buds are my jam, too. They'll clean up a winged eye. You can put your line on really quickly, and then just take a couple seconds with a cotton bud and even out your wings and fix everything.
Who makes the best makeup brushes?
MAC has great brushes; they've always had great brushes. I also love Artis. I use them for the face; I love those babies. And Sigma has really nice brushes. Brushes are key—they're very, very important.
Which brush do you apply foundation with?
I'll apply foundation with my fingers. My body heat is going to change the texture. I'm dabbling, I'm stippling, I'm layering. Doing that, it gets this organic quality that makes everything a second skin.
What kind of look do you do if you only have five minutes?
If I have only five minutes, which is so often... I hate to say this, but sometimes hair gets so long and styling gets five or 10 fittings. And then they look at makeup, "You only have 10 minutes." It's like, do you know how long this guy had colour in her hair? [laughs]
If I had only a small amount of time, what I would do is a statement lip. You can't look at a statement lip and say, "Oh, it's just because she didn't have time." No, this could be intentionally the statement she wanted to make for the day. Eyes take a little bit longer, because you want symmetry and there's a layering that happens. So I'd do a statement lip, and a lip liner to make the lip last longer.
What are some of your favourite L'Oréal products?
The Infallible Silkissime Eyeliners. They're eye kohls. I love these babies because they're completely waterproof and they do not move. They go on so easily into the waterlines and once they dry, it's like cement. I use them all the time; they are one of my desert island products. There's a forest green—I love green—and I love this greige colour we have, it's really new and fresh. Also, I like to use half and half. I'll put a darker colour eyeliner on the top and a lighter colour on the bottom.
Pro-Glow Foundation is my jam because it gives a very luminous glow to the skin. It's sheer but light-reflective.
I love the concealer palette we have. Every makeup artist loves a palette because they can pack lighter, and no one is ever one colour. I mix them every single day. You can cover a tattoo, you can cover a pimple, you can cover dark circles. Also, throughout the week, you're probably picking up more sun and getting more colour every day so your skin is going to change. Every person should always have foundation and concealer in multiple colours.
The Paints are really cool. Everything we're doing trend-wise right now is about impactful colour. So, uses of colour that happen to be saturated and dense—not sheer washes.
How do you prep the skin before you apply makeup?
I'm all about hydrating the skin and creating a story with the skin. People don't believe that skin is that much of a feature or a focus—but it is. If you really think about it, skin is the only thing we have that conveys so many different elements. It conveys how much time you had on vacation; what you eat; how much you eat; if you've been drinking; if you've been partying; if you've been sleeping. Skin conveys so much, so I don't feel like you should neglect it by just slathering on a foundation or concealer and then moving on to the next step. You should take just as much time prepping your skin [as you do on the rest of your makeup]. If anything, you should spend a little bit more time because this is the bricks and mortar of your routine.
I start with moisturizer—I use a water-based moisturizer. I take my fingers, and I start to get the skin more supple by moving the moisturizer around. The whole goal is to increase circulation. But it doesn't hurt. If you've ever seen Charlotte, she would almost slap the girls; it would seem horrifying! [laughs] But all I'm trying to do is increase a little bit of blood flow.
Why is it important to increase circulation?
From The Skincare Edit Archives
Your foundation lays better. It lasts longer. All dark circles are, or acne scarring, or any of that kind of stuff, is sluggish circulation.
I love to tell people to take kale, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach and throw them into a Vitamix to blend them up. Juicing is not always the best because you lose the fibre content. But those dark, leafy greens like kale give you 650 percent of [your daily requirements of] vitamin K. Vitamin K increases circulation. So if you can increase the circulation in your body—it can be jump rope, a brisk run, a bike ride, having great sex the night before with your husband—all these things aid in increasing blood flow.
Do you prefer matte or dewy skin?
