Black Makeup Legends – Reggie Wells
by michela wariebi
There’s currently a renaissance of sorts happening that encourages people to follow their dreams and passions. There is undoubtedly an uptick in people choosing to abandon the status quo and to pursue the things that truly bring them joy. But imagine doing something so daring and vulnerable at a time when society readily embraced conformity, ESPECIALLY in black men. Enter Reggie Wells, a makeup artist’s dream personified; an artist willing to take the chance of pursing his dreams at a time when every odd was up against him.
Wells has always had an interest in art, earning a Masters in Art Education and subsequently teaching art in the Baltimore Public Schools from 1968 to 1976. In 1976 Wells chose to leave his teaching career behind and moved to NYC to take his chances at becoming a makeup artist. Upon arrival in NYC he found employment at several makeup counters and that laid the foundation for the true start of Wells’ career. At the counters he was able to hone his skills as a makeup artist by working on the everyday woman on a daily basis. The counters were also where he came into the radar of a fashion editor who gave him is first opportunity at print work!
Wells’ work can be seen in Glamour, O magazine, Life and Harper’s Bazaar, but his true legacy in print began with the work that he did with Ebony and then fledgling magazine, Essence. In the 1970s and 1980s, he became a go-to artist for publications whose readership was primarily black women. His work was present throughout the pages of Essence magazine regularly and he amassed an impressive 100 covers with the publication. The first of these covers was in 1986 and it featured Oprah Winfrey. This was also her first cover for the magazine. Talk about, historic.
The outstanding work produced during his 30 year career gave Wells the opportunity to work with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Beyonce, Anita Baker, Michelle Obama, Robin Givens, and Lauryn Hill. He is credited with being a key makeup artist for Hill’s iconic “Doo Wop” music video. He was also the makeup artist for Givens’ marriage to boxer Mike Tyson. Wells’ impressive list of celebrity clientele includes the names of some of the most iconic black women during the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. The most remarkable of these client relationships is the approximately 21 years of service that Wells provided to media mogul, Oprah Winfrey.
After doing her first Essence cover in 1986, Wells began working regularly with Winfrey in 1989 and relocated to Chicago in 1990 to be her full-time makeup artist. During his time with Winfrey he amassed a remarkable 142 covers of O Magazine and was regularly called upon to share his makeup expertise on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Wells also won an Emmy for Outstanding makeup for his work on the show and was subsequently nominated 3 additional times 2003, 2004, 2005.
Wells was able to craft a remarkable career during a time where things were anything bust easy for a black creative. Can you imagine the struggle of finding a suitable range of products for women of color during his time at Essence? Well, he made do to makeup. He is known for saying that in the past he had to concoct his own foundation formulas and shades because the range for his clientele just wasn’t available.
Reggie Wells was indeed one of the first makeup artists in celebrity and print to specialize in women of color and for that alone he must be remembered. He chose to specialize in making US look beautiful when most didn’t know how to approach painting our skin. He is a part of our history having touched the faces of so many of those we admire and even the faces of models who would in turn become makeup legends themselves. His influence is undeniable. His daring to pursue a dream and achieving just that paved the way for all of us currently working in these spaces. And for that, we are thankful.