“I still love my stripper homegirls and I revere them just as much as I do Beyoncé,” explains the makeup artist Sir John on the phone from Los Angeles, just before jetting to New York for fashion week. Sir John, who also works as a L’Oréal Paris Ambassador and mentor on the American Beauty Star television show, got his start like a number of celebrity makeup artists, in the strip club.
At the beginning of his career in the early 2000s, Sir John was hard up for money. “I was an editorial assistant making only $50 a day and living in New York City, so money was tight and times were tough,” he says. He got a call from a friend who worked at Rivera’s Gentlemen’s Club in Queens: the dancers there needed help getting stage-ready. "I started doing makeup on the girls and one thing led to another and we hit it off. It felt like a really safe space, so I got the job,” he says.
Nam Vo and Tatiana Ward, who work with Kylie Jenner and Nicki Minaj respectively, also started out working strip clubs. Working those late nights, they picked up the kind of skills that big-time celebrities look for in a makeup artist: speed, ingenuity, and an understanding of the tricky, symbiotic relationship between stage lights and skin. Doing lashes in under sixty seconds and covering up bruises from pole dancing might be the perfect preparation for making Beyoncé stage-ready for Coachella or Nicki Minaj look gorgeous during a world tour.
"I would start at around 4:30 because the doors open at 5PM, and that’s for the dinner crowd, and I wouldn’t get off until sometimes 5 in the morning."
Vo, who works with Chrissy Teigen as well as Jenner, also had a friend who needed a makeup assist before hitting the pole. In Vo’s words, it’s her “come up story.” She moved to New York in 2009 during the economic crisis and couldn’t find a job anywhere. “I met a friend and he mentioned he was making six figures doing makeup at Penthouse Gentlemen’s Club,” explains Vo. “At the time, Penthouse had just bought out Scores Gentlemen’s & Steakhouse, so he set me up for an audition to do hair and makeup.” While Vo ultimately didn't make it as a hairdresser (there was an unfortunate hair-burning incident), the makeup part stuck, and she worked at Scores and Penthouse for two years.
Ward, makeup artist to the rapper Minaj and singer Brandy, took the same route to the strip club. She drove a dancer friend to audition on her 18th birthday and was hired to do makeup on the spot. “I did makeup for free for the girls who were popular to gain their trust,” says Ward. “In hindsight, the makeup that I was doing was awful but [the Instagram full face] was the booming makeup trend, and the girls started asking me to do their makeup for payment.”
Strip clubs might be glamorized in the new movie Hustlers, but Sir John, Vo, and Ward put in hard hours there to subsidize the low-paying editorial work they landed during the day. “I would start at around 4:30 because the doors open at 5PM, and that’s for the dinner crowd, and I wouldn’t get off until sometimes 5 in the morning,” Vo said. “We would have to wait for last call and for everybody to pay out.” At least there was some money on the other side: “For a full face it was $30, just eyes was $20, and for a lash and line it was $10,” says Ward. “If you wanted to buy the lashes off me, it was an extra $5.”
“You can be a great makeup artist, but editors don’t want to see you taking a lot of time."
But they also picked up skills that would transfer to the world of celebrity makeup. They learned to interact with more diverse women and facial types than are commonly found in the fashion industry: “Every single girl wanted a wing line and I had to learn to do it quickly on just about every eye shape,” says Ward. “A lot of interns and makeup assistants don’t necessarily have to worry about income because of their families, says Sir John. “Thinking about socioeconomic diversity is just as important as cultural diversity.”
They learned to work fast: “You’ve got to have speed,” says Sir John. “You can be a great makeup artist, but editors don’t want to see you taking a lot of time on a look. Similarly, celebrities don't have time to sit down. I got [fast] at the strip club because listen, we got 30 or 40 girls wanting to hit the floor at the same time.”
They also learned to work with harsh lighting: Celebrities are hit with camera lenses and unforgiving stage lights regularly. “Before there was a Coachella, before I was with Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, I was with strippers at a club and I knew how lighting could affect makeup,” says Sir John. Stars also perform in the dark, and “there are two things that you won't find in a strip club: a clock or a window,” says Ward. “I would do heavier makeup to account for that.” (The only thing forbidden? Glitter, says Vo.)
And they acquired better people skills, which would become crucial for handling stressed-out celebrity clients. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Beyonce or you know, Marlene Dietrich, or a stripper, trust is important,” explains Sir John. “It’s about creating a safe space so someone can let their guard down and emotionally put her handbag down when she feels like she can trust you. And I’m never going to breach that trust, which is how it kind of started in the strip club.” To this day, Sir John still keeps in touch with the dancers he met in the clubs. He’s attended college graduations—a stripper cliché if there ever was one—and has even brought his celebrity clientele back to Rivera’s. “I brought Cassie to the club and all of my girls came and hung out with us backstage and it was just a fun thing,” says Sir John. “Working at the strip club made me realize whether you’re a stripper, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, or a 60-year-old retired lady who lives next door, everybody wants to be seen,” says Vo.
“They twerked me to Europe.”
For Sir John, the strip club even propelled him towards the next phase of his career when the women of Rivera’s gave him a jar of 2,000 dollars in singles to send him to Milan Fashion Week. “They twerked me to Europe,” says Sir John. “All they said was just go and be great.”
Nevertheless, the reality of working at a strip club is just that: reality. Beneath the lights, heels, outfits, and lashes is a breeding ground for misogyny and drug abuse. They were also filled with people trying to move onto bigger things: celebrity makeup artists or college graduate. Lashes and love go a long way.
Photo via STXflims.