Emmy award-winning Ernesto Casillas talks about his childhood and challenges growing up as a queer person with hearing loss in a Mexican immigrant family. He also discusses his journey from being a creative child to becoming a celebrity makeup artist, sharing experiences with clients such as Doja Cat and Gwen Stefani.
Throughout the conversation with ABILITY Magazine’s George Kaplan, Casillas emphasizes the importance of self-critique and continuous improvement. He also touches on the need for reassurance and understanding when working with clients, expressing a desire to fill the gap in the makeup industry for women of color.
George Kaplan: Tell me about what it was like growing up.
Ernesto Casillas: As an adult, looking back, I feel like my parents set up a beautiful childhood for me. But for so long, I didn’t look back on my childhood with fond memories, and that’s because just of internal struggles that I would go through. I think as a queer person, I was always battling internal turmoil. I grew up here in LA. My parents are immigrants, and they were just always very hard workers, and they instilled that in me. I discovered that I had hearing loss at around maybe five years old, and it was absolutely a challenge, but I never looked at it as an impediment. I just looked at it as something that I just have to deal with, and it was fine. But there were some challenges that came with it that, coupled with my sexuality and a few other things, made me… It took me from being an extroverted child to very introverted, very insecure, and very shy. I would say my childhood was very colorful.
Kaplan: What were your interests back then? Did you foresee any of this happening?
Casillas: I did, because I was a very, very creative child since I was very little. I think one of my core memories I have of that is I’m making clay earring in first grade for Mother’s Day. I just love creating beautiful things. I remember the students around me would see what I was making, and they’re like, Oh, you’re so good at this. Can you make us ours? That made me feel really good that people appreciated the things that I was making. I remember just being super creative. It didn’t matter what I was playing in. I remember my aunt that lived with us, she would make clothes. She would sew a lot. And so, I would ask her for scraps of fabric, and I would draw on those scraps of fabric, and I would design dresses for Selena and reimagine what she was wearing. So, I was always into that. I was always into scrap booking, into video, into taking pictures. And I want to say around fourth or fifth grade, my mom would take me to Costco, and I became enamored with Kevyn Aucoin’s makeup book that they were selling there.
I think I always liked the idea of transforming things and making them more beautiful. So even though I didn’t know that I was going to grow up to become a makeup artist, I did think about being a photographer early on, and it’s something that I still do here and there.
Kaplan: Yeah, I’ve seen it. You have great, beautiful photos that you do of your clients.
Casillas: Thank you.
Kaplan: How did you transition from a photographer to a makeup artist?
Casillas: I got into it because in high school, I had my mind made up I was going to be a beauty, fashion photographer. I would sneak my mom’s makeup without telling her, and I would do my girlfriends’ makeup and take the photos, and I loved it. But back then, I didn’t know that you could have a career in makeup. I just didn’t know anything about that. I had Kevyn Aucoin’s book, but other than that, we didn’t have social media like that for me to have an insight as to what that could be. I went to college to study studio art and photography, and I was doing photography for a while, but I got burnt out with it really quick. And the more I did photography and makeup, the more I realized I really, really love makeup, which is amazing because I remember going to the drugstore and nervously walking past the makeup aisle, hoping no one would see me looking at the makeup. I want to say halfway through college, I realized I was doing too much. I wanted to be a designer, a photographer, a makeup artist, and I was struggling to go full-time, work part-time, and a social life.
So, I knew something had to give, and I made the decision, let me just pursue makeup full-time. And what really helped was social media. That was coming up at the time, Myspace, and there was this website called Model Mayhem, which was like a Myspace, but more so like networking site for industry people. Through there, I met a makeup artist that I started assisting, and he became my mentor. I think the first time I assisted him was on a Forever 21 shoot, and I thought it was so cool and so glamorous. I was like, “Wow, I could do this.”
Kaplan: That’s really cool. Did you skip the beauty school experience and just went into assisting?
