About two weeks ago, I took the opportunity to meet up with blogger and makeup artist, Meli Pennington of Wild Beauty.
You may laugh, but I’ve actually been toying with the idea of becoming a makeup artist!
Before actually giving it serious consideration, I thought it would be best to first have a chat with a real makeup artist on what it’s like to be one.
Meli Pennington first caught my attention through her blog, Wild Beauty.
You will find, as I did, that her writings on beauty and culture are incredibly eloquent, thoughtful and intelligent.
This is someone who’s worked in the beauty industry for a long time. And it’s obvious she knows what she’s talking about.
The day that we met, it was rainy and I was rushing up the sidewalks of Soho.
Arriving at the Starbucks on the corner of Houston and W Broadway, I was un-fashionably late for our rendezvous. Meli’s first comments to me were on the importance of punctuality. My first observation was, this lady is a real deal New York career woman.
Meli has had over 20 years experience working in makeup for fashion editorial, commercial advertising photo shoots, and television productions.
She trained under makeup legend and Shiseido Creative Director Dick Page and has worked with many top editorial photographers and magazines including Vogue, Teen Vogue, Elle and Allure. Her impressive client list can be seen on her portfolio site, melipennington.com.
When we met, Meli was wearing a simple black dress and surprisingly, very little makeup. Just a touch of rouge on the lips.
The understated manner of her appearance contrasted colorfully with her dynamic personality.
She struck me as someone who is incredibly driven. And whose diverse experiences has lent her much knowledge and confidence.
[Meli Pennington, professional makeup artist and blogger of Wild Beauty]
Our lively conversation took us to a lot of different places.
From the cattiness of people in fashion, to the regular practice of re-touching photos to navigating the thorny tangles of social media.
I was especially interested to hear about her experiences as a makeup artist.
Our conversation became an eye-opener into a world that I knew next to nothing about.
Q&A With Meli Pennington
Q: Growing up, you weren’t allowed to wear makeup. Why not?
Meli: I was in Catholic school so the nuns were strict and my family was very conservative. So I wasn’t allowed to wear it.
Q: When were you finally allowed to be yourself?
Meli: When I was a majorette, I was a baton twirler in high school and during my first game, I put visible makeup on. My mom looked at me and said, “Are you wearing makeup?” I said, “Mom, you have to.” And she said, “Well… I guess you’re old enough.” So that was out of the closet.
Q: Then you went to university. How did you start getting into makeup?
Meli: I played around with it. I did makeup for a student movie in school and for some fashion shows at the mall.
Q: How did you put yourself out there at the beginning?
Meli: I just told people. Somebody knew me and said, “We’re doing this fashion show.” And I said, “Oh, I can do the makeup!” I just kind of talked to people. Then when I graduated from college, I was living in Boston and I realized I had to get a job. But there was no job that I wanted. And it wasn’t really considered a job then. Being a makeup artist was kind of like a weird thing.
Q: What time period was this? 80s?
Meli: Late 80s.
Q: I read your article on Way Bandy. I thought he was so inspiring. Would you say the 80s decade was the rise of the makeup artists?
Meli: There had always been makeup artists in Hollywood. But in fashion, a lot of times, they would just go to a salon and get it done or they would do it themselves. It just wasn’t organized in the same way.
Q: Were there no beauty schools for makeup? What was it like back then?
Meli: Makeup is a thing now but back then it was different. It was all general. When I went to beauty school, it was mostly hair, some skin, some nails and some makeup. And they would say stuff to me about makeup that even then I knew was wrong.
Q: Like what?
Meli: They told me, anyone can do the natural look. I was like, no they can’t (laughing). Then I went on to assist Dick Page who was the natural look guru.
Q: So going back to how you got started as a makeup artist, how did you decide this was what you wanted to do?
Meli: I actually wanted to be a creative director of a cosmetics company. They design the colors and the advertising. They’re involved in all of it, makeup, this that and the other. But nobody could tell me how to do that. You had no information. So people were just like, what? You want to do this job that only 3 french guys do? It wasn’t a job that people had. I thought, well I don’t know how to do that. But if I was a makeup artist I would be closer, maybe I would learn something.
Q: And then?
