On Becoming A Freelance Makeup Artist & Breaking Into The Industry

Doris Lew
Founder, Doris Lew
Doris Lew
from La Jolla, California, USA
started January 1978
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On Becoming A Freelance Makeup Artist & Breaking Into The Industry

Hi, my name is Doris Lew. I am the owner and founder of Making Up. My business is about providing services for makeup application and hairstyling. I can do every phase of makeup from natural beauty to high fashion and from Halloween character makeups to prosthetic zombie makeups. For hair, I can do soft natural professional styles to high fashion big hair and any period hairstyles. Maybe someone wants a bouffant or sexy model looking hair. I look to do the not so ordinary makeup and hair. I like a challenge and I like to keep things interesting. My forte is to be creative and do the impossible.

I work in the film, TV, video, and still photography industry. My clients are directors, producers, photographers and anyone else that would have the ability to hire a makeup artist/hairstylist. I also work with the public, what I call real people. They could be a professional corporate person such as a lawyer who needs headshots or doing a conference at a convention center talking on a stage, or a person needing a makeup/hair person for a special occasion. That special occasion could be for a party, birthday, celebrations, proms and let’s not forget a big one, weddings. I do a fair amount of weddings. Also, I do celebrities for red carpet events. Ok so, maybe they’re not so many everyday people, but they do hire makeup artists directly.

I can tell you since makeup artists are freelance for the most part, we can charge whatever we want assuming there’s a demand for that price. The pay is all over the place. One of my first jobs doing makeup was on a music video for Madonna, yes the one and only, Madonna, that was back in 1985 maybe? I was paid $125 for a 12 hour day. Yes, I was underpaid. True back then pay wasn’t good, but it wasn’t that bad and definitely it should have been better for doing a celebrity. Also, mind your music videos are one of the lowest-paying gigs. They can run 24 hour days and get barely minimum wage. I wanted to point out that the pay could range from $100/day to $10,000/day. The lower end or for people starting off working on low budget movies to the upper end of big-name celebrity makeup artists. Since I live in San Diego and not in Hollywood, let’s just say, I don’t make anything like the big name makeups, but I’m doing really good compared to the makeup artists starting in the business.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I’ve been doing makeup and hair for over 40 years. Before becoming a makeup artist I was an artist. I was good at painting and drawing and doing sculpting. So it was a natural and easy transition for me to pursue makeup. Mind you, I had no interest in makeup at all. I was a tomboy. Never wore makeup. I was an athlete. I did sports. So you’re probably wondering, how did I become a makeup artist. Well my girlfriend back then, wanted to pursue a career as a model. We were 15 years old. I don’t know how she convinced me to go to modeling school, but I did. Interestingly when it came to learning makeup, the teacher would walk to each one of us and do half of our faces and we had to copy and do the other half. Mind you this was in the mid-’70s and in Canada where I’m from it was the disco era. So I had this multi-color eyeshadow and heavily contoured face, thick goopy lip stuff. So for me, this was art. I was able to copy her half perfectly. So perfectly that most of the students thought the side I did was done by the teacher. Not bad for the first time doing makeup. Then I was hooked, I found something I was a natural at. From that point, I decided I wanted to learn to be a makeup artist.

You can never be complacent in a people service world. You have to be humbled and grateful for all that you have and accomplished.

I started in Toronto, my home town, doing fashion photoshoots. I did go to makeup school and graduated with the highest honor of the school. I really wanted to do film and TV, so I moved to Hollywood and studied advanced makeup.

I had no money, no car. I either walked or bused everywhere. living on the streets of Hollywood Blvd with just my suitcase and makeup case. I had no ID so I could cash a cashier's check that I had. I was saved by my teacher and he got my check cashed and deposited and he helped me find a place.

My life living in LA was a struggle. I was 22 at that time, so life wasn’t scary or rough for a young kid, but looking back, omg, was I stupid or what?

The school I went to only accepted a limited amount of students and many of the students were from all over the place. They were all very good and talented. I couldn’t believe it, I won best makeup artist. I guess it is my calling. I like to think I’m a natural at it.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

After graduating from makeup school, I did the odd jobs working on shoots with celebrities. It was a fun and great experience for me. I was just amazed and couldn’t believe I was living this lifestyle with the rich and famous.

Meanwhile, I had started to date someone in LA who ended up moving to La Jolla. La Jolla was a beautiful and quaint town. It was like paradise to me. I did the back and forward thing. Then one day decided I wanted to live in La Jolla. So I ended up leaving LA and moved to La Jolla. Life wasn’t much better, I still didn’t have a car and I was still poor and broke with no money. I took the bus to work and worked my ass off to save enough money to buy a car. The only saving grace living with my boyfriend is I didn’t have to pay for rent or food. So that helped me.

