Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

Backstage with a Makeup Artist

For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Cynthia O’Rourke, a makeup artist and member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 798. She has been an active union member since 2009 and is currently an elected delegate. She earned an MA in Labor Studies from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies (SLU).

As a makeup artist and a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 798, I’ve been very involved in the Local since I joined in 2009. I was secretary treasurer for three years and served on various committees. Currently, I am an elected delegate and represent our local at international conventions. Looking back on my career, I wanted to make movies from a young age. I was very interested in special effects. I worked in a hair shop in high school. I was into makeup but wasn’t a person who wore it all the time or did makeup on my friends. When I graduated high school, I went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, in the Film & Television program, and got into the post-production end of things. I graduated right after 9/11. It was hard to get a real job in that field unless you wanted to move to Los Angeles. I had a child while I was in college, so I couldn’t pick up and go to California. I needed my family near me, so I worked in post-production as a receptionist, scheduler, and eventually as an assistant editor. But I just felt like my career wasn’t going anywhere. I had taken one class at Tisch where we did special effects makeup that was pretty cool, so I started researching makeup and cosmetology schools. One day I took a leap, quit my post-production assistant editing job, and went to a Make-Up Designory School (MUD) in New York. Once I finished the course, I started freelancing and doing any jobs that came my way. Then I started working in the production end of movie-making, doing makeup. I loved it so much. It’s hands-on training. There’s no apprenticeship, it’s very on-the-job training. People ask all the time how do they get started. It’s a true answer: you do a lot of free work because you don’t have the experience to demand the wages. You build up your experience, portfolio, and networking capacity until you can get the paying jobs. The MUD school I went to made you practice, practice, practice. By the time people graduated, maybe they didn’t have the most original makeup, but you could do a winged eyeliner with liquid mascara in 2.3 seconds. We worked on each other, so you got to experience how to apply makeup and also how it feels to have someone stab you in the face with a makeup brush. You learn how to be more careful. They got you over any uncomfortableness of getting up in somebody’s face. That’s a big part of what we do. One of the jokes that makeup artists have is that we’re here to pick your nose for you, mop your sweat.

How do you socially distance when you’re shooting outside; it starts to rain; and everybody is huddling under a tent?

On the best of days, the makeup department is the most sanitary of all the departments on a film shoot. But I don’t think film sets are known for their hygiene, which becomes a problem in a pandemic. How do you socially distance when you’re shooting outside; it starts to rain; and everybody is huddling under a tent? If you make an exception for one protocol, everything else will backslide, and then you’re just doing things in the old personal, close-up ways. Production companies are notorious for “well it’s not in the contract,” so we don’t have to do it. I think they take social distancing rules more seriously, but there’s already, in my opinion, problems with film sets being unsafe. It’s like being on a construction site where you’re always mitigating risk. It’s a little too easy to treat Covid-19 as a regular sort of risk as opposed to a very special deadly kind of risk. I read during the pandemic that outdoor film shoots can’t be more than twenty-five people. You can’t shut down any roads, do any stunts, have any actors in police uniforms because then you’d have to have a real cop on set. How are you going to make creative compromises that don’t affect the feel or content of the show? We are all about movie magic, so I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s not going to be easy. I think entertainment and the arts are important, but I don’t think my life is worth providing people entertainment. I don’t think anyone’s life is worth it.

Back in the day, makeup artists would have binders called a morgue because it’s just faces.

When I started, I was more comfortable with special effects makeup. In order to make a living, you have to diversify your skill set. I did not find success just doing special effects, there was no money in it. You had to be able to do just straight normal beauty makeup, corrective makeup, the no makeup-makeup look in order to get hired and do the jobs that are the bulk of the work. It’s a bit of a boys’ club when it comes to special effects. At a certain point, I was tired of trying to prove myself. I’m more of a feminist than most, but I was just so tired of people being surprised I had blood makeup in my kit. It was like, fine, you want me to do plain boring makeup, I can do plain boring makeup really well. That was actually good for my career. Bottom line I’m getting more work now. As you move up through the ranks of independent student films and cable access TV-level work to bigger and better budgeted projects, you find companies that need and can afford people with specializations. On lower budget jobs, you’re the jack-of-all trades. The top special effects people were getting the small pool of jobs. I would say, as a professional union makeup artist, you have lots of opportunities to gain those special effects skills on the job. It’s less blood and gore and more subtle. Period makeup gets a lot of research. If it’s a contemporary story, I’d concentrate more on the character. This is my favorite part of being a makeup artist, contributing to the character—like if somebody is wearing blue eye shadow or spiky mascara that says something about their character. Sometimes you decide how to enhance a character on your own; sometimes it’s in a conversation with the director. It depends on the project. In any case, you’re definitely keeping references, and noting textures and things that catch your eye. Back in the day, makeup artists would have binders called a morgue because it’s just faces. You saw a magazine article where you liked the makeup; you cut it out and put it in your morgue, so you have it as a reference for some future project. I think old-school makeup artists still do that. These days, with the internet, I think a lot of that gets done by a Google search or a look on Pinterest or going through old magazines.

