There is no art form more intimate than makeup. Whether I’m creating on myself or a client, my canvas is living and breathing.
It’s not a blank sheet of paper void of humanity, context and perspective – each canvas represents an identity, a culture, and years of lived experience. Now as a professional makeup artist, it is my job to create makeup that is always an extension of my canvas; to tap into the fantasy, dreams, expression of that unique person and to realize it. But for me to be able to do that today as an out and proud queer, trans woman, I had to go through my own process of discovery eight years ago.
It’s 2015 and I’m attending Penn State University for music education. The only way I was able to attend college was because I was on full scholarship after popping my pussy at every audition on the French horn. I came from a small, broke town in East Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania where I was living with a single, alcoholic, drug addicted, abusive, manipulative, religious and conservative mother who outed me for being “gay” senior year after going through my phone and finding gay porn.. So, getting to go to college was so much more than just an educational opportunity; it was my only shot to run away from home and to spend time with myself, my body and my thoughts in a non-abusive household for the first time in a very, very long time.
I immediately began to make friends who all just happened to be queer in one way or another (…music school…) and before I knew it, I was already forming a community around me. At this point, I at least knew I was not a boy, I just didn’t know what I was, but now I had the space and, most of all, the time, to figure it all out.
Sophomore year came, and it was time for the annual amateur student drag show. My friends all told me to go and try drag for the first time, but I truly didn’t know where to begin. It was my first time using makeup, and a friend had taken me into her dorm room and haphazardly applied a smokey eye. Immediately, I felt something shift inside of me. In retrospect, I realize that this experience was a key that would one day find the right lock and open the right door to my future self. But for now, I just had the key and didn’t even know which fucking way to hold it.
As my new drag sisters worked on their highly feminized “cunty” drag makeup looks, it all felt so inaccessible to me. Even though I was doing drag, it still felt out of place for me – that this “gay boy” could transform into a beautiful woman. Years of homophobic and transphobic indoctrination could not justify this new reality I was in. It occurred to me that I could make drag about art. I realized I could recreate works of art by other artists and find different ways to turn them into makeup looks. Early on I was very inspired by the colorful and vibrant work of Josef Albers, Claud Monet,Vincent Van Gogh and Jean Michel Basquiat. By focusing on these artworks and taking gender out of the equation entirely, it allowed me to express myself blindly outside the realm of those norms (‘cause yes, there are gender norms even in drag) and by leaning into the works and styles of other artists, I was then able to develop my own unique style now having a much wider range of technique under my belt. This not only allowed me to possess a level of expression that was profoundly more authentic, but it gave me more tools in the toolbox to express with.
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By studying and trying to recreate these different art pieces, I actually learned so much about different painting styles, which helped me develop very quickly as an artist. These early years for me were so highly experimental, but they were the blueprint for the highly colorful, precise and creative style I am known for today.
As I made my way through undergrad, my makeup styles were evolving and I was becoming more and more comfortable going between artistic and feminine makeup. After creating makeup works for several years focusing on these artworks, I became more comfortable playing with feminine makeup. Those first few years gave me the space to explore and sit with these new feelings I felt stirring in me, and looking back I am so proud of myself for being patient and giving myself the time to figure it all out.
I eventually folded and realized I was no longer a boy… perhaps I was never a boy. But I knew I could now exist free from gender as a non-binary person and give myself time to figure shit out. I was always able to quietly experiment in the privacy of my dorm room, put on a lash, a lip, a full face and see how it made me feel. Do I feel puss? Why do I feel puss? What even IS puss? Is this feeling only surface level? Why do I keep coming back to it? Is this really just a hobby for me? Why do I feel more passionate about this than music? I’ve never felt more passionate about anything other than music….
While I’m having this radical and very difficult period of self discovery, I was also pursuing what ended up as a successful career in orchestra and opera conducting. My freshman year, while exploring the boundaries of makeup, my conducting instructors took me under their wing to give me private lessons and teach me everything they could. By my senior year, I was conducting opera across the country at the Miami International Music Festival and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. But even though this career was progressing, there was an undeniable truth I had to face: from what I could see, this career field had virtually no non-binary people. Not one, not two, but none. None that I ever knew about, heard about, saw with my own eyes, could find online, literally nothing.
I eventually applied for 11 graduate schools for conducting and was faced with what would be the biggest decision of my life. Half of the schools had an application that asked for preferred pronouns where I would write down “they/them.” The five schools where I was able to say “they/them” denied me immediately after application, but for the other six schools, applying as a “he/him,” I made it to every single final round of auditions. These institutions like Manhattan School of Music, Peabody Conservatory or the McGill Conservatory had multiple rounds of auditions with hundreds of international applicants, but I always made it to the final four or three. After each of my final round auditions, I would go up to the director, kindly introduce myself and relay my pronouns. Every single time I did this, I would immediately see any and all semblance of happiness leave their eyes. I even had Marin Alsop, the lesbian and female conductor at Peabody and the Baltimore Symphony tell me to my face, “I think you need to go back out into the real world and get more life experience,” after simply telling her I prefer they/them pronouns.
I was then very promptly denied from every institution – all 11 of them – and had nowhere to go. My whole life I had studied and practiced so excruciatingly hard for this moment, but the dream and reality I was working towards was shattered. I had a choice to make: to go back into the closet, never put “they/them” on an application again and have a career as an orchestra conductor, or to figure something else out and leave this field completely having no backup plan.
So I left. As I grew more confident with who I was, I knew that trying to change who I was would absolutely kill me and kill me fast, so I took matters into my own hands and moved to New York City. I worked my ass off serving at a restaurant all summer to save up $1800, which I knew would be just enough for rent and security deposit for an apartment in Brooklyn. I quickly found a place in Bushwick, landed a job at the Macy’s in downtown Brooklyn, and went to work. While working during the day, I was still able to do drag at night, connect and form a community with Brooklyn’s queer & trans nightlife, and experiment more and more with makeup. Even at this point having left my career entirely, being absolutely broke, hungry, with no insurance, and even borderline houseless, I was still happier than ever.
At this point in my life, I was finally able to find that key I was given five years ago, put it into the right lock, open up the door and see who was on the other side all along.
It was a beautiful, strong, resilient trans woman just waiting for me to find her. She was so patient, so kind, so welcoming and oh so happy to see me. I named her Laurel. I finally realized that this was my destiny: to be this beautiful,strong trans woman that I can now see so clearly for the first time in 25 years.
The magic about makeup is that it allows you to express yourself without knowing who you are. And through my formative experiences with makeup, I was able to express parts of my emerging identity, even though it took me years to put the pieces together. So it is now my goal to help people find their pieces and walk confidently in their journey too. Even if all I do is create a fantasy for someone to live in for just one night, that is all worth it to me.