How Katie Jane Hughes Started Her Career In Backstage Beauty

by Jessica DeFino
Rachel Murray/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

It may be called “Fashion Month,” but make no mistake: Fashion Month wouldn’t be Fashion Month without beauty. Hair and makeup play a significant part in establishing a designer’s aesthetic and solidifying the season’s trends; and “keying” a runway show — that’s industry-speak for leading the makeup team —is pretty much every up-and-coming makeup artist’s dream. But before you can key, you have to assist. As for how to assist a makeup artist at Fashion Month, listen up: Major MUAs Sil Bruinsma, Katie Jane Hughes, and Fatima Thomas have some advice.

Hughes, who’s keyed runway shows for designers like Libertine, Nicole Miller, and Milly, is perhaps best known for her glossy-faced Instagram. But she didn’t come by those 323,000+ followers the easy way. “I was backstage years ago, I would assist a lot of different people,” she tells The Zoe Report. “Then you start working your way up.” After putting in the work as an assistant, Hughes landed her first solo gig: “My first show at New York Fashion Week was for Libertine at Lincoln Center, and I cried when the models walked — it was such a prolific moment to have your makeup on that stage.” The tears were also emblematic of the years of hard assisting work that led to that point — which, really, is the first thing to know about assisting: It’s not as glamorous as you might think.


“Of course, it’s lugging around cases and washing brushes — but it’s more than that,” Thomas, a senior artist with MAC Cosmetics who’s led the makeup for Chromat, Missoni, and more, tells TZR. Ahead, Thomas, Hughes, and Bruinsma break down exactly what to expect once you land your first assisting gig — and how to get it.

Slide Into Instagram DMs & In-Person Events...

Don’t be afraid to message an artist you admire on Instagram — Hughes and Thomas say they’ve discovered assistants deep in their DMs. It’s also a good idea to stay up-to-date with your favorite pros’ feeds. “Sometimes I’ll post looking for help on a certain project,” Hughes says. “Or I’ll meet people at public appearances.” The artist frequently hosts masterclasses and brand-sponsored events, and appreciates when attendees (and assisting hopefuls) introduce themselves.

... Or Go The "Old-Fashioned" Route & Email Artists You Love

“Every blue moon I get an email from someone who’s interested [in assisting],” Thomas says. Considering that she’s one of the most established artists in the biz, that “every blue moon” part is pretty shocking. The moral of the story? A MUA's email inbox probably isn’t as crowded as their DMs — and you might have a better shot at getting noticed.

Get Off The Internet & Into The Real World

It’s easy to look at the thousands upon thousands of Instagram followers successful makeup artists have and assume you need to get there, too. But according to Hughes, being an “influencer” isn’t always the best (or fastest) way to build a career in backstage beauty. “I’ve been doing makeup for 12 years — I came up assisting, I came up on set,” she says. “Now, that’s kind of going away because people can come up on Instagram and grow on Instagram. That’s great, but it’s hard to exit out of that world.” She notes that real world experience — i.e., working on faces that aren’t your own and learning from a more established artist — trumps social media prowess. “Unless you sign with a brand that then wants an influencer to start doing shows on their behalf, to make Fashion Week shows relevant to that community, it’s tricky,” she says.


Make Friends In The Industry

You know that saying, “It’s who you know”? Well, it’s still true. That’s why professional connections in the industry are great… but having friends in the industry is better. Make it a point to establish friendships — genuine friendships, that is — with people on or around your level. Besides offering moral and emotional support (you’ll be able to relate to each others’ struggles so hard), you can help each other on the way up.

"My first big runway job was when I keyed the Louis Vuitton men’s show," Bruinsma, a pro makeup artist who's designed looks for Louis Vuitton and Givenchy runways, tells The Zoe Report. "My friend Paul Helbers started designing for the brand under Marc Jacobs. Back then, I didn’t have much experience doing shows, but Paul trusted me and I continued being the lead artist until he and Marc Jacobs left the brand. It was a fantastic introduction to doing runway shows!"

It's also how Thomas got her start in runway. “My very first NYFW show, I was assisting a good friend at Ozwald Boateng who does menswear. He was also a makeup artist,” Thomas tells TZR. “He had been assisting, I had just moved to New York, and he was starting to get more of his own jobs.”

