Gordon Espinet: “I had spent my whole life drawing faces”

Trinidad-born make-up artist Gordon Espinet on beauty and self-confidence — as told to Mariel Brown

  • Gordon Espinet. Photograph courtesy MAC Cosmetics
  • At work backstage at the Ruffian Spring 2005 show. Photograph courtesy MAC Cosmetics

I was born in Trinidad in 1961. My math is very bad, so that would make me 26! I’m the last of 13 children — a nice small family. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Cascade, and actually went to St Mary’s College [in Port of Spain] for one and a half years. Then my family left Trinidad and moved to Canada.

Being a teenager and moving to St Catherine’s, Ontario, was like being on Mars — it was so far from what I could have imagined. Those five years were slightly traumatic — definitely not the funnest years of my life. I was so afraid of the real world then. I was terribly insecure, and shy to the point where the idea of going to school used to put me into a panic and make me sick. I was a weird kid — if I met me today, I’d think, that kid’s got problems. Would it have been my choice to move to Canada at the time? I don’t think so, but then when you’re 13 you don’t get to make the choice. But it’s part of what made me who I am today, so if I had to press rewind I would do it again.

I grew up in a neighbourhood that was primarily tall and blonde, and I’m not, and I had a funny accent, so I stuck out like a sore thumb. Of course, at age 14, being different is not cool. But I dealt, I endured. I used to play with make-up and do five-dollar haircuts on weekends, and at some point in my teens I connected with a group of people from the drama department at Brock University. I did the make-up for a play that was on at the university. I’d never done theatre make-up, and I discovered that you had to make young people old, and people with hair bald, and it was like, “Oh gosh. How do you that?”

I ran to the library and got every make-up book I could get my hands on, and I proved to myself that I didn’t want to do theatre make-up. It’s not about making people beautiful, it’s about creating characters, and at the time I was still caught up on beautiful faces. I had spent my whole life hiding under tables and chairs and drawing beautiful faces.

So as soon as I was finished high school, pretty much at the end of my last exam, I ran off to the big city — Toronto — to pursue a career of some sort. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I found a school for make-up, and teaching there was a make-up artist I really admired. You know, at the time it was really about drawing on a whole new face!

Before I was finished with the course, a photographer phoned into the school and hired me to be an assistant make-up artist on a fashion shoot. They really liked the work I did, and through them I met more models and more photographers, and stumbled into the career that led to what I’m doing today — I became a freelance make-up artist and had huge visions of grandeur. It was really cool to do the thing I enjoyed, and in my eyes I was the best thing in make-up since sliced bread! For about 12 years I worked primarily in fashion and beauty. But, you know, in this business the reality is, here today, gone tomorrow, and at the age of 30 I had a big old mid-life crisis and panicked.

But, lo and behold, MAC came along — a young, upstart make-up company (at this point no more than five years old) — and they asked me to train their staff to do make-up. It seemed interesting, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give up my freelance career, so we agreed that I would do a three-month contract. Well, that three-month contract is still going, 14 years later. I realised the people at MAC were just like me — they were family.

Along the way I started to dabble in different things within the company, and used my earlier experience to drag MAC into the fashion industry, truly, deeply, madly. So I started doing the make-up backstage at the fashion collections in London, Milan, New York, and Paris. I worked with designers like Katherine Hamnett, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Balenciaga, and Roberto Cavalli. Last season we worked on 150 shows in the four cities.

But it started to get a little insane! And I decided to re-acquaint myself with all the make-up artists that were out there. MAC brought them into the mix, and we were able to keep our team and brands backstage at the shows and have a significant MAC presence in the eyes of the fashion industry. I still do a lot of shows myself, but there’s no way that I could do 150 shows in one month. I would send myself to an early grave, and I don’t want that.

MAC really gave me the power to be myself. They trusted, respected, and appreciated me for me. I think that when I discovered I had value and some talent to offer to the world, it really helped me to grow into who I am. I met so many people who were just like me, I realised I wasn’t that strange. Time really helps you to learn who you are.

Now, at the age of 40-something, I wake up on a morning and I have to smile to myself.  I have a fabulous family — too many of them, but fabulous! — I have a good life, a couple pairs of good shoes, I am well fed, and I have everything that I could possibly want.

When I was young, I used to look in encyclopedias at all those amazing places like Paris and Tokyo, and wish that one day I would be able to go there. Be careful what you wish for!

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.