Meli: So I actually went to a photo school and put up a sign offering to do makeup. And then I got pictures. I moved here (New York) with those pictures. By that time, I had met this guy who was a model scout, and he was a little scammy. But he had worked in the industry, scouting models. So he gave me the number of a modeling agency, New Faces. They would give you photographer’s names and you would go and test with their models. And that’s what I did. I came here with a couple of phone numbers and a book of pictures from Boston.
Q: What is your specialty in makeup?
Meli: I do fashion and photography.
Q: Do you like to do creative, experimental type of makeup?
Meli: I don’t really do wild wild makeup. There’s definitely a realism to what I do. I like pretty, that’s just how I think about it.
Q: What is your advice for people who want to go into makeup?
Meli: The thing that I tell students who want to do makeup is to have something else that meshes with makeup. Because after people get out of makeup school, they’re like, what do I do now? There’s a few people who make it full on. But those people at the top have no life.
Q: What is your advice for someone like me, who’s still considering all the different options in the beauty industry, like skincare, makeup, hair, etc.?
Meli: My gut feeling is that if you don’t follow fashion magazines, photography, and stuff… makeup’s better for getting a job in a store. Especially if you want to have a retail business, you’re gonna need experience so you can do that. If you want to have a salon business, having that esthetician license is a way to do makeup and make money. I mean a good esthetician can make as much money as a doctor. It just depends, you’re really gonna have to think about it. Do I want to be a makeup artist and sit around unemployed for long stretches of time hoping I get a chance to paint someone’s face, or do I want to work in a store and wear my feet out, or do I want to work in a salon and squeeze people’s pimples? You know?
Q: What’s been your favorite aspect of being a makeup artist?
Meli: Well, there’s two things. The first is that I get paid to make something beautiful. And making things more beautiful makes me happy. The second is that I’ve gone to so many places, even within New York city, like billionaires’ duplexes in Park Avenue and abandoned mansions and mining towns and all these weird places and things about the world that you would never get to see while working in an office.
Q: What’s been your least favorite aspect of being a makeup artist?
Meli: You never grow up. There’s no title, so when you get to a certain age you’re still a makeup artist. You tell people that you’re a makeup artist and they’re like, what, you work at a Bloomingdale’s? I’m like, no. I’m a real makeup artist (laughing). The other thing is that you’re always dependent on other people to give you work. You never get to create your own work. It’s nice when you’re in you’re 20s but at a certain point, it’s nice to not be dependent on someone’s whim or waiting for someone to call you.
Q: Other important considerations for people who want to become makeup artist?
Meli: If you’re looking for stability, it’s not stable. Not in any way. Unless, maybe if you find you have a talent in prosthetics and you go into movies, you start getting into that department. But it’s not like someone who’s building up a clientele at a skincare salon, they’re going to have more stability. It’s a craft, like doing hair. If you do a good job, people come back. But with makeup, you might do a wedding, but how many people get married every 6 weeks? Nobody. It’s important to consider where your clientele and where your repeat clients are going to come form.
The flow of our conversation happened a lot more naturally and spontaneously than depicted in this write-up.
Looking back on our interview, there are so many other questions that I would have liked to ask Meli.
But in general, I definitely got the sense that half of the work of being a makeup artist is spent looking for work.
As someone who is seeking stability, I would say maybe this is not the career path for me.
Maybe I will lean more towards a focus on esthetics and skincare. Which has already begun to be my specialty, anyway.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still interested in improving my makeup skills.
I would still consider attending a program that will allow me to do this.
[A sunny stroll together in Washington Square, NY]
I would like to thank Meli for taking the time to have this sit down chat with me!
When the rain finally let up and the sun began to filter through the clouds, we took a stroll around Washington Square and continued to chat away about her future projects.
Meli has begun to move away from makeup and dedicate her energy towards producing a Beauty TV talk show!
I look forward to following the development of her projects and seeing where they will lead her.
I will leave you now with some Wild Beauty Blog Highlights that I’ve picked out:
1) Beautiful People: Way Bandy
2) A Week Without Mirrors: My Space vs Their Space
3) The Future Is Now: 3 Predictions For Your Skincare Routine
4) Beautiful People: Hedy Lamarr
5) The French Beauty Secret Magazines Won’t Write About
I also love tuning in for Wild Beauty’s Beauty Bytes.
It’s a great way to keep up with recent beauty developments and fascinating tidbits about the beauty world.
This was the very first interview I’ve conducted on Ziba! And I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.
Did you learn anything about being a makeup artist that surprised you?