Sunday, May 09th

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The Beauty Dozen: Twelve Questions for Makeup Artist Extraordinaire Sam Fine


On a recent, sweltering summer afternoon in Brooklyn, we found ourselves coolly ensconced in an airy bistro, sipping ice-cold wine across from the inimitable Sam Fine.

One of the top artists in the beauty business and recently named Fashion Fair's new Creative Makeup Director, Fine is renown for his alchemic talents: the “King of Foundation” is a master at accentuating the precious metal-glow in complexions of color. He is also responsible for creating some of the most iconic looks associated with our most iconic beauties: from Naomi to Iman, from Vanessa to Patti. Even if you are unfamiliar with his name, you’ve definitely seen his work. Using his well-honed, artisanal technique, Fine transforms women using painterly depth.

In the midst of a schedule crammed with photo shoots, lectures, personal appearances, and the perks of fabulosity, Fine generously offered B.Couleur a few moments of his precious time, to answer our questions about his journey, his influences, and our beauty.

B.Couleur: Tell us about your journey. Why and how did the face come to be your canvas?

Sam Fine: Actually, I became a makeup artist by default. I moved to New York [for the first time] when I was 17, in the hopes of attending Parsons, [and] I took a job at a cosmetic counter to make ends meet.  I ended up falling on my tail within three months, and wound up having to go back to Chicago, where I’m from.

[In Chicago] I continued going from counter to counter, doing makeovers and selling makeup – I just thought it was something cool to do. I never really thought of it as a career, because I didn’t know anyone who was doing [makeup] as a career. I always thought as far as I saw – and that was the people at the cosmetic counter.

[I returned to New York when] the Naomi Sims counter had an opening. They [called and] asked me “Sam, are you interested in coming back to New York?” I said “of course I am!”  That was always my intention. So, I came back, and…started working at the Naomi Sims counter in ANS Plaza (which is now defunct). I think when you move to New York, you realize that there are so many possibilities…There are so many opportunities that exist. Everyone’s doing something and you just have to find out where you want to go and where you want to end up, in the mix of it.

Tons of makeup artists [and models] would come…to get Naomi Sims cosmetics, and [eventually] someone introduced me to Fran Cooper. Fran, a legendary makeup artist who works with Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, everyone, took me under her wing. I started assisting her, and one thing led to another. She introduced me to Kevyn Aucoin, and I started assisting him. Before I knew it…Naomi Campbell gave me a call, asking if I’d work with her, because she’d seen me working at one of the fashion shows with Fran Cooper. I always tell people – someone’s always watching what you do. Even though you’re not working on them, they see the way that you work with other individuals.  They see your level of artistic talent…When Fran was unavailable, [she’d say] “give Sam a call” [and Naomi would].   The same thing happened with Patti LaBelle, and [then I met] a hairdresser, Roberto Leon, who introduced me to Vanessa Williams.  

My best friend, who was a freelance makeup artist, began teaching me how to translate the three-dimensional form of makeup from my very one-dimensional way of doing it.  

So, [from] working at the counter (which I always refer to as the “real school of beauty”), to me taking it seriously and Joseph really helping me learn about makeup, to assisting Fran and Kevyn, and then to [working on] Naomi and Patti, my career [was launched].  It’s been really wonderful.

B.Couleur: Who has influenced you most in your career?

SF: I think the people who have influenced me most are not career artists. They’re business people. When I look at AJ Crimson doing Kissable Couture. When I watch Mally Roncal [with] her cosmetics line. When I watch Iman and Tyra and Vanessa have multi-dimensional careers, that is inspiration.  So, I have to say [it’s] my clients [and] other artists who have become businesspeople – because that is where I’m trying to go.  

B.Couleur: You seem to have a close team of regular collaborators, who you’ve worked with for ages. What bonds you, and what do you think it is that has allowed you to mesh so well?

SF: It’s funny, because this story came about through a great friend of Oscar James’ and mine. As you get older, you realize how cyclical the business is. You realize you keep meeting the same people over and over and over. 

I think a lot of people look at your life and say “you’re friends with this person” or “you’re friends with that person”, because you’re fabulous…No, we’re friends because we know one another outside of work. We know our [shared] work ethic and our level of commitment to our businesses. I think that is what links us together.  

When I look at my crew, I know that they’re people who I’ve grown up with and know me as a person. [They don’t] just look for me to do their brows.

