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When Black actors arrive on set, they know what probably awaits them in the makeup and hair trailer.
“Often it’s a white hairstylist and a white makeup artist on the set and they wouldn't know what to do with me,” said Oscar-nominated actor Cynthia Erivo. She said while there are a few who understand Black hair and skin, she has become “very used phrases such as ‘your hair looks lovely, we'll just leave it like that,’ ‘your skin is so pretty that we don't need to put anything on your face.’ They do the very bare minimum and don't really know what to do.”
Erivo said she used to bring her full makeup kit to set, but that was not enough. She would still end up fixing her own hair and makeup after white artists muddled through with her tools.
Black actors have brought their own hair and makeup to sets and complained about subpar service from white makeup artists and hairstylists for decades. The disparity comes from a systemic dearth of Black artists and stylists represented in Hollywood’s celebrity hair and makeup union, which functions as the gatekeeper for who gets movie or TV work in entertainment. Even as more films and TV shows feature or star Black actors, their needs for adequate hair and makeup are often not being addressed behind the scenes, which ultimately shows up on screen.
Celebrity hair stylist Sir John — who has worked with Beyoncé, Iman, Serena Williams and Naomi Campbell — said Black entertainers bring their own supplies because they anticipate producers’ general unwillingness to cover the costs or hire artists who understand Black hair.
Last year model and entrepreneur Iman said those experiences throughout her early career, beginning in the 1970s, prompted her to launch her own makeup line in 1994.
This posture toward Black entertainers still happens.
Terrell Mullin, Erivo’s makeup artist, said Black makeup artists and hairstylists are so rare on set that “I'm almost like Jesus when a Black talent walks into the trailer and sees me. I literally have had talent cry in front of me walking in the trailer and seeing that there was a Black artist on their face for that particular project and know that they'll be taken care of and not have to worry about the color of their foundation — there will be no just making sure they pass on camera.”
This tension has prompted Black actors to regularly call on Hollywood for change. Their most notable campaign was in 2019 with their viral Twitter thread #ActingWhileBlack.
Some change is happening — slowly. This year, hair department head Mia Neal and hairstylist Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to ever be nominated for Academy Awards for hair and makeup, for their work in the nominated film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. The category has been around since 1981.
Wilson said part of the uphill battle Black hairstylists and makeup artists face when trying to land more jobs is the barrier to entry to join the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild, IATSE Local 706, union.
Bernadine Anderson became the first Black Hollywood makeup artist in 1968, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She became a member of the union in 1973. These days, Wilson said, the union will deny even the most qualified applicants on technicalities. Union membership requires either 60 days of nonunion work in the industry for three of the last five years or 30 days of union work in the last year. Wilson logged 59 days while working as a hairstylist for Keke Palmer on “True Jackson, VP” after Palmer specifically asked for her so there was someone on set who knew how to do her hair, she said.
“You have to have all your hours with that actor,” Wilson said. “It couldn't be with another union job. If I did a union job with Viola but then also had 59 with Keke, I couldn't use that one day. I had to literally start all over.”
As Palmer advocated for Wilson, many artists are finding that it’s necessary for actors to specifically advocate for them to be on set. It also helps them acquire the number of hours in order to qualify to join the union. It’s difficult to get regular work in the industry without joining the union, but it’s difficult to join the union without establishing regular work.
But even after becoming a union member, production teams may not choose Black artists and stylists.
Mullin said the responsibility of hiring Black makeup artists and hairstylists should not fall solely on the shoulders of actors. Producers who “run these shows and these movies are white women and white men and they're not hiring us,” Mullin said.
Now that he has been a department head for the last 15 years, he looks to hire Black artists and stylists on his team. And when producers do hire Black artists and stylists, Mullin and Erivo said it’s usually for one day, specifically to prepare Black actors, and then they’re out of a job even though more white actors are starting to prefer Black stylists and artists.
Union representative Randy Sayer said in a statement that the union “is committed to providing the best trained, highly skilled, most experienced professional artists in the industry. We, too, are looking to improve the diversity and representation throughout the entire industry. We continue to work closely with other major unions to accomplish these shared goals and ideals. In the meantime, we are proud of the quality of the work performed by our members.”
Sayer said actors can submit waivers to the union for it to grant access to their artist or stylist of choice on each project.
Erivo, though, said this option is either generally unknown among Black actors or that only more prominent stars feel free to use this option; actors with less influence are often fearful of being fired or labeled difficult in an industry run on personal networks.
Sayer said that according to two members who evaluated the membership pool, roughly 200 of its 1,700 members are Black. Sayer said the union does not have a maximum capacity, but expanding the membership pool means fewer job opportunities for each member.
Sayer and fellow union representative Polly Lucke said there are multiple reasons for the disparity: Actors do not communicate their hair and makeup needs in advance, so makeup artists and stylists cannot adequately prepare. When actors arrive on set with hair textures or skin conditions previously unknown, it’s challenging to accommodate them.
