Reggie Wells, face to face Fashion: The Emmy-winning makeup master from Baltimore has elevated his profession to an art form.

October 11, 1998|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,SUN FASHION EDITOR

Reggie Wells has made up the faces of Oprah, Aretha and Iman. His work has landed on 65 Essence covers. And he's won an Emmy for his mastery with the makeup brush.

But he still thinks about the face that got away: Jada Pinkett

Smith.

So far, scheduling conflicts have kept him from working with the actress and wife of Will Smith.

"She's from Baltimore and she's beautiful," says Wells, 50, who also happens to be from Baltimore. "She's one person I have left."

But in his new book, "Face Painting," he doesn't mourn missed opportunities. Instead, he offers a glossy, gushy paean to the celebrities whose lips, eyes and cheeks he loves.

On Leontyne Price: "She had very good skin that was as even-toned and clear as the range and color of her voice."

Whitney Houston: "She's got the smile of life and beautiful eyes. No one can glow like Whitney. She lights up."

Patti LaBelle: "Patti goes with the flow. If there was a big style in the '80s, she had it. Now she's conservative, demure and sexy."

Give him a mascara wand, and Wells becomes a performer himself. "There's a bit of theatricality to him," says Mikki Taylor, beauty and cover editor for Essence magazine. "On these shoots, he sings and dances. ... There's something of the theater that comes out in his makeup. It translates into how he treats an eye, or the color he chooses for a lip."

He's also an artist.

"He works in sweeping strokes," she says. "By the end of the day, he's wearing as much makeup on his clothes as the model has on her face."

Growing up in West Baltimore as one of seven kids, Wells had an early passion for art. Oddly enough, it was a part-time job at the corner grocery store that fostered his dreams of a fashion career. He credits the store owner, a woman he calls his "Jewish mother," with giving him the confidence to attend the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

After graduating, he taught art in public school, creating modeling and grooming clubs for the students. He also worked at a salon doing makeup before heading to New York in 1979.

"I thought everyone was going to recognize what I did," he says. "What I forgot was there were 20,000 other people thinking the same thing."

For two years, he eked out a living at various makeup counters. Although it was the low point of his professional life, he learned how to apply make-up to women of different shapes, sizes and colors.

One afternoon, a shopper told him about a benefit fashion show at Saks Fifth Avenue that evening. He turned up with his makeup case.

"That was my idea of being desperate," he says. "I walked in and said, 'I'm ready to do makeup.' They pointed me toward the models."

One of the models eventually led him to a photographer who led him to a magazine editor, and a full-fledged career was born.

He got magazine work - including shoots for Glamour, Harper's Bazaar and Life. He also did ads for Maybelline, Almay and Fashion Fair. But he found a particular need among African-American stars and models, for whom makeup options were limited.

"Black women now have a lot of choices, but they didn't in '79," he says. "I became my own chemist ... blending two browns and a yellow or red.

He also became a "shrink with a makeup case," seeing the unmade-up faces of image-conscious celebrities.

"I can't tell them how to manage that husband, but I can tell them how to manage that lipstick," he says. "We are psychologists in that we build self-esteem."

The assignment that most helped his own self-esteem - and career - was an Essence cover for which he was asked to make up "this lady from Baltimore whose talk show had just gone national."

He met Oprah Winfrey. Wells had often called and asked to do her makeup when she worked on "People are Talking," the talk show in Baltimore, but she always declined.

This time, they hit it off, and in 1989 she hired him to do makeup for her show.

"She was the kind of lady who not only inspired you as a makeup artist but as a person as well," he says.

In 1995, after being nominated four times, he won an Emmy for best makeup on a daytime show. "I was finally recognized by my peers," he says.

After that, he was ready for new challenges and left the show to write his book, begin creating a cosmetic line and do free-lance makeup work.

He's remained in Chicago, but he's now flying from coast to coast working with younger stars - Lauryn Hill, Sean "Puffy" Combs and Brandy.

"This new generation is knocking me down," he says. "The personality level is so different. You've got giants who are 24 years old. They say, 'Hand me that makeup brush, Pops.' ... But they're wise enough to book someone who's been around for 20 years. They're getting someone who knows what he's doing - no matter the age."

Tips from the pro

Reggie Wells offers these makeup tips for African-American women:

* As women age, they sometimes get darker skin around the eyes, forehead and mouth. To even out skin tone, use a foundation that is the darker shade and blend.

* Avoid concealer. It often looks ashy on dark skin.

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