Jessica P. Smalls’ journey to becoming a celebrity makeup artist began when, at 18 years old, she was diagnosed with skin cancer resulting in an uneven skin tone across her face. In an effort to rid her face of its patchiness, Smalls went to MAC started experimenting with picked up foundation and concealer. From that moment, the Harlem, New York-native devoted herself to makeup, gaining a clientele that includes Solange Knowles, Corinne Baily Rae, Mary J. Blige, and more.
Smalls’ chance to work with Janelle Monáe came when she was asked to do the Hidden Figures and Moonlight star’s makeup for her appearance on BET’s 106 & Park in 2013. From that point on, Smalls has been responsible for Monáe’s most admired red carpet moments.
Smalls talks to Billboard about how tough criticism changed her aesthetic, her least favorite beauty trend, and creating Monáe’s Oscars look.
What’s it like working with Janelle?
Janelle is a kick ass woman who fights for people who don’t have a voice. She’s somebody who uses her career as a platform to help others and bring awareness to much needed issues. I watch her go through two movies at a time, flying across the country, doing press tours, and she does it with a smile. She makes me want to work like that and be a better person. That’s the kind of person you want to work with. They keep you on your toes and make you want to reach for the next galaxy.
What is the process of creating looks for Janelle like?
It’s a collaboration. Janelle and I will send each other images of makeup looks that we like and we’ve been able to come up with a lot of magic. She wanted to venture into color and I didn’t want to just immediately change her image. I gradually started putting some color liner on her bottom [water line], so she was still Janelle, but with a little bit of color.
Do you collaborate with the rest of her beauty team?
Yes, it’s definitely a team process. We rotate on which [beauty element] is going to be the feature. If she’s going to wear all black, we’ll have a makeup moment by adding more pops of color. If she’s going to have something intricate with her hair, we won’t have too much going on with her outfit.
How did you create the Oscars look?
The dress was so beautiful and had so much detail that I didn’t want to compete with it. I wanted the dress to shine, but I still wanted Janelle to look beautiful. For the color palette, I went for a sultry bronze which enhanced the colors of the dress. [For her lips], I didn’t use red because there was so much happening [on the dress], so I went with a nude that worked with her skin tone. I also made sure her skin was really bronzy and glowy.
How long did that take?
Because I needed to make sure it was perfect, it took me about an hour with about 20 minutes [of that] focused on perfecting her brows. Janelle has these amazing, naturally full brows, but I needed to make sure they were perfectly sculpted and in place. I also spent a lot of time prepping her skin. I added some bronzer into her moisturizer to prep her skin for the glow.
What is your favorite look you’ve created for Janelle?
It would be the Oscars, for sure. But when I saw the pictures from the [Essence Black Women in Hollywood event], I was blown away as well. Her in all white against her golden brown skin was breathtaking.
What’s your favorite beauty trend right now?
Glowing skin. There’s nothing more refreshing and more beautiful than skin that glows. You have to be in a really good place to have that happen. It’s about youth, it’s about hydration, it’s about energy when your skin is that radiant, and that’s how I want to have Janelle, myself, and all my clients looking.
What is a beauty trend you’re over?
Harsh contouring. I’m really over extremely hard, chiseled cheek bones.
What is the most common mistake people make with makeup?
They overuse concealer. People will take the concealer and try to cover up everything on their face and then use foundation on top. I put the foundation on first and let it cover up what it can, and then I use my concealer as that secret weapon to pinpoint the areas that need a little extra love.
Who is your biggest beauty inspiration?
Someone that helped my hone my craft is a makeup artist I worked with named Denney Adam. I just wanted to showcase all of my skills and I used every single process that I knew how to do with my makeup all at once. He would look at me and say, ‘Girl, why are you wearing all of that makeup? You need to tone that down.” He would tear my makeup apart every day and I was like “Dang, I just can’t get it right.” He had me go from this amateur style of makeup to this really refined red carpet simple beauty that I’m known for today.