Behind The Image – Hung Vanngo on His Breakout Covers and Making it as a Makeup Artist

Behind the Image is an ongoing series taking a more personal look at both established and emerging creative talent.

Kate Moss photographed by Sølve Sundsbø, courtesy Hung Vanngo

Hung Vanngo

Hometown: New York City (formerly Calgary, Canada, originally Vietnam)
Based: New York City
Represented by: The Wall Group (worldwide)

How would you describe your work? What’s your trademark?
My trademark has changed throughout the years, for sure. It’s definitely about glowing skin, but because I work with a lot of celebrities right now I would not call myself edgy at all. I have to call myself more just beautiful glamour. I lean toward that direction more. I love a glamour girl. I think I wish I was doing makeup in the nineties. I love women to feel beautiful. I want people to get out of my makeup chair feeling like, “Oh, my God, I look so beautiful.” I don’t want people to feel like they are looking weird. That, for me, is important.

How did you get into your chosen career?
I always painted when I was younger, and I went to hairdressing school three days after I finished high school. I thought I would become a hairdresser because in Calgary, Canada at the time, I had never heard of people doing makeup for fashion. I looked through fashion magazines in high school and knew I wanted to work in fashion, but I never thought about doing makeup for fashion because I had never heard of someone in Calgary doing that for a living. I just saw hairdressers, so I went to hairdressing school. The first salon I worked at had a makeup station and I played with makeup. If you ask someone in Calgary, they know me as a very good hairdresser. But makeup is something I love. Hair was a gift I didn’t love, but makeup is what I love. But financially, of course, I needed to make a living. So I basically kept doing hair, and I reached out to a local agency for makeup tests and stuff like that. Then the owner of the agency, Kelly Streit from Mode Models, came for a haircut and he chatted to me and he was like, “Wow, you live in Calgary, but you’re so obsessed about modeling!” Basically, he kind of like unofficially signed me as an artist with the agency. He basically booked me for local shoots. And then he actually took me to New York for a trip, and I just fell in love. I said, “I’m going to move to New York.” But Kelly explained that I couldn’t just move there, I had to have work to get a visa. So we talked and he said, “Why don’t you move to Toronto? It’s like a mini-New York. There, you can build your book and start practicing on your makeup career, and then we will figure it out.” He became such a great friend. I went to Toronto and I lived there for three years and it started really well. I worked a lot there. And Kelly at the time, he also had a little agency in Portland, Oregon, and they did my [US visa] sponsorship. So three years later, I moved to New York with sponsorship from his agency. As soon as I moved out of Calgary, I stopped cutting hair.

What other jobs have you had?
I was a busboy in a Japanese restaurant when I was in high school. Before that, I was… My sister, my brother and I, we would clean offices at night. And then when I finished high school, I worked the whole time I was in hairdressing school as a busboy. My English was not so great so busboy was the job the restaurant gave me, they wouldn’t hire me as a waiter!

What have you watched/heard/read lately that has inspired you?
That’s hard. I’m bingeing a lot of TV shows. During the pandemic, I’ve watched so much, and there’s a lot of movies and shows that I hadn’t watched before. For example, the movie The Help. It was such an incredible movie that I didn’t have a chance to see until recently. And I watched that movie and I was like, it blew my mind, the history.

What do you love about what you do?
I never wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, my God, I have to go to work.” I’m actually excited to go to work and I’m not just saying that to make myself feel good, but I truly love what I do. You meet great people, you work with people, and you make people feel good. When people sit on your makeup chair, you don’t just do makeup. You’re like a therapist for them. Being a successful makeup artist is not just about how well you do makeup. For me, especially when working with celebrities, it’s about your personality, how you treat people, how you communicate with people. It’s the whole package.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced professionally?
The challenge was the first few years, to be honest. I could not get a decent booking until my Numero Tokyo cover, and I could not get a hair and makeup agency to represent me at all. In the first few years, I basically wrecked myself. I couldn’t do anything. That was a challenge in New York. I was broke and I basically kept going back to Canada, doing jobs in Canada for existing clients to make some money, and then coming back here to pay the rent. The first few years were very hard for me. The challenge afterward, when my career started taking off, was when I started the shift to celebrities. I do a lot more celebrity now but my first love is always fashion. But we all know that the market changed and only celebrities grace the covers of magazines. I wanted to do covers. My agent said, “You know what, if you love it that much, you know that you’re not going to have many covers just because it’s not going to be many model covers.” So that’s when I shifted into celebrity. And saying that doesn’t mean that I don’t love celebrities. I love working with celebrities because you get to have that relationship with the client. The celebrity has a voice and they can choose you as a team. You form a friendship. So the struggle I have now is basically choosing the right jobs. Sometimes you have a great editorial request come in and also a great celebrity booking that day. So it’s a balance between both worlds. It’s very hard because I know most makeup artists only do celebrity work or they only do fashion work. And I do both which sounds easy, but it’s not. I always worry if fashion people will take me seriously still. The truth is a lot of editors and fashion photographers look down at makeup artists who do celebrity. But it benefits my career. For example, fashion brands want to hire someone who can also dip into the world of celebrity makeup. So I have to choose what’s right for me, you know?

