By: Yasmeen Amjad
June 23rd, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
A new hairdo and freshly done makeup can change someone’s entire attitude, help them put their best foot forward and boost their confidence. In the case of actors in Hollywood, hair and makeup can be the difference between a great performance and a mediocre one. But there’s an easy fix for this issue: start hiring more Black hair and makeup artists.
For years, Black celebrities have walked into trailers prepared to be disappointed by the hair and makeup team provided for them. Teams that are predominantly White may not be trained or reluctant to learn how to work with textured hair and deeper skin tones. Black actors end up having to do their own hair and makeup or bring in their own team of artists.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Natasha Rothwell, known for working on the show “Insecure,” says, “There’s nothing [more] dehumanizing than sitting in a hair and makeup chair and watching your co-stars go through the works and leave, and you’re still there because someone’s moving very slowly because they’re scared.”
This is about more than just hair. It’s an issue of alienation and making Black actors feel like they are the problem and an industry wide issue that has resulted from years of exclusionary acts, nepotism and gatekeeping. One reason this happens is the difficulty of joining the Make-Up Artists & Hairstylists Guild.
Chartered in 1937, the Make-Up Artists & Hairstylists Guild is a labor union that represents make-up artists and hairstylists in film, television and theatrical productions. The union has been a great resource for those lucky enough to be accepted into it, being one of the first places producers and hiring staff go to when finding a beauty team. However, entry into this establishment is highly difficult for some.
Jamika Wilson, a professional makeup artist, says in an interview with NBC News that “the union will deny even the most qualified applicants on technicalities. Union membership requires either 60 days of nonunion work in the industry for three of the last five years or 30 days of union work in the last year.” Though this sounds easy enough, there is a catch: this work must be done entirely within one production. In other words, the artist’s hours cannot be split between multiple jobs.
Additionally, the guild is predominantly White, making entry for Black artists and other artists of color more difficult. When talking to The Hollywood Reporter, Black actress Laci Mosley says “a lot of the people who spend the most time with black and brown skin find it difficult to get these opportunities because the [unionized] makeup and hair industry is nepotistic in nature. Friends are hiring friends, and when it’s an overwhelmingly White industry, nine times out of 10, those people’s friends are White as well.”
Because the majority of its members are White, not only are opportunities for artists inherently insufficient , but the chance to learn how to style hair of different textures and do makeup for deeper skin tones are limited as well. Members of the union are confined to practicing on or working with other members in the union, who are primarily White. According to an article from The Hollywood Reporter, the chances for learning only decrease as the union cannot legally require the enrollment in courses geared towards textured hair or darker complexions.
Beyond that, regulations on the industry require producers to hire artists who are registered in the union. In an interview with Allure, Rhonda O’Neal, an Emmy-nominated hairstylist, says, “the producers do the hiring, but their hands are tied. If you pull somebody in who’s not in the union, that’s a red flag and it could be a fine.”
The opportunity to work as an artist within this industry seems to follow a pattern. One either gets into the field by way of the labor unions, or by meeting the right people who can get them work. At the end of the day, connections are the name of the game, which is the case for Monica Lusk, a Black and transgender hairstylist, and makeup artist Seven Moore, both of whom work in film and television.
Moore found himself learning from his idols like Sam Fine, Reggie Wells and Kevyn Aucoin, and later put his acquired skills to the test by working with photographers to create prints of his work for his portfolio. He later met Shannon Thompson, a department head for hair and makeup in New York City, who got him his first job as a makeup artist on a movie set. “She brought me in as a key as opposed to an assistant artist, so that really showed me the business around being in a straight line, running a department,” Moore says.
Lusk, on the other hand, began her journey doing hair for beauty pageants and owning two hair salons when a friend in the industry encouraged her to try working in film and television. “I actually came in and I started doing background [makeup artist and hair assistants] … my third week after doing background I ended up getting a spot in the trailer, and I came in as a third. … So, it moved really fast for me,” Lusk says.
Though their entry into the world of Hollywood may have been swift and a great experience overall, it has not been without its own set of challenges. Moore, for example, was the only Black and gay makeup artist when he began working and putting his portfolio together. He says, “I was the first of so many things at such a young age. I didn’t know there was such a thing as ‘code switching.’ I just knew that the Mississippi me couldn’t hang with the Tennessee me.”
