“Complicated, semi-precious and slowly oxidizing. I like clean lines and an X-factor when it comes to makeup, but I also like an effortless element thrown in. Think complicated eyeliner and lash with a simple unstructured gloss," says John Stapleton, the Main Man and senior artist at M.A.C Cosmetics for over eight years. He's considered a true triple threat; versatile, extremely talent and gifted with incomparable creativity.
A native from Brooklyn and a former model himself, Stapleton had built a solid reputation working with celebrities, on editorial and for runway shows such as Alexander McQueen, Elie Saab, Missoni and Tommy Hilfiger.
Now living in LA, John Stapleton has acquired the respect of his peers in such a fierce industry. He has shaped distinctive looks and characters for countless publications from Marie Claire to Elle, Makeup Magazine and Metro. His celebrity repertoire includes working with Sienna Miller (a personal favorite), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kim Cattrall, Mary J Blige, Margaret Cho, Fergie, Pamela Anderson, Kelly Osbourne, Kylie Minogue, Joan Jett, Fran Drescher, Allison Janney, Anika Noni Rose, Victoria Beckham among many others.
Working closely with Osbourne and Cho, John’s work can also be seen regularly on award show red carpets and E!’s “Fashion Police.”
I visited with John, who spoke candidly about his beginnings, his work with M.A.C. Cosmetics and his state of mind.
What’s your title?
Senior artist for MAC. Myself and 12 other individuals in the United States, are supposed to be the face of the brand. We’re the ambassadors of the brand for the press. We also participate every season in fashion week. We will support other major makeup artists in their shows, like Val Garland, Tel Pasho, Charlotte Tilbury, etc. We’re always the support team. And in other cases, we’re in charge, and we’re the key artists for some up-and-coming people. For instance, I worked with JC Obando the first year — he’s a designer that came from LA and then moved his business to New York. There are a lot of start-up brands we’re working with, which is kind of cool because we have a lot of grassroots businesses there.
Are you exclusively with them?
Yes. Contractually, I use MAC products, but I can use anything under the Estee Lauder umbrella.
You’re distributed by Estee Lauder?
Yes. And I do like other products from Estee Lauder, like some of the Estee Lauder foundations and I have a couple of Clinique blushes. I do have a lot different products, obviously.
I think Clinique has good products.
I think so too. Clinique, to me, was always the best first makeup line for a lot of women — a start-up. You’re a young girl; you want to try something. I think a lot of parents trusted Clinique to be clean. It’s in the name. It’s like, “OK, if you wash your face, you cleanse your face.” They had a very typical step-by-step product. I think that’s why a lot of teenagers start there. It’s like their first experience at a makeup counter.
How do you get the artists to work for MAC?
In some cases, I would go to makeup schools and maybe teach there. I’ve been to Make-up Designory; I’ve been to Cinema Makeup School. I’ve been to multiple schools.
How often do you do that?
I work with our artist relations team, which consists of Monique and Melinda. Melinda works with Monique. She handles some of the school stuff, the education stuff. So we would go in and we would meet with the school, and talk to the students. And I might talk about trends, because I’m always involved in runway. So I’ll say, “OK, here’s what we saw, we saw a lot of green eye shadow. We saw a lot of pink for spring. I’ll tell them that’s what we predict being the trends are, and obviously our collections correlate with that when they come out. Then after, Melinda would usually speak to them about applying for a pro-membership, because we have a student membership for them.
We’re not there to recruit, but a lot of them will say, “I’d like to come work for MAC.” And we love that, because we want people that want to be makeup artists. I think what’s always great about MAC is that it’s one of the places where a lot of people get their jump off. Rachel Goodwin (2016 Hollywood Beauty Awards nominee) and Eric Soto (2016 HBA nominee) both worked for MAC. And they were very quick in telling us that you were a big part of their career.
Rachel’s done so amazing, too. They both are. But there are so many people that I can name. Mylah Morales (2016 HBA nominee) came from MAC, I hired her.
You were inspired by horror and prosthetics?
Yes. I love a lot of special effects. I’m sort of somewhere in between beauty and “distortion.”
And you’re also inspired by Hollywood glamour.
Yes. I love horror and I love prosthetics. But it’s a very elite group of people that get in there. It’s cliquey. To me, I was like, “OK, I enjoy it, but I don’t know that I want to do all of the —”
I know there’s a lot of hard work that includes running molds and doing all that stuff. I can get in quicker doing beauty, and it’s the same thing to me. In fact, that’s the amazing thing about working with Rick (Baker). The one thing that was amazing when I worked with Rick on his collaboration for MAC was that he asked me to participate in a design. He designed the look for the Bride of Frankenstein that we did — the Monster’s Bride, we called it. I did the beauty part of it, and he did the ugly parts, as he says. What was great for me was that the whole time I did my makeup, Rick was present and watching. Because even someone as masterful as him, he wants to know, ‘what are you doing?’
