Makeup Maestro Vincent Oquendo Reflects on His Storied Career

by Tangie Silva
Vincent Oquendo

One of Maybelline New York’s brand ambassadors, makeup artist Vincent Oquendo, started off working the floor at Saks… at a sunglasses counter, not dousing shoppers with fragrance for handsome pay, as planned. The career he’s built since is impressive — ahead, Oquendo divulges what really goes into a red-carpet face in the age of Instagram, how beauty influencers have shaken things up, and more.

How did you first become interested in beauty?
My mom was a beauty-school dropout! She was a single mother to me and my three older sisters, so she had to drop out to support us. She’d always encourage my older sisters to take up the craft. And while she had more of an interest in hairdressing, naturally I ran the other direction. It was not on my radar at all as a young child, but it was in the back of my mind.

When did you first get involved in the industry?
I went to Hunter College in Manhattan and was living in a dorm. Someone there had heard that Saks Fifth Avenue was hiring people to spray perfume, and they actually made a decent amount of money. I applied for a job at the perfume counter, and naturally didn’t get the job because I had no experience! But I did get a job in the sunglasses department, which was right next to it.

Wait. What experience were you lacking to spritz perfume?
They thought I didn’t have it! I was deflated, so defeated. I was like, “Oh, my God! I really wanted to get paid $19 an hour to spray perfume.” But they didn’t see it, and it’s so funny upon further reflection. Then I just fell in love with beauty, because I had a front row seat to all the action at Saks from our sunglasses counter. We would see all the beauty artists working away, and it was hypnotic.

It was when I first fell in love with makeup and I didn’t understand it, but I knew I wanted to be a part of that. There was just such an allure to it. I started freelancing at different makeup counters when I knew nothing about makeup! The women that I met taught me more than I taught them. It’s a testament to just listening. I asked people what they wanted. They were more than willing to show me what they wanted. Plus, I learned from doing it myself.

Any memorable counter experiences?
When I worked at YSL Beauty, I knew fashion brands, but I didn’t know anything about the people. One day, this woman comes to the counter and everybody seems to flutter around her, making a big deal about her being there. I didn’t really know who she was. She came up and asked me a couple of questions about what we had in stock. So I’m talking to her about the seasonal collection, walking her through how to use it. Cut to when she pays — it was Pat McGrath! Eventually, I got to assist her for Fashion’s Night Out. She had probably 15 assistants she’d never met before; there were around 100 models. I was just one of a handful of assistants who she continued to use after that night.

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Very serendipitous! Any advice for aspiring makeup artists?
Work hard, be humble — those are the two biggest things. I know everybody says be humble, but ego is your worst enemy. If I had not been kind to people I came up with, I’d be in a very different position now. Some of these people ended up being huge stars in their own rights. You never know where your next job is going to come from.

When you show up on set, say “Hi. Good morning. Good evening. Thank you. Please.” Just small things, but sometimes in this industry we get swept up in the fabulous. Those kind of acts just make the biggest difference. Don’t “handle” a model by telling her what to do. Say, “Can you please? Would you please? Do you mind if?” You never know who will be the next Bella Hadid. When Bella Hadid wasn’t even Bella Hadid, I was working with her and being nice and kind. It was those small, kind acts that just opened those doors for me as an artist.

It seems you’ve moved toward working with more celebrity clients. What’s that been like?
A couple years ago, I had the privilege of going to the InStyle Awards when Tom Ford was honored [in 2016]. He spoke about how, when he first started in the business, fashion snubbed Hollywood. Now, it’s very harmonious. There are definitely big differences and nuances between being a celebrity or fashion-centric makeup artist. I’m one of the few artists able to sort of glide seamlessly between the two, because I still very much work within fashion. I’m always going to have a soft spot in my heart for fashion jobs — the covers and campaigns.

What are those distinctions, exactly?
When working with a celebrity, you decide on a look for the red carpet, and from the moment they’re getting in the makeup chair and I have them in the light, it needs to be a 360-degree look. It needs to be able to read for social media, for the paparazzi photographing them, on the red carpet with massive amounts of flash — and to translate for video, for interviews on the carpet. It needs to have longevity, to wear really well. I could put on really glossy, pretty makeup, but is that really going to be the best choice three hours later, after the carpet, after the premiere, when they’re photographed leaving that venue? I don’t think so!

You have to figure out what has the best shelf life, and what’s going to look the best on the carpet, without compromising the integrity of the makeup look. It’s about being hyper-aware of different lighting, a celebrity’s stance, and the products’ wearability. That’s why I love working with Maybelline New York so much; they have products that have really long wear-frames, and still look great after six, eight, even 12 hours!

