A lot of kids experiment with their family members’ beauty products, but few turn that play into a career. That’s not the case for Kelsey Deenihan. Ever since she was three years old, the Los Angeles native has been fascinated with makeup, applying it to anyone and everyone who would let her. That intrigue never went away, and it was in her teen years that she discovered her passion could be a career. “I decided in my sophomore year of high school that I wanted to be a makeup artist for the rest of my life, and set to make it happen from there on,” she explains.
The aspiring professional still wanted to attend college, however, so she decided to leave L.A. and pursue subjects that would help her future path. “I studied art and photography to help inspire my work, and figure out what types of makeup would photograph best or look the best on skin,” says the University of Colorado at Boulder graduate. After a few years spent working in Australia, she returned to Los Angeles, and it was there that she started working with a friend whose success would transform Deenihan’s own career: Audrina Patridge.
“Audrina and I were really close friends, and I would do her makeup," Deenihan reveals. This was in the heyday of The Hills, and that close relationship not only got her work seen by millions, but it allowed her to learn about celebrities and being on a set. From that point on, she had “tunnel vision,” and didn’t stop networking until she rose to the top. She was never an assistant — instead, she collaborated with photographers and models for free in exchange to build a portfolio. For Deenihan, being anything but successful in this field was not an option. “Honestly, there was never a plan B,” she admits.
And she succeeded — she’s the first-ever LORAC® Cosmetics Artistry Advisor and works regularly with Reese Witherspoon, Cindy Crawford, and Jennifer Garner. Here, the 36-year-old pro talks to Spotlyte about how some women "hide behind makeup," her must-have makeup picks, and how an Instagram poll created a red hot red carpet look for Lucy Hale.
Spotlyte: Who was your first celebrity client?
Kelsey Deenihan: I am from L.A., so I had a bunch of people in my group of girlfriends that ended up becoming known people in the industry. And when The HillsTM started becoming a thing — not the remake, but the original with Lauren [Conrad] and Audrina Patridge — Audrina and I were really close friends, and I would do her makeup.
It was through Audrina that I met a bunch of publicists and managers, who all have their roster of clients. And then [I got] hooked up to them. I really do think that I got my foot in the door with Audrina on The Hills, and just really understanding the celebrity aspect of it, and learning about sets.
Spotlyte: Do you have any favorite award show looks you’ve done over the years that really stand out?
KD: I really like when my clients are feeling creative and want to do a little bit more than just doing a natural carpet look. It's very interesting: Actor and actress clients are playing a role when they're on camera. When they're on the carpet, they want to be and look like their most beautiful selves. But some clients, like Lucy Hale, want to go wild. They're like, “Let's play. I want to have fun.” [For the 2018 Teen Choice® Awards], we did this huge green smokey eye.
Another one that was super memorable was Reese Witherspoon for the  SAG Awards®. She wore a green dress, and we just did a really pretty neutral warm color that I loved. A lot of times, we see her in a bold lipstick, so we went for more of a neutral thing. Her hair was kind of old Hollywood, pulled to the side a little bit, and she had this gorgeous emerald dress. I loved the whole look.
“A Lot of People Hide Behind a Lot of Makeup”
Spotlyte: Speaking of Reese, you just did a really natural beauty look for the November 2019 Harper's BAZAAR® cover.
KD: Yes. It was very much supposed to be natural and let her be herself — the whole thing was about her facing her fears. And it's not really said, but a lot of people hide behind a lot of makeup. It can be fearful to show your vulnerabilities and your true self. So it was very, very purposeful to make her very natural.
Spotlyte: On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of your younger clients, like Lucy Hale and Millie Bobby Brown, seem really fearless about trying new things.
KD: It’s so fun. It honestly stems from [social media]. For Gen Z, that's their encyclopedia. So they see something cool, and they're like, I want to try that. Maybe we'll do a bold liner, but [Millie Bobby Brown] is 15, so we'll keep the skin fresh. You know, I try to keep her age-appropriate, but she does have grand ideas, because she loves makeup so much. We try to take little bits and pieces of things that she's inspired by, and then just make them our own, and try to keep them appropriate for a young girl who doesn't need any makeup.