I would hussle calling every producer, director, photographer or like I said in the beginning, anyone that would hire or need a makeup artist. Mind you this was in the mid ’80s. No cell phones, no internet, or social media, nothing. I felt like a walking salesman going from door to door trying to sell myself. I would send letters, call back every week, drop by every week. Haha, I know it sounds crazy that I had to do that back in the days. The crazy thing is there were only a small handful of makeup artists back then, now there are thousands and thousands of makeup artists and unfortunately not that much work anymore.

Persistence paid off. I eventually got my foot in the door and from the first job I did in San Diego, I would meet other people and get referrals from them and then get other jobs because of that and so on and so on. Eventually, I made a name for myself. I knew I made when people were talking about me and say they’ve heard of me and glad to finally meet me. That made me feel special especially coming from a new makeup artist trying to break in. They would say, all they heard was my name. In some ways it made me feel kind of famous.

I got to the point I was really busy and had to turn jobs away, then I got smart and thought why turn work away when I can build my own empire of makeup artists to work for me. So that’s what I did. I took on all the young makeup artists that wanted to break in the business but couldn’t, so I helped them. At the peak of my career, I would have many as 12 makeup artists working for me. From that, I bought my first panoramic ocean view house in La Jolla. I was doing so well that I ended up buying and flipping homes in La Jolla, all panoramic ocean views. I’m currently living in my 5th home and in the process of getting ready to buy the 6th one. Not bad for being a freelance makeup artist.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The market has changed dramatically with social media. Now there are thousands of makeup artists or want to be one. The production business has dried up, so now I’m focusing on doing weddings. There’s always going to be weddings all year round. So that’s the next chapter in my life. I’ve always done weddings, but doing production shoots was the bulk of my work, now I’m shifting directions. So in some ways, I’m kind of starting over in a new market, so that will take me some time to build it. I won’t be doing door to door salesman tactics anymore, lol. Now the big thing is marketing through social media. To me, I think of social media as a platform to get yourself out there. Be seen, be heard, let everyone know what you are thinking. So it’s a whole new game for the older generation like myself. I do have a website and I am on all kinds of different social media. I’m in a visual profession, so everything I show, it’s all pretty pictures of my work. It’s a good way to be seen and heard.

So my goal is to build my wedding business and start a new career in a way. I have joined so many different wedding sites and sites to get any kind of makeup job. I think this can be helpful if you know how to sell yourself to your buyer.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Being a freelance makeup artist is a hard career and I wouldn’t recommend it to most. You have to have stamina, patience, be in good shape, lots of hurry up stress, no sleep and lots of standing around. I’m grateful for the experience and opportunity. But it is a hard life. Lots of moving around, traveling, drama with co-workers and people backstabbing you. You have to be strong emotionally. People can be mean, but on the flip side, the opposite can happen. Makeup artists, in general, are treated like royalty. You’re with the talent, the star of the show. You get to hang around with the important people and not necessarily always be with the crew. Again not always the case of that either. It’s all over the place.

I noticed now that I’ve been doing makeup for decades I’ve become a little complacent and that is not a good idea. At the peak of my career, I felt like I was the queen of my world and took it for granted and that was a mistake. You can never be complacent in a people service world. You have to be humbled and grateful for all that you have and accomplished. Once I realized my world was crumbling down, I knew I had to change my attitude and start appreciating where I am in life and where I started from and how hard I work to get to where I am. I need to always be grateful for the work I get and the jobs that people have hired me for. I was chosen over thousands and I need to remember that I’m here because I worked so hard for it and need to treat people like they are important. If I didn’t have these clients who respect me and my work, I wouldn’t have been at the top of my game. So it’s taken me full circle to me humbling beginnings to realize how important relations are. Valve them and respect them.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I do have a website for people to see my work and the best social media for me is Instagram. I’m on Thumbtack too, they’ve done well for me. I’ve been their Top Pro every year and only 4% in the entire nation makes that. So that says a lot about me. Also, I am on a few different wedding sites and production site that hires crew people.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I really enjoy looking at famous celebrities' makeup artists' books. I like to see their work and see how they are different and how they got to where there are. I also like to look at Pinterest for ideas. Or You-Tube.

I’m not so big into some of the young social media bloggers. It’s great that they can do amazing beautiful makeup on themselves, but give them an older woman with wrinkles and have completely different coloring and let's see how good they are? I admire that they are self-made, but can they do makeup on someone really different from them? Maybe not. I’m also envious that they’re so smart and savvy and making millions just by posting stuff 10 times a day, lol and they’re millionaires. I have to give them credit for that. I don’t listen to makeup podcasts because they’re too slow-moving for me. Perhaps the information is nothing new for me. Just some good tips for newbies.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

In some ways, I think I answered this question in bits here and there from previous questions. I would say be strong, be appreciative, be on the ball, don’t be lazy and take things for granted. Like everyone and be liked by everyone. Be a team player. Be persistent and always have your presence around.

Where can we go to learn more?

Doris Lew, Founder of Doris Lew
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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