B.Couleur: Whom, whether from the past, or the present, do you wish you were able to work your magic on?

SF: Naomi Sims. When she passed away recently, that just like did it for me.   I mean, I’ve worked on Iman, Beverly Johnson, Alek Wek, Tyra Banks, Veronica Webb, [and] that is amazing. But…Naomi Sims, the first Black supermodel? That made me mad!  [Because I] worked for her company, and [because that was] my start, I will always feel close to her, even though I’ve never had the honor of putting my spin on her beauty.

B.Couleur: Women of color’s skin tones span a wide spectrum. What do light, medium, and dark-skinned women need to know about accentuating their unique skin tones?  What are some universal tips?

SF: Whether you are Vanessa Williams or Iman, you have to remember that you are a color already. Every product that you try, you’re putting on a brown canvas, or putting it on an olive canvas. It’s going to change a bit, and I don’t think we’re taught that.  We look at a color and say: “oh, I got this lipstick and it’s red, and it’s going to look like that on me.” Not quite. The undertone is going to come out more. It might need more coverage and pigment, because you have more pigment. So, it’s got to really lay on the skin beautifully – not only in formula, but also in color.  

I think general tips are the same that I impart whenever I do lectures or appearances, to [encourage] women of color [to put] their best faces forward, and [participate] in all that’s out there today. Everyone’s making deeper shades and I think they’re trying to cater to our beauty and its many shades.   That means everybody’s got something out there great to offer, so it’s our job to [play].

So when I talk to my three sisters and my mom at home, I tell them to go from brand-to-brand. When you go grocery shopping, you always write a list.  [It should be the] same with makeup.  If you want a blue, then make that your “I’m not leaving without it” color.  Find that blue.  That’s what I do as a makeup artist. I went shopping the other day and I [bought] four different purples.  One of them will become my favorite, but then one might become my “wow” color. Like, “whoa, I didn’t think I’d be using this”.  It’s so trial and error, and a lot of times because many women are shopping and not really feeling empowered.  They’re just buying things and not really thinking about their point of view, their perspective.  

Think about it the same way you do your hair, think about it the same way you do when you buy clothes.  Have conviction and a point of view, and ultimately you will find products that speak to that.

If you go into a store randomly looking for a product, you’ll end up with a random product. You have to quiet those voices from every cosmetic company, just to learn what your voice is, so it can be as strong.

B.Couleur: What’s hot now in terms of makeup , and which trends do you wish would disappear?

SF: Women of color start trends, [but we also] have to translate trends in such a unique way. When you see blonde on the runway, and pink is in, I don’t know where to begin! So, I don’t often speak in trends. I like to speak in groupings.  

When you look at women of color and their hair: one day [it’s] natural and twisted and the next day it’s weaved and blonde. So, I think it’s so important to be able to speak to [these many facets].  

I couldn’t say Christian Louboutins are “in” to my mother, who’s never going to wear an 8” heel, 6”, 7”, it’s not going to happen.  So, to say that this is a trend. True enough, it is…but what are the other women doing? That’s what interests me most.

B.Couleur: Are there any makeup “don’ts” that you consider “do’s”?

SF: Whenever people ask me about trends that I wish would go away, or makeup “don’ts”, I think about the woman who is really trying to find her way. We definitely haven’t had enough exposure to products and images to be able to participate in the game fully.  You still have to work really hard to make sure you have a full collection of things that you feel like “ok, now I can actually compete”. That’s hard. So…any woman who’s making an effort should be applauded.  

I mean, yeah, maybe the lipstick and the lip liner need to be more blended…but we get so few opportunities to have a voice. Of course there are going to be mistakes along the way, because [many women are] doing something for the first time, and [are looking] to companies that still don’t exclusively speak to their beauty.

That’s why I [write] books.  That’s why I [make] DVDs.  [That’s]why I do personal experiences – because I can see the “aha! “moments happening.  I'm working to correct all of the cosmetic misinformation you’ve picked up. 

B.Couleur: Which beauty-related old wives tales should be put to rest?

SF: [One is] Black women not wearing sunscreen. I do understand that we don’t age in the same way as Caucasian consumers, and we can look at our grandmothers, and mothers, and know that “oh my God, she looks amazing”. But there is technology today and there are improvements in skincare and ingredients that firm and exfoliate and beautify varied tones, and for that I’m thankful! Let’s use them!  My sister doesn’t wear moisturizer and it drives me insane.  I don’t need you in a red lip, but I need you in moisturizer! We feel like we don’t burn, we don’t need SPF, and we don’t think of skincare in the same way, [but] I think we’ve become a lot smarter about it. 

