"My grandmother’s brothers were all in the Marines, Navy, or Air Force, and she wanted to commemorate them. So I got Sir John—Sir John Nicholas Barnett. I’ve gone through hell for that name. You have to live up to it.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York. I remember how my mom used to put on mascara every morning, and when she left the bathroom she looked like she was gliding. I was like, ‘What is that stuff? What does that mean?’ When I got older I moved to Atlanta to go to college, but I couldn’t afford that for very long, so I dropped out. That’s when I started working for MAC. Makeup just came really naturally for me. I had the highest sales in the Southeast, and eventually they asked me to move to New York. I said OK—meanwhile, I didn't know anyone, and I had like 400 bucks in my pocket. I remembered that a friend from high school was living on 27th street, so I was like, ‘Can I sleep on your couch?’ And then one day I was on a lunch break and I ran into Yadim, a makeup artist who I worked with at MAC back in Atlanta. He was like, ‘Come to Bryant Park and do this show with Pat McGrath.’ I had no idea who she was, but I showed up, nothing to lose. After the show, Pat asked me if I wanted to come do the Italian shows with her a week later—I had a passport rushed, and that was that.
After Pat, I met Charlotte [Tilbury]. This was when the Magic Cream was just a jar with an X on it. I used to love staying after shows to see how she interacted with the press and how she would describe the look—that influenced me a lot. When I was assisting, I was making like $80 or $100 on a ten-hour day. What saved me was my night job as a makeup artist at a strip club in Queens. It was $600 cash in my pocket every single night. For two and a half years, I would shoot with Charlotte in the morning, and then go directly to the club until about 2:30AM.
The reason why I'm where I am today though, is because of models. Instagram wasn’t a thing, but Joan [Smalls] and Karlie [Kloss] and Natasha Poly were wearing my face out every day, and they became my portfolio. That’s how I landed B. At Tom Ford’s first womenswear show in 2010, Charlotte came up to me and was like, ‘You’re going to do Beyoncé.’ I remember looking up at this huge, handsome man—it was Julius [Beyoncé’s bodyguard]—and being like, ‘Hi, I think I’m supposed to go in here.’ They opened the curtain, and her back was to me, and she had all this big, beautiful gold hair that Neal Farinah had curled, one by one. She was 28 at the time, and I was too. She’s my sister, but she’s my client first. I have always prided myself on that. I still call Jay ‘Mr. Carter’ to this day, because I want to maintain that sense of respect.
I stopped doing runway and stuff like that when I got the first tour offer with Beyoncé, and I also got a contract with L’Oréal. I was the first person of color in that role ever, and now I have the longest cosmetics contract out of any makeup artist. I just re-signed with them. I also signed with Streeters, so I went from being Pat McGrath’s assistant to being at the same agency as her. I listen to these videos by Esther Hicks where she talks about vibrational alignment, and I really feel like I’ve built my whole career around that. In my business, I make believe everything before it comes true. It could be a cup of coffee, it could be a parking spot, it could be a million dollar contract—whatever you spend emotional attention on is your reality. When I didn't have anything going on, I would get up and go to my desk every morning at 8AM anyway. Now I’m literally seeing the dream that was so far in front of me just a few years ago.
I’m a super firm believer in eating things that impact your complexion. Back in the ‘90s, everyone had acne. If you survey the people you see throughout the day, there aren’t people with acne like there used to be because now we’re so concerned with what we ingest, you know? Yeah, a good moisturizer helps, a good foundation helps, but if you can do the groundwork first with your diet, you're going to have bomb skin without it. I have a juicer, but I live near this place called Earthbar in LA that’s addictive. And I always carry hemp oil or GNC flaxseed oil, because it’s like moisturizer for your heart and your arteries. If you take prescription pills, or drink a lot of coffee, you need to protect your heart.
First thing, as soon as I get up in the morning, I open all the blinds. I need light, and I love the sun. But sun is not good for anybody—it doesn’t matter what complexion you have. So, whatever I do to my face, I do the same to my scalp, including SPF. The one-two punch for anti-aging is hyaluronic acid and vitamin C—a really potent one, if you can, and make sure the bottle is not clear because you don’t want it to oxidize. I do a vitamin C serum by L’Oréal, and their hyaluronic moisturizer. Sometimes vitamin C can make you sun sensitive though, so if it’s a super sunny day, I’ll just go for a water-based moisturizer on its own. There’s another moisturizer by this scientist Dr. Augustinus Bader, and I love it. He actually created it to heal the skin after a burn. Then at night I cleanse with the Tatcha cleanser, or if I did TV and I have makeup on, this MAC Cleansing Oil gets everything off. I do believe in toners—you can’t just use an acne wash and think you’re good to go. If the pH of your skin is unbalanced, it’s like using Tide on your complexion. So SK-II has a great one, and Tatcha also has a good water essence. And I’m also a chemical guy—Ren has a really good lactic acid, and I have the Rodial Glycolic Drops, too. I also use UFO by Sunday Riley. Oh my God. I’ve never been an oil person, ever. But this UFO oil is actually an acne treatment. I used it, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really the shit.’
