Less than 10 years ago, Hector Espinal was afraid to put his fingers near someone’s face, let alone execute a proper smokey eye. Now he regularly paints the face of Rihanna, one of the most celebrated singers in the world.
Espinal’s rise — not only to doing Rihanna’s makeup, but also as a global makeup artist for her highly successful Fenty Beauty brand — began in 2009.
Then a nanny, he put in an application at the Sephora located at 57th Street and Lexington in Manhattan.
“I applied as a cashier because I had a phobia of touching people,” he said. “The guy who interviewed me asked me what I like to do for fun. My first answer was to party ’cause I love going clubbing. He’s like, ‘No what else do you like to do?’ I had this obsession with sketching, so for my second interview, I brought in my sketches, and he was like, ‘I want to make you into a makeup artist.’ I was like, ‘I think you should pump your breaks.'”
Six months later, Espinal was certified in one of the highest artistry trainings Sephora offers, and in 2012, he became one of 14 Sephora Pro artists. As a global member of the Pro team, he taught himself to do a full face of makeup in less than 25 minutes. He was also regularly sent to work on campaigns and fashion shows around the world, one of which was Rihanna’s Fenty Puma spring 2017 show in Paris.
During the pre-show madness, it was discovered that Rihanna didn’t have her foundation — a mishap that proved to be a moment for Espinal to shine.
“Something happened where [Rihanna] was missing her foundation,” he said. “Of course, I did my research before going and I knew what she liked to use, and I literally just pulled it out and gave it to her. She came out and said, ‘Do you mind finishing my makeup?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, give me five minutes.’ [He snaps his fingers.] Did it.”
Pleased with his work, Rihanna invited Espinal to try out for Fenty Beauty’s global makeup artist position. He accepted, but auditioning didn’t go as smoothly as he would have hoped.
During the process, Espinal was tasked with performing a 10-minute demo in front of 25 people. In the next round, he was interviewed in a room with cameras and paparazzi. Overwhelmed by the intensity, Espinal began to doubt whether or not he was cut out for the job — and then, his model fainted.
Espinal pushed through and made it to the finals, where he was also up against Priscilla Ono, who had worked with Rihanna previously. Espinal’s final task was to do Rihanna’s makeup. The rest is history.
As one of two global makeup artists for Fenty (Ono was also selected), Espinal is involved in product development, campaign shoots, appearances and everything in between. Fenty, which is owned by Kendo, has not commented on sales since its 2017 launch, but the business is said to be highly lucrative. Earlier this year, it was reported that Fenty Beauty sales in its first month of operation were five times those of Kylie Cosmetics.
Asked for his thoughts on what makes the brand so successful, Espinal pointed to Rihanna’s involvement and the brand’s message of inclusivity.
“I travel constantly around the world, and when I see clients of different cultures, religions, ages, genders, they’re all so involved and so in love with Fenty,” he said. “This is historical in the makeup industry. This is like when Barack Obama won [the 2008 presidential election]. As an artist for Sephora, which is such a huge company that has so many options, I never noticed what gap Fenty would have filled and how good we shook the entire industry to make them become better. Sometimes I am like, ‘You never had a foundation? What was your life about before Fenty?'”
Working for Rihanna has encouraged Espinal to draw inspiration from a variety of places. Recently, he got inspired looking at a tree — “I’m like wow, I like that texture, I wonder if I can put that on an eye.”
He described the Fenty look as “fresh, bold and provocative. It’s breaking all the rules. It’s being a rebel, but a beautiful rebel.” The brand has changed his mind-set toward makeup, causing him to think about the importance of undertones in finding a perfectly matched foundation.
“As a makeup artist, I always knew how to make it work and didn’t realize the struggle of mixing or not finding the perfect shade or undertone,” he said. “Perfect example, my mom is like, ‘I want the foundation from Fenty, my color’s medium beige.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, what is medium beige?’ People make it work with bronzers and concealers and it’s like, no, you need your perfect match.”
As Rihanna is known to wear new products before they launch, part of Espinal’s job is keeping her makeup looks a secret, lest a new product release leak to the public.
“She wears everything first,” he said of the brand founder. “She likes to see how it photographs, if it wears. I was in the green room and she literally opened her bottle of water, took the cap, put some water in the cap, dips her brush, swipes it into the Killawatt palette and goes ‘vroop!’ around her lids. I was like, ‘That is so beautiful.’ It was amazing.”
And, naturally, he keeps mental tabs on her foundation shade, just in case another mishap arises.
“Right now, she’s 330,” he said.