The term “makeup artist” could have been invented for the sole province of MICA alumnus Reggie Wells ’71, the speaker at December’s commencement ceremony. Revered by many as the dean of the profession, his clientele reads like the roll of A-list celebrities at a Hollywood gala: Oprah. Beyoncé. Whitney Houston. Aretha Franklin. Brooke Shields. Mary J. Blige. Lil’ Kim. He’s won an Emmy award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup in addition to being nominated four times.
Wells created the look we associate with some of the world’s most recognizable faces, from Halle Berry to first lady Michelle Obama. And he is setting the bar yet again with the U.S. launch of the Hissyfit cosmetics line, for which Wells is international creative director. Though not in the way that he originally planned, Wells has nonetheless become a fashion pioneer, and he credits a large part of his success to MICA.
Wells grew up in Baltimore as one of seven siblings. When he entered high school in the 1960s, “firsts” by African Americans were yet to come in many areas. One of those areas was the fashion industry, where black men were practically non-existent, as a school counselor pointed out to him.
Fortunately, Wells had a serious problem being told he couldn’t do something.
He enrolled at MICA, pursing art education. And there lay the root of his success.
“What I learned from MICA was, no matter who you are, art is art,” Wells recalled. “Whether you’re the young Asian that comes from Japan, whether you’re the African who comes from South Africa, whether you’re the local kid who lives down the block-we all have something to express. That’s what MICA did. It gave us an opportunity to express.”
He found himself learning from everybody, including many who thought differently, both culturally and creatively. It was, he says, a process of growing up artistically, and every day was like taking his “first step.”
After graduating from MICA, he went to work in the Baltimore City Public Schools system. Frustrated by the prescribed, outdated curriculum, he proceeded to create his own based on what he learned at MICA-forcing his students to think outside the box and to defend their work. He also employed, as a central rule, something else that he learned at MICA-that “art is everything.”
Eventually, his inner-city art class evolved into an interdisciplinary experience as his students studied drawing, painting, cinema, modeling, and fashion. His unconventional approach to education, initially viewed as controversial, eventually led to teaching awards.
Because Baltimore’s art-focused high schools had yet to be built, Wells felt as if he had to do everything himself, which was both a blessing and a curse. If his students put on a fashion show, for example, he had to do set design, modeling coaching-and makeup. And that makeup skill, born out of simple necessity, became the basis for his extraordinary success. While working with his models, Wells realized that applying makeup to a face was like painting a picture on a canvas.
Although he was making a difference as an art teacher, he still harbored a desire to work in the fashion industry. One day, Wells was simply calling roll and, out of nowhere, he declared to a surprised class, “I’m going to leave Baltimore, go to New York, and become famous.” They thought he was joking. He was not.
To make ends meet when he got to New York, he worked behind the beauty counter in department stores and gained experience by working with different types of women. Though the pay was so low that he almost moved back home, his reputation continued to grow.
Reggie Wells’ Essence Cover with Vanessa WilliamsFinally, a young model asked him to do the makeup for a photo shoot she had coming up. After he finished, according to Wells, the photographer said, “my God, I’ve never seen her look like this.” The photographer promptly hired Wells for a shoot two days later, which turned out to be a shoot for the famous Jordache jeans campaign of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Wells’ rise in the industry took off from there. Even though an African-American male in the cosmetics business was basically unheard of when he began to make waves in the industry, he eventually became the man that makeup companies, including Maybelline and Almay, wanted to present their products in the best light.
Though he has worked with women of all races, his work with African-American women is particularly well-known in celebrity circles. In the beginning, there weren’t many cosmetics made to cater to African-American women, so Wells had to mix colors himself to find combinations that would work.
It really hit home when someone told Wells that he applied makeup like an artist. “And that’s why I was so proud of going to MICA,” Wells said.
He believes the younger women he works with see him as a grandfather and a wise teacher, which brings him full circle back to his days in Baltimore and his training at MICA as an art educator. He remembers a young Beyoncé, for example, asking a lot of questions. “I ended up always teaching,” he said.
Wells went on to work with countless other women, including Oprah Winfrey as her personal makeup artist for more than 21 years. “Life is a circle all the time,” he said when reflecting on his relationship with Winfrey. The talk-show icon ironically didn’t take him up on his offer to do her makeup while they were both still working in Baltimore early in their careers, but she now says that Wells is “a creative mastermind who can take any woman’s eyes and lips to another level.” He’s also worked with men, doing makeup for photo shoots featuring artists such as rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs.
His career has spanned a full spectrum-from a world tour with Grammy award-winning R&B singer Lauren Hill to making up Vanessa Williams for an Essence magazine cover the week after she became the first African-American Miss America. In fact, he has made up the person on 116 covers of Essence, 120 covers of O Magazine, and dozens of other publications including Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Time, Mademoiselle, Brides, and Life.
Reggie Wells’ “Face Painting”Wells also wrote the book Face Painting to teach women how to get the most out of their makeup experience. His new array of Hissyfit products, sold everywhere from QVC to Sephora, caters to African-American, Latina, and Asian skin tones.
Though he has had success as a makeup artist, author, and entrepreneur, he still sees himself as an art teacher. “We’re teaching women how to educate themselves as consumers,” he said. He plans to do seminars across the country, giving women step-by-step tutelage on how to select products that work with their skin tones. And that, Wells believes, is art education.