Back to Beauty School

1952

Terri Tomlinson makes everyone look good.

It’s easy for makeup artist and teacher Terri Tomlinson to remember how unprepared she felt when she was starting out. “In the beginning I was just putting color on people. I was faking it really. God only knows what they looked like!”

Tomlinson has a maternal warmth and an easy, self-deprecating laugh. Her sea-green eyes sparkle with excitement and charm, but if you compliment her on them (as many people do), she is quick to tell you that the sparkle is the result of a yeast cleanse she tried years ago. “No one ever complimented my eyes before the yeast cleanse,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. She also freely admits that she is not the stereotype of a typical industry power player. “I’m the only lesbian makeup artist I know. And really I don’t look either part—makeup artist or lesbian.”

Twenty-three years ago she took a job at the Lancôme counter at Foley’s in her hometown of Fort Worth. At the time, she knew nothing about makeup and had never even had an interest in it. With a little help from company training sessions, Tomlinson took to the craft of makeup and realized she had a natural ability. Even now, with countless photo shoots, commercials and a line of brushes to her credit, that feeling of being young and naive about the industry is right beneath the surface. When I asked her how she sees herself in the industry, she replied, “Oh, I’m just a peon in it.”

Hardly. These days Tomlinson is one of the most sought-after makeup artists in Dallas. She is regularly called upon for major ad campaigns and fashion shows. She is the resident beauty expert on KTXD-TV’s new show, Texas Living, and the star of several YouTube videos, in which she instructs viewers on everything from organizing their makeup bags to perfecting the art of the smoky eye. Her style is soft and natural, which is unique in an industry in which a lot of people live to paint faces. She aims to bring out the intrinsic beauty of every client and has a habit of falling in love with every face that she works on.

Nancy Campbell, her agent since 1999, said “Terri’s talent obviously makes her stand out—but it’s also her style. She is very creative and always easy to get along with on the set. She goes the extra mile without being asked.” So, with all of that opportunity knocking at your door, why teach? After a brief pause, she smiled sweetly and said, “I don’t want to be crawling on the floor, chasing toddlers and straightening ponytails on set forever.”

In the summer of 2010, Tomlinson founded the Makeup Training Academy to give students an alternative to the glossed-over makeup instruction offered in traditional cosmetology programs. Her school, located in a lofty, whitewashed studio in Dallas’ Photo District, gives students over the age of 18 an education in what the industry is really like. The walls are covered with the torn-out pages of French Vogue and Elle and giant face canvases that showcase different techniques for eye shadow and pouty lips. As I observed her Level Two students on a recent afternoon, I was struck by how much the scene felt like an actual big-time photo shoot. Students practice skills on local models that Tomlinson casts for the day; it’s a girly dream come true.

As class continued, she was patient and kind with the students and instructed them without ego or pretension. They conversed in a language I didn’t entirely understand, and she kept them on their toes with a barrage of questions: “Where does smoke start? Is that fallout below the eye? That contour line looks a little thick, don’t you think?” Her students were excited by the feedback and seemed to have internalized her drive for perfection. Out of their earshot however, Tomlinson had a grounded view of her chosen profession. “The beautiful thing about makeup is that it wipes off. You don’t have to be perfect.”

Lorann Schindler, a star student and graduate of the program last winter, can’t say enough about Tomlinson’s teaching style. “I feel totally prepared. She doesn’t just teach you how to do makeup, she teaches you about the entire business behind it. She teaches you how to interact with clients, she tells you what’s going to happen with the model and the photographer. She’s an amazing mentor and friend.” Now that Schindler is out on her own in the real world, Tomlinson keeps in touch and often forwards jobs her way. “When you are my student, you kind of become part of my army,” she said.

When I asked her about her own teachers, Tomlinson mentioned Mr. Kassouf, her seventh-grade algebra teacher at Country Day School in Fort Worth. “He was a bastard in the classroom, but adorable off the clock.

He was effective and so professional.” Since “bastard teacher” is obviously not the way her students or a casual observer would describe Tomlinson, I pressed her on why Mr. Kassouf’s name sprang to mind. She thought hard about this. “I try to always be kind. It’s not about who I am—like I’m gay and really cool and have a great relationship. You’re hiring me to do a good job because I have a lot of experience and that’s what you get. I used to feel like I had to be popular on a shoot so that they would invite me back, but that’s not the case. If you’re professional and do a great job, they always call back.” She paused and looked as though she had surprised herself with that response. “Maybe I’m more like Mr. Kassouf than I thought.”

Back at her home on a sleepy street in North Dallas, Tomlinson and Melinda Webb, her partner of almost 20 years, greeted me with a glass of red wine. Their dog, Frank, who bears an uncanny resemblance to George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog, sat in the hallway dressed for our interview—or could it be for a typical evening?—wearing a tailored, button-down shirt. Their house is filled with thoughtfully chosen antiques like vintage telephones and a dining room table and chairs from the ‘50s. Tomlinson’s abstract art, another creative outlet, covers the walls along with framed family photos and a pair of ticket stubs from a particularly memorable date at a Madonna concert a few years back. In the backyard, Frank led us to an impressive garden plot where the couple grows their own kale, okra, and strawberries.

Webb is a tall, slender brunette with a quiet nature and matter-of-fact sense of humor. She generally dislikes wearing makeup and works in corporate telecommunications. Around Webb, Tomlinson seems more outgoing and energetic. The couple met in Dallas while at a mutual friend’s “Fondue and Flannel” party in 1993. Webb noticed Tomlinson across the room, and they’ve been inseparable ever since. At the time, Tomlinson had just begun coming out to her friends and family. “I was a brand-new lesbian,” she said with a nervous smile. Over the years, they have allowed their relationship to be an ever-evolving thing. They still follow a pact they made in the early days to be honest and open about how they feel.

They also share a serious love of animals and work hard to advocate for animal rescue in their community. For the past several years, Tomlinson spearheaded an event called “Four-Legged Fashion” in which one-of-a-kind ensembles for dogs were auctioned off to benefit animal rescue groups. Frank, wearing a tuxedo, is front and center on promotional literature for the charity event. Frank came to Tomlinson and Webb as a puppy who had been hit by a car. At that time, the couple’s home was known as a safe haven for animals that were difficult to place. Before Frank, they had fostered several dogs, including one named Juno whose shelter had flooded during Hurricane Katrina.

I asked Tomlinson if her personal life had ever been an issue in an industry traditionally dominated by gay men and straight women. “I’ve learned so much doing this work,” she replied. “As soon as you are stable and you feel like you know what you are doing and you’ve finally made it, something comes along to smack the shit out of you.”

She went on to tell me about how ten years ago, a very high-profile client dropped her after Tomlinson casually mentioned something about “her partner, Melinda” while she was doing what most makeup artists and clients do: talk about their personal lives. This has happened a few times throughout her career. Though devastating at the time, Tomlinson said she looks back at that moment almost fondly. “I don’t have to tell you my story to be good at what I do. If you want to know who I am, you should really get to know me.”

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