If Beyoncé trusts him with her face, you know he must be good. Sir John has been a mainstay celebrity makeup artist for years. His artistry has graced the faces of not only Queen Bey but also Naomi Campbell, Gabrielle Union, Normani, and Adut Akech, among many others. With a resumé like that, you’d never know that he tried to leave the beauty industry a couple of times during his early years in makeup — that is, until a series of job changes and introductions lead to him meeting and working with Pat McGrath. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, in addition to doing makeup for his illustrious clientele, he works as a cultural adviser to brands. It’s part of how he rectifies his earlier experiences with beauty and working in an industry where he was in the room but not always a part of the conversation. “The only thing I wish for in the past is that [it] was a bit more inclusive. I was one of the only people of color working in the business [at the time],” he says of his early years doing makeup at fashion week. “I didn’t become an activist; I just kind of became activated by speaking up and talking in spaces like this about equity and about diversity and unpacking what it looks like.”
Below, NYLON talks with Sir John about his unexpected path in the makeup industry, the importance of therapy, and the Y2K beauty trends he hopes don’t make a return.
Did you have a relationship with beauty growing up?
Most of my [beauty] memories come from my mom. From seeing her put on mascara or taking care of herself. She always carved out time for a bath and made sure that we didn’t bother her. Self-care is really important and she normalized it.
My mom used to send me to the store to get her mascara for her. As a young guy, you know I would always hide it under other stuff in the basket. But another thing I remember about the early ’90s was, as a person of color, seeing that that all of our products were on the bottom shelf at the drugstore or supermarket. I was always curious why was it considered other. That’s what I talk about a lot now. I think that we’re in such a different place in terms of brand equity, but it’s new, and it’s great and inclusive.
How do you transition from being the kid who hides mascara at the bottom of your shopping cart to working in makeup?
What’s so crazy is that I tried to leave makeup a few times. I just didn't know if it was my calling. I went to school for art and art history, so I was a painter for such a long time. One day a friend asked me, “Hey, can you paint my face?” because a makeup artist had canceled for a shoot. At the time I didn’t know eye shadows from anything. I didn’t know the products, but I knew textures and color. That was the first time I got a chance to play with transformation. I saw the emotive transformative power of makeup and I was hooked. Then my first full-time job was at MAC when I was about 18.
Then what happens?
I had the highest sales in the Southeast for MAC, so they transferred me to New York with $400 to my name and nowhere to stay. I remember calling a friend and sleeping on her couch for like a month. Then I got fired for being late. But shoutout to MAC, I love those guys. They had to do what they had to do. But at the time, I felt like my life was crushed. So, I started to do windows at Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Henri Bendel. I became the men’s merchandiser for Gucci across the street. On my lunch break at Gucci, I remember meeting Yadim. He was Pat McGrath’s lead assistant at the time. He got me back into makeup.
I tried to say I don’t really do makeup anymore. But he was like, “You need to meet this woman. Her name is Pat McGrath. Come to the tents.” I said, “What are the tents?” It was Bryant Park. I got booked on a few shows, and next thing I knew I was going to Milan. Milan was my first passport stamp. My first show was Dolce & Gabbana. Then Pat took me to Prada and then they sent me to Naomi Campbell’s hotel room at the Bulgari. And when I got back and started working with Charlotte Tilbury and then Charlotte introduced me to Beyoncé in 2010, at Tom Ford’s first women’s wear show backstage.
Do you remember what the first look was that you did at Dolce & Gabbana?
I do. It was handsomely groomed brows, super fresh, radiant skin, very blush-driven, with a red lip. And then the Prada show was, it was silver lids and super, super, super dense, wide brows.
After it started to fall into place you knew you had to stay in makeup, right?
I had to, right? At that point I was on the train. The only thing I wish for in the past is that was a bit more inclusive. I was one of the only people of color working in the business [at the time]. The democracy of social media has made it so everyone has a voice. That's the beauty of where we are now. The businesses is more multiculti in every aspect. Everyone wants to see themselves in campaigns. Those visual representations matter as we look at identity, sexual identity, body positivity, all these things that we’re seeing in beauty and fashion now.
