The title of my autobiography will probably be “Things Haley Didn’t End Up Doing” and it will consist entirely of stories from the years between ages 18 – 24 (I’m 25 now, bitches). Chapter One: “How I Dropped Out of Four Post-Secondary Programs in Six Years (It’s Easier Than It Looks).” Chapter Two: “Beauty School: It Happened To Me.”
At 20, I was a part-time student at the University of Toronto and a full-time hustler, always scrambling for money to pay for courses I felt lost in. On a whim-the kind of whim you can only have when you are 20 years old-I decided to abandon higher education for something more practical. I worried a B.A. in Art History would only lead to a lifetime of guiding fifth grade children through museums on Free Fridays. I wanted a career. I enrolled in the George Brown Yorkville School of Makeup and Aesthetics.
It wasn’t a totally crazy choice. I was lucky enough to go to Earl Haig Secondary School, an arts high school in North York. Creativity was encouraged even in the “collegiate” (read: untalented) students. Because I was a triple-fail, unable to sing, dance, or act (not harsh at all, actually 100% accurate), I helped with hair and makeup for the many, many drama performances. Older, cooler students taught me their tricks for applying false eyelashes and using cold cream. Years of studying fashion magazines made me a natural.
And so, when I tried to think of a profession that would pay, a pink lightbulb went off in my head: makeup artist! Or, as per industry jargon, MUA. At the Yorkville School, I worked very hard and I got very, very good. The daily classes were short and intense: the teacher would give a lesson and then we’d pair up to practice on each other. At first this felt like some bizarre trust exercise: it takes a lot of courage to let a relative stranger poke at your face with a brush.
Soon, though, the students stopped being strangers. I found them to be a mix of intensely ambitious, fiercely intelligent, super talented artists and lazy, uninspired teenagers barely out of high school. I was neither. But ambition is like loose, glittery eyeshadow: it rubs off on you.
The school fostered healthy competition between the students: it was always a bit of a contest to see who could book the most freelance jobs, work the most student films, and befriend the most photographers and stylists. I was driven just to keep up. Almost all of my jobs were on student films. There was the science fiction-inspired World War II drama; there was a film about a woman addicted to tanning; and once, for reasons I shudder to explain, I had to make a teenage boy look like he was covered in placenta (I used strawberry yogurt and a little bit of pink food colouring, in case you were wondering).
I liked the work, but I didn’t love it. I had the head for it, but not the hands; an excellent work ethic, but a completely mediocre level of talent. I decided it wasn’t for me, got a day job, and enrolled in night school. I shelved the experience in the back of my mind where I relegated it to a waste of time and money. Good riddance, I thought.
Except I never really could move on from my time at beauty school. People hear “makeup artist” and think “she couldn’t cut it as a hairdresser.” The stereotype of the makeup artist as a ditzy, vain girl who can’t or won’t get a real job persists. I’m sure those lip-glossy ditzes exist, but I didn’t meet any when I was trying my hand at the game. I’m now convinced of the opposite: no one in my current, supposedly real, more professional world would be able to handle the physical and mental demands of being an MUA. We often worked 24 hours straight, slept in dressing rooms, applied makeup in the pouring rain. When I began working in an office for the first time, I was shocked at how spoiled the other employees were. Hour-long lunch breaks? Chairs to sit on? Only eight hours a day, everyday? A toilet with a door? Believe me, makeup artists do not always get these things, and they know not to take them for granted when they do.
Nothing I learned in two years at U. of T. has been as useful as what I learned in ten months at beauty school. It prepared me for, honest to god, my whole life. Our teachers encouraged us to always say “yes” to work, to remember we were only as good as our last job. They taught us to never say “no:” to never admit “No, I don’t have that colour” or “No, I don’t know how to do that technique”, but instead to say “I’ll figure it out.” They taught us to think of ourselves always as students, in constant need of improvement. They often berated us for sloppy mistakes or slow applications and demanded better for the second time. They praised our ability to take constructive criticism and taught us how to give it.
Most of all they taught me how to work with my hands and eyes. I grew up shy and quiet, always reading, overthinking absolutely everything. University exacerbated my introspective tendencies. The absolute best thing I learned from going to makeup school was that working with my hands would make my mind shut up. When I had a brush in my hand and a clean face in my chair, all I thought about were the symmetrical lines, the best colours for the skin tone in front of me, the inspiration I got from runways or movies or people on the streets, and the wisdom of my teachers. I accepted the challenge in front of me and tackled it. That’s the lesson I think of every single day.
In the end, my time at makeup school turned out the way most undergraduate degrees do: necessary for my emotional development, only partially relevant to my chosen career, and lots of fun. However, just as my teachers warned I would, I’ve lost almost all of my skills due to lack of practice. My friends still ask me to do their makeup sometimes. I can tell they’re disappointed. “Didn’t you go to beauty school?” their smudgily maquillaged faces seem to say. Sorry for ruining your Katy Perry Halloween costume, Lisa, I can’t do a cat-eye like I used to. Can I interest you in a valuable learning experience instead?