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Finding the Essence of Beauty

With Clients Like Oprah, Reggie Wells Teaches Women How to Use Makeup That Stresses the Positive


Let's see a show of hands.

How many of you have loitered a little too long around a department store makeup counter only to find yourself suddenly in the hot seat--under the crisp gaze of halogens, perched precariously on one of those stools reminiscent of a childhood highchair? (Feeling, we might add, just as helpless.) Hands buzzing, fingers twirling, tongue clicking around you. Then, an avalanche of sponges, brushes, wands and tubes later, at least four cooing and nodding makeup artists carry over the hand mirror for you to take a look at the new . . . yikes! That's me? But not in a good way.

Yet despite that, before you know it, you've purchased close to $100 worth of concealer and shadow and a contouring set, all of which will go straight from the car into a drawer never to be glimpsed again. After awhile you forget what it is, let alone know how to use it.

Reggie Wells knows all about that. He knows that women have run the gantlet of potions, promises and promotions. Some with experiences so harrowing that they vow never to wear makeup again--except maybe a quick slash of color across their lips for a special occasion, like maybe their wedding day.

The Emmy-winning makeup artist who divined Oprah Winfrey's breezy-cum-elegant countenance, Wells had as much to do with expanding the range of beauty possibilities for the post-power movement black female--from go-get-'em professional to late-night luxury--as did the magazine that gave him his running start in the print world, Essence.

"He was really part of our beauty movement in the '80s," says Essence beauty and cover editor Mikki Taylor. "He has always shown a range of looks on the pages and . . . a great diversity with his hand. He has an appreciation of how women really look and how we want to look."

Much has changed since Wells stood in Manhattan department stores some 20 years ago, applying blush, taming brows and instructing women how to do it themselves in a voice loud enough to anger and worry his less knowledgeable colleagues at rival counters.

"It wasn't 'in' to teach," he says.

Image management, when it isn't a mystery, is just plain sticky.

"The last thing a woman wants to see is a makeup artist walking down the street or on a plane or train sitting next to you," Wells says. "So I generally don't tell people what I do. But what I find is a lot of women put their makeup on in the weirdest places. I was on a plane, and this woman was putting on her lipstick and powder in the dark. So I asked her about it, and she said, 'Well, I've been doing it that way for years.' The whole point of this story is that I didn't say to her, 'Oh, you're doing something wrong.' When I look at a woman, I just see something that they can improve."

And it's probably that approach that has given Baltimore-born Wells, a 21-year veteran with a client list that includes Diahann Carroll, Beverly Johnson, Vanessa Williams, Whitney Houston, Brandy, Iman and Naomi Campbell, his juice.

But in his new book, "Face Painting" (Henry Holt), he wants to stress the less-is-more philosophy: that most women--particularly African American women--don't necessarily have to fuss with as much as they think they do to get a polished, professional look.

"Black women are told so many things," Wells says. "There are so many misconceptions out there--that this color doesn't work on our skin. But for women of color, no color looks bad. Black comes with a primed canvas. There is no color they cannot wear. What has happened is that many lines in the past had palettes out of their ranges. Back in the '70s, there was Fashion Fair and Flori Roberts, but if they didn't have it, we were out of luck. Sure, Revlon had orange and pinks--but they were monochromatic tones. We [later] found that orange didn't have to look like a pumpkin; it could look like a leaf or a piece of bronzed furniture."

It's this sort of impressionistic talk that helps broaden the thinking about not only makeup, but also image in general. In an approach that mixes memoir-autobiography with how-to advice, Wells, one of seven children, talks about his up-the-steep-hill beginnings as everything from an art teacher to a department store makeup artist, to a persistent presence hounding Oprah.

"I'd see her on television," writes Wells, "over and over I thought to myself that that woman needed me to apply her makeup professionally. Finally, I picked up the phone and called the studio. Oprah answered her own phone at that time. . . . I told her that I wanted to come down and improve her look for TV. 'I don't need a makeup artist,' she said, and hung up."

Wells laughs at that memory. It's a technique that he wouldn't employ today, he admits.

"I wasn't so gentle then. Now I've learned you don't approach it quite that way."

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