Work For A Major Makeup Brand

Striking out on your own and cold-emailing your heroes ad infinitum can be draining (and depressing), but there is another way: Start working for an established cosmetics company that does backstage work at Fashion Week. “MAC has managed to create not just a group of people working, but a community,” Thomas says (she’s a Senior Artist for MAC). “We really do have a community and the connectivity among artists in the brand, and artists who’ve left the brand to do other amazing things. You know people.” Throughout her time with MAC, Thomas has assisted legendary MUAs like Frances Hathaway Sharon Dowsett, which helped her take her own solo career to the next level. Now, when she’s looking for an assistant of her own, she looks to her MAC family.


It’s All About The Energy

“If I remember someone from a masterclass or a certain event and I remember them having good energy, I’ll give them a try,” Hughes says. “Really, it just boils down to energy first — if the energy is cool, people can learn on the job.” In other words: When you meet a MUA or show up on set for your first gig, stay positive. Be genuine, lose the attitude, and get ready to work.

Anticipate Your Key Artist’s Needs

“As an assistant, the most important skill is to learn how to anticipate what the artist needs and what they will do next — it’s almost as if you are vicariously doing the makeup with them, even if it's their hand that’s doing the work,” Thomas explains. “You’re not just there to hand off a Q-tip or clean the skin — you’re there as your makeup artist’s proxy.”

Hughes agrees that this hyper-preparation is the most important thing on the job. “It just boils down to an assistant knowing what I need before I know I need it myself,” she says.

Study The Makeup Artist’s Style

So, uh, how do you magically anticipate their needs? Study. “The assistant should know your work enough to know what you’re going to reach for,” Hughes says. “With social media, that’s quite easy. You can really see what people do and how people work.”

“The key artist needs to depend on you to understand their makeup style, their process, and what they like,” Thomas adds. “How they like to go about the process of applying makeup, whether they want to start with the eyes first or the skin first.”

Know Your References

“Great assistants also start to learn references,” Thomas tells The Zoe Report; references being, in a nutshell, makeup techniques or iconic looks throughout history. “References go deep — going back to the early 19th century and 20th century. In my day, you could say a reference and most of us knew what it was, because it was about knowing the past and how it can inspire the future.”

Thomas notes that younger makeup artists aren’t always up on their references; perhaps a side-effect of being immersed in the day's current trends via Instagram. But if you want to assist, you should brush up on your beauty history. “Great MUAs are always looking backwards as well as forwards and getting inspired by different things,” she says.

Practice “Set Etiquette”

“More important than learning how to do eyeliner or learning how to do a perfect red lip with just a finger is learning how to conduct yourself in the environments that fashion and beauty put you in,” Thomas says “Those are really important skills we don’t talk about enough: Learning how to talk to people, learning how to collaborate with other creatives.” She calls this “set etiquette,” and it’s a skill Hughes values as well.

“You have to learn a new language — and that language backstage and on set is very different to the language of social media,” Hughes says. An on-set gig is not the time to be overly casual… or even overly comfortable. “Be respectful on set around the different departments,” Hughes says. “What I mean by that: If one of my assistants came over and started to mingle with the photographer and said, ‘Oh, let’s shoot sometime…’ Absolutely no, that is not the rule of the land.” In short, pay attention to hierarchy. “You can mingle within your group," she adds. “I mingle with the photographer, you mingle with the assistant photographers.”


Don't Instagram The Whole Time

Even though it's a job in runway, assisting a key MUA is still a job — and Instagramming at work is almost always inappropriate. "Backstage is a fun and photogenic environment, but the assistants I ask back are the ones that keep their eye on the work that needs to be done and who are able to limit ‘Instagram Story time’ to when the girls are out there on the runway," Bruinsma tells TZR. "Up until the models enter the runway, there is always work to do."

Learn How To Take Direction

Although Thomas says assistants can often be valuable sounding boards for creative ideas, the role of an assistant — or a key makeup artist, for that matter — is to “work towards someone else’s ultimate vision, a designer or stylist or celebrity,” as Thomas says. “At the end of the day, there’s a story they want to tell with the makeup, and we’re there to help them bring that to life with our skill.”

But Be Adaptable, Too

"When it comes to show makeup, I look for assistants who are able to translate the decided look to the particular face they are working on," Bruinsma says. "When you do a show you are dealing with a variety of different faces. Especially when the look is focused on natural beauty, I want the artists to really analyze the model in front of them and bring out each models individual strength. Often that means slightly adapting the look I initially designed."

Be Prepared To Assist For At Least Three Years

“I think from the time you start assisting to the time you start to branch out and maybe find an agent is three to five years, on average,” Thomas tells TZR. “I don’t think it should be less than three — three is pre-seasoned, you’re going to learn a lot and absorb a lot. Learn and pay your dues is the important takeaway.”