Celebrity makeup artist Sir John on working with Beyoncé and mentoring on new Lifetime show, America Beauty Star
Imagine being thisclose to Beyoncé’s face and not hyperventilating. Not only has makeup artist Sir John mastered the art of staying serene when in the presence of the Queen, he’s created absolutely ***Flawless looks for her for the past seven years. As if collaborating with Bey for red carpet appearances, tours, and two visual albums hasn’t kept his schedule busy enough, Sir John has also managed to amass an impressive celebrity clientele (from Priyanka Chopra and Karlie Kloss to Joan Smalls and Serena Williams), partnered with L’Oréal Paris, and most recently added another major job to his resmué – mentor on Lifetime’s new beauty competition series American Beauty Star. To celebrate the show’s premiere, we caught up with him to discuss everything from his biggest influences to Instagram filters, and of course, life on the run with Mrs. Carter.
Take us back to the moment you knew you wanted to be a professional makeup artist?
“I had been doing makeup at counters for years, but when I met Pat [McGrath] and I saw the range of where it could go, that’s when I started to take it seriously.”
How was the industry different then?
“Then, there was no Instagram! So how I got popular was girls would get photographed in the looks I had created after fashion shows.”
Now over 175,000 people follow you on Instagram! Sidenote: If you could only use one Instagram filter, what would it be?
“Juno because it gives you a bit of brightness in the center of your face so its like faux contour.”
Who was your first celebrity client?
“Naomi Campbell. I met her during my first Paris Fashion Week, and next thing I knew, I was getting called to go do her makeup at her hotel! I remember all of it being so new to me. I was like, ‘Okay, there’s no train back. This is business.'”
Of all the makeup looks you’ve created, what are some of your personal favorites?
“I loved when Joan [Smalls] did a big, denim smoky eye for the 2015 CFDA Awards, and when she did a purple lip a few years ago for the 2014 Met Gala. Those were so fun. She’s like a makeup artist in her head, so she’ll send me Pinterest images or like YouTube clips or Instagram images.”
You assisted makeup guru Charlotte Tilbury. What’s the best beauty tip she ever taught you?
“More than makeup, she taught me how to sort of tap into a woman’s psychology and understand how she wants to feel — that it’s not so much where she’s going, or what she’s wearing, or what her hair looks like, but what her aura is when she comes in the room. Is it heavy? Is she in a good place? It’s all about what you don’t have to say to your client. Now, I can read the girls who are my clients when they come in immediately. I can tell if it’s gonna be a lip day, if it’s gonna be a statement eye day, if its just gonna be a liner and individual lashes and leave her alone day. That non-verbal communication you have with your clients is what keeps you in the business a long time.”
What was the moment that you became a household name?
“I don’t think I am a household name — yet — but I think everyone started to know me when Beyoncé’s first visual album came out. We were touring while we shot it and we would have five a.m. call times, wrap at 5 p.m., and then drive directly to the stadium in South America or Australia or New Zealand or wherever we were. When it came out, everyone had a new appreciation for what I do. But I still feel like I have such a long way to go.”
What was your very first encounter with Queen Bey herself like?
“I met her at Tom Ford’s first womenswear show in 2010. Charlotte [Tilbury] introduced me to her, and was like, ‘I’m not gonna do her makeup, you’re gonna do her makeup.’ And I kind of freaked out! When I saw her for the first time, I thought, ‘you’re a real person. Oh my God, this is crazy.’ We’re the same age and I think we hit it off that day — but I always kept a really strong separation from my clients — I think that distance gives you longevity. I don’t think, ‘this is my friend.’ Even if I have been at parties that she invited me to, if I happen to have one glass of wine too many, I am slipping out the side door. I don’t want my client to see my tipsy. It’s about a level of respect.”
And here we are!
“Here we are, seven years later. I think that she has been a huge blessing in my life. And I love her son’s name!”
Speaking of Bey’s beautiful brood, you’ve also “worked” with Blue Ivy for the MTV Video Music Awards!
“I gave her a little lip balm. I have a kit for her, so I’ve become like the candy man!”
What’s your most requested Bey beauty look?
The 2017 Grammys. Everyone sort of still references that. It got the most eyes for some reason. For me this year, I think that was one of the most impactful things that I did, work-wise.
How do you approach her tour makeup?
“I looked at every show as my own personal editorial. I had a Pinterest folder full of looks for different cities we would go to. Like when we were in South America I was going to do this whole Bianca Jagger moment, and then when we went to another country I just wanted to make her look like Diana Ross. And she would be like, ‘do what you want.’ And in those times that’s where we bonded on tour. Because you see so much stuff happening. We were on tour and seeing so many things on the news, like killing, after killing, after killing of black guys by the cops. You come into work heavy. So during hair and makeup became the time that we would talk about what hurts us about society and the world we live in. And the next thing we know, she came out with “Formation“, which was so much like what was going on around us at the time.”
Now, you’re transitioning from behind the scenes to in front of the camera in Lifetime’s American Beauty Star. What can we expect from the show?
“Well, one thing I love about the show is Adriana Lima. She’s really fun and has a great laugh. We’re actually completely opposite: I’m a little bit more calm and reserved and she is high energy. But also, I love the fact that this show is not just about who does amazing hair or makeup, it’s about the person’s personality and whether it shines through. To anyone who wants to be a hairstylist or makeup artist: You’re not in the business for hair or makeup, your in the business of people. You’re the last person your client sees before he or she walks on the runway or sings in front of millions of people, so your energy should be infectious. It should be something that can create vibrations. So that was something we were looking for in the contestants as well.”
Did you learn anything about yourself while filming?
“I saw a lot of my younger self in the contestants in that moment of wanting to just be great. So I’m learning that, wow, they wanna be here, but I’m not happy just being here right now. I have so much more I want to do. I’m looking at Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty release, and all these other things, and being inspired. When you think you’re at the mountain top, you gotta keep going. You can’t stay there. But also, I need to stop sometimes and smell the roses because I’m always looking at next, next, what’s happening next, what’s happening tomorrow. In this industry, if you haven’t done a cover in the last month, people are looking at you like you’re slipping. So, just having a sense of calm and not thinking that I need to run, run, run on the treadmill like a gerbil, too.”
What do you count as some of your proudest moments of your career so far?
“One of the best things that has ever happened was getting a contract with L’Oréal Paris. That changed my life, I would say. Also meeting Beyoncé and getting that call back from her. And the show is so cool. I’m on a TV show! And then, just being able to give back to my mom. She sacrificed so much for all of us just to live our dreams, and I’ll always be forever in debt to her because she was my OG. She was my Beyoncé before I had Beyoncé. My mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.”
What is your message to other artists out there?
“I think the new generation of artists in the world we live in now, we don’t have the luxury of just doing beautiful makeup or doing beautiful hair. There is such a social and emotional connection that we have to have with our work that you have to be deeper than people ever previously were. You have to have that substance.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.