To give you a one-liner that entirely captures who Merrell Hollis is, let’s actually start at the very end of the conversation he had with ESSENCE. As we started to wrap up the interview, we asked him if there was anything else he wanted to share or make sure was included in the article. He thought about it for almost a full 60 seconds before saying, almost sheepishly, the following: “Maybe that I was nominated for an Emmy?”.
That is how incredibly humble and kind, Emmy-nominated makeup artist Hollis was throughout the entirety of our conversation. The Columbus, GA native fondly shared his story with ESSENCE as we discussed everything from his childhood and the hilarious start to his 20+ years long career, as well as the inspiration behind his beauty philosophy and his work with breakout TV star, Ziwe Fumudoh.
Read ahead for some incredibly inspirational thoughts from the artist and all around super human being that is Mr. Merrell Hollis.
ESSENCE: Tell us a little about where you grew up and how your interest in beauty started?
Hollis: I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, a small city two hours Southeast of Atlanta. I had this incredible best friend who was just completely fabulous. She had long beautiful hair and was the first person I had ever met that had breast implants, which looking back now is not a huge thing, but back then, she was so ahead of our town. I knew absolutely nothing about that entire realm of beauty. This friend was the first person to arch my brows and go through my entire closet and made sure I looked good so I really latched on to her. Because of that experience growing up, I have always held women in really high regard.
I’ve always been interested in makeup because growing up I always watched my mother and aunt, who basically raised me, get ready for work and be completely enthralled by their routines. My aunt used to sell Avon, so I would play with her lipstick testers and eyeshadows as well as go through magazines and give them hairstyles that they needed to wear and pick out their outfits. Alongside these experiences I always really loved skin care so my best friend and I would do midnight Walmart runs to get St. Ives exfoliating scrubs, Queen Helene masks and Biore strips and that was what our “fun” consisted of.
ESSENCE: Where did your makeup artistry journey begin?
Hollis: My makeup artistry journey began from me being boy crazy. I loved this group called 112, they were one of my favorite groups in the world and my best friend got casted to be in their music video. She knew I loved them so told me to come by the Georgia Theatre where the shoot was being held. But when I got there there were security guards and certain areas were taped off so I had to think of something to get me through that door. The first thing I thought was “makeup!”. I went to a nearby drugstore, bought this tiny brush set and walked right through the theatre’s door. When I got approached by security I told them I was with makeup and he let me in.
However, when I got in I couldn’t find my friend in this massive venue and one of the PA’s saw me looking extremely out of place, of course, so they alerted the department head of the video Maurice Beaman.
Once Maurice and the rest of the team found me they decided to play a little trick on me. They said that they already called the police and that I would go to jail so the only way that I could get out of it was if I went and worked for them. Of course I said yes! The team on that set really took me under their wings that day and I learned so much from them on that shoot. Maurice actually ended up being my mentor throughout my career and he has truly taught me everything I know.
To that end, my journey as a makeup artist is actually a slightly unusual one. 112 was my first ever client so technically, I started out doing celebrity makeup right away.
ESSENCE: What has influenced your decision to stay in this ever changing industry, especially given the impact that COVID has on the field?
Hollis: For me, it’s always been the reaction after I finish doing someone’s makeup. It’s the instant gratification after seeing my artistry on someone that I really enjoy. There really is nothing like seeing people come alive in the chair. They start to sit up straighter, and I can literally see their confidence being boosted. That feeling is what keeps me going and what actually keeps me in the industry.
With the rise in Instagram, I didn’t know much about the platform to begin with but I also didn’t know how prevalent filters and editing were on the app. So I would spend time trying to perfect my makeup and get it to look like the images I was seeing on instagram, not realizing that me trying to attain standards that are essentially impossible, was training me to be a better, more precise and intentional makeup artist. Training myself to create something that in reality was not real, actually made my skills one hundred times better and really made me a student of the craft.
What also continues to keep me in the industry is the community that I’ve built. I love helping beginner makeup artists out. For example if I can’t be available for an opportunity, I always have my network of artists that I refer clients to. I’m also always teaching makeup and hair artists about the more obscure parts of this industry, like the fact that there is a union, so that they can learn the ins and outs of the industry as quickly as possible because these were not things that I learned until much later in my career.
In all I truly, truly love makeup. [Makeup Artistry] is the only thing in my life that I really know is my purpose.
ESSENCE: Describe your approach to Black beauty.
Hollis: I love Black skin. Period. And I fought it for so long because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed early on in my career. Coming up in the industry, I would often hear that if I don’t get out of the “Black” world then I wouldn’t be successful. They referred to it as “crossover appeal”. That appeal was something that I was chasing for so long, but it actually made me so uncomfortable.
