More often than not, interviews just remain a meeting in an attempt to know the interviewee better. Fortunately, some turn out to be thoughtful conversations. It was no different when makeup and hair artist Elton J Fernandez invited us to his quaint yet quirky Bandra apartment. As he was busy hosting Team WODROB, I was making mental notes so I could add it to this piece.
Apart from noticing his creative streak, which is evident in how he’s done up his home (and obviously from the portfolio he creates for the best fashion magazines and celebrities), it was rather easy to gauge how relaxed and warm his temperament is. Not to forget, his sharp wit too. In fact, I’d say it’s this nonchalance that probably prompts scribes to add that “he’s not just part of an entourage, he’s a celebrity himself.”
Rightfully unapologetic, the 37-year-old comfortably talks about him being gay and also about the idea that ‘makeup is only an extension of one’s personality and not the other way around’. But was this always the case? Of course not! In this interview, Elton shares everything from how he paved his thought process to his notions on the fashion as well as beauty industry at large. Excerpts…
The fashion and beauty domain is considered a woman-dominated space. Was it difficult for you, as a man, to breakthrough?
Honestly, I think I was made for an industry like this. If I had to be at a 9-to-5 work and go home to a nagging wife and two yelling children, do everything from playtime to study time and more, that would be crazy. Right now, as a single gay man, I feel like I’m just about reaching adulthood. I think this industry (fashion, beauty, and entertainment) allows for such a lifestyle, even if it keeps us on our toes. Also, it all comes with maturity and a humble approach as well as a sense of life.
Being gay, is it easier for you to blend in this industry?
No; it’s just that our traits are better suited for this industry than most others. So, I can be myself. You know, in all the three corporate jobs that I had, I was told off with a warning only for being who I am than being somebody who’s maybe loud at times or even extra. Everybody wants to change you and make you into a Barbie… I hate that. In fashion and in entertainment, we can be ourselves and our larger-than-life selves. This is because we’re backstage and we’re just keeping the spirit alive for the artists we work with. And they need that energy. So, it is the right place for me.
You have made a mark in this industry. How difficult or easy has the journey been?
I want to say that it has more to do with luck than anything else. Sure I was ambitious and hardworking, and that helped. Also when you’ve left home and cannot go back, you have to find your own way. I’ve had some really nice people place their trust in me. Onir gave me my break in Bollywood merely out of trust in my work. He checked my work on Orkut and got in touch with me. Before I knew it, I ended up doing an entire movie with him, and received credits as ‘Director of Makeup & Hair’. In fact, I Am won a National Award.
When you started as a makeup artist, ‘heavy makeup’ was in trend. Now, it’s about a minimalistic look. How did you adapt to that?
I think it’s got to do with technology, in a way. The formulas have changed; our skins didn’t. The fact that Indians still have pigmentation issues remain. It’s just that, now, with science and innovation, we have products that automatically adapt to the skin. I wouldn’t say I’ve had to do anything with this change. But yes, it’s also about having an understanding of what I want from my craft. With time, you realise how to be a craftsman. I don’t work to show off my makeup skills honestly. I work so that I can bond with someone and by the end of the process, she’s happy because I’ve taken her to a place in her personality that she hasn’t explored already.
So being experimental is one thing, but it’s important to keep the essence of the personality, right?
I’ve always believed that makeup is an extension of ones’ wardrobe and personality, not the other way around. The subject is a personality, and both the stylist and I put together an image that sort of elevates that. Frankly, many young actors today don’t have any personality. They come into this business because they want to be famous or rich. The ones who rally through to the front are those who love the craft and have an understanding of the technicalities. It’s the same with makeup. People want to get into this industry but they end up with a portfolio of everyday brides. Sure it’ll make you a lot of money. But if you’re looking at building a brand and an equity, you need to have a larger goal.
Makeup artists are behind-the-scene activators. But with you, it’s different. You’re a brand. How did that happen?
I’m just blessed to have a great management (Inega) for the past three years. Everyone from my manager, Ankit, to my team of hair & makeup artists who work with me, my main assistant Krishna, my driver and housekeepers, they’re my machinery. You need to be in a place where you can delegate, people understand your mood, and everyone can easily manoeuvre around each other. Also, you just have to be good at what you do and honest with everybody. And, I’ve been really lucky, I think. Also, I take a lot of risks and I’m not in for safe-play at all. I remember I was staying in a 250 sq.ft. apartment in Bombay for the longest time; and I must have stayed like that for about eight to nine years. But I decided I had to change it. My personality type is such that nothing can weigh me down for long. I think one’s got to throw themselves into the deep end of the pool to swim out eventually.
The makeup industry has seen a boom in the last five years. And you are a role model to many. Do you have any tips for budding makeup artists?
