This story was originally published on Fashion Unfiltered, a leading online destination for fashion news, commentary and criticism, in-depth style coverage, cultural reportage, and the best of beauty.
Before CoverGirl, Maybelline, and Rimmel made waves by adding Instaboys like James Charles, Manny Gutierrez, and Lewys Ball to their already stacked rosters of supermodel spokespersons, there was Ryan Burke.
He’s less concerned with looking stereotypically “pretty” than he is with blowing minds with his mesmerizing looks that combine everything from shards of mirror to brass pipes. “I like very surreal makeup,” explains Burke of his unique aesthetic. “It has to have a flow and rhythm to it.”
And much like a conductor who directs various members of an orchestra to produce a magnificent symphony, this pro is a maestro of makeup—coordinating three-dimensional elements and pigments into one spectacular piece of museum-worthy art that’s on display for one night only (typically on view at one of Ladyfag’s or Susanne Bartsch’s legendary soirees).
Luckily, the face painter often captures the moment for posterity and posts it to Instagram, allowing those of us who can’t stay awake long enough to make it to Holy Mountain or Boom! to share in the spectacle.
It’s not exactly surprising that the prodigy’s “surreal,” “colorful,” “trippy,” and “abstract” take on makeup caught the eye of Pat McGrath, the reigning queen of runway maquillage. While Burke currently serves as an ambassador for Pat McGrath Labs, he says he joined the coveted crew as an assistant in a very “normal way” via an introduction from his agent and former McGrath team member, Ryan McKnight of Kreative Kommune.
“Several people thought I got on the team because of Instagram, but it wasn’t,” he clarifies. While industry connections did get his foot in the door, it was Burke’s own uninhibited ambition that kicked it wide open. “I came in with no kit—nothing,” he says of showing up to Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall 2015 show, his very first backstage job.
“They asked someone to come to the front and I said, ‘I’m going!’ I was in the very back, and I thought, This isn’t going to turn into anything if I’m all the way back here…so I went right up to the front, right in front of Pat, and she said, ‘This tattoo on this girl’s face is in the wrong place and it needs to be moved up, don’t you think?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so, sure.’ She asked me to take it off, put it back on again in a higher place—all while recording it on video and doing it in ten seconds! It was the first time I had ever met her and immediately after I did it, I went straight to the back because I was shaking.”
Clearly, his risk paid off. But the surreal pro wasn’t always so quick to put himself in the line of fire in front of the world’s premiere makeup artist. In fact, this small-town boy from the mountains of Virginia describes himself as an “introvert.” Here, how Burke used makeup to break out of his shell.
You are originally from a small town in Virginia, so how did you transition from that life to the one you live now?
That came about through an ex. He wanted to go to school in California, so I decided that I was moving too and we were going to live together. So, did that, then broke up with him. Then, I was there in L.A., and I thought it was better than Virginia, so I decided to see what I could do. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to be a photographer, so I pursued that.
Growing up, did you ever experiment with makeup?
No, I never touched makeup before I went to L.A. My mom never wore makeup, she never even wore a tinted moisturizer or mascara. And in Virginia, people don’t really wear makeup. If the girls wore any makeup at all it was just mascara. But I did dress up a lot as a kid and I had a big imagination. We didn’t have cable TV and weren’t allowed to use the computer or Internet for anything other than school, so I wasn’t exactly exposed to a lot of things.
How did you first break into the world of beauty?
I found my way into [beauty] through nightlife. A friend of mine was a drag queen at the time—you know, when RuPaul’s Drag Race first started and everyone was trying to be a drag queen, which I guess it still the case—and I wanted to go out with him and his friends, but that wasn’t really my vibe, so I started playing with other types of things. I did very geometric shapes and abstract stuff—not eyeliner and lipstick. I went on and learned how to block out my eyebrows so I had more space to draw. Then, I learned how to do liner and lashes, and on and on.
Those makeup skills seem quite technical. How did you learn how to pull that off?
I guess a little bit of YouTube, but I didn’t really care that much about it being “good.” I did watch YouTube for blocking out brows. I remember when I was teaching myself eyeliner, it was before I was going to a rave and I wanted to have eyeliner and lashes, so I sat in the bathroom for the entire day putting eyeliner on and taking it off until it looked okay.
It’s just a matter of repetition and practice…It wasn’t until I moved from L.A. to New York and I got a retail job in makeup that I really bridged the gap. It gave me more of an understanding of beauty makeup—foundation, contouring, lips, eyebrows, and all of those things, which I incorporated back into my style. Obviously, I had to apply it every day on people, so I got to practice. All the foundations that I used were powder, so when I went to work on Pat’s team, it was a lot of liquids and cream concealers. And apart from that, she has a very technical and specific way that she does makeup. It’s not something you would learn anywhere else. In that way, it was fine that I didn’t have too much of an understanding because I could learn her technique.
Which makeup brand did you work for before joining Pat McGrath?
BareMinerals. So random, right? It’s completely the opposite of what I do!
Working with Pat McGrath must be worlds away from the BareMinerals counter! What have you learned from her?
She wants everything to beautiful. She likes a sexy look. Anything that we do, even if it’s a little crazy, still needs to have that element in it. A lot of it is about the shape of the eye and where things are placed—everything has to fit the face. Personally, what I do, isn’t always pretty—it’s more interesting, but I developed my style through her originally. When I started going out and I didn’t know how to do makeup, my friend asked if I had seen [Pat McGrath’s work], and of course I hadn’t because I didn’t know anything or anybody, but I thought, Oh my gosh, glued-on eyebrows! I can’t draw eyebrows, I’m just going to cut them out. I’m going to cut up paper and plastic and glue it to my face. Through that, I found my own style.
I’ve read that RuPaul’s Drag Race has reached out to you, but you don’t consider your makeup “drag.” How do you describe your approach?
It’s definitely androgynous—I don’t try to go for feminine or masculine, there are usually both elements in there to some degree. I like it to look surreal. I want to it to be trippy, but everything needs to have a rhythm and flow around the face. It’s abstract, surreal, impressionistic, painterly, but then I’ll do something really structured! My style is all over the place, but I always focus on rhythm and balance of color and shape.
What does rhythm mean in terms of makeup?
It’s the way that it flows on the face. It’s almost a sense of movement. It could be a directional thing—like all the angled pieces point around in a certain way. Or, if I do a beaded look, they have a rhythm in how they flow around the face. Nothing is just there.
In previous interviews, you’ve described yourself as an introvert, but your looks are anything but. Why has makeup become your ultimate form of expression?
I’m more expressive now as a person, but I’m still a bit introverted if I don’t know people. Makeup allows me to put myself out there in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. If you dress up, it gives people a reason to talk to you and approach you. I’m not the type of person to go up to someone I don’t know and say hello. When I was in L.A., I didn’t know that many people at first and I was just kind of there. But I noticed when I started dressing up, people would come up to me and I started making friends and having fun.
Before mass brands like CoverGirl and Maybelline enlisted boys as faces, you were already serving as an ambassador for Pat McGrath Labs. What do you think about so many cosmetic companies following suit?
RB: As far as I’m concerned, I’m more of an avant-garde type of makeup artist. I’m not really so much beauty. For me and my relationship with Pat, I represent an artistic side that she’s fond of. The other brand ambassadors are more [traditional] beauty. But I think it’s really amazing that this is finally happening, because men do wear makeup. In urban areas, you see it a lot. It’s not just a weird thing some people do, it’s getting to be bigger and bigger—lots of men are wearing makeup now.