I’ve led a double life for as long as I can remember: one foot planted firmly in what my parents like to call “the real world” and one foot out the door toward more creative pursuits. Today, I write code for the North Carolina Department of Transportation while holding down a successful side- hustle as a TV makeup artist. When you love something enough, you learn how to make it work for you. I’m proof of that.
I started my business in 1999 when I worked part-time for a small talent agency. Eventually, I took a position as an adjunct professor, teaching special effects makeup for a film & television production program. The work was sporadic as I built my portfolio. And then one day, the call came.
Elizabeth and John Edwards
CNBC asked me to do makeup for a show called “Pros & Cons.” The call came on a Friday. They needed me that Tuesday. I took the job immediately. I’m not sure if I found out before I hung up the phone or when they sent me a confirmation email that the guest was Elizabeth Edwards – an American attorney, a best-selling author and a health care activist
I had met her husband, former Senator John Edwards, when a production friend of mine had asked me to do his makeup for a televised speech. He couldn’t be bothered to make conversation (even when I complimented him) and made it obvious that the makeup process couldn’t be over quickly enough. Needless to say, I was a little nervous to meet his wife.
To the contrary, meeting Elizabeth Edwards was like running into one of your best friends at the supermarket. She was charming and sweet. She actually asked ME questions. I was shocked. It turned out that I had attended the same high school as her departed son Wade. I was a late transfer, so I missed out on knowing him, but she lit up just knowing of the connection. She rattled off a list of people I graduated with and I knew almost all of them. One, I told her, I’d had a crush on in high school, but he ignored me. To my surprise she said, “Well, our beach house is right next to them! I’m going to take him aside and tell him what he missed out on!” And we laughed.
I did her makeup a few times after that. She was concerned about the chemo making her hair look thin, so she told me about this hair piece she had sewn onto a headband. I told her my Mom had one that she called her “Spare Hair.” The next time I saw Elizabeth, she ran in at the last minute saying, “It’s okay Ann. I brought my Spare Hair!”
When you’re a makeup artist, you have to be cognizant of what you wear. It’s usually a lot of solid black, no logos, small accessories… One day I wore a necklace with a small red tile that read, “Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake.” It was a takeoff from the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” motifs that have sprouted up everywhere. Like most people, I wasn’t completely clear on the meaning behind this saying… until I wore my necklace to do makeup for Juan Williams – you know, that journalist and Fox News political analyst. I pretended to know when he asked me, but he wasn’t convinced and honestly, if you could be schooled by anyone, wouldn’t you want to be schooled by Juan Williams?
The studio hired me to do makeup for journalist and author Cokie Roberts on “Good Morning America” at 5:00 a.m.We may have laughed the entire time. It was clearly way too early for both of us. I think she was on vacation visiting her son so she took it all in stride. When I got to her eyebrows she looked me square in the eye and said, “I’ll tell you one thing. Don’t draw my eyebrows on too dark. I’ll scare small children.” I’m certain the producer was wondering what in the world was going on in the Green Room.
Two years ago I spent the day with Gloria Allred. The studio called the night before and asked if I could do an early live shot for a female. It was the night crew and they seldom give me details, so I accepted and went with it. When I arrived that morning I kept hearing everyone say “Gloria” and there was this energy in the room as if someone more famous than usual was about to arrive. I thought to myself, “There’s no way it’s Gloria Allred. That would be amaz…” and in walked Gloria Allred. I wish I could remember her signature lipstick shade, but I’ve forgotten by now. It was MAC and she’s not afraid of bright colors. And in case you’re wondering, she’s strong and powerful and badass, but she’s also a really cool person.
I’ve never been one of those people who wears a jersey on game days or follows a team. I don’t get excited about any sport in particular, although I did actually play field hockey in junior high. But when you do makeup for a celebrity sports writer as cool as Bomani Jones, you start to learn a few things, even when you think you didn’t have it in you to care. I started doing Bomani’s makeup around the time I invested in my first airbrush, and my second. In fact, I worked with Bo so much that our time together put me through Esthetician School.
We met 3 times a week, sometimes 4 around lunchtime so that I could get him camera-ready for ESPN’s “Around the Horn. It was then I learned exactly how much preparation goes into the execution of those shows. First there was a lengthy conference call to debrief the panelists on topics, then there was the actual show taping. And if something went wrong, there were re-shoots. I could always tell when Bo was running late. The show only shot the panelists from mid-torso up, so at times he’d wear sweatpants with a suit or dressy sweater up top. In the winter months he’d usually be wearing his angry birds Chullo.
I learned how cutthroat the industry is when I hired an assistant I didn’t know. I’d been using an airbrush for HD television, which was new technology in my area so it was difficult to find many makeup artists with the skill. I had 2 assistants, but one was getting busier with more and more of her own clients at a hair salon and the other needed time to take care of her child. My day job required me to teach a few classes at the time, so I needed to find replacements for the days I wasn’t able to do makeup. I found a girl who worked at Sephora and hired her simply because she knew the technology and was personable. I figured she could fill in for a day or two until I was back. Instead, she started invoicing on her own and tried to take my position with the studio. She’s probably still wondering why I don’t return her calls or respond to her emails.
Quite often I’m asked how I decided to become a makeup artist. My mother used to watch a lot of soap operas when I was a child and I was always astounded at how perfect the people in them looked. Even when they were dying in their hospital beds, their makeup was flawless. I would ride my bike to the drugstore and buy eyeshadow colors as close to a match as I could to the colors I saw on TV, then I’d come home and sit really close to the screen while I applied my drugstore loot. Hopefully, sitting that close to the TV didn’t me cause irreparable damage.
The best advice I can give anyone who wants to do what I do is:
- Find your niche and capitalize on it. All creatives have one. Know your strengths.
- Kit building is a constant process. Keep products that are consistent with the work you’re doing.
- Take advantage of industry discounts.
- Be your own biggest cheerleader. Promote yourself.
Believe you are better than you are and you will be.
- Take all the classes you can.
- Trust your instincts
- Hang out with people who inspire you.
Ann Johnson is a Programmer & Licensed Esthetician currently residing in North Carolina with her Australian Shepherd Quincy. She spends her free time making the famous & infamous camera-ready for MSNBC, Fox News, ESPN, CNN, Fox Business, etc.