Makeup leg­end brings his brush home

Reg­gie Wells does for Bal­ti­more women what he did for Oprah

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY JOHN-JOHN WIL­LIAMS IV

bal­ti­more — Dorothy Liev­ers mar­veled at her­self in the mir­ror just be­fore she got her beauty shots taken in the brightly lit Bal­ti­more stu­dio of fash­ion photographer P.A. Greene. Her smooth, ma­hogany skin glowed. Smoky eye shadow with a tinge of shim­mer danced across the ridge just un­der her eye­brows. Her lips had a hint of matte pink lip­stick.

“My grand­daugh­ter will prob­a­bly say, ‘You’ve been with Mr. Reg­gie,’ ” she said as she gen­tly pat­ted the sil­ver ringlets that rested in a sym­met­ri­cal wave on the top right half of her head.

Liev­ers’s face had just been trans­formed by Reg­gie Wells, a soft-spo­ken yet sharp-tongued, salt-and-pep­per-haired man who was Oprah Win­frey’s Emmy Award-win­ning makeup artist for nearly three decades.

For the past year and a half, Wells has been liv­ing in rel­a­tive anonymity in a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity in the Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hood of Park Heights to be near his 96-year-old fa­ther. It was his ag­ing fa­ther who brought the self-taught makeup artist back to his home town after liv­ing in Chicago since 1990.

“I’m giv­ing back my life to him while he’s on Earth,” the 69-yearold Wells said.

It was see­ing his fa­ther and the se­nior women from Wein­berg Manor that in­spired him to pro­vide free makeovers.

“What I learned from Oprah is why I am do­ing this to­day,” he said. “I’m do­ing this for the for­got­ten peo­ple of fam­i­lies. I’m tak­ing un­known moth­ers and grand­moth­ers and giv­ing them the type of makeovers that Oprah would give.”

On this day, Wells took a group of four women from his North­west Bal­ti­more com­mu­nity and brought them down­town to the Mount Ver­non neigh­bor­hood, where he did their makeup and then had them pro­fes­sion­ally pho­tographed. Wells hopes to con­tinue the ef­fort lo­cally and then launch the pro­gram na­tion­ally.

The ef­fort com­pletes the cir­cle for Wells, a Bal­ti­more na­tive and Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art grad­u­ate who was an art teacher in Bal­ti­more in the mid-1970s be­fore mov­ing to New York to pur­sue his dream of be­com­ing a makeup artist.

It was in New York that he honed his craft work­ing at a num­ber of makeup coun­ters be­fore catch­ing the eye of a fash­ion ed­i­tor and even­tu­ally work­ing with the likes of Glam­our, Life and Harper’s Bazaar. But it was his work with Essence — he did makeup for the model or celebrity on more than 100 cov­ers — that re­sulted in his work with Win­frey and other ma­jor black fe­male en­ter­tain­ers from the 1970s to to­day.

Wells rat­tles off celebrity sto­ries — he seems to have an end­less num­ber — with ease.

He’s “beaten the face” — a pos­i­tive term, used to de­scribe when an artist has ap­plied flaw­less makeup — of Bey­oncé, Halle Berry and Michelle Obama.

He was Robin Givens’s makeup artist for im­por­tant events such as her wed­ding to Mike Tyson and their fa­mous in­ter­view with Bar­bara Wal­ters. He did the makeup for Lau­ryn Hill’s neo-soul clas­sic “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” video in 1998. He was also there for a num­ber of Aretha Franklin photos — he calls her “ReRe.”

His work was so good that he said Joan Rivers, who died in 2014, de­manded to know how much plas­tic surgery his clients had done.

“I told her, ‘Black peo­ple don’t get cut. I’m the doc­tor,’ as I took out my brush,” he re­called with a chuckle. “I think I shocked a lot of peo­ple.”

The women in his re­tire­ment com­mu­nity eat up ev­ery juicy de­tail.

“This is what we have to go through,” Liev­ers ex­claimed with a laugh.

It hasn’t al­ways been fun for Wells. There were a lot of dark times.

Wells said he was mo­lested as a child. “I never told any­one,” he said.

There was the con­stant teas­ing about be­ing gay and re­peated fights. Later on, he de­flected ho­mo­pho­bia from par­ents and co­work­ers alike who were skep­ti­cal of a gay man teach­ing art and dance to stu­dents.

“They didn’t un­der­stand what a ho­mo­sex­ual was,” he said.

He lost nu­mer­ous friends dur­ing the AIDS epi­demic of the 1980s and 1990s.

Even try­ing to break into the makeup in­dus­try was a chal­lenge — es­pe­cially for some­one look­ing to pro­vide makeup ser­vices for women of color.

Wells started out dur­ing a time when there were no ma­jor cos­metic com­pa­nies that catered to black women.

Wells had to cus­tom-cre­ate his own makeup, con­coct­ing lip­stick and eye shadow for his black clients with foun­da­tions and pow­ders meant for white skin tones.

“Oprah never cred­ited makeup com­pa­nies in the be­gin­ning be­cause we had to make it up. Oprah didn’t be­lieve in ly­ing,” he said. “I had to cre­ate all of the makeup. They just didn’t ex­ist.”

It was Wells’s will­ing­ness to pi­o­neer new makeup tech­niques for black women that caught Win­frey’s eye, ac­cord­ing to Wells.

“I did con­tour­ing in 1981 be­fore it be­came a clown’s look,” Wells said.

Wells re­mem­bers when he first com­pleted the makeup on the bud­ding me­dia mogul’s skin for an Essence cover.

“She said, ‘I’ve never looked this good be­fore.’” he re­called.” I told her that I could make her look that good ev­ery day.” .

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