When it comes to navigating the ins and outs of Hollywood, whether you’re in front of the camera or behind it, guilds and unions play a huge role in your personal and career development. They’re a required necessity, but not everyone who steps foot into their new Hollywood career knows how to navigate them.
During the inaugural ESSENCE House: Hollywood held in early February, industry movers and shakers explained the benefits of joining a union, and how to navigate the process.
Moderated by ESSENCE News & Politics Director Yesha Callahan, the panel included celebrity hairstylists Kim Kimble and Felicia Leatherwood, celebrity makeup artist Ashunta Sheriff, and actor / SAG-AFTRA Chair Jason George. Each panelist shared their own unique experiences when it came to joining their respective unions and the pros of being part of one.
Kimble, Leatherwood, and Sheriff are all members of the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild (IATSE Local 706), which is the official union for make-up artists and hairstylists in film, television, stage and digital media. Unlike unions at various manufacturing and news media companies, you can’t just sign up to join IATSE, their requirements include a vast number of hours working on set, but once you join, you’re eligible for medical and pension benefits.
Kimble explained that her big break into the union came when Robert Townsend pegged her to be the stylist on BAPS, starring Halle Berry.
“I met with him and showed him some of the work I’ve done, and he was like, ‘Ok, interesting’. One day he said he was going to come by my salon. Never told me what project it was….he walks in my salon with Halle Berry. Shows her the pictures of the work I’ve done, and I get a call a week or two later…and one of the things I said was that I wanted to get into the union on this project,” Kimble said.
And similar to Kimble, Leatherwood explained that she didn’t have a big celebrity clientele at the start of her career and was braiding hair in her apartment in L.A., “People would be lined up on the couch, but I also worked at BET during the day. After a while, I just got tired of going into the office,” she said. Eventually, she decided to attend cosmetology school, and fter Leatherwood made it through, she had to take her state board test to get her license.
Leatherwood’s big break came when Anthony Anderson, whom she knew from BET, walked into her salon and said he was about to do a show, and he wanted her on it.
“I called the union, and they were booked up for 6 months, and I drove all the way to a little town, took my state boards, passed it and got on the show 2 days later. I was 9 days short of getting into the union, so I gave up,” Leatherwood said. But once Issa Rae asked her to join Insecure, she was able to join the union.
Unlike Leatherwood and Kimble, Sheriff didn’t need a cosmology license to join the union, she just needed jobs that she worked on.
“Save everything from your five years of work,” Sheriff advised the audience. “For me, I was working in the business. I was Diddy’s makeup artist, and after doing male grooming, I was bored. I didn’t come into the world to do male grooming. I focused on trying to lock down female clients,” she continued. Being social helped Sheriff get further into her make-up career, and once she met Alicia Keys in 2003, and working with her, they became inseparable.
When it comes to being an actor in Hollywood, SAG-AFTRA is a must. Jason George, who recounted that his mother was a union leader when he was young, spoke about how one small role, led to his union membership.
“I was closing a play in Philly…Sunday morning flew out to a contest and another audition Sunday afternoon..on Tuesday found out I got the role on the show,” George said. “Everything my mother ever said about the unions is 150% truth. If you are on your own, you will lose quickly, if you’re backed up by your people, you have a shot,” he continued.
You can watch the full panel HERE.
For more of everything you missed at the first-ever ESSENCE House: Hollywood, head back to ESSENCE.com and check out the #essencehousehollywood hashtag on all social platforms.