He said to me at one point, “I’m sorry, can I just talk to you for a second?” and I thought, “Oh, he doesn’t like something; what’s happening?” But he said, “You just changed hands,” and I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “You just took the brush with your other hand to line the other eye,” and I said “Yes, because it’s hard for me to get this hand in here.” Because it kind of crosses over, so I just switched it to there to get that part, and then I go back to my dominant hand. He was like, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense. I never thought of that.”
It’s true. I never thought of that either.
Just to have someone who’s been such an iconic person (he’s won seven Oscars) in beauty as well as horror — it was just interesting to me that you could still be that grounded and interested in the art of makeup.
When did you know you wanted to be a makeup artist?
Well, I was always a painter. When I was a kid, I wanted to make horror films, so I used to get horror magazines. And I would buy all this stuff from the magic shop, like sculpting. And I didn’t realize it until later in life, because then I moved to LA, and I wanted to make movies and I wanted to be a writer.
I came here with all of those visions, and I got scouted as a model. I worked as a model, for like, two years, in Los Angeles, and I went to Europe and I did all that. And makeup played a very important part in my career. Because it was right when Kate Moss was discovered and the boys wore the sort of smoky-eye, and were “heroin-looking” with long, stringy hair. Remember heroin chic? Such a horrible thing, but that was the look. So anytime I would get cast, they would like me, and they would hire me, but I was always kind of the prop on the side. That’s what you are when you’re the guy. The girl’s the star, and you’re just there.
I was aware that if I wanted to get into the pictures I would have to talk to the makeup team and say, “Would you put a little bit of something on my eyes? I need some cream or something — messy.” They would do it, and then the photographer would be like, “Oh, I gotta get him in. Get him in.” I realized that they didn’t know what it was that they liked about me in the pictures, but I knew that it was makeup. I knew that makeup had enhanced the look that they were looking for.
They just knew that there was something that was being captured, but when they were looking at me, they couldn’t see it until I was in the costume. This is when I realized that this could be the next step in the career.”
And it happened that Tarina Tarantino, who was my friend, working with me on the set. It was one of my last photo shoots, and she’d done the smoky eye, and she was like, “I’m leaving MAC.” She was having a conversation with someone, saying like, “I’m moving on, because I’m going to do my jewelry full time.” Something suddenly clicked in my head “I should go in there.” I thought, so that was it. I went in.
How long ago was that?
Twenty years. A life-er. What’s funny is that maybe three years later, I was really booming and working and doing a lot of stuff, and Tarina and I ran into each other backstage at Louie Verdad who’s a designer in LA. He was a really big up-and-coming designer. And when they were doing LA fashion week, when they used to really do it over at Mercedes-Benz/Smashbox. Tarina said backstage,“We’re shooting something and I want you to be a part of it.” She had done this collection for Barbie, and then from that moment on, she started shooting these catalogues and I did the makeup in every single one from that point forward. She’s still one of my closest friends here in LA.
It opened up a door for me. I don’t know that I really knew that I wanted to do it. I just knew that I needed to be employed, and try to do something that was interesting and that I had the skills for. Because I’m a painter, so I understand colors.
Do you still paint?
Yes, water colors. In fact, I love all mediums of art. I was just in the desert last weekend, and I carved a palm tree —like a tiki. It was so fun. It was weird and cool. I’d never done it before. I never realized I could.
So MAC seems to have capsule collections in makeup similar to capsules in fashion. Do you have anything to do with choosing these people?
Not really. I will say that with Kelly (Osbourne) — Kelly was a face of MAC and she and I started working together. I met her through another artist who worked at MAC, Lisa Torres. I worked with Kelly because of Lisa; Lisa connected me with her. And this relationship grew and grew.
Then eventually, when things were really heating up for her, such as her her stints on Dancing With the Stars and then Fashion Police, I said “I think it’s time you meet with John Dempsey again.” He was the president of Estee Lauder at the time. I said, “I think now is the right time for a MAC Collection. You’re on the fire.”