I’d definitely say, don’t get caught up in this web of Instagram makeup trends. If you want to style and look like a mannequin, these unwearable trends are fine. But it gives a wrong impression of what a woman needs to look like to feel good about herself. I don’t think she needs so much plucking and trimming. Just being natural with some help and a little imagination is nice.
Do you think when the work gets too commercial, it’s easy to lose your artistic touch?
Not necessarily. You are your own gatekeeper. You have to decide your boundaries and how much you let a corporation take from you. It shouldn’t infringe on your artistic abilities.
Are Indian makeup artists still aping the West or do we have something different to offer?
I don’t think it’s so much about aping the West. They control the dollar, the trends come from there. Sadly, that’s just how the cookie crumbles, and we are all a part of the bigger global system. That said, India has this cultural overhang and everybody wants to look fairer. I do too, I’m not going to lie. I love my colour and I like looking brown, but I also like looking the brightest version of my skin. That said, I don’t like the fact that people want to change drastically using a lot of foundation and concealer.
Instagram is THE place for upcoming trends. Do you also check out trends on Instagram?
I don’t follow trends on Instagram and don’t care too much about what’s trending. When it comes to trends, someone is using bra inserts to apply foundation. Have you seen that? And then there are these swiggly brows and donut heads. Weird right? It’s interesting when you look at it in hindsight. 20 years later when you chronicle these oddities, you’ll see it as pure expression, and in that sense I support it. But they’re not practical.
Right now, I’m on a digital cleanse. I ensure I get less fashion-related articles and more puppy videos, cute and happy videos. Of course, I know what my clients are doing, just for knowledge. Also, everything is always in trend, right? Based on what brands are going to sell.
You’ve got over 79K subscribers on your YouTube channel. Why did you stop uploading videos?
It’s dropped!? (laughs) Yes, I haven’t uploaded in a year because it turned into a chore. Everybody hated on me unnecessarily. Who wants to wake up on a Wednesday morning and read messages like “Oh it’s 8 a.m, you have not uploaded your video. Do you have no respect for me?” etc? And these are just the polite messages. When you become a YouTuber and you have to commit to it, you might as well do that. I make videos because I enjoy teaching, being in front of the camera, talking about my craft, and doing something with my time and my money. I don’t do it to gain followers. I want people to follow me for my craft and for the person I am. Which is why I don’t get sucked up into this digital game as much.
Talking about your style, you’re very flamboyant, edgy and eclectic. But this was not the case always. How did this style evolution take place? Did it come from self-expression?
It comes from self-acceptance and awareness. And that happened with coming out of the closet when I was 21. You start looking at life differently. You start looking at yourself from other people’s eyes and everything sums up into a clearer picture of where you want to be. As far as my personality goes, I want it to be a stretch. If I feel like being a sweet boy today, I’m a sweet boy. Tomorrow I may feel like a crazy tiger. Some days I just wake up and feel like putting on heavy cat-eye makeup and I go out for a movie like that.
So what’s your style like?
I think it’s based on my mood and it is gender neutral. I love wearing heels. That’s the one thing I miss in a man’s wardrobe, so I borrow it from the women’s section. Most of my clothes are from women’s stores – ZARA Women, Marks & Spencer Women.
There’s a lot of emphasis on gender neutrality and gender fluidity. What’s your take on it?
You know, we were doing all of this before it got called anything. I feel you should wear what you feel. I mean, you have to consider where you are and the sensitivity of the larger audience. As long as you’re not offending someone, in the privacy of a party or wherever you’re going, wear whatever you like and what makes you feel comfortable. For example, if I’m wearing a skirt and heels, I would wear it to a gay party. But I wouldn’t go flaunting heavy makeup to a market in Bandra and make a scene or try to get attention there. There’s a time, place and a situation that’s appropriate, and it is important to consider that.
Give us a sneak peek of what your wardrobe is like?
My wardrobe is essentially eclectic and I like stand-alone pieces. Then I’ll simplify it with everything else but I’ll always have one statement piece. For instance, I have a customised kimono that I may wear with my basic black samurai pants. It’s either a statement silhouette or a statement piece.
Where do you shop from?
Anywhere and everywhere… I really don’t care about brands. Of course, I like a big brand… who doesn’t right? It’s good to know that some artist has put his mind into the cut and design and that there is some soul attached to your garment. But there are days when I just go to H&M and pick up a machine-cut top. It’s okay; I’m real and practical about things like these. I don’t have a whimsical approach to fashion. I shop at ASOS, SheIn, and other sites online.
Do you have any favourite labels or designers?
I wear a lot of 11.11’s designs. Shani (Himanshu) is a long-time friend. If I were a woman, I think I’d wear a lot of Péro by Aneeth Arora but she just makes very feminine clothes so I can’t really wear it. I like Ikai by Ragini Ahuja as well. I prefer organic fabrics, also silk, sheer, muslin. I do buy a lot of WHIM by Poorvi… she’s a friend of mine.
What about international designers?