Lucke said another barrier is how the cost of living in Los Angeles has turned the industry into a wealth contest.“If you don't have financial support to work for three years to get your 60-60-60 on lower paying, nonunion jobs, that can be problematic,” she said.
Sir John noted there are entry-level, unpaid training positions available, but most Black artists and stylists cannot afford to work for free, while more of their white counterparts can rely on family members’ financial support until their careers get off the ground.
Sayer said the union offers voluntary classes on textured hair and diverse skin tones, but it cannot legally require completion of those seminars. He added, though, that members who need to learn the skills do not tend to take the classes.
Sayer said he’s limited in how much progress the union can make, as older white union members are resentful of losing jobs to nonunion members via waivers or recent additions.
Coree Moreno, Erivo’s hairstylist, said he’s just now starting to break into the industry with the help of Erivo advocating for him. But he’s still facing hurdles throughout his current union application process due to space limitations and producers choosing other contenders.
“Me being a newbie, I'm hearing a lot more within conversations, ‘Oh, geez, who ain't ready to let go of their spot?’ And there's a lot of people who don't really build the right teams,” Moreno said.
Black artists and stylists said that despite growing momentum to close the disparity, it remains because of the double standard they’re up against and a lack of representation. They said their white counterparts will get hired even if they lack cultural competency skills.
“Black makeup artists have to know how to do white women, Asian women, all on the same level,” Sir John said. “My white counterparts don’t necessarily have to know about Black hair. But we know everything there is, in every nuance, and we were taught to know everything they have.”
He added that white artists and stylists “will spend all the time on white models and their hair. You have women from other cultures come in and it’s like, 'Let’s just get it done,' or, 'Let’s move past it,' or, ‘What are we going to do with your hair?’ as it’s a problem.”
That treatment “chips away at your sense of self,” he said.
Erivo said the problem continues because “people are afraid to do the learning. As time has moved, we have changed, the style has changed. If you hire the same people who've been doing the same thing for ages, then you don't have to make the effort to learn something new.”
Mullin said sometimes white artists and stylists do render good service for their Black clients, but each team should always have Black representation.
“There are a few amazing Black movies within the past few years that had all-white hair and makeup departments. And I'm like, 'Oh really? You have an all-Black cast and you employ a full white team,'” Mullin said, adding that when this imbalance happens, white teams are praised for novelties they “discovered,” while Black artists and stylists have used the same methods for years, such as applying coconut oil for a dewy look.
What's being done
The union, Black actors, stylists and makeup artists are using a number of strategies to mitigate the issue.
The union formed a diversity and inclusivity committee last year, and it has been facilitating educational town halls and trainings in textured hair and making recommendations on actionable next steps. Sayer said he wants to launch a video campaign in which actors share their poor experiences for producers to take into consideration when hiring their crews and a separate video in which both he and Lucke teach actors how to have a conversation with producers, artists and stylists about their hair and makeup needs before arriving on set so the crew can stock materials for them.
Sayer said actors can book appointments with artists and stylists before production begins for additional time to receive service that otherwise wouldn’t happen on set due to time constraints.
Black stylists and artists said actors writing them into their contracts has led to more opportunities for them. Wilson said Viola Davis asking for her by name for ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” is how she got her hours to join the union, and then her career took off.
Erivo said since negotiating Mullin and Moreno into each project she agrees to, she has not been disappointed with the outcome.
Erivo said she started including them in her contracts “to make sure that whoever was handling the hair and makeup on set was able to really deal with what I am — a Black girl with 4C hair — and not be afraid of it,” she said, referring to her hair’s curl pattern. “Coree and Terrell make me feel beautiful wherever we go, whichever character I'm playing.”
Sir John and celebrity hair stylist Kim Kimble — who’s worked with Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Zendaya and Kelly Rowland — work with Black Beauty Roster, an organization working toward equity in this area, to train job and union applicants in period pieces, special effects and other specific types of hair and makeup.
Kimble said they also train for more general assignments, so salon stylists know on-set skills such as maintaining continuity in styles, working within brief timeframes to prepare talent and managing a large budget and people under pressure. They also work with Black Beauty Roster to increase diversity in the industry by amplifying Black artists' and stylists' work, increasing access to opportunity and training non-Black professionals on how to service textured hair and diverse skin tones.
Wilson said her historic nomination goes a long way in increasing opportunities for other Black people in the industry.
“Never in a million years did I ever dream of being nominated for an Oscar, and I say this because I didn't really see anyone that looks like me getting nominated,” Wilson said. “And so the recognition of my art and talent by the Academy is bigger than me. It's for every hairstylist who dreams beyond hair salons. It also shows every Black woman or man or young child that we can achieve and, more importantly, that our talent and skill is equal and exceptional.”