I’m working with so many different brands now as a cultural adviser. I didn’t become an activist; I just kind of became activated by just speaking up and talking in spaces like this about equity and about diversity and unpacking what it looks like. Just having an open ear and an open dialogue with your consumers goes a long way. When people feel safe, they’ll trust you, they’ll stay longer, they’ll buy more, they’ll come back.
What trends do you see coming this upcoming season?
We all have been wearing masks in the last year so I know there's going to be a resurgence of lip color in a lot of different textures. I think we’ll be seeing more of what I call emotional beauty. There’s a difference between emotional beauty and transactional beauty. Transactional beauty is “I need to cover this pimple,” but it doesn’t change how you feel. I want to see things that change a woman’s sense of self. A colorful lip, it boosts your mood and makes you feel a different way. It’s like a vibration and it kind of can change your whole day.
How do you feel about seeing everything from the early 2000s come back again? What do you think are best and worst beauty trends from that era?
I graduated high school in 2000, so I know all about Y2K. I love that era. It was a hit or miss. But what was fun was the playfulness to it all. Playfulness with a little bit of a street edge. It was the end of the ’90s, grunge wasn’t in anymore, and girls wanted to get glam but they weren’t overcontoured. There was an ease to it. Glossy lips are back. Minimizing the lash so it doesn't look as heavy, but just giving a little fluffy application is cool. We’re going to leave the black lip liner alone. No more over-tweezing for the brows. We’re taking some of it, leaving some of it.
What does your self-care routine look like?
First, let’s talk about inside. I love the Undeniable Beauty gummy vitamins by Olly. I feel it really helps condition skin from the inside out. I take the Sleep gummies at nighttime because I try to go to bed a little earlier now. Rest is important, hydrating is important. I also take probiotics and make sure that I take care of my gut health because your complexion is directly impacted by how you take care of your stomach.
I like a little chemical peel. I’ll get a little filler if I need to in certain areas, so I won’t look tired. I lost my hair in the ’90s, so now I also get laser hair removal on my scalp so I never have to shave. That’s part of modern maintenance for myself. Then I see some really amazing dermatologists, Dr. Dendy Engelman in New York and Dr. Jason Diamond in L.A. It takes a village.
I’m also in a lot of therapy, which I love. I’m definitely an advocate for mental health and wellness. Especially in a sense of the check-in: “How are you feeling? How are you processing? How are you doing?” I really wanted to see those check-ins happen for myself and my relationship with my family. I’m in three hours a week of family therapy, my own personal therapist, and also couples therapy.
What are some of the products you can’t live without?
Sunscreen. I use the Supergoop! sunscreen; I need to protect myself in the sun. I think that we have a misconception, especially in melanated communities, that you don't need to necessarily need sunscreen, but we do. And moisturizer wise? Dr. Barbara Sturm Lifting Serum is the bomb. Literally, hands down, it’s a game-changer.
As a makeup artist, what are the things you always have in your kit?
I love Tom Ford’s bronzer in Gold Dust; it’s a great color. If you happen to be deeper complexion, I would go to Fenty’s bronzers. Her cream bronzers are really great. I love working with both creams and powders.
Because I’ve been conditioned to work in stages and arenas, I know to get that Teflon face; you have to use both creams and powders. Like a cream foundation and then buffing a powder onto it. I’ll use a pencil on the brows, and then I’ll go in with a powder shadow on top to set it. I’ll do a gel pot shadow, and then I’ll set it with powder shadow.
It’s all about setting, setting, setting. Then you can dance, you can do cardio on stage, you can go to a hot sweaty club like we’re all trying to do this summer, and your face will stay on. You’ll walk out with your face looking like you did when you went in. It might be dewier, but you’ll still have it.
Do you have a beauty philosophy or a life philosophy?
My beauty philosophy would be just shake what your mama gave you. When I say that, it means just owning your space.
As for a life philosophy, my whole thing is to check in with yourself and love on you. You have to love on you before anyone else can. When you get into a space where you start to love how far you’ve come in your own journey, that is beautiful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.