What do you do as a Maybelline New York ambassador?
I’m a representation of the brand. What an exciting opportunity, because growing up as a makeup artist in New York City, I didn’t come from money. I had to scrounge and have side jobs to pay my health care and my schooling. I wasn’t in a position where I could go to Sephora and splurge on a fun, amazing makeup kit. So I had to make it work with what I could afford at the drugstore level — Maybelline was one of those brands.

In college, all my girlfriends gave me half-used, busted cosmetics and I was like, “Alright, thank you! Let’s go!” Every woman has a drawer of makeup that they regret buying. They just happily donated it to me, and I was grateful to have that. It’s a full-circle moment to actually be the ambassador for a brand I essentially started with. I don’t take it lightly. I hope I get to speak to those young people starting out and using those products, and inspire them to play with makeup and be the artists that they see themselves becoming.

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What is a typical day for you as an ambassador?
They’ll make me available for some of my red carpet clients, so let’s say they’re sending me to L.A. for the Golden Globes — while I’m there, I’ll be using Maybelline on my celebrity clients. Then, I get to host an event, like a dinner for other makeup artist friends, and welcome them to stock their makeup kits with Maybelline. I could also sit down with a media outlet the day after, and I get to talk about the looks I created.

Any summer beauty tips?
I encourage people to use something that’s longwearing or waterproof. I’ve seen people using a glowy foundation or glowly, glossy product in the summer, and it’s so warm, it just melts off the skin.

How about summer trends?
Shine is always in. I love a highlighted cheek with a really beautiful metallic eye. There’s a new Maybelline jelly highlighter that comes in two different colors that work with any skin tone. Highlighting is always in fashion! It doesn’t matter what skin tone you have, or your age. I’m also seeing a lot of blush being used as eyeshadow, and bright, daring eyeliners. Jewel tones are a really great way to bring out your eyes. I even recently did a really bold white eyeliner look on Janelle Monáe. A bold eye is always a win!

Tell us about some of your favorite new launches from Maybelline New York this season.
Yes, there’s the Dream Urban Cover which creates a barrier between the foundation and your skin. It’s almost like your skin is wearing a glove. In big metropolis cities, like New York and L.A., there is a lot of pollution, so it’s really great to sort of have that barrier between the skin. I’ve found a lot of success with using it because it has built-in primer. And full disclosure, up until recently, I hadn’t been using setting spray.

I started working with Winnie Harlow over the past few years, and she’s a huge setting-spray lover. I didn’t believe it until I saw it. I gotta tell ya, her makeup does not move. Now using it has really been a game changer because it prevents the makeup from bleeding.  Plus, the SuperStay Ink Crayon is kind of the love child between your lipstick and your lip liner. It photographs so beautifully, and it has a velvety texture. So you get the benefits of a matte lipstick without feeling like you’re suffocating your lips.

Has social media affected how you work?
I think it has definitely changed how we create looks, because now everybody has their phones. It used to be that the client would hit the carpet with all the cameras flashing, but, although it was a 360-degree look, the situation was detailed and controlled. Now, you have social media and photos taken when [models and celebrities] start getting their makeup done in the chair.

Depending on how active my clients are on social media, I need to make sure that from the moment they sit down and we start, it’s a positive reflection of my brand as well; making sure my kit is tidy, and that products look good. Even how I maintain the space and environment, the music that I play, and the type of lighting are factors. It’s all under a microscope. Yes, I have certain tried-and-true products I love, but they look a little beat-up! I use them all the time, and it’s like, “Oh, girl, I got to get a new one of those! It’s not photo-ready!” I wouldn’t normally do certain things in a particular order, but I’ve sort of rewired my brain to do certain steps first, so that their skin is “on,” for instance. Or I’ll start with concealing them, then do foundation.

Thoughts on the influx of beauty influencers?
I think we’ve had some growing pains as an industry in terms of business, being an educated consumer, and knowing what you’re looking at. When people see these influencers and create their makeup looks, it’s just so important they know the difference between a makeup artist like myself and a beauty influencer. I’m not discrediting what they do, but they’re doing it on themselves. If you place someone of a different ethnicity or race in their chair, somebody that’s different from them, they might not be able to replicate that same type of look, because they’ve only ever done it on themselves.

I look at everybody as a brand-new canvas. They’re showing a side of the business that we haven’t seen before. It’s diversifying the beauty industry, and I think ultimately, it’s a good thing: There needs to be diversity within the industry. A subculture within the industry is necessary, because it’s inspiring the young people. It’s important for the viewer to know the difference between what [influencers] offer versus what I offer — different levels of training, fine-tuning, education, and experience

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