On Wednesday, Jan. 22, the world lost a phenomenal creative mind. Legendary British makeup artist Vanessa Evelyn Watt succumbed to a battle with cancer. She was 55.
For many, the name Vanessa Evelyn may be unfamiliar, which is part of what makes this loss especially tragic. There is a strange and hard truth about many creative industries: Many who have paved the way can quickly be forgotten; easily eclipsed by the newest on the block. Evelyn was an innovator who had largely been forgotten by her industry and therefore didn’t truly have the chance to fully share her genius with the world.
Some people are put on this earth to be creators; they have the magic of being masterfully multitalented. Ms. Evelyn, as she liked to be called, was just that. She was primarily a makeup artist, but she was also a model, singer, filmmaker, amateur chef, jewelry-maker and all-around creative genius and innovator. To witness her creating was to witness greatness in action. What happens when performance art meets makeup application? What happens when someone sees every part of the world through a different lens?
A visionary happens. Vanessa Evelyn happens.
“She should not just be remembered as a makeup artist. She was one of the most multidimensional, multifaceted artists,” says Evelyn’s former student, assistant and chosen daughter, Oriton Faloughi. “There wasn’t anything that she did that she didn’t do well.”
Ms. Evelyn’s career began in the late 1980s as a model for popular black publications like Essence and Ebony magazine. Though she was quite successful in that area, she truly came into her gift when she began to work as a makeup artist. Her career trajectory from that point was nothing short of phenomenal.
Within six months of starting to build her portfolio, Ms. Evelyn had a career-changing opportunity: She was hired to do makeup for rock star Iggy Pop on a shoot with famed photographer David Sims for London’s Sunday Times. Because of her phenomenal work—and with a little help from Sims—she was soon signed to top British artist agency Streeters. Even at the beginning of her career, her talent was undeniable.
Over the next decade, Ms. Evelyn’s hands and brushes touched and painted celebrities in all facets of popular culture. From sports and music to fashion and social justice, her list of celebrity clientele was a literal who’s who of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Her client list included but certainly was not limited to greats like Tupac Shakur, Rosa Parks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting, Prince, Seal, Viola Davis, Misty Copeland, Serena Williams, Etta James, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale, Lena Waithe, Morgan Freeman, Tyra Banks, John Galliano and more. Her editorial credits are equally as impressive, with her work appearing in publications such as Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, O Magazine, Essence, I-D, Marie Claire, InStyle, Esquire, and British Elle.
Ms. Evelyn’s remarkable creativity made her a force among her peers in makeup. She was an innovator in makeup techniques and tools far ahead of her time. While most artists were traditionally using brushes and sponges, she was applying and perfecting foundation using a paint roller or blowing powder from her hand on to a face to set makeup. She also had an affinity for neck braces to keep models’ heads in place and using a variety of everyday gardening tools to apply all sorts of makeup. What she did with makeup was unlike anything the world has seen.
“Vanessa had the strange ability that whatever she did, she got really into it,” photographer Earl Anderson, a friend of 40 years, says of Ms. Evelyn.
When she got into makeup, she went faster and further than more people would go when they entered the field. In her prime, there is no doubt that Vanessa Evelyn was on the trajectory to be as great as makeup powerhouses like Pat McGrath. However, after some years at Streeters, she grew increasingly religious. Her newfound faith and staunch commitment to a Christian lifestyle unfortunately did not align with the expectations of her industry. Soon, career opportunities waned and Ms. Evelyn shifted her focus to education, opening her makeup school, Petra Alexandra.
As an educator, she was able to help many aspiring makeup artists begin their careers by thinking outside of the box. Top artists like Valente Frazier, Sophie Ono and Sara Sorrenti are graduates of Petra Alexandra and the unorthodox methods taught there.
Upon her death, former students, online friends, and fellow creatives mourned her passing.
When a talent exists in such multitudes, we hope for assurance that there will be a chance for it to be witnessed by the masses. Sadly, Vanessa Evelyn left this earth before she could continue her work, but those of us who knew her will continue to hold the legacy of her genius in our hearts.
Rest well, Ms. Evelyn.