The no makeup-makeup look is very much bread and butter, but it’s not as creatively fulfilling. Rapport with the person you are working with is very important. Sometimes you click with somebody; sometimes you don’t. I think the important thing is your actor has to trust you. In the best cases, the collaboration between the makeup artist and the actor creates that character. That’s the most rewarding aspect of the job. You feel like you really helped the actor get there.

You’re not a makeup artist if you don’t have a kit, which is carefully curated, added to, and subtracted over the years. It will consist of expendable makeup products like foundation or mascara, but it’s also the bags and containers you bring stuff in—the brushes and durable stuff. Every makeup artist I know has a closet, storage space, or a garage where they keep boxes and boxes of stuff. In addition to hourly wages, we receive kit rentals [fees] for bringing our kit to work, usually $25 a day. Many people, when they get hired for a job, will negotiate the rate of their kit. If you’re a department head with a very intense show with lots of special effects, you can negotiate a higher kit rental for yourself. While the standard is $25 per day, you might be able to get $150 per day. The kit rental is not included in most union contracts; it’s an industry standard thing.

There’s a makeup department and a hair department—we’re in the same union, usually working in the same room right next to each other. Back in the day, makeup artists were men, and hair stylists were women. Hair stylists used to be paid less because they were women. Today, in Local 798, there is wage parity between hair and makeup. Most often, the union rate is $504 for an eight-hour minimum, anything after that is overtime. My local definitely skews female. I don’t think a lot of IATSE unions collect demographic data, so I can’t say anything more specific about demographics. If you just looked at our local, maybe it wouldn’t look very diverse. But—as a Local of mostly women—we bring diversity to the entertainment industry, which is predominantly white and male.

. . . [T]he collaboration between the makeup artist and the actor creates that character. That’s the most rewarding aspect of the job. You feel like you really helped the actor get there.

We could definitely be more diverse, but I think more importantly it’s about the interactions at work and among ourselves. How do you not get the label of angry Black woman when you bring up an issue at work? I’m not a person of color, but I’ve seen shit happen at work that is just not okay. As an ally, how do I speak up at work without getting fired myself? I think that’s what we need to focus on more than just making sure we have the right percentages of people represented. It’s something I think most of our members support. Our members also have strong feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement. When the local put out a statement, our members were like, that’s great, but what are we doing about it? A few of us got together: We wanted a committee and got the president to sign off on it. Even when the committee was very new, they were doing a great job. One subgroup is working on diversifying our local and industry. There’s a study group doing book readings and discussion. A Black caucus group is sharing their experiences on set.

Our members . . . have strong feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement. When the local put out a statement, our members were like, that’s great, but what are we doing about it?

Every makeup unit has a department head who is in charge of the whole makeup department. They set the looks; they have final approval on them; and they are the ones actually having conversations with production. In the best world, they are negotiating for their team, getting the kit rental bumps. There is a key who is there to support the department head. Keys help with managing supplies that need to be ordered, booking staff or manpower. The department head and key are union positions. Usually they are the only people who are full-time staff. The most common way to join the union is through the application process. You show proof of work with call sheets for 180 days in the industry in the craft that you are applying for and in the sectors that we cover. I can be a makeup artist and do fashion week, but that doesn’t count toward my application for Local 798 because we don’t represent people in fashion, photoshoots, or magazine editorials. You pick the days you’re legally able to work.

The International union requires proof that you have lived in our jurisdiction for eighteen months. Then they call you in for an interview. You sit with a panel of Local members, show them your portfolio, and they ask questions. Big picture, they are looking for people with a well-diversified skill set. They want to see you can do some special effects and well-researched period work—not fashion or creative period work. They want to be sure you know your different periods and what styles work. They’re also interested in character makeup: corrective makeup, tattoo covers, tattoo applications, scars, and also a bald cap. The skills you need to do a bald cap well are fundamental skills. If you’ve mastered them, they know you’re a certain caliber of makeup artist. They are looking to see that you can do a whole range of skin tone, too.