So she met with them. I mean, you know, that was just an introduction again, and they knew each other. Sometimes someone like John would ask me, “What do you think about this person, or what do you think about that person?” And I would say, “I don’t know if they’re right.” But they know who they like. We’re such a big wheelhouse now. I think what’s cool about MAC is they’re a big company, but they’re still always open for suggestion, and they’re always open for opportunity. And they will sometimes, oddly enough, listen to an artist or someone that’s popular on Twitter. They take from anywhere. They’re not just traditional.
They’re also very supportive of their artists.
Very. We’ve always been. Up until shooting the campaign with Kelly, Kelly had to have it written in her contract that she wanted me to do it. And I work for the brand, but the brand works with a lot of freelance artists because we’ve always been about supporting the artist community. As a major makeup brand, makeup artists will use your products if you hire them. It’s kind of a smart thing to do, to put work out there and to hire people — because you want them to like you and you want to employ them. Who wouldn’t want to do a campaign for a big company? It’s exciting.
What’s the trend right now in makeup at MAC?
I’m so ahead of stuff; I’m in next year’s already. I think what’s happening again is there was a very interesting clean thing happening: a lot of boy-ish eyebrows, and there were some red lipsticks. It wasn’t anything that was, to me, so out of this world. Everything was very safe.
I think that people with foundations that make it look like there’s nothing there is one of the biggest trends. It looking like there’s next to absolutely nothing. Nude, but still having a cushion-y, look to it. I think skin and the look of skin are going to be the most popular things this season.
Also, still utilizing creams in a different way, like cream blushes — things that sink in. The strobing thing is still happening a little bit, but I think it’s very subtle — like different textures. Like creamy textures, maybe some matte lipsticks in different ways. For example, a play of textures on the face. But I felt like it was very safe this season.
Seasonally, there are a couple of things that come out that are the shocking things. And they’re there for shock value and excitement. It doesn’t mean you have to pick that one up, but you could pick a variation of it. And you can try a new lipstick, because a lipstick really only lasts a couple of months, and then you can try something different without investing too much money in a trend. It’s one thing to buy that whole outfit from head to toe and the new purse and the new shoes and the new jacket to go with it. It costs a lot of money, but it’s a lot cheaper to buy the lipstick of the season and try it.
What’s your take on face contouring that’s been really going viral on social?
I think people are having fun with it. I think people are poking fun at it now. I think social media is a really important outlet, and I think we certainly have to see value in it. It’s hard to sometimes understand the value in it, because you think like, “Who are these people?” But they’re making it happen. They work it in there somehow. I think what they’re doing is look at Kevyn Aucoin’s book, and in Kevyn Aucoin’s book, “Making Faces,” he drew a very graphic illustration of where highlights go, and where contours go. The truth is, a couple of years ago, MAC used to make stick foundations, and I had done it before. I took the stick and put it on for a fun as part of a classroom show, like, “Oh my God, it’s like magic.” Take two colors, and work your way backwards. Itt can be done.
To me makeup is fun. I think that some of it can look a little nutty, but I think for the most part, people are having fun with it and they’re enjoying themselves. And really, there’s no harm being done. The only thing I don’t like about social media is people being mean, because I don’t like bullies.
You worked on Melissa McCarthy.
It was close to Halloween. It was coming out, and it was called “The Queen of Comedy.” And the idea was that she was the new Queen of Comedy, so they had her as the Queen Elizabeth. Then we had her as a drag queen, and we had her the Queen of Hearts. She’s so funny.
I created the Queen of Hearts and the drag queen look. Her makeup artist was a wonderful person. [Says he’ll get her name for you guys.] Melissa was game for anything. She even said, “I don’t care. Go for it. Do it all.” Like, “I love it, I love it all. I love character. I like wigs.” And you can see that in her films. So that was the fun of working with her. It was fast; it was furious. We went from Queen Elizabeth to the Queen of Hearts to then the drag queen, which was divine. She had so much fun with it. She was honestly really delightful to work with.
I just really enjoyed her spirit, because she wasn’t bound by anything.
What do you really want for your future?
I just want to continue to work with great people. Honestly, I want to be able to create and do beautiful work, but also do interesting paintings and somehow wrap my artwork into some stuff that I do. I would probably love to publish a book someday with some of my work in it. I would like to be known as someone who is professional, who does really beautiful work and who’s just an all-around nice person to work with. I don’t want any difficulty in my life. I don’t want any drama. I’d love to work with another celebrity, too, that just appreciates you and is kind.
They’re difficult to find.
Very difficult. And I’ll tell you the truth, I would do film, too. I would probably love to go into that. I think there are a lot of places to go. I just have to make a decision.
John was the recipient of the 2016 Mike Smithson Award For Makeup at the Hollywood Beauty Awards.