Inside the Celebrity Beauty Squad

What’s it really like to be on the payroll of the planet’s most famous people?

By Cassie Powney

Ever noticed how beautiful a Kardashian argument is? Every side-eye framed by spider lashes, every subtle smirk lacquered and perfectly lined? That there is the work of a glam squad, make no mistake…

“We were in the gardens of the Palace Of Versailles, and we were raging.” I’m nodding into the phone, even though my interviewee can’t see me, and saying “yeah” and “uh-huh” a lot, like I go to wedding parties in Parisian palaces all the time. “Lana Del Rey was singing,” she continues. “We were drinking Dom Pérignon and then suddenly this horse and carriage pulls up, and all these guys appear decked out in George Washington-style outfits – hair, rosy cheeks, the lot.” The wedding party in question was Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s, and the person relaying the story is Kim’s ex-make-up-artist, Joyce Bonelli, who was responsible for the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s impossibly glossy appearance for over a decade. The rumour mill hinted at a “financial falling out” when they parted ways in 2018, something the make-up artist has always denied: “No one’s going to keep someone around for 10 years if they’re a bad seed, right?” Google it and you’ll find that Bonelli’s departure from the world-famous glam squad is still a hot topic. But what I’m more interested in is how it all began. How does a make-up artist from humble beginnings end up within the inner circle of one of the most famous families on the planet? And, more importantly, is life on the inside as peachy-keen as it seems?

The big break

Ask any A-list beautifier how they landed their job and they’ll tell you a story fit for a Hollywood movie script. Justin Anderson, hair colourist to the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Margot Robbie, grew up in California surfing with his parents before landing an apprentice job at Jonathan And George Salon in Beverly Hills – so synonymous with its celebrity clientele that there was a constant throng of paparazzi lining the streets outside.

One night, the salon got a call about a last-minute appointment, and being the fresh-on-the-floor junior, Anderson agreed to stay on. The appointment turned out to be for Kirsten Dunst, who was between films and needed to go from Spiderman red to Marie Antoinette blonde. “Vogue wrote an article about me shortly after that, saying I was the guy to go to for blonde hair in Hollywood,” Anderson tells me. “I was only 22 years old.”

Bonelli, on the other hand, took evening make-up classes as a schoolgirl, going on to do the make-up on Playboy shoots when she was just 18 years old. Her religious, right-wing family were “freaked out”, but the self-confessed hustler spent her time there wisely – learning how to use make-up to shape a woman’s body, and how to work with camera angles and lighting to accentuate all the right places. When a photographer contact asked her to do the make-up for an unknown girl who was about to start shooting a reality-TV show with her family, Bonelli had no hesitation in taking the job. “Kim was different.”

New Zealander Michael Ashton was doing dancers’ make-up at a West End strip club when he got a call asking him to go and trim the fringe of an upcoming singer, Adele. While he was there, she asked if he could do eyeliner too (she was heading out to meet friends), and the rest is history.

But how does one fleeting encounter turn into a decade-long booking? Bonelli suggests it’s talent, punctuality and knowing when to speak. “I’m a wild personality,” she admits, “but not when I’m working.” Hairstylist Yusef Williams describes years of “working his butt off” before landing his decade-long job with Rihanna. So much so that when he finally got introduced to her at a charity event, she said, “So you’re Yusef?” After booking him for two days for Paris Fashion Week (he ended up staying the week), he became the man behind some of her most iconic hair moments. When I ask Williams why he thinks Rihanna wanted to keep him around, he replies, “I often tell my assistants, ‘You need to chill out. Everybody’s human and we’re here to do a job.’ It takes a long time to get into that mindset rather than just trying to impress.”

Rihanna’s make-up artist Priscilla Ono didn’t get the chance to knowingly impress her because the star walked right up to her on the set of her S&M video and said, “I love your hair, I love your style, I love your skin.” The director later approached her about appearing in the video and Ono obliged. After making that first connection, she was brought back to try out for the hotly contested job of global make-up artist for Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line and made the cut. “To think I went from doing $25 makeovers at Plaza Mexico to Rihanna’s make-up,” she laughs.