I love glowing skin. It's sexy, it looks expensive, it's modern. I'm not a huge fan of very matte complexions. That's just not my thing. Some people love matte because they're very oily. But I feel like great skin, healthy skin, does have a glow.
If you have oily skin, you can use a mattifying moisturizer or a mattifying foundation, and then a luminizer in the right places on top of the foundation. Just luminize the sides of the face, but still underneath you have a bit more oil control.
Also, if you don't have an illuminator, don't be afraid to take your night cream or any really rich cream and tap that on top of your foundation to break up your powder, or any staleness in your foundation.
Do you do anything special with the skin for the red carpet, since HD cameras are so unforgiving now?
It's so true. Even since I've been a makeup artist, the photography aspect has changed with high-def. I would say a mattifying moisturizer is key. For example, Hydra Genius is a water-based moisturizer, and I love it because you feel that slip. It offers hydration, but when this dries, it locks your foundation in and your skin doesn't produce as much oil. When you don't have a primer, use a mattifying moisturizer instead.
What do you like for powder?
I like an invisible or translucent loose powder. I find that pressed powders are too heavy. Also, you never want to use them around the eyes because it ages you. The skin around your eyes is so thin, I wouldn't want to put anything heavy and dry around that area.
How do you feel about the "baking" trend?
I never bake. Ever. It never looks natural on a girl. I'm always starting from the place of being so minimal. Anything I do that's creative is going to be an eye or a lip, but her skin is always going to be natural.
What's the secret to natural-looking contouring?
Use a colour that has a grey undertone. It's because cooler colours recede. They fade away and give you a sense of depth. If you want to contour your lids or your cheekbones, use a grey matte. Not a warm, bronzey colour, because that will do the opposite. It won't give you that sense of depth.
How do you cover up imperfections?
First of all, I want to say that there's no such thing as an imperfect face. I love differences in people. I love a birthmark, or a gap in your tooth. That kind of thing adds swag to your look. When you're such a cookie-cutter, when you look like everyone else, where's that individuality?
Okay, so no one loves a pimple. But it's temporary. Or sometimes, I've seen like, hair growth. Not on any of the girls you know! [laughs] It could be hormone things or maybe a pregnancy mark.
So I'm going to give you more coverage where you need it, but I'll do sheer everywhere else. Women think, "If I need coverage, I need coverage everywhere." But I want them to get in the habit of doing spot coverage. Minimize your coverage to where you need it. You probably only need maximum coverage on about five percent of your face. Everywhere else, I'll blend it away so it looks believable, sheer and breathable. I want to see pores and freckles. That's what you want; freckles are important. If your skin is natural, you can go heavier with the eyes and lips.
How do you deal with darkness around the eyes?
Use a hydrating concealer on top of your eye cream. Look for concealers that are creamy, not dry. You don't want anything too oily, either. So I'll use an eye cream that has maybe some kind of de-puffing effect. While it's slightly damp, I'll take [the concealer on] my ring finger and I'll start to tap it in, tap it in, tap it in. It adheres beautifully once it's dry.
I do this after foundation. I always do eyes first. After I do eyes, I'll take a cotton bud and make sure there's no fallout. Then I'll go in with foundation, just where I need it, and then concealer after. I'll use less concealer if I use it last. If you put your concealer on first, you'll use more.
How do you choose the right brow pencil?
I use cooler colours for brows. Even if you have warm or red hair, you want to go ashier with brow colour. It photographs better. Always err on the side of ashy with brows. For no other area will I tell you that, just brows.
Do you think there are any rules about wearing warm versus cool colours?
There are no rules, but there are a couple of happy guidelines. For lips, whenever you pick an orange-based red, those are going to make your tan pop and bring life to your complexion. If you ever have a cold, bring a little bit of an orange base to your blush or lip colour, because it will make you look awake.
But if you want to make your teeth look really white, go with the blue-based colours. So your raspberries. You know MAC Ruby Woo? That is the standard of a blue-based red. Magentas and fluorescent pinks are always the wild cards, but if you stay within the norms of cool and warm, you'll know what it's going to do for your complexion and your teeth.
