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Joy Adenuga on Becoming a Makeup Artist and Brand Founder

Makeup Artist Joy Adenuga Reflects on Struggling to Go Mainstream and Remaining Resilient

Too often, the best beauty stories go Untold, solely based on a person's skin colour, religion, gender expression, disability, or socioeconomic status. Here, we're passing the mic to some of the most ambitious and talented voices in the industry so they can share, in their own words, the remarkable story of how they came to be — and how they're using beauty to change the world for the better. Up next: Joy Adenuga, makeup artist and founder of her beauty brand By Joy Adenuga.

My journey started back home in Nigeria. I don't enjoy makeup on myself — which is why the YouTube thing was never for me — but I had a knack for makeup. Back then, anything related to makeup was always Avon or Mary Kay. My friends would hint that, "you know what, you're actually quite good. Why don't you . . ." And I would say, "are you for real? I should leave my job and go sell Mary Kay makeup? Absolutely not." But that was all the industry had to offer back then.

When I relocated to the UK, I remember getting off my flight and heading to WHSmith whilst waiting for my dad to collect me. I was mesmerised by the beauty pages in the magazines. But again, I wondered what I was hoping to achieve. I thought that I needed to get my National Insurance number and start working, so makeup was just one of those things placed on the back burner.

I only started thinking about it again when I was looking for a makeup artist for my wedding. She probably wanted to Sellotape my mouth shut because I kept asking so many questions about the beauty industry in the UK. At that time, I was obsessed with Sam Fine and Pat McGrath. So much so that the money I'd saved for a holiday I used to pay for Sam Fine's UK master class.

I think the only skin tone they didn't cover during my course was Black skin. They covered every other skin tone, but there was no Black skin.

After my wedding, I couldn't stop thinking about makeup. My husband said to me "I'm not saying you leave your job (which was working at the Royal Bank of Scotland), but you could dabble and see how it goes." So that's what I did. I did a mini makeup course to play with it and see if it's something I'm passionate about. I was probably driving my husband bonkers talking about makeup every day.

I enrolled at the London School of Makeup and learnt the foundations of makeup, which was all about dealing with different types of skin. I'd come from Nigeria, where 90 percent of people are Black, but now I'm in a country where there are different skin tones, and I wanted to be able to work on every skin colour here in the UK. But, I think the only skin tone they didn't cover during my course was Black skin. They covered every other skin tone, but there was no Black skin. Because I still wanted to learn, I booked two other makeup artists who were doing really well: one within editorial and one within bridal, both of them Black because I didn't learn anything on my previous course about Black skin.

After that, I went full-on practice mode. I was test shooting like mad. I wanted to be ready to work on anyone that sits on my chair — textured skin, hyperpigmentation, yellow undertones, red undertones — I wanted to be ready for anyone.

This is the part a lot of people don't realise about me: I started with editorial. If anyone had told me I'd end up doing bridal, I'd have said, "Hell no." I worked closely with Black Hair Magazine and Black Beauty & Hair Magazine. I'd get a photographer, hairstylist, come up with mood boards, and shoot for their beauty pages. I was in charge of the beauty side. I wasn't a beauty editor, but I was given free rein over some of those pages.

Image Source: Joy Adenuga

The problem started when I was trying to get into mainstream media. That's when the reality sunk in. I could not get into any mainstream magazine. I would send messages upon messages upon messages, and no one replied. When I say struggling to go mainstream, no agency would look at me. It was so hard. I started to notice that they were using the same people, and the majority of them were white. I was getting a lot of published work including covers with Pride and Black Beauty & Hair Magazine, but not mainstream ones. Some companies even started taking Black magazines off their PR lists. That was another shock for me. The whole thing was honestly quite depressing, and that was when I realised how closed the beauty industry was — especially for artists of colour.

The other problem was the budget cuts. By the time I was pregnant with my second child, I had to start looking at finances because the pay was all but disappearing, and I was always exhausted. I had to start looking at my jobs: I was loving it, but the budgets weren't there.

I went back to the drawing board, and that's when I discovered bridal. The thing that partly sold it for me was that it's the only job you get paid for before you arrive. "Sign me up!", I thought. For me, going into bridal was almost cutting myself out of the editorial world. I could work full-time during the week and then do my weddings at the weekend — I went with the flow. But doing bridal meant that everyone just assumed I no longer did anything aside from bridal, and this became a brand new challenge for me. Because of that, I even had to do a separate website for weddings. I was pigeonholed.

It's March 2021 and the ratio of Black artists to other ethnicities on their books is mind-boggling.

I was still struggling with mainstream magazines. I was being told "the only reason we're not calling you is because we prefer to use agency makeup artists." So, I tried agencies. A lot of them didn't reply to my messages, and eventually I came to the conclusion that all of the top agencies in the UK that represent makeup artists, hairstylists, and nail artists barely have any Black makeup artists on their books. It's shocking. It's March 2021 and the ratio of Black artists to other ethnicities on their books is mind-boggling.

I thought it was me. I thought I wasn't good enough and that I needed to refine my skills. At one point, I even stopped putting Black people on my page — that's how extreme I went. I also found it weird that the skin I learnt [how to do makeup on first] was the one I was struggling to get bookings from. I learned how to work on white skin before Black skin, but they don't trust me. I get it with brides because most Black brides would book a Black makeup artist, so that one I'm not even going to get into; that conversation is for another day. But the mainstream magazines, their excuse is that they prefer to use agencies. So I left it. What more could I do? It's very sad, but it's my reality.

Image Source: Joy Adenuga

The only thing that has elevated my brand, which still shocks me today, is my line of products. I find it funny that I've been struggling to go mainstream, and it took having a brand to do that. Because I would never, ever have thought I would appear in a lot of magazines that I was dying to get into until I started my brand. A lot of people ask me how I did it, and they don't see my journey — we're talking over 11 years now. And throughout that time, I've always had a husband and children.

I've worked so hard to get to where I am. And when you're not given that opportunity, it does sting.

In the future, I want to expand on my brand, By Joy Adenuga. It's brought me so much peace. It's been an incredible journey, but my brand has definitely brought me more peace than any other thing in this industry, to be honest.

The industry as a whole is still very much "we have our people"; not willing to give someone that has a record of working their arse off for a very long time a chance — so in my opinion, there's still a lot that needs to be done. People like me should be given a chance because I've worked a lot. I've worked so hard to get to where I am. And when you're not given that opportunity, it does sting. It stings a lot. That is how I can tell myself that my passion for what I do is strong, because the amount of no's, the amount of last-minute cancellations for somebody that's younger or more vibrant, or not Black, I've gotten, it's enough to throw in the towel.

It's been a lot, but obviously it's brought me to where I am now; I wouldn't have dreamt to be where I am now. So, I wouldn't say I've struggled all the way — I've been blessed. I've also been blessed making such a good friend in the industry, Dionne Smith. We hit it off as soon as we met — she was one of the people that encouraged me, which helped open a lot of doors that were closed unjustly. Making a friend in the industry saved me.

Image Source: Joy Adenuga
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