Traditionally, the “B-side” refers to the flip-side of a record. The A-side contains the more front-facing hits; the singles—but on the B-side, you can get in a bit deeper with the artist. And quite honestly, there’s no better metaphor I can think of for the creative team behind a beauty look. They pull the references, scour the archives, and paint the picture you see on the big screen. The celebrity, model, or actor is the single with the most air time. But the glam team? They’re the producers, conductors, friends, and family. For lack of a less ubiquitous phrase, they make it work.
So, it is with great pleasure we introduce you to Johnnie Sapong and Kate Lee—two of the masterminds behind the hair and makeup looks in Byrdie’s very first September issue. It has always been our mission to shine a light on the BTS of beauty, as the artistry of hair and makeup is an intricate, detailed exploration at the cross-section of aesthetics and culture. Why? Because the origin of a look is just as important as the look itself. The backstory deserves its own hard-earned glory. Below, join us in taking a peek behind the curtain with Johnnie Sapong and Kate Lee, as their advice and beauty musings are both enchanting and empowering in equal measure.
Hair: Johnnie Sapong
“I first met Taylor Russell a few years ago in Paris,” Sapong tells me. “We were working on a project for Mui Mui and I thought she was a kind, gentle soul and a great individual.” Sapong waxes on about Russell’s natural beauty, lamenting his admiration for her curls and the styles that embellish and enhance them. “We like to play around with volume and texture,” he says, adding he loved embracing her braids on set and working on some textured looks, as well as structural ones. “They were fit for a queen!” he says joyfully.
“The collaborative process is the best part of my job,” Sapong continues, as working with old friends and respected colleagues allows various jobs and sets to feel like big family gatherings. “It was lovely to work with Kate Lee on the Byrdie cover shoot, we have a long work history and friendship. I think we met on a shoot with David Bailey back in London, which was definitely a moment.”
I ask Sapong to take us back to the beginning—to his early life and the start of his successful career in London, and to talk a bit about his mentors and inspirations in the industry. “I grew up in an area of West London called South Acton, an inner-city working class area where it was all about dreaming,” he tells me. “[My childhood] was about the desire to be part of something I had only ever seen in pictures or films.” He mentions travel and the opportunity to work in New York and Paris as part of those big-time dreams. Looks like dreams really can come true.
Sapong worked on music videos for Massive Attack, Nenah Cherry, and Portis Head all around the U.K. before working on set for magazines like The Face and i-D with big industry names, including British fashion stylist and accessories designer Judy Blame. “There was a lot of crossover in the fashion, music, and art worlds,” he explains. “We were working on the streets and we were from the streets.” Sapong says of the ’90s icon, “One of my biggest inspirations is my beloved friend Judy Blame, who is sadly no longer with us.
He was definitely someone who gave me my biggest break in this business.” He pauses and adds, “My dear friend Pat McGrath is a true inspiration, as well.” He mentions her work championing access, diversity, and inclusivity. “Every step she takes, every hit she scores, she’s doing that for all of us, we all came from the same start.”
The products always in his kit:
- Mason Pearson Pure Bristle Brush
- YS Park Wide Tooth Tail Comb
- R. Session Pro Tools Tidal Waver
- Leonor Greyl Éclat Naturel Styling Cream
- Huile de Leonor Greyl Shampoo Treatment
Even still, there have been so many pivotal moments in his career, Sapong assures me, like his first-ever Vogue cover shoot. That day, he had the chance to act out visions dreamed up and manifested back in South Acton. I start to imagine the day as a highlight reel as I hear the story, the soundtrack is something silky-soft and vibey, but still thrilling. I picture the haze of nostalgia and warm light hanging over every word. “To anyone coming into this business,” he says with that same special energy, “dream big.” Sapong coos, “It’s all about dreams. Life takes you forward with dreams and don’t forget it. Work hard, put your head down, take every opportunity, and be the best you possibly can be. That’s what it takes!”
Makeup: Kate Lee
“Beauty is unique to each person and empowering to all,” Lee says to me. “Enhancing someone’s natural features has a physical and mental effect we can all benefit from. I love the feeling of being able to help someone feel their best,” she adds. Lee mentions her time on set with Russell and how much of a treat it is to spend time with her. “Taylor is a dream to work with. Not only is she absolutely beautiful and a joy to paint, she is also smart, funny, and has so much heart.”
In terms of her passion for makeup, Lee admits there wasn’t exactly an “aha” moment she can recall. “It was more of a feeling,” she says, “of being drawn to the physical act of applying makeup.” In her early years, Lee was inspired by photographs of models and musicians, and from a very early age she found herself wanting to emulate their looks on herself and her friends. “It was a very long path that started well before I could have understood what it was to be a makeup artist,” she explains.
Lee went to fashion school in London in the early ’90s, so naturally names like Kate, Christy, Helena, and Naomi will always have a special place in her heart. Still, she was (and still is) most inspired by the icons of the ’50s and ’60s—notables like Audrey Hepburn, Jean Seberg, Catherine Deneuve. “The ’50s was a century of glamour,” she says, “and that doesn’t really get old.”
Her long-time mentor is Val Garland—a makeup artist from London who’s known for her outlandish, experimental, and hypnotizing work (she concepted looks for Vivienne Westwood and Lady Gaga). Lee worked alongside her for many years in the early part of her career, and she credits Garland for her approach to makeup. “It’s super important, no matter how confident you feel in your own ability, to work with someone more experienced for a while. It helps you to think differently and form your own techniques and aesthetic,” Lee says. She recited a quote to me by Calvin Coolidge, one she says always comes to mind when she meets someone starting out, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Lee’s sound-bites are perfectly packaged and moving at once, like a song you play on loop to better learn the lyrics. When I ask if there’s a highlight she can single out from her 25-year-long career, she can’t pick just one. “I don’t let any of these highlights wash over me. I feel very fortunate to truly love my job, and so all of it is a highlight for me,” she says. She goes on to explain how she misses the creativity, the collaboration, and the fun of it all. “The truth is, I love to be on set. I love the people I get to work with regularly,” Lee laments. “Being surrounded by creative people is my happy place.”
Before we end our interview, Lee says one more thing about making it as a makeup artist. Truth me told, it applies to anyone, anywhere, doing anything: “Be humble. Always be open, ready to learn, and remember to be a team player.”