I’ve been pretty much obsessed with the makeup wizardry of Billy B. since I first saw the video for Lauryn Hill’s Ex-Factor. Or no wait, it was Missy Elliott’s “She’s a Bitch.” Or maybe it was the video for Independent Women by Destiny’s Child. When I was soaking up all that beauty inspiration, I had no idea who Billy B was, of course. I just knew that here were strong, beautiful black women and I wanted to look just as beautiful as they did.
Billy B has been behind the scenes of music videos and television shows, beating the faces of celebs from Sharon Stone and Natalie Maines to Mary J. Blige and Tina Turner. Oh yes. When I interviewed Billy on the phone — he was visiting Miami for The Makeup Show — he had just come from doing Tina Turner’s makeup for her performance of Proud Mary at the Grammys. She looked amazing (aside from her Robocop couture), but still Billy doubted his work. “I would make some different choices after seeing it. I’m not sure about the red mouth in hindsight, not sure about the contour. I was standing there with her, thinking how did this happen? How did I go from Aberdeen Mississippi to doing Tina Turner for the Grammys? There’s still these moments of clarity for me where you’re sort of, how did I get here? And when are they going to figure out that this is the biggest scam ever? This is one of the few living American… not even just American. Icons. Ever. And here I am!” Billy attributes his continued success to humility. He is a very real, very humble kind of guy. “I never fully feel like I deserve to be there. I think that’s what keeps me successful, and I think that’s something new makeup artists can learn from. Most think their s*%t don’t stink, and they’re better than everybody, and they deserve so much more than they already have. The reality is, none of us do.”
Billy has been at the top of the game, and at the bottom of the heap. He has had to eat humble pie quite a few times in the biz. Billy B.’s fairytale life story is well known to anyone who’s obsessed with makeup and music videos — as my homegirl Lianne The Makeup Girl said in her interview with him, “small town boy with big town dreams.” In the Eighties, by day Billy B. worked the makeup counter at Macy’s in Times Square. By night he was cleaning up vomit at nightclubs in New York City. Sick skills and one lucky break led to him making $500 an hour. Now he’s done just about every celebrity you can think of, for print, television, fashion shows, whatever.
I had an great telephone interview with Billy before the show, we chatted at length about his career and his new line of brushes, which are professional quality, and designed especially to avoid the pitfalls Billy has encountered with other brushes. They’re short, light, and very specifically designed for particular tasks. He is especially proud of his eyelash curler ($15, a steal) and he uses brush #9 to build the bottom lashes with mascara. More on that later.
So following a fun phoner, I was ready to meet Billy B. at The Makeup Show Miami. I got to the convention center in the afternoon, an hour or so before he was about to begin his keynote presentation. And excuse me while I gush for a moment, but something quite exciting happened. I got recognized! By a complete stranger! So there I am, walking into the Miami Beach Convention Center, when a lovely bella with adorable twists comes jogging after me. “Excuse me… are you Afrobella?” she asked. Yes I am! OMG YAY! She was super sweet. Her name is Ethanie, she’s a makeup artist from… Philly? And we took a couple of photos together. E mail me, Ethanie! It was a pleasure to meet you.
OK, so then I entered the main atrium and was instantly dazzled. There were booths from product lines I knew well — MAC, Stila, Make Up For Ever. And there were some new niche products there, like Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics which has a great range of loose color, and Big Girl Cosmetics. Lots of you have asked me to specifically highlight products made for women of color by women of color. Look no further! I met Kiley Russell the founder and CEO, and she is a fly and self possessed sista. I got one of their Diva Glosses in my to-go bag, and I LOVE it! Definitely check em out, bellas.