Spotlyte: Tell us about the process when you’re working with a celebrity. How do you figure out what the look will be?
KD: It usually will start with whatever they're wearing. For the [celebrities] that I've worked with for a while, we have the whole team on group chat — the hair, the stylist, and makeup. We'll get a picture, and then we'll start passing back inspiration, and it will just become a conversation. It usually stems from the dress and what color it is. What's going to be complimentary? Is there a vibe? If it has a ‘40s feel and the hairdresser wants to do really iconic, period hair, then maybe the makeup is going to take a backseat because there's so much going on. It's really a give and take. It's about the whole look. We all work together — we just want the client to look the best in whatever way we get there.
Spotlyte: How do you prep a celeb’s skin before applying their makeup?
KD: For each client, it’s different. Some love wearing undereye patches. Some prefer not to. If it's a new client, and I have free range of what I want to do, I love to start with a moisturizer. I am partial to the Embryolisse® Hydra-MatTM. I just love the way it sits under makeup. It doesn't get too oily, but it still stays hydrated throughout the longevity of a day. Then I love the Skyn Iceland® undereye patches.
Spotlyte: Do you always start with a primer?
KD: I don’t use actual face primers that often. But I do use blurring products — I'll use either the Kiehl's® Micro-Blur® Skin Perfector or the Murad® InvisiblurTM. I don't like to layer a bunch of stuff under makeup — you don't know how it's going to react with other products that you're going to be putting on later. Even though a primer is meant to help with your makeup application, I prefer to use as little product under the actual foundation as possible.
Spotlyte: How do you keep makeup looking fresh after a long day?
Spotlyte: What about your skin? What do you use?
KD: My facialist in LA that transformed my skin introduced me to Eucerin® face oil. La Mer® undereye cream — it’s so rich and thick that it works really well with my dry skin, it helps me look hydrated without creasing. La Prairie® Sleep Mask — it helps my skin restore moisture overnight. And Clé de Peau [Beauté] Essential Refining Essence® is great as a first step because it helps the rest of my skincare routine sink into skin and intensifies the results..
Spotlyte: Have you ever tried injectables?
KD: [Yes], I get injectable [filler] in my lips. I naturally have very thin lips, almost inverted (thanks mom!), so I’ve been doing injections for at least 10 years to make them look [subtle] and full and not big. I want them to complement my face, so they don’t look nonexistent. I see Jasmine Chaparian, PA at Westlake Dermatology Associates of Westlake Village.
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Spotlyte: What are your tips for getting a gorgeous “no makeup makeup” look?
KD: It really starts with good skincare. Anytime your skin is hydrated, it's going to look more youthful and healthy, and then it's also going to be the best base for makeup. So a really good moisturizer, dependent on your skin type, [is important].
[With makeup], if you have oily skin, you don't want to necessarily use something with a bunch of oil, because you're going to then want to powder yourself, and when you powder, [the makeup] looks heavier. It's just choosing the right product and not necessarily using it all over your face. If you have a little rosacea, maybe you want to just cover your cheeks — even out everything, but [don’t apply] a full mask of makeup.
Spotlyte: What are some of your favorite makeup brands or products that you always have in your kit?
KD: I really love the Embryolisse moisturizer — I use it almost across the board. For foundation, it depends on the person's skin type. I love the SUQQUTM Extra Rich Glow Cream Foundation. It's a go-to. I like the Armani® Luminous Silk FoundationTM — a cult favorite, of course. Lately, I haven't been using foundation all over the skin. I've just been taking whatever concealer I'm going to use and just kind of dabbing it in areas where they need it.