When I worked in stores in between video shoots, a lot of the women I worked on were white. So Black skin became one of the harder things for me to learn because I had to make sure that my Black clients weren’t ashy and were color corrected properly etc. and this goal ended up becoming the focus of my entire career. The lashes and the glitter are cute but if you don’t have a flawless canvas to put that on, nothing else looks good. With Black women, you all have had to suffer for so long, [and have had to deal with] not having the right complexion shades for so long that I said to myself: I am going to create flawless complexions for Black women from primers down to color correction. Throughout the years it has really become my mission to do just that.
I want Black women and men to look expensive. We ARE expensive. We are number one period. In everything. [Our] music, style and all of our swag, is copied worldwide. So let me aid and do what I can to help you on your journey to looking as expensive as you actually are.
ESSENCE: How do you capture the essence of your clients? Ziwe’s makeup is always perfect, and conveys a story that just captures HER so well, what’s your secret?
Hollis: Ziwe is literally her own person, who is doing her own thing. She knows exactly who she is and who she is going to be which I really appreciate. Ziwe’s character is very much in her own world, her life is perfect, she’s rich and she doesn’t understand why these things around her are happening. THAT is what I wanted to convey with the makeup and glam. I make sure to take all these factors into consideration when doing her makeup in order to further enhance her character’s story.
ESSENCE: What has it been like working with Ziwe?
Hollis: I’ve worked with all types of clients and with Ziwe, when I first met her, I instantly fell in love. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with her makeup. There is this brand that I used whose founder is also that super nice, down to earth, giving person and that brand is Danessa Myricks Beauty. I use this line every episode throughout all of the shoots and I knew it was the perfect marriage for what I was trying to achieve with Ziwe’s looks. Danessa’s products are full coverage and the shades are incredibly diverse, so I am able to create that perfect canvas that I want for Ziwe. I love this brand even more because I hate when I hear people calling for makeup on set because that means I didn’t do something right. Danessa Myricks Beauty works for me because I’m a little bit of a perfectionist so I can do the makeup that I envisioned once and it’s literally perfect every time.
Ziwe is such a nice, interesting, very very smart and inclusive woman. She even teaches and keeps me up to date with what is going on in the world from the perspective of a younger millennial. She’s very particular about what she wants and the ideas that she wants to portray but she also lets me rock out and do my own thing as well. Her looks are very much a joint effort because she has some great ideas when it comes to makeup and that pushes my own potential but she is also like “I trust you”.
ESSENCE: I love that you love Danessa Myricks, I adore her.
Hollis: I know Danessa from when we both first started. She and I would do the makeup for hair magazines, and when she moved to New York we remained friends in passing. When started her brand she would always send me products and I always would give her props because not only is she amazing but the products are too. I have never met anyone in my life that is so selfless and positive. I have never, ever heard anything negative about her. She is the ultimate mother; she started an empire while putting her children through college, while still inspiring us artists. That is A LOT and she did it all flawlessly.
ESSENCE: Do you still experience nervousness working with new clients?
Hollis: Absolutely. Being nervous and jittery is a part of loving what you do. When you love what you do, you always want to be great at it. I truly believe that being nervous is a part of passion. I don’t know everything and every single person you encounter is a different experience. I always realize that there are still numerous more experiences to be had.
Everytime I meet a new person, I have to understand that there are certain things that they may not like or even that they may not like my makeup, and I have to be okay with that and listen to their feedback so that I can be a better artist and elevate myself and my craft. There is so much more that I need to learn.
ESSENCE: It comes as no surprise that you have a love of perfected skin because I see that you are the co-founder of Luvanya skincare. Can you tell me a little bit more about your role with that company?
Hollis: I work with two incredible doctors Dr. Alpha Patel and Dr. Alkesh Patel who are two internal medicine doctors that practice Eastern and Western Medicine. So the brand is very holistic and non-toxic. I was able to help them with ingredients, the packaging for products as well as marketing and PR. This is actually something that I do with smaller and indie brands. They can consult with me and I help to build their brand from the ground up. Given that I’ve worked with numerous skincare brands and have worked in many labs with brands like L’oreal and Dark and Lovely for example, I am able to give insight across the numerous sectors in the development of a new brand.
So while I technically am still the co-founder, the brand has gotten its feet off the ground and I am working with another brand that I am really excited about and will be able to share soon.
There you have it, folks. A look at the journey that got the awe-inspiring, Emmy nominated, makeup artist, Mr. Merrell Hollis, to where he is today. Hollis is truly a force to be reckoned with in the beauty industry and the best part of it all? He’s just getting started. Be sure to keep up with his moves on social media @MerrellHollis. Tell him Essence sent you!