What’s one thing outside of your work that you would like people to know about you?
I love food. I’m a foodie person. I love to try all different kinds of food. My favorite thing is to go and have dinner with friends. That’s my favorite thing to do as I enjoy food a lot. And it sounds really bad, to work in fashion and enjoy it so much! But I was brought up like that. My family is like a foodie family, we cook to share with friends and we cook for each other. We appreciate a good meal.

Who do you think is one to watch?
For models, I have to say Shayna McNeill, who is a girl from Kelly [at Mode Models]. I met her when she was 13 and I messaged the IMG people and said, “You have to go after this girl. I think she’s amazing.” And Kelly also has this new girl named Willow Allen. She’s First Nations Canadian, but she looks Asian and she just arrived in New York. I just did a video with her and she is so beautiful, commercially beautiful. But I think she’s going to clean up all the work. Soo Park is a young makeup artist that works under me. I think he’s amazing. He’s very talented, very knowledgeable. I think he’s great. And Jacob Rozenberg, who has assisted Harry [Josh] for a long time. I think he’s going to be a major hairdresser. He’s super talented.

Numero Tokyo (Issue #25), 2009
Photographer: Regan Cameron. Stylist: Katie Mossman. Hair: Harry Josh. Model: Helena Christensen. courtesy Hung Vanngo

I had just moved to NY from Canada. I didn’t know anyone and it was a really hard time for me to start my career here. But Christopher Michael had been an assistant of mine in Canada. He was always a huge believer in me. When he first came to New York, he worked at a modeling agency. At the time, he was working at Helena [Christensen]’s agency and he basically convinced her to try me out. At the time I wasn’t getting any big shoots at all. I did little tiny things, little catalog and editorial you’ve never heard of. Numero magazine with Helena, a supermodel, and Regan Cameron, a huge photographer, was a big deal for me. So Helena agreed to try me out, and that really completely changed my career for sure. Meeting Helena completely changed everything because she loves my makeup and she requested me for almost everything after that. And then also meeting Harry Josh, the hairdresser. Harry would also become a great friend and a guardian angel. He has been so supportive and he recommended me to so many amazing talents after that.

i-D Magazine, Winter 2009
Photographer: Kayt Jones. Editor: Pippa Vosper. Hair: Ed Moelands. Models: Helena Christensen, Claudia Schiffer, Eva Herzigova. courtesy Hung Vanngo

Two weeks after the Numero shoot was a cover with i-D magazine. It was in London. The cover was the three supermodels from the nineties, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova and Claudia Schiffer. And, you know, I started doing makeup from looking up to all the supermodels from the nineties. Helena got this booking and requests me for it. She also convinced the magazine to use me for the two other supermodels as well. Because you know, Claudia and Eva would usually want their own glam teams, but Helena was like, “I tried this new guy. He’s amazing.” And basically, I flew to London, did the cover, and that completely shifted my editorial career in New York.

Vogue Australia, January 2015
Photographer: Patrick Demarchelier. Stylist: Christine Centenera. Hair: Harry Josh. Model: Gisele Bündchen. courtesy Hung Vanngo

This third shoot was also tied up to the first person I met in NY, Harry Josh. Harry become a big fan. He recommended me to Gisele. And that led to the cover of Vogue Australia, with Gisele Bundchen and the legendary Patrick Demarchelier. For me, it was a major. I was still new in New York, and at the time Gisele was the face of Chanel Makeup and on the press day, she only had three hours. So the pressure was doing hair, makeup, two cover shots, and eight pages all in three hours. It was like a dream watching Patrick shoot really fast, and Gisele being the perfect model. I was like, “Oh, my God, this like can’t be real.” It was so special. I still work with Gisele today because of this shoot.

W Magazine, February 2018
Photographer: Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. Editor: Katie Grand. Hair: Syd Hayes. Model: Vittoria Ceretti. courtesy Hung Vanngo

I was an ambassador at Marc Jacobs Beauty at the time. And Katie Grand worked with me of course on a lot of projects here and there for Marc Beauty, and I did a lot of shoots for the Love Magzine events and her editorial. I was confirmed by a musician for a two-day music video in LA when I got an email from Katie saying, “Hung, we really want you to go to London to shoot this shoot with me.” And it was with Mert and Marcus for W. I was very transparent. I said to the talent manager, I was like, “This is a dream come true. I always loved Mert and Marcus’s work and this is my chance to work with them and it’s a beautiful fashion story and I should do it.” So I went to London instead. Watching Mert and Marcus shoot was just a dream. I think they are geniuses, and Katie has been like another guardian angel for me.

Love Magazine, F/W 2017
Photographer: Sølve Sundsbø. Editor: Katie Grand. Hair: Syd Hayes. Model: Kesewa Aboah and Kate Moss. courtesy Hung Vanngo

I mean, who does not dream of working with Kate Moss? It was like on my bucket list but I thought I would never have a chance to work her because she hadn’t been to the US for a long time. But then I got an email from Katie [Grand] about this project. Katie, again, who is a guardian angel. She was just like, “You have to come to this.” So of course, I flew to London for the shoot. And again, it was also on my wishlist when I moved to New York to work with Kate Moss and it was another a dream come true!

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