In order to navigate the industry, Moore “had to know how to integrate into these new surroundings.” Doing someone’s makeup was now more than just getting “dolled up” for a night out; it was about working with brand names, such as Laura Mercier and Chanel, and making sure clients looked their best for the red carpet or a pivotal scene in the newest feature film. It was about making others feel comfortable and being able to interact with them.
Similar to Seven Moore, Lusk never saw people like her. “I’ve been to a lot of sets, you know, just doing background or day clean, and I never technically saw anyone of trans experience like myself,” she says. Because of the lack of diversity among artists in the industry, Lusk felt she needed to be a trailblazer for trans, specifically Black trans artists, in the field.
Being the only people like them in their field made the two work harder to prove themselves capable of working in the industry, open doors for others and change the perspectives of their clients, specifically clients from a White and privileged background. Black actors and artists have to work much harder to prove that they are capable of doing the same work their White counterparts do.
Because Hollywood’s hair and makeup industry is so exclusionary, it’s not uncommon for Black talent to bring makeup kits to set or bring in their own artists to do their hair and makeup in a flattering way. Cynthia Erivo, an Oscar-nominated actor, reveals to NBC News that she often had to fix her hair and makeup after a White artist worked with her or told her that her “‘hair looks lovely, we’ll just leave it like that.’ … They do the very bare minimum and really know what to do.”
Black artists in the industry have to know how to do everyone’s hair or makeup regardless of their race or ethnicity, “whereas maybe a White makeup artist is learning when she gets a Black woman,” Seven Moore says. Working with brands such as Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Laura Mercier, Moore has had to prove he can work with people of all ethnicities and skin types, especially since these brands were frequented by White customers and clients.
On the topic of working with White clients and breaking expectations, Monica Lusk says she “[wants] to change your whole mindset, because I think a lot of people, what they don’t understand is that hair is hair, it’ll do what you make it do whether you’re Black or White.”
Lusk had to prove her talents when a White celebrity walked into the hair and makeup trailer with a team of artists prepared to watch her work. Rather than be defensive, Lusk took this as an opportunity to change the actor’s perspective.
“She sat in the chair and I didn’t ask her any questions, or anything, I just started doing her hair. .. I turned her away from the mirror on purpose and when I turned her back after I was done she told her hair stylist that she was going to fly him back and she was just going to go ahead and use me,” Lusk says.
Experiences like this make artists, such as Lusk and Moore, think to themselves, “If I were not in this skin, you would just trust me and go along with it,” Seven Moore says.
When they’re not combating stereotypes in their work, Black artists and stylists receive the opposite reaction when a Black actor walks into the hair and makeup trailer. “We get a lot of [Black] actors that come into the trailer and they see us and they’re like ‘Whoo, oh my god! I feel so good to be wrapped in the arms of people that I know know my hair,” Seven Moore says.
Having representation on set can change the entire experience of crew and cast members. In the case of hair and makeup, it can change a cast member’s worry about their makeup looking ashy or their curls lacking moisture and definition. Instead of worrying about how they look, they can focus on their performance and have the confidence to do so because they know their appearance isn’t holding them back.
Despite their struggles, Black hair stylists and makeup artists are pushing forward and opening doors for others. Companies such as the Black Beauty Roster, which works towards creating more equity in the industry, are being created. Even the hair craft president of the Make-Up Artists & Hairstylists Guild, Rhonda O’Neal, has established a school known as Beyond the Combs Academy, which aims to offer “relationship-building opportunities for aspiring talent as well as training for hairstylists who want to learn how to work on all types of hair, especially textured hair,” as shared in an article with Allure.
Though the beginnings have been difficult, the future looks bright for people of color makeup artists and hair stylists working for film and television as actors request their presence, companies focused on diversity are established and more diverse films and shows are created.
Yasmeen (Yazzy) Amjad is a senior pursuing degrees in psychology and professional and public writing. She hopes to use her knowledge of rhetoric and psychology to effectively edit and write stories. Yazzy is passionate about all forms of storytelling. In her free time, she enjoys baking, watching movies and TV shows, listening to podcasts, and reading for hours on end.