Casillas: I did. I was self-taught just by practicing with my friends. Then I started doing quinceañeras, weddings, on my cousins. And so because I was in college, I wasn’t going to beauty school. So I don’t have a cosmetology license, but I don’t think it’s necessary for makeup artists. I think it’s more so for hair, if you want to work on sets, and whatnot.
Kaplan: You’ve said you’ve wanted to fill in the gap when it comes to doing makeup for women of color. Can you tell me more about that? And how have you seen the industry change since you started?
Casillas: Yes, for sure. I think growing up, I come from a Mexican family. It’s a really big Mexican family, but a lot of them are very white-passing and the everyone where I’m from in Mexico is very light skinned, hazel eyes. So colorism is definitely very much a thing. I’m pretty brown compared to my family. I think I used to have a complex about it growing up, and I quickly learned I have to love my skin, my hair, all that. So that was my first inkling of this is something that needs attention. I think growing up, I was always conscious of colorism, of racism, homophobia, all these things as a little kid that made me pay extra attention. When I started doing makeup, that’s when I realized how deep this stuff runs. I worked at a makeup counter for a little bit, and I remember women coming in, deeper complexion women, a lot of them were not comfortable because they don’t have good makeup experiences. Maybe they could never find products in their colors, so maybe they will just come in for lip gloss.
A lot of them would come in and request really light foundation shade that did not match them. I remember I did a quinceañera one time, and she was just a little more brown than me. Her mom was very light skinned. She said something in Spanish to the effect of, “Yeah, so you know my daughter, she’s brown, she’s morenita. I don’t know what you can do with her. You can do anything, but you could try.” I was thinking that’s not the way to speak about your daughter’s complexion in front of her. So it made me sad, and it definitely made me want to help. It made me want to help. I think working at a cosmetic counter, there was a lot of time when the women would cry about how beautiful they felt. I was like, “Wow, this is something I want to work on. I want to make brown women, black women, women of color feel beautiful too.” It’s possible, obviously.
Kaplan: Have you seen the industry change in that way? How people treat women of color and the gap in the makeup industry? Because I know it took a while sometimes for deeper shades to come out and things like that.
Casillas: It definitely has changed, at least in terms of makeup products. Makeup companies are a lot more inclusive now, and a lot of that is thanks to social media giving people a voice and people going online to say, “Okay, why are these brands not making it for us? We’re not going to keep buying this stuff.” I think in terms of the industry, there’s been change, but it’s a little more, I want to say, maybe superficial. It looks inclusive from the outside, but being on the inside, I’m looking around, and sometimes the crews are still very white, or there’s just not a lot of people of color in the union that can do wigs or textured hair. I think we definitely have made leaps and bounds, but we still have a bit of ways to go.
Kaplan: Well said. So, you have been an in-demand celebrity makeup artist for quite some time now. Who gave you your first shot?
Casillas: Oh, that’s a good question. Queen Latifah. Because I was very fortunate enough to be introduced to the work of Sam Fine by my mentor. Sam Fine was the it celebrity makeup artist for black women back in the day. I would study his work and I would be like, Wow, this is beautiful. I got to meet him, and we became friends, and he would give me the opportunity to assist him. Through that, I started assisting him on the set of Queen Latifah’s show. He would bring me around and there were times where he wasn’t available, so I would do touch-ups on Queen Latifah. She gave me a chance. There was, I think, something he couldn’t do. He referred me, and that was my first celebrity client, I want to say.
Kaplan: That’s really cool. You had, which must have been a very stable gig for a makeup artist, working on The Talk, for which you won two Emmys. How did you land that gig? And how was your experience working there?
Casillas: Yes. I had worked with Eve doing promotion for “Barbershop 2”, I want to say. I was referred to her by somebody, and she was the loveliest, still is to this day. Eve is one of the most kindest, funniest, coolest people I know. I had done her for press a few different times. When she landed that gig, she hit me up right away. At that time, it was a blessing because I had just stopped working with another celebrity artist, and we had gone through a very tumultuous time. It’s kind of traumatizing actually, a lot was going on in her personal life, and I was involved in it. And so that stopped. And because I was only working with her, I don’t really have any other income or clients. A few months after that was when Eve hit me up to do The Talk, and I was like, “This is great. I’m going to have stable, regular, consistent income, and I can work on my mental health at the time.” I needed it. “And I can just chill out for a little bit and just collect my money, make sure I’m good for a while, so I can build my career.”
