After graduating from Winston-Salem State University in 1999, Mila Thomas took a job at a Belk’s makeup counter in Hanes Mall while trying to land a job in public relations and advertising.
“It was never on my radar that it was something I could do for a living,” Thomas said of makeup.
That part-time job was her first stop on a meandering route that eventually took her to Hollywood where, with an array of concealers, blushes, brushes and bronzers in her tool box, she glams up some of the biggest names in showbiz on some of the biggest stages. In February alone, she applied the dazzle to Sheryl Lee Ralph at the Super Bowl; Nicole Tuck (DJ Khaled’s wife) at the Grammy Awards; and Pinky Cole, the owner of the Slutty Vegan restaurant chain, at the NAACP Image Awards.
“Growing up in a small town, you don’t know even know that this is possible,” said Thomas, a native of Lenoir, a town of 18,000 known for furniture factories and textile mills.
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Named by Essence magazine as one of “9 Black Celebrity Makeup Artists You Should Know,” Thomas’ clients have also included Nicki Minaj, Mary J. Blige, Issa Rae and Niecy Nash.
Thomas approaches her work with the eye of an artist, something she developed as a child.
“I was fascinated with painting, with women’s faces, their eyebrows, eyelashes, cheek bones and lips,” Thomas said recently from her home in Southern California. “I was always an art fanatic.”
The West Caldwell High School graduate tried following in the footsteps of her sister, Chrissy Thomas, who played for the UNC women’s basketball team for two years before transferring to WSSU, but her devotion to art outweighed her passion for sports.
At WSSU, she started as a fine arts major then switched to mass communications, thinking it would lead to more career opportunities.
While in college, Thomas did all the makeup for MOZIK, WSSU’s longtime modeling troupe, when they staged shows, which taught her about color, lighting and contouring.
“I feel like I was always the go-to girl for being glamorous because I knew how to do makeup,” she said. “It was a natural thing for me. I could paint and draw on a blank canvas, so makeup on a face was three-dimensional.”
Chauncey “Sassy” Womble remembers seeing Thomas on campus before they became friends while in MOZIK. Thomas, Womble recalled, wore perfect makeup and had a sense of style that stood out from other students.
“We’re talking mid to late 80s, before social media, when it was just magazines, and she knew every skin care product, every makeup product and knew fashion,” Womble said. “It was something she loved. She was very meticulous, and that’s how we connected.”
Upon graduation, a friend suggested Thomas work at the MAC Cosmetics counter at Belk’s while she lined up interviews for a job in communications. MAC put her through its training program, teaching her how to apply makeup on people of all ethnicities and skin tones, giving her the skills to be a salesperson and makeup artist. She eventually opened and ran a MAC counter in Washington, D.C., and upon the recommendation of her supervisor, began doing makeup for the BET network.
At BET, she did primarily commercials and the reality show, “Sunday’s Best.”
“That was me getting my feet wet, learning who was the director of photography, the director, learning about lighting, set etiquette and understanding makeup and lighting for black women,” she said.
In New York City, she got a big break when she was picked to be the makeup artist for the cast of the hugely popular reality show “Love and Hip Hop.”
While in New York, she gained a reputation for understanding how to make up black skin under constantly changing studio lights, a skill that took her to Los Angeles where she became the glam coordinator for “Love and Hip Hop Hollywood.”
That entailed hiring a crew of hair and makeup artists and creating the look for the show.
Thomas works with individual clients on almost all of their appearances at such things as talk shows and award shows and for magazine shoots. She joined hip-hop superstar Minaj on her world tour and does her makeup for videos.
“You have to have a conversation, ask them, ‘What’s your look for the day? How do you like to wear your makeup?’ I do research and find out what their comfort level is. Someone like Sheryl Lee Ralph, she’s a diva and she loves the glam, the glitter and all the glitz. I knew where I could take it with her. She said, ‘I love to slay. I want big eyelashes, red glittery lips.’”
Though each of her clients has her own style, Thomas wants them all to look youthful, glowing and fresh, regardless of age.
Thomas encourages people with an interest in makeup as a career to build relationships, practice on as many people as possible, work at a makeup counter if school is not an option and start creating a digital portfolio on a platform such as Instagram.
When she started out, she got her foot in the door the old-fashioned way — assembling photographs into a leather binder and dropping it in the mail.
“Now you can build marketing materials for the world to see with the click of a button,” Thomas said.
Womble, who graduated from WSSU in 2000, said she is not surprised at Thomas’ success.
“She’s very confident in who she is, so I could see why she has done so well in the industry. When you’re working with an artist, they want someone who is confident, so you have to have someone who also has that energy. Mila is magic,” Womble said.
Womble said that Thomas has a natural touch when it comes to contouring — a technique that gives parts of the face depth and dimension. Rather than create a false look on someone, Thomas is able to enhance a person’s features, she said.
“She has a keen eye and a soft touch, so when you see her work, it’s like she took fairy dust, and it landed,” she said.
Firmly entrenched in Hollywood, Thomas is mindful of her small-town roots and speaks nostalgically of western North Carolina.
“I’ve lived in all the major cities, but my favorite place in the whole wide world is on Lake James on my dad’s boat, with a bucket of fried chicken and a picnic on the bank,” Thomas said. “I’m super Southern at heart, and my heart always leads me back to my small town.”