For eyeshadows, the LORAC PRO Palettes. You don't need anything else. Any color you want is in one of those palettes. And the pigments are just so amazing — like butter. As far as mascara, it depends. Lately, I'm into brown mascara, especially on blondes, because it still gives that drama without harshness. The one I've used for years on myself is L'Oréal® Voluminous®.
Spotlyte: Can you talk about being the first-ever LORAC® Cosmetics Artistry Advisor?
KD: It’s very serendipitous, one of my first palettes was the brand’s Pro Palette and Carol was one of the first celebrity artists to create a makeup line. It’s amazing being her predecessor and watching the brand turn a new leaf while continuing to get back to the artistry roots.
Spotlyte: How did the partnership come to be?
KD: The brand sought me out and we just clicked instantly. They were looking for someone with a range of clientele who can really work as that spokesperson to the artist community.
Spotlyte: What products are you hoping to help develop with LORAC?
KD: Anything they’ll let me. I have so many ideas but it’s a true collaboration, but being in the lab and wearing that fancy hair net is definitely something I’m into and have enjoyed so much so far.
Spotlyte: What's the coolest thing you have done with LORAC so far?
KD: Helping to create and direct their first launch of 2020 that’s coming out — it’s such a calendar year being the 25th anniversary of the brand.
Spotlyte: How has Instagram changed your career?
KD: We used to have actual portfolios, or [clients would] contact our agents. Now, they'll just look us up on Instagram. It's just quicker, and it's right at your fingertips, literally. We also have that bridge to the community now, where you can talk with other artists, or you can talk with people that are fans of your clients. You want to give the people what they want. Once, Lucy [Hale] and I couldn't decide if we wanted to go with a nude or a red lipstick. So she put it on her Instagram — should I do a nude or red with Kelsey today? And everyone voted red, so we did
Spotlyte: How is it affecting the younger generation of makeup artists?
KD: It's such a platform for aspiring artists to contact people that they may look up to for advice. I never assisted growing up, because I never knew that was even a thing. I didn't know any other makeup artists. There wasn't even the internet at that time! It wasn't like I could message someone and be like, “If you ever need an assistant . . .” Now, it's such [an important] way for younger artists to find out the kind of artists they really want to be — by following people who they most aspire to be. And if they're lucky enough to get the opportunity to assist any of them, then it can create their path to becoming a makeup artist.
Spotlyte: Do you feel pressure to make your clients look “perfect” on Instagram?
KD: Yeah, a con [of Instagram] is just the fact that everything can have a filter. People forget that Photoshop® has been around [forever]. Yes, if someone has a blemish, I'm going to take it out [if] they want me to. You know what I mean? But I'm not going to be changing anyone's features. I'm not going to be making their lips bigger or their nose smaller or lift their eyes up or anything because, honestly, if you want to do that, I'll do it with makeup.
Spotlyte: Working with celebrities can seem glamorous, but what’s been your least glamorous moment working with a star?
KD: We were on a photoshoot on the beach, and it was absolutely freezing. The hairdresser, the stylist, a production person, and I were hiding under this ledge. It blocked the wind, but there was a pipe that burst near us, and we didn't realize. It was a sewer pipe. It just started coming out — we were just literally standing there in sh*t. And we were like, “This is our job!” There's literally a model [waiting] right there for the most glamorous thing that's going to come of this. And we are literally freezing, standing in sh*t.
Spotlyte: Is there a dream celebrity that you haven't worked with yet that you would love to in the future?
KD: Oh man, it changes daily. If I see a movie or something, I'm like, “That person is so talented. I want to work with them.” And then the next week, “I'm really into this person's music. I want to work with them.” So there's never a certain person that I aspire to work with. I work with such a wide range of people, from your 15-year-old Millie Bobby Brown to your iconic legends like Diane Sawyer and everyone in between.
Spotlyte: What's your five-year plan?
KD: I plan to keep doing what I do and continuing to build my clientele. I love making them feel happy and confident, so that’s what I intend to keep doing as I continue the upward growth of my career.
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