Kaplan: You seem to have a close working relationship with Doja Cat. How did you two meet and what’s it like when you collaborate with her?
Casillas: Doja, I met through a referral from another makeup artist. I really liked her the first or second time I did her. She loves makeup. She’s a very creative person, and she’s very sweet. She’s very considerate. That’s what I like about her. And a very compassionate person. And I know by the third time we worked together was for a music video with Ariana Grande and Megan Thee Stallion. And this was the first time I got to give her a proper beat, you know? Full, glam face. She was in love. And then I was in love with her, watching her work, watching her be very hardworking, very dedicated, but most of all, just a really good human being. Obviously, we work together a lot, so we’re going to form a bit of a bond. But it would be a lot different if she wasn’t the type of person she is. I always make sure I keep a little bit of distance between my personal life and my work-life, keep it separate. But when it comes to her, I see her as a friend.
Kaplan: Do you have any funny behind-the-scenes stories with her that you can share?
Casillas: I don’t know. It’s just always very silly, like the tiniest things. I remember, recently, we were doing a video shoot, and we were pretty burnt out. It was a time when we were working almost every day. So, we’re just really tired. So, sitting in my makeup chair, just tired looking in the mirror. I started applying a concealer. I’m not doing anything extravagant or impressive. I’m just putting a concealer on it. She goes, “Amazing…” And then I don’t know why it was the funniest thing. So now it’s the thing, “amazing…” It’s always a silly, fun time on set.
Kaplan: You were touching on it, but I was curious, have you had any experience with any nightmare clients? Obviously, you don’t have to name them but do you?
Casillas: Absolutely, I do. (laughs) I think the most exhausting thing is sometimes these clients want a friend in their glam team and sometimes that comes natural, and sometimes you’re trapped into it. I have so many stories. I think, generally, it’s usually a nightmare when the clients are not in a good mood, when they’re going through something and it makes work hard. Like maybe they’re late, maybe they’re feeling extra insecure, so nothing we’re doing with makeup is right. Maybe they’re yelling at somebody and it’s super awkward for us. But a lot of times it’s never personal, and they just need to feel like they’re in good hands with you. They just need to feel reassured like, “Look, I know you’re going through it. I’m so sorry, but I’m going to take care of you. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to make sure you look beautiful. If you need anything, let me know.” I think I’ve learned that reassurance goes a long way in this industry. I think if they feel like they can trust you and they’re going to be a good friend and not judge them, you’re going to listen to them, then it makes things run smoother.
There’s a lot of time with this industry will make these girls super insecure, and it really affects the vibes.
Kaplan: A lot of pressure.
Casillas: There’s a lot of pressure. And then you could couple that with unprofessionalism. It’s just like a mess.
Kaplan: I imagine you have to be a therapist at some moments.
Casillas: Absolutely. There’s been times where I had to quit one client a while back because the pressure would always get to her, and it would always be really long, sad days. I just at one point, decided, you know what? I can’t take it anymore, so I ended up quitting. And she just texted me back to back to back, over and over, and I had to accept that she was just very disappointed and just wish her well and keep it pushing.
Kaplan: Sometimes you just got to do that. Is there anyone you were intimidated to work for but ended up being an easy client?
Casillas: That’s a good question. I’m thinking, have I been intimidated? Give me one second. When people ask me who I work with, I blank out a lot of times. I don’t know why.
Kaplan: But you’re working all the time. You basically work for everybody. (laughs)
Casillas: I will say that I was a little intimidated to work with Gwen Stefani, who I’m on set with, because she’s such an icon, and she has such a signature look. But upon the first day of meeting her, I was like, I like this girl. She’s an angel, super, super sweet. And it ended up being and still is a great working relationship because she trusts me. She lets me do my thing. I think a lot of times when clients start doubting their makeup artists over and over, it makes their makeup artists insecure. And so, the work doesn’t come out as good.
