Sam VisserMakeup Artist

The beauty wunderkind, Sam Visser tours us through the foundational moments of his career and envisions the future of beauty.

Interviewed by Anthony De La Rosa

Los Angeles, US. January 21st, 2021


Sam Visser: My concept of beauty is ever-changing. The one constant is that it’s glamorous. That’s something I always find within my work, but everything else, every other variable, is always changing. And that’s what’s so cool about fashion and makeup: It’s never just going to be one thing; it’s always going to change and evolve. 

My love for makeup started when I was very young. I had a grandma who was very glamorous and had tons of makeup, and I thought it was so fascinating. At the same time, I was really fascinated with painting. That was my main thing when I was a little kid, painting and drawing, and I think makeup was a smooth transition from painting and art. It’s one of the things I could connect with very easily, because it feels like paint. 

YouTube was really on the rise at that point, and that was a huge outlet for me to explore. I took advantage of that and became obsessed with so many of these first-generation makeup gurus on YouTube. Then I was given two different makeup books around the same time: one was Francois Nars’ Makeup Your Mind and the other was Kevin Aucoin’s Making Faces. Both really inspired me, because they were the first two influential fashion makeup artists I really identified with, so I studied those books, and they became the genesis of beauty for me. And that’s when I was eight or nine years old. I was just practicing on my friends, on myself, my mom and my grandma, anybody who would lend me their face, I would just paint them. So it felt very organic, and it just grew and grew.  

We are living in a time when social media allows you to have a platform to visually create any reality you want. I know a lot of people are opposed to social media and Instagram, but we’re witnessing this major change in freedom happening because of Instagram. And I think that some people are afraid of that. But I see social media as a tool to master your look, whatever you want it to be. When I started it was 2010 and 2011, and Instagram was birthed at the same time. That’s when that whole shift started happening.

Working with Kris Jenner was the first major career moment that happened to me; it drastically changed my life.  It was a very funny time, and it was surreal, for sure. I’d be at Kris Jenner’s house doing her makeup in her bathroom in the famous house I would see on TV, then three hours later, I would be sitting in a fourth-period history class. And I would think, why am I here? I hated high school, so it was kind of my ticket to leave, and I was really excited. But I had teachers who were doubting me and saying, “You’re gonna have to come back to school.” Friends told me that a teacher told an entire class, “He’s going to fail, and he’s going to have to come back to high school late and finish, because nothing’s going to happen with his career.” 

It’s really difficult for me to point to a favorite job. Whenever the other collaborator and I get to be creatively free, that’s when my favorite things happen. It has to be spontaneous. I was talking to a fashion stylist the other day, someone who’s iconic and works with every makeup artist, every hairstylist, every model—he’s worked with everybody. And he was telling me, “I have three mood boards. I don’t send a new mood board for every single shoot. That is ludicrous. How do you expect people to create something new, if you’re given a board of images to copy?” And I find that so incredibly true. The best moments happen in the most spontaneous ways.

Whenever I get together with my friends and we make something at my house, and it’s not a whole production that’s planned and prepped, that’s when the best moments happen. Bella Hadid and I just did a video and photos for Dior: We really had no plan, we were just kind of going with it, and it turned out beautifully. That’s a simple example of when you don’t have too many references involved, and you’re just going with your emotions. In that moment, that’s when the most magical things happen.

Sam Visser

Bella Hadid by Sam Visser

We live in such a cool, interesting time. Before people would look at what’s going to be the next thing in beauty by looking at Vogue and other fashion magazines, but now it’s the people who are in the corners of the beauty industry who are determining what becomes the look. That’s something we’ve never really experienced until now. I do think the one thing that will be prevalent in beauty and fashion in the coming years is that a lot of people are going to want to feel sexy and they’re going to want to look hot as fuck. And that’s because we’ve all been told to sit in our house. So the future of beauty is really about the most empowered, uplifted version of yourself; that’s what’s going to come forward.

I spend a lot of time researching. Once you pick it up, you can never let it go—well, that’s for me personally. If you don’t, you’re missing out on what has come before you. I love working with people from past generations of fashion. A lot of kids my age don’t love doing that, but I don’t know why. I find people who have worked in other times so fascinating, because they have seen the evolution of the industry, and those people will confide in you much more and be willing to collaborate if you understand these references. And with that knowledge, you begin to accumulate some wisdom of the industry.