In terms of eyes, purple and cobalt blue are universally flattering shades. I know it seems crazy, but think in terms of just liner. Sometimes, people are afraid to embrace colour, but if you had just a tinted liner, the most minimal way to accept colour would be a blue. A sliver along the lash line, maybe a bit of navy mascara. No one sees that it's navy from a distance, but as you come up close, it creates interest. You want to create visual interest with makeup. You want to have a slight optical illusion, where it looks one way from a distance, but when you get close up, it's like, "Oh! That's navy or purple mascara, that's cute." These little things in life make people have a conversation with you longer, or start a conversation.
Certain people are such minimalists, where they're like, "I don't like to wear makeup." But it's all an optical illusion. I'm going to be really real... if you're wearing a bra, it's an optical illusion. If you're wearing Spanx, even if you're wearing a gloss in your hair, it's slightly changing the visual from what it was at some point. All this stuff is smoke and mirrors, and it's well within your rights as a woman to have the ability to go into a phone booth and come out as Wonder Woman with a change of lipstick or mascara.
Do you always have to choose between emphasizing your lips or your eyes?
There are a couple ways to go about it. If you're going to do two focuses, sometimes it can go over really well. Anyone who is over 25 knows the Robert Palmer girls from back in the day. The hair was done, their eyes were done, their lips were done. Google it. That is the perfect reference for lip and eye. Robert Palmer girls.
But if you don't have that kind of aesthetic going on, and that sense of balance—it's all about balance and harmony—it becomes too much. So you want to make sure you have one feature. Am I going to sell my lips today? Am I going to sell my eyes? Or you might not feel like doing a lip, so just do contour and brows. There are always different ways to do it.
What are your tips for working with brights?
I always say, use a primer or a kohl pencil underneath that happens to be the same colour as your intended shadow. So if I'm going to do a purple smoky eye, I do a purple pencil underneath. Or a cobalt pencil underneath a blue. The colour underneath your shadow gives it something to grab onto.
What if you're reluctant to wear colour?
Make sure you keep it super-contained. Keep it very close to your lash line. The more you blow up your colour, the more ostentatious it is. It's a bit more of a look. It's a lot more commitment.
Can it still work if you've got hooded eyes?
Make sure it's waterproof so it doesn't move. You don't necessarily need to [show the colour when your eyes are open]. It can be cute when you blink. It's going to take a different shape, possibly, but it can be peek-a-boo colour instead of colour that you can see. Which is not a bad thing. Or you could do tinted eyeliner. Maybe put some colour in the centre of the waterline.
How do you do a glossy eye?
You can use Eight Hour Cream, you can use a clear gloss. Not Vaseline though, because Vaseline will break the eyeshadow. Use something that is like a jelly. I like glossy eyelids because they are light reflective. If you're going to do matte skin, then do glossier eyes, or do something that has some luminous property to it. It's all about that symmetry.
What's your favourite lip look?
Everyone has a thinner top lip. I like to put my colour that has the pigment up there [and a lighter shade on the bottom lip]. Then press your lips together, and it gives you a wash of colour. Nobody knows why they're looking, but there is a subtle difference that happens. It's just kind of cool to look at. It's not Ombré, but it's a nice mosaic of colours that looks really charming.
What do you think of overdrawn lip liner?
I like to overdraw a little bit. I like to overdraw in the centre of the top and the bottom, because it gives that bee-stung effect. But never overdraw everywhere.
What's a makeup trick you use that most people don't know about?
I think it's always—no matter what I'm working with, even if it's just a little bit of liner or mascara—always trying to create a feline silhouette to the eye. By using mascara on the outer ends of the lashes, it's going to give you a feline aesthetic. If you put more mascara at the centre of the eyes, near the pupil, it's going to make you more doe-eyed and Bambi-like.