I also love vampire facials, or PRP microneedling. I do it three or four times a year. Once I did PRP right before going backstage for Beyoncé. My face looked reorganized, right? I looked like beef carpaccio. I remember Mr. Carter came up to me covering his mouth like, ‘What happened?’ [Laughs] But I knew my skin was going to be bomb in the end. You look in the mirror four or five days later and your skin is so much thicker, and the skin around your eyes is tighter when you squint. It’s God’s gift—I love it.
My philosophy on makeup is to do a sheer tint everywhere, and then full coverage wherever needed. I think we can dial down the coverage in general, and not lacquer ourselves from forehead to chin. When I was doing American Beauty Star they were filming me from all angles, so now I put a little foundation on the back of my head. People of color tend to have uneven pigmentation, so I’ll use a little RCMA cream in a pot to make sure you don’t see that. I use that for B onstage, too. I have a lot of brushes, and they’re usually everywhere. This is just one set, from Smith brushes. And when I do people’s makeup, I pop this on, Age Perfect Cell Renewal. It’s a moisturizer with a rosy tone, and it melts the blush into the complexion. Everything just becomes organically beautiful.
I wish I had bigger, bushier brows, so sometimes I use Black Glossier Boy Brow gel. On myself I’m never going to use a highlighter, but I take SPF and hit the temples. It’s so light-reflective, and it gives you a really sexy kind of glow. I use Prevage by Elizabeth Arden eye cream on my lips, because the skin on your eyes and the skin on your lips are similar. If you wear matte lipsticks—I don’t, but if you do—you don’t want to use them over a lip balm like Carmex or Chapstick because the texture will change. Eye cream conditions and softens, but it also sinks in. If you’re not wearing lipstick, you can lock it in with a balm if you want. Or, Brush Beauty Balm has a lip oil that’s really good to lock in cream on your eyes and lips.
So many makeup artists have the luxury of working with women for editorials where the most they’re doing is jumping in the air for a photo. But the women I’m working with are active. They move, they’re powerful, and they push the needle. I was working with Serena [Williams] for Glamour, and every ball she hit was thunder. Then you’ve got B doing cardio onstage for two and a half hours—I needed a product that could perform to that. Alleven is a body spray that gives you a little veil of perfection, but you can sleep in white sheets and it won’t transfer. For me, it was a game changer.
Body care is really important for me. I’ve been getting laser hair removal for two years on my scalp, because I don’t want to see any discoloration where the hair would grow in. I love it. Whenever I do need to shave, I have an Andis clipper—I’ve been using these guys since I was in high school. I like coconut oil for the body, and I’m a Palmer’s Cocoa Butter kind of guy. I love the smell—I remember I was at the gym and someone was like, ‘Is that cocoa butter?’ Like it was a bad thing. Yes, motherfucker, it is cocoa butter! [Laughs]
The one thing I overlooked in my 20s was dental. I was covering my mouth when I laughed, I was hiding my teeth and I wasn’t even aware of it. This is so embarrassing to say, but from the age of 19 to like 31 I didn’t go to the dentist. I couldn’t afford it—that was elective, that was a luxury. There was a point where I had a cracked tooth in the back and two nerves exposed at one time. I finally found this amazing dentist in LA, Dr. Kevin Sands. I got them all done—24 in one day. No one talks about it, but it was the most painful experience of my life. I got the teeth put in, and the next day I had to be in New York with Joan [Smalls] for the Met Ball. Dr. Sands was like, ‘You cannot fly tonight.’ I was like, ‘OK,’ but I got on my way to the airport anyway. I threw up in the car twice, and threw up in the airplane, but I made it.
In some form or another I have a rose fragrance always around. Diptyque Rose is the base of my life. It’s so classic, you know? I’ll take some of that, and I’ll mix that with some Ambre Nuit by Dior which smells like when you walk into the Four Seasons. That hotel smell. Or New Look, which is sexy and a little sweeter. I’m a huge fan of creating a custom job."
—as told to ITG
Sir John photographed by Alexandra Genova in New York on February 28, 2019.