I really like Balmain, because it’s dark and sexy. I don’t like all these flouncy, sweet, pretty things. In fashion, I like a dark romance. I also like Balenciaga’s silhouettes and cuts.
What’s your shopping routine like if you were to go to a mall? Do you plan it or are you impulsive?
I’m very quick with my purchases. I don’t spend hours looking around because I know what will look nice on me.
And what’d be your go-to, on-duty look when you’re off to a film set?
Even when I was younger, I never had specific clothes for Sunday mass, tuition or college. I would wear anything, anywhere. But yes, everything from accessories, the balance, language of colour changes. My looks are usually pre-set in my wardrobe. When I’m travelling, I just pick the hangers and go. That said, I like neutral clothes.
What are the five beauty essentials that one should have in their everyday kit?
I’d say a concealer, mascara, a lash curler, something to fill your brows – powder or pencil, and a lip and cheek stain.
Tell us, is there a trend you cannot get enough of?
I like jewellery. I think if I met an Arab Sheikh who wants to have me dripping in jewels for him, I’d be more than happy to oblige (laughs). Jewels, oxidised gold and silver, antique jewellery, Indian jewellery, folk jewellery… anything.
Any pet peeve in fashion?
I can’t stand Crocs… they’re ugly, except when worn by children. Then I don’t like the Barbie trend — big blowouts, everything tight, pale, pink lips. There’s something about that beauty pageant queen vibe that I don’t like. It strips a woman off her personality only to apply something so generic to it. And that’s a trend, which feeds the larger part of this nation.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. But I want to pick up my YouTube this year. Later on, I would ideally want to come up with a brand. If it ever happens, I’d like a more affordable range with Maybelline because I love working with them. I’m very Indian and proud of it, and I want to serve my people. I don’t want to sell my makeup to Dubai, I want it to be for my people. So, I don’t think of a luxe premium angle at all. Because nobody is going to buy it. I don’t want it only for an urban audience that already has access to so many other things.
Who are you inspired by?
I’ve really liked Pat McGrath; and not just her work, but also for who she is as a personality. You see all these older models and even the younger ones are so fond of her, and there’s genuine friendship in all these connections. It takes a great human being to command that kind of warmth from their peers. In a business that is so cut-throat, not everybody is really frank and earnest with you. I feel it takes a certain kind of a human being to bring earnest out of people.
Also, I have friends in the business who are inspirational. Monica Dogra is my soulmate. And then my friend, Malini Agarwal (Miss Malini) is like a role model. I honestly like to surround myself with people like that; everyday people who are doing great things in their own individual capacities.
Anyone from fashion?
Ekta Rajani. Her ideas and understanding of life and people in fashion… it’s so correlated. Right now, she’s trying out the minimalistic way of life. I think it would be great to reach a place like that eventually.
Tell us something about Elton that no one else knows.
I really like having a lot of plants, and talking and singing to them. Now I’m not a psycho (laughs). I just like communicating with them because I have a theory that all living organisms and trees are interconnected. Which is why I keep plants; to have a natural balance in the energy of my home. I think it balances the rest, which is so artificial.
Coming back to fashion; do you think it’d be right to say that in this industry, it takes a certain vibe to blend in?
I think people care too much about the real things. The logistics, the machinery, the people, the experience is yours to have. Make it personal by all means because it’s a job that requires more heart and soul than other manual work. I wouldn’t go killing other people’s personalities just because they’re different from mine. You just have to coexist.
One faces a lot of criticism on social media. Do you also feel the pressure of excess opinions from those who know less?
Yes, I feel the pressure both on social media and as a YouTuber. Firstly, as a man in this domain, it is harder to get subscribers. People usually have followers who have no access to or even have no connection to makeup. As far as I am concerned, I am a destination shop. You know exactly the kind of content you’ll get if you come to a makeup artist’s professional page, especially if he’s someone who speaks for the LGBTQ community. So, I think it’s harder on the Internet as people don’t want to follow me; I’m either too gay for them or too extra.
I think coping with social media is a lot of learning. Your equation with your audience is just like any other relationship… be it with your best friend or with your parents. At first, you feel hurt, after which the hurt turns to anger. It takes for some maturity to have humility at that moment, step back and see from another’s perspective if it all makes sense. Also, you have to have your own filter. I mean, if you don’t know your core, then you’re just going to sway all over the place, right?
It’s rare for a man in India to be OTT on social media, and for people to accept that, isn’t it?
Yes, but that’s how I am at home. Sometimes I’m in front of the mirror at 2 a.m., applying makeup, sporting an outfit, and dancing a little. At times, I’ll try on a cat-eye. That’s just how I am. I don’t do it for people to like me. If anything, when I’m walking down the street or I’m somewhere and people don’t look at me twice, I’d feel like something’s wrong with me. I’ll think kyun nahi dekh raha hai, for whatever reason… good or bad.
What do you think is the reason… good or bad?
They think I’m a star.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.