Meli Pennington’s love for makeup started in her teenage years, when other things in life at that time seemed unattainable–namely boys and music. Post-college, she took her makeup skills into the professional world, bootstrapping her way into the industry. In the process, she’s filled her client base with people like Carrie Underwood and created a visually stunning blog, Wild Beauty, that ties beauty to culture, commerce, technology, and history. With over 32,000 Twitter followers, she’s quite the popular gal. Here, Meli shares career insights that can be applied to any industry, on starting a business, building a following, and developing your talents.
Talentedly: You came to New York to be a makeup artist. Did you grow up wanting to be one? What drew you to New York specifically?
Meli Pennington: I grew up wanting to be lots of things – I was a big daydreamer! But I was also very crafty and imaginative – when I hit my teenage years, I discovered makeup, boys and music around the same time. I couldn’t play music, boys were a disaster at the time, so I mostly played with makeup. And I got good at it pretty fast!
After college I needed to figure out what I would do for work – the only thing I thought I was good at was makeup, so I posted a flyer in a local photography school. Soon I was working locally in Boston, and soon after I decided to move to New York, which is of course where the the magazines and modeling agencies are.
TLY: As a freelance makeup artist, how and where do you get your clients? Is it networking or marketing on your part? How do you get to work for celebrities like Carrie Underwood?
MP: Getting clients is a mix of putting yourself out there and getting lucky. When I moved to NYC there weren’t websites to scout photographers, so I went around with my book to modeling agencies and photographers. I really pounded the pavement! Still, I was lucky – one of the first photographers I tested with was Carter Smith, and even though I didn’t rise as fast as him I was introduced to other really good people through him.
It’s so important to assist more experienced artists. No matter how much innate talent you have, it still needs to be developed. And the more you see, the more you understand.
The celebrity work I do is usually an extension of other work – I’ve either made a friend of theirs look great or I get booked with them on a magazine shoot. I’m pretty low-drama in person, which some celebs really like – others want a big personality show! So it really comes down to makeup style and their personal vibe.
TLY: Did your makeup perspective expand or change by going to school in Italy?
MP: In Italy everyone was groomed to the nth degree! It was very different from being in college in the US. Even in tiny towns people were so chic – it blew my suburban mind. It was also the first time I thought about looking good as something you do for other people, not just for yourself.
And as I was a fine arts student there, I made a point to enter a specialist color theory program that was available. So that obviously affected me!
TLY: What do you think about the rise of YouTube makeup artists without formal training? Do you think they help or hurt the industry?
MP: I kind of identify with the YouTube artists – if I was in school now, I’d be doing videos in my room too! I think overall that watching people go through their own process is a good thing.
There’s a big difference in doing makeup on one’s own face and learning how to work with a diverse array of others’ faces, though. And it’s not just training: for photo shoots and celebrity work, makeup artists have to work as part of a team. Many of the YouTubers are more like reality celebrities than creative team members.
TLY: On your blog, Wild Beauty, you write not just about makeup, but also beauty in a greater societal context. How do ideas of beauty vary across the globe?
MP: Ideas of beauty are related to culture, commerce, technology, and history. When we look at thinness as a beauty ideal, we’re looking at that from a culture where food is available almost everywhere.
Beauty is often about what looks “rich” in a specific culture – it can be pale skin meaning that a woman isn’t required to do any outdoor labor, or it can be a tan showing that she has lots of time to spend at the beach. Or it can be lots of surgery, showing that she has plenty of time to recover!
TLY: What is your beauty philosophy and how do you showcase that on Wild Beauty?
MP: We humans have been painting our faces and bodies since before we were using metal tools! Unfortunately, most of the conversation about beauty in the media is led either by companies with products to sell, or by academic reactionaries who who think beauty is frivolous.
There are lots of smart women who love beauty – along with the stories around it. I think that beauty is only frivolous in the way that dance, music, or cuisine are, which is to say that beauty is an integral part of every culture.
TLY: What’s your advice for those looking to make it in the makeup world? What’s the biggest misconception of being a makeup artist?
MP: My best advice is to get out there, shoot tests, assist other artists, and take in every experience you can get. And be on time!
The biggest misconception of being a makeup artist is that we get to do whatever “we” want. The higher we go, the more pressure there is for things to be flawless, which means being in touch and flexible with what the other team members are doing.
TLY: Quote or mantra to live by?
MP: You’re only as good as what you take in. So bathe in Genius.
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