Kaplan: So being a makeup artist has taken you around the world. Do you have any fun travel stories or any place you’d like to go next?
Casillas: I’m not a great traveler. I’m basically exhausted.
Kaplan: Always jet-lagged?
Casillas: I’m always working every day. Yeah, and then on top of that, I get jet-lag. Airports, man. Oh, my God, airports.
Kaplan: What’s the worst airport?
Casillas: London, Heathrow. I wish to never fly into Heathrow Airport again. But I think next, you know what? I’ve been wanting to explore just America. I’m in California. I don’t really venture out to other states that often. Maybe like New York, Miami, all the big, hot spots. But I’m excited to go on tour with Doja Cat and get to visit all these cities. Matter of fact, I’m going to be in Omaha, Nebraska, for my birthday. I don’t know much about Omaha, Nebraska, but we’re going to find out.
Kaplan: That’s funny. I’m originally from Miami. It’s a good time. I just don’t like living there.
Casillas: It’s a good party time if you’re in Miami.
Kaplan: Yeah, a certain part of Miami, it’s super fun. Do you have a dream client you’d love to work on? Somebody you haven’t yet?
Casillas: Leona Lewis. And everyone’s like “Leona? Is she still making music?” But Leona Lewis is a queen. I discovered her back in her X Factor UK days on YouTube, and I was mesmerized by her. Her voice is just very beautiful, and she’s beautiful. She’s a very shy, timid girl. I’ve always wanted to work with her, and still do.
Kaplan: Do you have any advice to a makeup artist that’s starting out?
Casillas: I think my advice would vary depending on which area of the industry they want to venture in. But just across the board, I think it’s a good thing to be your own worst critic. I think that that’s what helped push me to become better and better every time, because I didn’t start out being a great makeup artist. I still have my off moments. Part of what makes me a decent makeup artist is I’m very critical of my own work, and I’m always looking to see how I can improve, how I can learn, how I can make it better. So, I would say don’t be stagnant in your journey as a makeup artist. Always evolve. There’s been times in my journey where I felt like, “Oh, I’m just doing the same makeup over and over, and it’s looking a little dated.” And sometimes it just takes a client to push you, to evolve, to become better and just more versatile. I feel like I had that with Doja. I wasn’t as creative before because I was doing a lot of TV makeup, beauty makeup.
But with her, she’s like, “Go for it.” And so, I think that really helped me out a lot.
Kaplan: Well, that’s great. I only have one more question left, and that’s what’s the best way to get rid of glitter?
Casillas: I feel like the only way is tape because glitter is so sticky, right? So, you need another sticky surface to remove it. I would just say Scotch tape. You know what? I wouldn’t know. I apply makeup. I don’t take it off. (laughs)
Kaplan: I did glitter beard one time, and I will never do it again. Never again.
Casillas: Oh, I can imagine it’s all latched in there.
Kaplan: Oh, there. Yeah, I tried olive oil. I tried so many different things. But yeah, tape is good.
Casillas: Maybe not so much on the beard, the tape.
Kaplan: Oh, yeah, that’s true. Well, like a little softer tape.
Casillas: Yeah, you can use a lint roller if it’s on your clothes or something. I feel like that’s the fastest way to do it.
Kaplan: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Casillas: Yeah, I want to give a little bit of encouragement to people that are struggling or maybe have imposter syndrome. I, myself, have had not the best mental health in the previous years, but I got to where I’m at in my career because I told myself, “You cannot wait around for things to get better to make your dreams happen.” Sometimes, you just have to work through the bullshit to get that journey. And so sometimes, I’ll say you got to make your mental health work for you. If you’re feeling manic, then get productive. If you can’t sleep, then maybe organize your makeup or watch some TV shows. Just really work through your issues to get to where you want to be, not in spite of them.
Kaplan: That’s great advice.
Ernesto Casillas Instagram Link