[Another common misconception] is that foundation is going to make [you] look “fake”.  That it’s going to look like makeup.  I work with some of the most beautiful women in the world. When I put foundation on them, it’s only to enhance and bring more attention to each feature, by unifying those varied tones, by making the skin color even more luminous.  Makeup can look natural and beautiful, and it doesn’t mean you use less of it. I use a lot of makeup to do very natural looking things, and I don’t think that people really understand that.  [A lot of women use the excuse that] “my man doesn’t want to see me in makeup…” A lot of times he wouldn’t even know, if you become better at applying it, choosing the proper colors, and not being scared that foundation or powder is going to make you look like something you aren’t.

[Also], everything does not have to be a color. I know we’re attracted to color, but browns and neutrals look gorgeous on us and play up our natural beauty.  I think some of the wives tales that “browns aren’t going to look good on me”, “beiges aren’t going to work”, [came about because in the past it was difficult] to find the right shades. 

B.Couleur: What, in your opinion, is the most important part of the beauty routine?

SF: Skincare is the one thing…that’s going to take you to the next level. If I talk to a woman and she’s really serious about beauty, I would say the first and most important thing is dealing with skin care. Makeup only enhances what you already have, so imagine how much more beautiful your skin’s going to look, if the texture and tone are being worked on constantly [using] cleansers, toners, exfoliants…

B.Couleur: What are the essentials in your toolkit?

SF: Foundations for sure.  I’m a Foundation King. I recently did a huge seminar for makeup artists, and they said “all we want to see you do is foundation, because we know that is the key to everything that you do.” For me, foundation is key. Contour is [also] key, but I contour with foundation.  Bronzer, powders, these are the kind of things that I spend 45 minutes-to-one hour doing, because for me that’s the work. 

Mikki Taylor, the former Beauty Editor at Essence always used to say to me: “Oh my gosh! That’s the cleanup!” And it is. It’s everything you need. I think color – eyeshadow, lipsticks, blush – those are accessories! Notice how that word is also used for undergarments?  It is the beginning of everything, so you will never catch me without cream foundation, primer, loose powder, or pressed powder, to contour and accentuate the skin. Before we address any smoky eye, any red lip, any flushed cheek…for me that is the beginning of our beauty.

B.Couleur: Discoloration plagues many women of color. How can we obtain the appearance of even-toned complexions?

SF: Everyone has bleaching creams, brightening lotions, exfoliants, alpha hydroxy acids, and things of that nature. To be able to work on it from that standpoint is wonderful, but [it’s] foundation that’s ultimately going to unify your varied tones. I think that it’s something all women should really learn how to use, [and to] shop for. That means you need to learn formulas: tinted moisturizer, liquid, cream, soufflé – I mean, there are so many types right there!  What’s your makeup personality? What’s going to suit you best?  What’s your skin tone?

It’s also important to learn] how to use some of these products in tandem. Maybe you need just spot coverage in certain areas, and in others, you could use a liquid or tinted moisturizer. I don’t think that women understand that’s allowed, and that’s what I speak to often: giving women permission to play, and getting these misconceptions out of our minds, so we can really move forward in how we play up and enhance our beauty.

B.Couleur: The multicultural business is finally being acknowledged by the global beauty industry. What are your thoughts about the big brands’ expanded offerings?

SF: It’s interesting, because [while you were asking the] question, I had to stop and ask “are they doing their job”?  And I can’t say that’s so true. I think they see our dollars, and so I think they will add a face, but will they add a product?  Will they commit to our beauty? When I look at brands like Fashion Fair, who have been speaking to us for 38 years, I feel like “wow! They’ve never changed their point of view. They’ve never left us.”  Now, they may not have kept us front of mind, they may not have given us trends every season, but they’ve worked very hard to make sure that this woman is satisfied, and I think that’s commendable. 

[We also put] our authority, our trust in makeup artists’ lines.  These are people that have worked with a range of beauty.  

[However], there are lines that have been around for 30-to-50 years that have never addressed our beauty, and for them to do it now, would be interesting, but it also seems like, for me, that it’s a little too late…

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