So if you want more of a Bambi, bright-eyed appearance, use more individual lashes or mascara in the centre. If you want cat eyes, use them on the outer edges. Just knowing how to change up the eyes in those two ways creates a lot of expression in photos.
Also, knowing that highlighter or luminizers are never going to be in the front of the face. They're only going to be on the side. As soon as you bring a shimmery blush or a luminizer in the front, it looks in photos like she's had her makeup on for 80 hours.
Agreed. Also, why are people highlighting the tip of the nose now?
The biggest faux pas of the decade is putting shine on the tip of your nose as a highlight. [laughs] I think that's one of the craziest things I've seen happening.
What other makeup trends do you wish would go away?
Too much foundation. I'm coming from a different place. The school of makeup that I came from, which is editorial, is if they can see the foundation, I'm not getting hired. All that baking and contouring is great for the woman who happens to be with her girlfriends and is just going out on the town, but in the world of editorial beauty, it's the complete opposite.
I wish the over-reaching of the contouring trend would stop. We as a society know how to contour now, so dial it back. It should be invisible sculpting. It should look believable, like natural shadows.
Instagram must kill you, then.
Instagram is both a source of inspiration and frustration [for me]. I love that women are trying, that they're in the game, but sometimes, slathering on so much product is just too much.
However, I love the reach and visibility we now have at our fingertips. Over my morning coffee, [I can go from watching] a girl in India apply her lipstick to girls in China trying a new DIY trend.
How do you feel about all these Instagram and YouTube "gurus" teaching a generation of women to do their makeup that way?
You want to learn from someone who's not just sitting at home doing video after video. Someone who is in the field, who tried something and maybe it didn't work. You know, blood, sweat and tears bring a great story as well as an element of experience. Make sure you're learning from people who have experience.
What's your take on social media and how it's changing the beauty industry?
What's really cool about Instagram and social media is the fact that it's so inclusive. We look at society right now and it tells you that if you're this religion or that religion, or if you're this colour or that ethnicity, we're supposed to be separate. But if I look at Instagram and social media, and put in a hashtag about liquid lipstick, I'll see a mosaic of people from Cairo to Hong Kong, all looking in search of a colour. They don't even see any religion. They don't even notice that this woman has a hijab on or that this woman is from Ireland. They just see the lipstick.
Have you checked out Kylie Jenner's cosmetic line?
To be honest, I've never worked with her cosmetics line before, so I don't have the knowledge to say that I like the pigment or not. But what Kylie has done is something different in business, when you think about it. Everyone from the big cosmetics companies is paying attention to her. People like her and Jeffree Starr speak to society's norms now, and the fact that you don't necessarily have to have a huge grant behind you, or a huge backing or investors to make an impact in the global cosmetics marketplace today.
I have a friend, and she started a company called Dose of Colors. She had like, 200,000 followers on Instagram. And she said, "Hey, I'm going to put out a little lipstick." That sold really well, so she developed four more. Now, she's this massive company in San Francisco based off just her Instagram following. So you don't necessarily have to be huge to start. We all get paralyzed in fear—like, "I don't have the money to start this"—but she started how she could and where she could. I really have a lot of respect for that journey. It's a sign of the times. It's really empowering to see women be their own bosses.
Whose makeup haven't you done that you would like to do?
I was at the Globes the other weekend and I got a little starstruck when I saw Priyanka [Chopra]. So I went over to her and said hello. Honestly, you've got to have enough confidence in yourself, because the worst someone can say is no, or just be rude. And that doesn't have anything to do with you. So I would say she is one of the people I want to work with. I also love Olivia Wilde, I think she's beautiful.
[Editor's note: A week later, he did do Priyanka's makeup!]
What would people find the most surprising about your job?
