Beauty Pro James Vincent on Vetting 2,800 Makeup Artists for Two Slots With Rihanna
Now creative director at TwinMedix skincare, Vincent says Rihanna's vision for Fenty Beauty was that "it had to be something that was high performance, it had to be something that was universal, and it had to be something that was empowering."
Star makeup artist James Vincent grew up as a self-described "little punk rock kid" in Providence, Rhode Island. He moved to Atlanta, where he juggled multiple jobs at CNN, MAC Cosmetics, strip clubs and a clothing store called Junkman's Daughter. Next up was New York, where he found his home at Urban Decay, with side gigs at clothing store Antique Boutique and a juice bar by day while DJing at night, plus Kinkos "because I couldn't afford to print out my resumes and photos and stuff," he says. "People don't talk about those things. But for me, I knew I wanted to do makeup. I knew that it was my passion and I had to do whatever I could to be able to do makeup."
In the 20-plus years since, the beauty expert (with a degree in social work) has worked with former President Barack Obama, Reese Witherspoon, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna's Fenty Beauty in its earliest stages. Now Vincent is the director of education and artist relations for The Makeup Show (an industry trade show), has his own line Rebels and Outlaws, and is the new creative director at cruelty-free TwinMedix skincare, used by makeup artist Kerry Herta in American Horror Story. Here, he speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the audition process for pro makeup artists at Fenty Beauty, the future of star-founded makeup lines, and the new rules of skincare.
Why did you want to come on board at TwinMedix?
As a beauty editor, as an educator, and with The Makeup Show (I deal with over 150 brands), I noticed with skincare that we've been stuck for a while, especially in my professional community. We have been working with the same traditional French skincare for decades. We're still using products that have lanolin, animal by-products, mineral oil, petrolatum and these are not ingredients that I felt comfortable putting on my clients. For me, it was an opportunity to combine all of my passions to work with a company like TwinMedix that I really believe in and has always been so supportive of me.
What requests have you had from Hollywood clients about ingredients?
I was doing a documentary with Joan Jett (this is a rock star who has been around for decades, but she's vegan) and I was doing a play on Broadway with Alicia Silverstone who is a vegan. I was in the process of this big Fenty launch with Rihanna, really looking at the way that people are discussing skincare. It was such a tipping point and a time for people to be sure that the product that they're putting out has as much integrity in the ingredients as it does in the formulation.
What will you be doing as creative director, and what are some of your goals for this position?
I became involved with TwinMedix because they have sponsored so many of my shows. For fashion week, they have sponsored me backstage with designers and celebrity designers like Charlotte Ronson, Ashton Michael, Serena Williams and Rosario Dawson.
At TwinMedix, I developed a 10-product wish list. We've been rolling them out. My role really goes from everything to conceptualizing and developing with [founder and CEO] Michelle [Shaffer] to working in the labs, figuring out how it fits, especially in the pro community, which is really the world that I live in, and then moving forward to figure out how we're marketing this.
I've got such a passion for clean ingredients. I work so regularly with essential oils. I wanted to take those kind of traditional ingredients and pair them with the latest in technology. Michelle comes from the world of medical and pharmaceutical development, so she has a really great eye and understanding of the technologies available to us.
You've talked about how, as a makeup artist, it all starts with great skincare.
When I think about foundation, it isn't just color. I thought, 'How are we really preparing the skin? How are we really priming the skin? How are we protecting the skin?'
My first steps into the beauty industry were with The Body Shop. Anita Roddick, who created the company, became a mentor to me. I really learned that you could have business with a conscience and you could definitely have skincare with a conscience. We could look at very traditional ingredients that have been used by indigenous people forever.
We have been so socialized in this country to think that you need these skincare systems. At 16, they bring you to a makeup counter and they tell you about the 10 items you need. For me, growing up and having some skin issues, everything was about stripping the skin. We used these apricot kernel scrubs and these astringent toners and buffing puffs that felt like Brillo pads. It was important to me to educate young people on what skincare does [and] get rid of all the negative talk playing off insecurities that skincare has always done.
You started working with Fenty in January 2016. Can you tell me about your role there, searching for the pro makeup artists?
It was kind of a surprise to me, because initially I was brought in to talk to [beauty brand incubator] Kendo about trend and pro development, which is what a lot of brands bring me in to do. Initially I thought, 'Oh, I'll be consulting for like Kat Von D.' Then they came to me with this new project (that at that point wasn't named) and they asked if I would bring some of the products that were in development to the pros and get some feedback. So we put together these roundtables with Emmy winners, Academy Award winners, bridal artists, influencers and really started from there.
Rihanna is such a visionary, and one thing I think people don't truly understand is she is involved in every decision, from color name to the choices of the people who work with her. She is just very knowledgeable and very involved. And so she wanted to find the diamond in the rough.
Kendo came to me and said, 'Rihanna wants to be really non-traditional in this process and she wants to give opportunity to artists who don't have the big followings or don't have the traditional resumes.' So we interviewed over 2,800 artists in four cities in a really extensive search. We then expanded it to the U.K. and Australia and the E.U. and it was like just really an amazing way to meet artists and to introduce them to what Fenty is.
The other thing that was important for Rihanna and for Kendo was that it was not just another brand that had 40 foundation shades. There are a large number of brands that already had 40 foundation shades, but I think what Fenty offered people was a chance to see themselves. It was representation for people who had never seen themselves represented in beauty. So I'm really proud of what they have done. I was a consultant, so Kendo and Rihanna should have all the credit for that, but to be a part of such a moment was very exciting for me.