As a craft union, we want our members to have a basic level of skill. The idea is, if we let you into the union, we want to be able to call you tomorrow to come work on any job. There’s no apprenticeship; you have to be able to hit the ground running. If I’m going to be embarrassed by the work you show to my producers, it’s almost self-defeating. Because then you won’t get hired—you’ll be a member of the union, but you won’t get hired. We want to be able to say we have the best makeup artists in the world, so I think the base level expected is fair, but it can create roadblocks in our Local’s efforts to organize more aggressively. You either organize somebody or you don’t. Sometimes an organizer will bring in people who don’t have a whole range of skills. To try and address that problem, the Local does have an education program. They’ve been working on a standardized curriculum across our jurisdiction which includes a natural hair class and makeup for dark skin tones. As a makeup artist, I would expect that all of our members can do basic makeup on darker skin tones, but there are other things like special effects on darker skin tones. If we don’t have shows with a diverse cast, then our makeup artists don’t get to work on a diverse cast. They don’t get to exercise that skill set.

As a new member you’re encouraged to network with other makeup artists. I got 95 percent of my work from other makeup artists. We have a pension in Local 798, annuity, and health funds that our employers pay into through our contracts. There are no paid sick days or vacation. Most shows don’t run long enough for you to access those sorts of benefits. However, in New York City, if you work for a certain amount of time for a show, you’re entitled to paid family leave.

The entertainment industry basically shutdown overnight during the coronavirus pandemic. The last day of work I was booked on three different TV shows. Monday and Tuesday, I was at The Blacklist; Wednesday and Thursday I worked at Prodigal Son; and then that Friday I was supposed to work at a show called Faces; it was six in the morning, I’m driving to work. Twenty minutes into my drive, I get a call from the key of the show, saying they just canceled. They don’t even do that if there’s a hurricane or blizzard. The following week I was supposed to be on that same show. I was booked for two weeks. I was so excited because I got this big long stretch of work. It just went poof. We got paid for that Friday because they canceled it so late—that’s in the union contract. But they didn’t pay anybody for future work that was booked. If they had a Covid-19 vaccine tomorrow, and everything was fine, I think we could get back to work very quickly. The problem, as I see it right now, is that the protocols that we need to go through to keep people safe are logistically complicated and onerous. Each production company has to decide if they follow all the protocols in order to get back to work or just wait it out. Because we don’t know how long it’s going to be, a lot of shows are trying to get back. What they’re finding is, it ain’t that easy.

When the shutdown happened, the union focused on helping our members. IATSE set up a care initiative, connecting young, able-bodied members with those who were older or immunocompromised. They picked up groceries or medicine, and connected people who wanted to make phone calls or check in on other members. IATSE was also campaigning for the HEROES Act, which would have extended the CARES Act unemployment insurance provisions and other benefits to IATSE members. Because productions were going back to work, the union tried to ensure that productions were held accountable and provided safe work environments. But, without an overarching industry-wide safety agreement, productions were making it up as they went, show by show. In September, the film and television unions reached an industry-wide agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMTPTP) on new industry work protocols, including mandatory regular testing and enhanced social distancing through a zoning system. Makeup artists are “Zone A” and are tested three times a week. We have daily temperature and health screenings before we can go into work. Wearing masks all day is very challenging. But the biggest logistical challenge is keeping the crew in zones and/or pods in order to limit the number of people any one crew member comes in contact with during the course of the day. So, some of the flexibility to do our jobs and deploy manpower as needed is gone. And, of course, the protocols are only as good as the people enforcing them.

. . . [O]ur particular gig economy stopped overnight, with no warning. Many of my friends didn’t get unemployment for months. I didn’t get unemployment for eight weeks. We’re hurting bad.

Our industry is already precarious. Jobs vary in length from TV to film, and with unpredictable schedules. We were the gig economy before there was a gig economy. And then our particular gig economy stopped overnight, with no warning. Many of my friends didn’t get unemployment for months. I didn’t get unemployment for eight weeks. We’re hurting bad. The idea that getting $300 (a week) is going to prevent somebody from going back to work ’cause they make more money sitting at home is nuts. All of us in the entertainment industry would love to go back to work, but I don’t want to endanger my health or my actors’ health. Some people have families. My daughter’s going to be in fifth grade. She has to learn remotely or on a hybrid schedule, whatever they come up with. I might have to be home and not be available to work. I can’t afford that if I am just making the standard unemployment amount, and not able to supplement that with work. If anything, being able to be home was a bit of a silver lining ’cause supporting my daughter’s learning is a full-time job. I want people to know that, even if it doesn’t impact them directly, even if they don’t think people deserve $300 a week, they should call their senators and tell them to vote for the HEROES Act. If we could come back to work quicker, we would.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Author Biography

Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about the evolution of 9to5, a national association of working women established in 1973, and women organizing in the workplace.