Can I be honest with you? If you don't listen to anything else I say today, listen to this. So many people work in makeup and beauty and hair. Everyone can do makeup really well. Everyone can do hair really well. But I'm not in the business of makeup, I'm in the business of people. It's less about how amazing I am with a brush, and more about how I have interpersonal relationships with people and how I make them feel. If you make people feel great, they'll want to keep you around. They'll fight for you, you know?
When I'm in a bad mood, I try to keep myself away. I'm not the best with hiding my emotions. So if I'm not feeling someone, I've got to stay away because I know they'll feel it, they'll read it, they'll see it, and I won't be hired again.
So it's really about your relationships with people—it's not about how amazing you are. There are so many [artists] in LA and New York who have these massive egos, but other people can do what they do. It's about... can [the celebrity] trust you? Can you add something to a conversation? Are you positive?
I'm the last person they see before they go on stage and sing in front of millions of people. Or before they hit the runway or are photographed for a major magazine. So some of that is my responsibility, to make sure they feel good.
What's the biggest challenge about working with celebrities?
LA is different. Women in LA, they want to look perfect. They want concealer, they don't want to see any freckles, they want to cover and lacquer it all. I remember [one of my clients] said to me one day, "I want to be like, beat."
You have to realize, every artist does a certain thing. And I had to have a conversation with myself, like "Can I give some girls that?" And I was like, you know what? I can, but I don't feel technically safe. The looks are very focused and specific.
Whenever someone hits a red carpet, they're not just looking at her, they're looking at me as well. So I want to bring her into my world instead of me always going into hers. That is tough when you're working with talent. It's a very slippery slope when you tell someone "No." These girls are used to getting their way. It's a little bit of a song and dance, but they have to trust you.
Now that you're in the position of being able to hire assistants yourself, what qualities do you look for?
I love people who are like myself, but to a certain extent, that's not always a positive thing. Part of the reason why the fashion industry is not so inclusive, is because people feel comfortable around those who have like-minded psychology. This is why Trump has everyone in cabinet who looks like him as well. I mean, I don't want to get too deep! I try to challenge myself to hire or be around people who don't necessarily think like I do, because they have assets I don't have. Like organization and timeliness. [laughs] I'm joking.
I also look for a sense of urgency. For example, when I was an assistant, if Charlotte or Pat needed something, I ran. I didn't walk! Also, my mom wouldn't have that when I was younger. I come from a really strict background. If she saw me walk, that was a problem. So just the sense of urgency. If I'm under pressure, to be able to look at my assistant and see that she's under pressure too. I'm not saying that I want to bring her into that space, but we're in it together.
You can always tell when someone's there for you or if they're there for that other thing, which is fame, stardom, celebrity, whatever. The people who do not care about celebrity are the ones who last the longest in this business; they're the people who do not necessarily give a damn about who it is. I mean, it's always nice to see someone you've idolized for a very long time, we all love that. But [you should] have a set of values to fall back on. You shouldn't be so easily impressed. Like, "This is great, but I have a job to do."
What's your advice to aspiring makeup artists?
Keep moving along. I didn't stop in one place. I didn't think I had it going on. Once you get some of these things and these wins, you might feel like, "Okay, I can stop here, things are great." It's never that way. You always have to keep it moving. You're only as good as your last job, cover or editorial—until you get to a place like Charlotte where you have a business and something substantial.
Also, you should never take criticism or compliments seriously. A compliment is great; it's nice to have a compliment. But don't take it seriously. Criticism and compliments, they come from the same place. If you know what you can do, neither one should move the needle emotionally inside.
What's your advice to all of us just doing our own makeup at home?
There's no such thing as mistakes. For example, at the Met Ball, we just owned it. If there's a mistake, make it a trend. Be like, "You know what, I did this on purpose." If anyone at the office doesn't like the way you applied your lipstick, just challenge them to wait for it. Say "It's coming your way."
What do you think of Sir John's approach to makeup and working with celebs?
Have you tried any of his favourite products or tricks?