Perks & personality clashes

Bonelli nicknamed Kris Jenner “sugar momma” during her time with the family. “She gave me my first Rolex and Celine bag,” she reveals. “Oh, and the girls bought me my first pair of Louboutins.” I like how open Bonelli is (of course I do, I’m a journalist), but it’s not an openness that feels gloating – more like a child telling her friend about the cool stuff she got up to on the weekend. Like when she recalls the time she stayed in the Coco Chanel Suite at the Ritz Paris with Kim (“quaint, unlike the Vegas suites, which are big as houses”) and attended Beyoncé’s mum’s birthday party (“not a huge amount of people, but perfect”).

Anderson is slightly more cagey about the extravagances that come with his job, telling me, “I don’t want to look like a douchebag talking about the parties I’ve been to.” But he’s not ashamed to admit that being part of a glam squad isn’t all perks and parties. “There have been two instances, in two people’s homes, where my assistant wasn’t treated with the respect they deserved, and I just took myself out of the situation,” he admits. “Hang on,” I interrupt. “You fired two celebrity clients?” Anderson pauses, weighing up his next words carefully. “Sometimes saying no is just better for your wellbeing.” Which is why when he talks about his current clients in a voice most would reserve for their first-born, I know it’s genuine. “Miley is one of the greatest people to work with,” he gushes. “Dolly Parton said something to her at the beginning of her career about respecting everyone you work with because you never know where they’re going to be when you’re not famous any more.” Miley obviously took Dolly’s advice as gold because Anderson goes on to describe a girl who is “spiky, fun and respectful of people’s time”.

 

When I ask Bonelli if she’s ever had a less-than-positive experience with a client, she recalls the first time she worked with Nicki Minaj. “She was putting what looked like racing stripes down her nose with the darkest powder possible, and when I heard  the compact close I said, ‘Wait, are you done with that? We’re not blending this?’” According to Bonelli, the hair guy laughed nervously and Minaj walked straight out of the trailer. Weeks later, she ended up on another shoot with the singer, who said, “Remember when we were shooting that video and you asked, ‘Are you done with that?’” The two of them laughed about it and Bonelli went on to get more bookings with Minaj, eventually ending up on tour with her; travelling the world on private planes, never stopping in one place for more than 12 hours at a time.

Never not on call

Though the beauty-squad members I talk to are all so inherently different, one personality trait binds them all: they’re self-confessed workaholics. Ashton recalls being on tour once for a year and a half, missing family birthdays and fun moments with friends. Bonelli describes a particularly frenetic time in her life when she’d just become a mum for the first time: “I would go to Kris Jenner’s house at 6am, then Khloé’s, and then one of the other girl’s. Then I’d go home and have the baby sleep on me for a few hours before going back out to do American Idol with Nicki Minaj.” She admits she was trying to keep too many people happy in those days, and experiencing guilt for not taking more time off with her son. When I ask if she’s ever been offered money for the information her unlimited access gives her, Bonelli claims she wouldn’t know how to leak a story to the press even if she wanted to. “Oh, but the stories I have,” she adds. “[Newspapers would pay] hundreds of thousands of dollars!”

“At the end of the day, our job is to provide a service,” Ashton reminds me. Williams agrees, suggesting it’s an old-school work ethic that has been lost somewhere along the way. “When kids hit me up on Instagram saying they want to break into the industry, I don’t spare them a thing,” he tells me. “It’s not just about planes, tour buses and shopping – you have to know your shit. I didn’t just post a picture on Instagram and Rihanna called.”

With Bonelli and Williams promoting their own lines now, and Ono heading up Rihanna’s sell-out beauty brand, their hard work has obviously paid off. “I don’t have my own private plane or yacht yet,” Bonelli (my new favourite person) drops into conversation during our chat. No, not yet, I think, but I don’t doubt for a minute that one day she will.

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