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interview: makeup artist scott mcmahan

Edited by: Cator Sparks
on August 30th, 2011
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Everyone loves a good country bumpkin turned successful big city boy. That is Scott McMahan in a nutshell. Not only has Scott’s makeup skills catapulted him into a world of celebrities, editorial and fashion shows but he has traveled the world with boy bands battling it out with their fans and nearly having his bus tipped over.

Lucky for us he has still kept his down to Earth southern charms and a good hearty laugh follows much of what he has to say. When we met he shouted out with a right good Southern twang, “Well how are you cousin Cator?!”

Read on to hear about his cattle farm, obsession with clear skin and antics with Amy Sedaris.

Where did you grow up?

Way out in the hills of McNairy County, West Tennessee! Ever heard of Buford Pusser?

Err, no.

He's a folk hero. He was sheriff of McNairy County and the subject of the Walking Tall movies that were filmed down there. I grew up on my grandfather’s Black Angus cattle farm in a town of maybe 1,500 people.

Who was your inspiration as a kid?

My mother! She is so stereotypically Southern. I learned how to do a lot of makeup by watching her and then just scaled it back for real people.

What was her makeup schematic?

It was the 70’s so lots of shadow, lashes, everything - Lots of shimmer and shine.

How did you discover you wanted to makeup?

I was working as a visual merchandiser at a store in Miami and the Lancôme people offered me a job. I thought they were crazy. Why were they asking me? But they persisted and came to me four times.

They said they liked me for my personality and that I would only work 20 hours a week and make more money. That was more beach time in my mind and I went for it.

What was next?

One afternoon I was sitting on a friend’s porch with a bunch of people. It turned out one of them was a commercial model agent. I told him I was starting to do makeup so he asked me to do an advertisement with him. It wasn’t paid but I would get pictures. One of the people in the ad was a photographer. She loved the way I did her makeup and started calling me to do makeup for the model tests she shot. Pretty soon Irene Marie Models took notice of me. She had a makeup division at that point and I started working with them.

I moved quickly to Elite where I met Bruce Weber. He called the agency looking for someone to do hair for an Italian Vogue editorial coming up in Uruguay. I guess his person cancelled. Anyway, I went to see him at his home even though I hadn’t done much hair. Next thing I know I’m on a flight to Punta Del Este to do Stella Tennant.

One of my favorite makeup artists, Dick Page, was doing makeup for the shoot. Not long before this, I had assisted Dick on a job he was doing in Miami. So, basically, I went from assisting him to working side by side with him doing hair in just a couple of months. From there I had a book full of Bruce Weber photos. In 1997 I came up to New York.

What brought you to New York City?

One of my first editorial jobs was with YM magazine and I really hit it off with the fashion editor, Hayley Hill. Britney Spears was about to hit and Hayley was her personal stylist. She also worked with all the boy bands so she booked me for all of them including the Backstreet Boys. I ended up working with the Backstreet Boys for four years.

Was it heaven?

I did like it! I never toured with them but they flew me anywhere in the world they were being shot or filmed. Little girls have pushed me in front of cars, so I have seen the chaos. It was full-on Beatlemania. Fans offered to buy my brush I used on the boys. The only hellish time was once in Brazil when there were so many fans on the street that they started pushing the bus back and fourth. 10,000 hysterical girls can be  really scary. We were all seriously concerned for our safety but the boys' security and the Rio police finally got us off the bus.

That is a tad overwhelming. Who else stands out in your mind?

I started working with Todd Oldham when he was transitioning to photography and we were shooting Amy Sedaris a lot, which was always a hoot. Amy is seriously the funniest person I've ever met.

Any favorite story?

Amy, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello wrote a book called Wigfield about a crazy little town that was about to be flooded when the dam is torn down. We shot the three of them as all the redneck characters in the book. I made Amy ‘the oldest woman in town’ and made Stephen Colbert into a stripper. That was good fun.

I can’t imagine. What was it like to work with Amy?

I remember telling Amy that I had never done prosthetic makeup. I kept going on about prosthetics being kind of technical and involved. Finally I paused and Amy looked over at me and said, “Please tell me when you are done with this desperate cry for attention because you wouldn’t be here if we thought that you couldn’t do it!” So I just did it.

Why no agent?

When the recession hit I was lucky enough to be in a good place and when I saw the work was slowing down I took a step back and a bit of a breather. I looked at how to approach work differently. It was apparent that things were not going to be the same.

I went into my studio and started working on other stuff. Fine art actually, embellishing existing images. I began exploring the relationship of pop art and society and Iconology, whether it's religious or mainstream.

Where can we see your art?

I don’t show it, its only for me, I just wanted to see if I had a passion for it and explore some different ideas of beauty. Maybe I will show it sometime in the future.

Do you have a certain style that you are known for?

I guess if there was one it would be skin. Skin is the star. I do a lot of guys so of course that is all about clean and perfect skin. I like a healthy glow. But from there the sky is the limit so I don’t want to be pigeon holed into doing just one thing.

Is skincare just as important as makeup?

It’s probably more important honestly because if you don’t have a clean canvas the paint don’t stick!

Where do you feel most at home?

At home in Ditmas Park Brooklyn. I’m a Cancer; I’m a real homebody. That’s one of the misconceptions my friends have- I may seem to have a jet set life at times, but there really is no place like home.

What sites do you visit every day?

None that you can put down!

Scott can be reached at scott.mcmahan@gmail.com


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