How would you describe Rihanna's vision of the brand from the beginning?
She has these stories about makeup and how it was empowering for her. The big piece [was] it had to be something that was high performance, it had to be something that was universal, and it had to be something that was empowering. In my own career, I think that’s how I approach my makeup. It isn't about hiding or covering anything; it's about bringing forward something special. And I think that's really what the Kendo team has managed to do.
Rihanna is so global in her reach and I think people listen to her music and wear her clothes and listen to what she says and they feel empowered and they feel strong. She is not afraid to put herself out there or to stand up for what she believes in, even if it's not a popular opinion. That's what the brand does as well. It's a voice for people who maybe have been voiceless.
Or it's a way for people who haven't had anyone stand up for them to feel like here is Rihanna, here is this makeup brand that is just standing up for them. I know that sounds dramatic, but I really feel like that was the power that she brought into the beauty industry. And I think that she is such a game changer, and I think the brand is a game changer as well.
Was there a particular experience that demonstrates how hands-on she is?
Yeah, the fact that we had these auditions all over the country, and she would watch videos of each interview. She would look at each portfolio herself. Watching the pieces that she was excited by excited me. I've noticed the same thing in my consulting with Pat McGrath as she is building her teams. It's about finding creativity, it's about finding people who want to connect to other people, it's about finding people's stories and stories that can be shared.
That, for me, is what modern makeup brands need to do. The reason some of these traditional brands are struggling right now is they are doing too many marketing meetings, too many decisions by too many old white guys. That was Rihanna's messaging from the beginning; that's Kendo's messaging. It all has got to be authentic and it all has got to be better than anything we've seen before. Don't just recreate it. Don't just mimic it, but make something that has not been seen.
And what was the result of the Fenty search?
Priscilla Ono, which is an exciting story. Priscilla started behind the Sephora counter when she was 19 years old. She had managed to build a makeup career where she had a following and she had a school and she was doing these really beautiful makeups. And then Hector Espinal, who actually came from the Sephora Pro Team.
These are two people who are not traditional faces for a beauty brand. What Rihanna wanted to do was to find people who were able to represent her when she wasn't around, who could bring the energy and excitement that she brings into her room, who were passionate about education and artistry but who also were humble. I think humility was such a big piece of it.
We narrowed it down to probably 20 brilliant artists, and then the two chosen had to do Rihanna's makeup and go through that audition. The final piece of it was working in L.A. and doing her makeup and creating a photo shoot and content and being able to be a modern makeup artist and be able to stand apart and stand out from a crowd. It's a competitive industry, so people really had to come up with something special. People will look back in a few years and they'll study how this brand was launched.
You also worked with Lady Gaga, who launched her own beauty line; do you see more stars getting into the beauty industry?
I hope so. When I started in New York 25-ish years ago, I was assisting Kevyn Aucoin and got to watch him work with these supermodels. And then we saw the change. Celebrities were the people on the cover of magazines. No one watched a red carpet before.
As celebrities started to take over publications, conversations started to happen [including] in fashion and beauty. When you see a Rihanna lipstick or a Lady Gaga eyeliner, you are buying into that lifestyle. And those two in particular are both so important for the way they have shifted ideas about beauty. Someone like Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand weren't traditional beauties, but they convinced the world that they were and became box office and chart superstars.
The fashion houses that have always controlled beauty played off our insecurities. I grew up in a mixed family. My family couldn't go to a department store and buy foundation, my nieces didn't play with dolls that looked like them, and I always wanted to know why an industry that was supposed to make people feel better was leaving so many of us behind. There was no size or shape or color.
Models had never represented that, but celebrities do because they look like us. They sing songs that remind us of ourselves or touch things that we can't talk about. I think that that is why we'll see the shift I think in this age of reality TV presidents; people want connection and you feel connected to the celebrities that you follow.
When you were working with Lady Gaga, did you notice her interest in beauty or talk about her plans to launch a line?
Completely. We're not best friends, but I've known Lady Gaga forever. I live on the Lower East Side. I used to DJ at her ex-boyfriend's bar. All of her best friends were makeup artists. Lady Starlight, Colleen [Martin], and I worked at the MAC Pro store 25 years ago. So yes, she always had an interest in beauty and fashion and the New York downtown scene.
I remember working with her on 'Born This Way,' and we're, like, painting her space to look like tattoos, and she was talking about rock bands that she was supporting. I remember her sitting down in David LaChapelle's studio and planning out her whole video. She's such a musician and she's so involved in every piece.
To see what she is doing with the makeup line and with an amazing makeup artist like Sarah Tanno, who does her makeup now, I'm really excited to see what they come up with, because they're such creative women and I think they love it. When someone loves something and it's not just about margins or bottom lines, that's where beauty can really be exciting.
What are you most proud of so far in your career?
If one little kid who feels left out reads this article and feels like this is an industry for them — if one boy or girl picks up an eyeliner or a lipstick and puts it on and feels prettier than they did before — that for me is the exciting part.
I stepped into this industry because I wanted to change the conversation about what beauty is. My legacy won't be a magazine cover or a music video — it will be someone who found makeup on a day when they were depressed and it made them feel better and that, for me, is very humbly the piece that I feel the most proud of.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.