“I used to be a medical doctor,” Uzo Ukaeje says over Zoom.
I’m almost certain that the connection is clear and I’ve heard correctly. I’m also certain that she notices my eyes widen and my brows shoot up. I’m thinking about the significance of what she’s said. Then I realize that with a name like Uzo she must be of Nigerian descent, which would explain why her becoming a doctor was a non-negotiable for her parents (as it is for many immigrant parents).
But it doesn’t explain how she went from medicine to makeup, and how today she is the global director of artistry at NARS. I immediately want to know more about her journey.
“Both of my parents are academicians. And so it was you’re either going to be a doctor, an architect or an engineer,” she tells me. “My natural inclination was medicine. So I finished medical school. I practiced for a couple of years, and I then I told my parents I wanted to come back to the States [from Nigeria where she was in school] to pursue a residency.”
But instead of beginning a medical career in surgery or becoming an ear, nose and throat specialist like she’d intended, Uzo was seduced by her creative urges. It was something she had set to the side for decades, only occasionally dabbling in makeup artistry in college when girls needed help getting ready for a special occasion or wanted beauty tips. She moved to Los Angeles and through her networks managed to land a gig at Bobbi Brown, which she says at the time was one of the few brands that offered makeup for all women.
Eventually the self-taught makeup artist moved to NARS cosmetics, excited to do more in the fashion industry and to work with François Nars, who she recalls always placed a focus on embracing individuality.
“NARS in the ‘90s was a very cool, dope brand,” she revels. “Apart from Naomi Campbell being François Nars’ muse, there were a lot of ad campaigns in the mid ‘90s where I saw models that looked like me. As much as trends do shape and influence how we wear makeup today, there is something that is to be said about our brand that helps you find something that really reflects who you are. And I think that that was so woke back in that era.”
Over the decades, Uzo has been instrumental at the brand, being at the forefront of inclusivity and ensuring that NARS has diverse offerings within their product lines. She’s touched the faces of countless celebrities, including Ava DuVernay, Tessa Thompson, Chloe x Halle, Beverly Johnson, and the legendary Grace Jones. She’s also blessed the runways and campaigns of a variety of fashion brands through her artistry. She’s even seen the brand through its many big launches, including the iconic orgasm blush and the highly praised 2017 Man Ray-inspired holiday collection.
It’s not often that a Black woman gets the opportunity to join a company at its inception (NARS was only four years old when Uzo started in 1998) and be such an instrumental part of its growth and development. But she doesn’t take it for granted. She knows that it’s a rare opportunity that she was afforded in order to open doors for more women and girls that look like her.
And the more great work she does in beauty, the more she is able to make connections for herself and for others. Within just minutes of interacting with her you feel her warmth and her desire to help people — traits that would have made her an amazing doctor, traits that are much needed in the beauty industry.
“I really want to be a mentor to other Black artists. If they feel like they’re not getting the opportunity elsewhere, please come to NARS,” she says with a big smile. “Please come to NARS. We have room for you.”
She is also mindful about how she can really touch the lives of those artists right now, during this rollercoaster year that has left many professionals in the arts in crisis.
“How you make use of this time, where you have the opportunity to change if your life is not in turmoil, because some of our lives are in turmoil, [is important],” she says. “We have people around us who are affected by COVID and the negative racial tension that we’re dealing with. But to be able to use this opportunity to be better, get closer to people that can also help you to be better — I keep thinking, when 2020 is done and over with, what can I say that I used this time to do?”
One thing she can say she did was launch the new Soft Matte Complete foundation that continues in the brand’s tradition of offering products that champion inclusivity through a range of shades. It’s a product that the NARS teams had been working on for years and they’re proud to see it come to fruition during a time when experts say that makeup sales are on the decline because of mask wearing. Based on the quality of the product, it’s slated to be a huge success.
More importantly Uzo can say that she used this time to foster relationships and offer up more of herself to the young artists coming up behind her. And as she prepares to celebrate her 22nd anniversary with the brand next month, she continues to champion for Black women and use social media to show them off. After all, it’s their love and support that has fueled her all these years.
“I’d rather put up my work, but people want to see more of me. That always shocks me,” she finishes. “Because the opportunity of working with these icons, just being in their presence and getting some of their wisdom, those are the highlights [of my career].”