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 Mount Vernon 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 her silver ringlets that rested in an a symmetrical wave on the top right half of her head.
Lievers’ 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 close to three decades.
Helping his dad
For the past year and a half, Wells has been living in relative anonymity in a retirement community in 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 hometown after living in Chicago since 1990.
“I’m giving back my life to him while he’s on Earth,” the 69-year-old Wells said.
It was also 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.”
The early years
On this day, Wells took a group of four women from his Northwest Baltimore community and brought them to Mount Vernon for a day, 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 MICA 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 — there seems to be an endless number of them — with ease.
He’s “beaten the face” — a positive term used to describe when an artist has applied flawless makeup — of Beyonce, Halle Berry and Michelle Obama.
He was Robin Givens’ makeup artist for important events such as her wedding to Mike Tyson and their now infamous 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.”
No plastic surgery
His work was so good, he said the late Joan Rivers 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 co-workers alike who were skeptical of a gay man teaching art and dance to students.
“They didn’t understand what a homosexual was,” he said.
And even after he moved to a more accepting New York City fashion scene, 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’ 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.’ I told her that I could make her look that good every day,” he recalled of the 1986 encounter.
By 1990, Oprah relocated Wells to Chicago to be her full-time makeup artist.
There, Wells’ work didn’t end with makeup. He worked with lighting technicians to come up with non-traditional ways to light sets so that Black skin would look its best on camera.
“The lighting was not acceptable for Black people,” he said, adding that he incorporated six spotlights, which were traditionally used in theaters, for studio tapings. “I told Oprah that I would never win an Emmy with this [old] lighting.”
Kudos to Winfrey
Wells delivered. In 1995, he won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Makeup. He was nominated four additional times.
Wells is quick to attribute much of his success to his work with Winfrey.
“There’s no secret how Oprah is not afraid to show herself,” Wells said while swiveling between two chairs as he put the finishing touches on Lievers. “You extend yourself and leave parts of yourself behind. If you don’t give, you don’t receive.”