I headed over to the side conference rooms for Billy’s presentation, and slowly the room filled to capacity with professionals in the beauty industry. And me, LOL. For the presentation, Billy decided to do a makeup transformation on Sharon Gault. In the biz, she is known as Mama Makeup. You may remember her from Madonna’s Truth or Dare, and here is an awesome interview on YouTube. The transformation was being photographed by Navid for Billy’s upcoming makeup book. Judging from what I witnessed, this book will be a must-have for any beauty junkie. Billy made Sharon look like a young Kathleen Turner, but totally over-the-top. The definition of fabulous. Billy called it Disco 70’s Studio 54 makeup.
When I interviewed Billy, he explained that there really was no method to his on-stage madness. “I have a following, which is nice. It’s many, many, many of the people who have seen me before. Nothing’s outlined on paper, I don’t think of what I’m going to say – I just go with my gut and that depends on my mood.”
Billy said he doesn’t consider himself a public speaker, but he totally excels at it. The dude is hilarious, a naturally comfortable and entertaining presenter of information. He comes out with these funny, inspirational, ridiculous words of wisdom. To wit: “Don’t tell me I can’t do something. Because I will do everything in my power to prove you an asshole. That’s what you do. If someone tells you no, you say, “watch this.” There is no such thing as a bad experience. You decide what makes an experience good or bad.” CHILLS. Billy totally reminded me of Debbie Allen in the intro to Fame, there. “You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying … in sweat.”
Here are the top five makeup tips I got from Billy B’s transformation of Mama Makeup.
1. Billy prefers liquid or cream foundation and he applies it with a brush. For women of color, he uses a cream stick foundation, and he doesn’t use a primer. “to me, foundation is primer. I keep it pretty simple, I use foundation on the lid.” He is a big fan of colorless translucent powder, and he uses it to lightly set the foundation. He loves Black Opal foundation for women of color.
2. Billy doesn’t recommend contouring for the regular bella. “Contour is an illusion. You have to really really know what you’re doing. I wouldn’t recommend it for brides, or people like, going to parties, because they’ll look like Lil Kim in two seconds.” But he did AMAZING contouring on Mama Makeup with Strada, a MAC blush that’s pinky-taupe. He says it works best for women with light skin.
3. Billy loves eyelash curling. “I’m a huge advocate. What I do is lift the lid, anchor the curler under my thumbnail, then pulse the eyelash curler lightly and kind of walk it out towards the end. Always on a clean, dry lash. It gives a nicer, graduated curl.”
5. He typically does liner before shadow for eyes, and he prefers a cream eyeshadow instead of liquid liner because it sets well. On Sharon he used smolder pencil from MAC. THEN he applies fake lashes, using an eyeliner brush to paint on the glue like you’d paint on eyeliner, then use the stick of a Q-Tip and just tap it down. Get it down as close to the base of the natural lash line as possible. On Sharon, Billy didn’t go for any big brand lashes — he got Halloween lashes from the party store. As my boy Christian would say on Project Runway, ferosh! (YAY, CHRISTIAN!!!!)
So here’s the transformation in photos — from Billy B’s blog. I don’t think the photos do her justice. At the end, Billy declared “She sorta looks like a whore on Gunsmoke. I love it! Miss Kitty on crack.” Billy rallied everyone from the room and we all ran out into the main atrium where the rest of the show was still going on. People were taking photos like crazy. Seriously, it was a mob scene. I strolled back to Billy B’s brush booth, and waited for him to arrive. When he did, it was with a cluster of people — the photographer, Sharon, an assistant, and the amazing Johnny LaVoy, who did Sharon’s big fabulous hair. I waited around, and eventually someone allowed me back to just say hi to Billy for a second.
“I’m sorry, this is so crazy,” he apologized. But I totally understood — they needed to capture this moment! I was just so happy to shake his tattoo covered hand and tell him how amazing his presentation was. I asked Sharon, “how do you feel?” She responded, “He made me look like a diva. I love it. I feel so beautiful.”
It was an amazing experience, all in all. Billy told me that people often write to him after his presentations, and tell him he made them “feel validated.” I can see why. No wonder he’s getting his own show! I can’t wait to watch.