But I also don’t like looking at other makeup artists and what they’re doing right now; that’s important to point out. I like admiring what they’re doing, but you will never see me reference anybody who is alive now and working. I find that the complete antithesis of what we need to be doing. Something that was created a week ago or six months ago or even five years ago, why do we need to do it again? Is it necessary? It’s going to be interesting to see what that turns into in the future and how that’s going to affect everything.

I love this film called Lipstick, made in 1976 by Lamont Johnson with the actress Margaux Hemingway. She killed herself when she was 42; people say there was a Hemingway curse, and I love the lore, but it’s also tragic. Way Bandy appears in the film, playing himself as a makeup artist; he was an insane legend and was Kevyn Aucoin’s idol as well. He was in the New York scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s and brought the transformation of what beauty makeup can do very far forward. He did Margaux Hemingway’s makeup, and it is literally the most stunningly beautiful makeup ever. Another movie I love that has great makeup is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet: Isabella Rossellini with a blue eyeshadow and a red lipstick, and the whole drama of everything happening is so, so dramatic but also grim and dark. I just love that.

In the 1980s or ‘90s, so many different things were happening the world, there was a need for glamour. That’s when Dynasty arrived on TV, and that was such an external, loud way to show off your wealth. TV translated so much into beauty, also because Hollywood really impacts a lot of what we view and perceive. So in that way I think that history is very important, not only for me, but for a lot of people. I’m not telling everybody to read a random history book, but those things are so fascinating to me, because they really change your perspective of the world. Looking at specific time periods can inspire you to do something with your face or your makeup with the beauty standards happening in that period of time.

My grandmother had an all-mirrored bathroom with those circular halogen lightbulbs all around the mirror and tons of lipstick and beauty products—it was all so glamorous. She also owned silks and furs and all these things that are so evocative of times past. That was fascinating to me, and I think that experience has totally manifested in what I do now and is a huge source of what I like. I still have a visual in my mind of her standing at the mirror; it’s forever living inside of me. That memory always brings me back to what I’m doing with myself and my career, my look; it’s the first striking memory I have of something beautiful, and it’s never gone away. It’s like a video on loop in my head and that unforgettable sense of awe is what I hope to emulate in my work for everyone to see. 

I wish so badly that I had a picture of that bathroom. I think my memory of that is so significant because we literally don’t have a single photo. It’s tragic. But in another way, it’s also very special, because it’s such a mystery now. I will never go back to those apartments where they lived. It’s a beautiful, gated complex, but it wasn’t for wealthy people, it was for older people. But it was so glamorous, because all the apartments were built in, I think, the 1960s and ‘70s. Now it’s all kind of a mystery, and that’s what makes it special.

During the pandemic, if I can be honest, I would love for them to tell us to all go home. When I have the chance to be alone, I will take that chance and live it up as much as possible. That time and space becomes a vortex of research, where nothing can interrupt me. The first thing I do when I wake up is start reading and researching and finding stuff to look at from all the resources I have. Staying inspired while in lockdown is just me keeping my eyes in a book. It’s awful, though, that people can’t work, we can’t be around the people we love, and it’s scary to see people who have had to close their businesses and not have those dreams anymore.

I feel very lucky to have both of my parents during this time, because I came back from the east coast to be here during COVID. Now that we have lived through a lockdown once, we can learn from our past experiences. Maybe we can actually channel that and use the downtime we never had before and grow from this. As Americans, we’re taught to be very non-stop and never have a break—always work, always strive for more, make more money, and more and more, all the time. But this time has become the antithesis of that, and it’s very hard for a lot of people, including myself. I’m hoping we’ll see all aspects of life slow down in a healthier way. When you visit other countries, nothing seems urgent; everything feels so relaxed. I don’t oppose that approach to life. 

Lately I feel like I’ve definitely come into my taste so much more. Before I had no idea what I was looking for, but I knew that what I was doing, or what I was trying to create, wasn’t 100 percent of what I wanted. Also, on Instagram, you’re bombarded often with a lot of imagery you don’t ask for, and I was seeing a lot of images that didn’t resonate for me, but I didn’t know why. When I began to research beauty and fashion history, I started finding all those little things that began to resonate. And I think that’s how I found my taste—I found myself and what I enjoy. Now I love it more than ever. The future seems so endless now, it’s amazing. 

Kaia Gerber by Sam Visser
All images by Sam Visser


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