ESSENCE Honors Celebrity Makeup Artist AJ Crimson
Keisha Nash Whitaker, beauty director of Essence Magazine Mikki Taylor and AJ Crimson greets guests at the launch of “Kissable Couture” at Henri Bendel on November 8, 2007 in New York City. | Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

ESSENCE has lost a dear friend. Before AJ Crimson (Anthony M. Jackson) launched his lip-gloss line, Kissable Couture, in 2007 and AJ Crimson Beauty, in 2013, we knew AJ as one of the few, highly favored makeup artists that beautified the brand in the mid 2000s. Mikki Taylor, the then beauty and cover director recalls, “every time I was doing anything, whether TV or a gala, AJ would do my makeup. We had intimate conversations about beauty. He saw women as opposed to makeup. He wasn’t trying to turn you into something else. He was trying to bring out the best of what he saw in you.”

Taylor booked AJ for editorial work, regularly, and when we were in between fashion directors she booked AJ for one of the fashion features. That choice touched the future fashion director, Agnes Cammock who shares, “I met AJ on my very first shoot at ESSENCE. I was splitting my time between InStyle and ESSENCE, not full time at ESSENCE yet. His makeup was simply beautiful, and I am so picky…Looking back, I realize now that he was a bit of a trailblazer. Everybody has this “no-makeup-makeup” look, today, but AJ was the king of that back in the day, when it was far more popular to beat a face, with a heavier palette.” 

AJ was born in Detroit, Michigan and attended Frank Cody High School. Fun fact: he worked at the very first MAC makeup counter in the U.S., in Motor City. One of AJ’s dear friends, George McKenney, met AJ in the early 2000s. McKenney was also a makeup artist at MAC. Though they met through work in Detroit, the two would become fast friends, later, when both of their careers took celebrity spins in Los Angeles.

“I think I scared AJ a bit when we first met, back in Detroit. We were so different. I remember I had on red eyeshadow with sparkles (this was twenty-some years ago, so very uncommon) and AJ was so taken aback,” laughs McKenney.  “He was so buttoned up, in turtlenecks and loafers. He was also incredibly professional, kind, supportive and driven.”

Thankfully celebrity hair stylist Derick Monroe interviewed Crimson on his YouTube Channel, Behind the Scenes Beauty, during the pandemic. AJ reflects on his philosophy, his path, and his success. Monroe chose to have AJ on his show, not simply because of his success, but also because of his generosity of spirit. Monroe shares, “he believed in himself, but not in a cocky way. He had faith that with persistence, he could do anything. That was infectious and he passed that encouragement on to others. He didn’t just push his dreams; he pushed his friends’ dreams.”

McKenney echoes this sentiment, “AJ was so brave and encouraging. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He gave me the confidence to work with celebrity clients.”

Crimson worked on his first film in Detroit, 8 Mile, starring Eminem. Soon after it wrapped, AJ left Detroit for Los Angeles with $700 in his pocket. He wasn’t sure where he would land, but he was certain that his creative gifts were meant to be shared with the world. While in Los Angeles, he picked up part-time work at another MAC counter and that’s where he met Keisha Whitaker (Forest Whitaker’s ex-wife). He did her makeup, and they forged a fast friendship that would eventually merge into a business relationship. Years later, in 2007 the two launched Kissable Couture, a luxury lip gloss brand.

Celebrity makeup artist and author Sam Fine fondly remembers seeing his friend AJ during the makeup show circuits, where AJ showcased and educated the industry on his brands. “We really connected. AJ was a part of our family, our community of makeup artists of color. We’re both from the Midwest. I really don’t remember not knowing him,” says Fine. “AJ was a hustler, and I mean that in the most positive of ways,” adds Fine.

“On top of manifesting his visions, of not one but two beauty businesses, AJ once had an actual Atelier in LA, and he represented talent (he was celebrity makeup artist Sir John’s first agent)!” Crimson wasn’t afraid to stretch and see where his creativity led. “I don’t even know when he started working in TV and film, but I just learned that AJ just finished working on the second Black Panther film, Wakanda Forever, just weeks ago.” AJ was constantly making way for his dreams, and taking risks throughout the process.  “The last conversation we had was about Clubhouse. He was always ahead of the game, and he was getting me acclimated to the platform.”

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It’s important to remember that much of AJ’s success happened before social media. Not only was he the definition of self-made, but he was also humble, elegant, and amiable. This Black man launched his products at Henri Bendel’s (RIP, look it up)––which was unheard of at the time.  The idea of luxury beauty for Black women was unique. The terms “multi-cultural beauty and inclusivity” wasn’t rolling off the tongues of beauty brands, the way it does today. And sourcing the manufacturers, the distributors…there was a lot of leg work that had to be done. AJ did that leg work and convinced so many corporate beauty decision-makers that his vision was well worth their time, energy, and investment.

Mikki Taylor adds, “AJ challenged the market, the chemists, to deliver the textures and shades that he had in mind. His foundations and powders felt like a second skin. AJ created the missing voids in the beauty industry, so that he could work with products that he loved.”

What can we glean from such a beautiful life? What has AJ Crimson taught us in his too short bur very full life?

Kindness is king, courage is contagious and going for your dreams is mandatory.

Pamela Edwards Christiani (@pecstyle) is a former fashion & beauty director of ESSENCE.

Below, a celebration of AJ Crimson’s work from the pages of ESSENCE.