The Kardashians' Makeup Artist Is the Most Influential Artist in America
Critics claim that painting as a medium has died, but Joyce Bonelli has brought art back to the masses by contouring the Kardashians’ faces with makeup.
All photos by Chuck Grant
Art critics have heavily debated the death of painting, but in a house in Beverly Hills, an artist has been resurrecting painting as a popular form for nine years—she just paints on reality stars' faces instead of canvases.
Joyce Bonelli is a makeup artist to the stars. Even if you've never heard her name, you've seen her indisputably iconic images: Lindsay Lohan's return to her ginger roots in a tell-all Oprah interview, Nicki Minaj's rainbow Jackson Pollock face on the Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded cover, and hundreds and hundreds of kontoured Kim Kardashian selfies. For over nine years, Bonelli has worked for the Kardashians, transforming their faces through contouring—the drag queen technique where you use makeup to change facial structure—which the Kardashians have turned into a global sensation.
"Any painting is contouring," Bonelli tells me in a high-pitched voice reminiscent of Harley Quinn from Batman. "This is thousands of years of art: It's making something three-dimensional."
Bonelli's contouring of the Kardashians' faces—alongside her appearances on their reality shows and social media accounts—has made her a celebrity in her own right. Over one million people follow her on Instagram. When Kim dyed her hair blonde, fans instantly recognized Bonelli as her inspiration.
"My sisters and I always say that we love having Joyce around because she wants every single one of us to look our best and to be our best," Khloe Kardashian says in an email. "I am definitely obsessed with this woman almost to the point where she may need a restraining order."
Where most painters live in poverty, Bonelli's home reflects her celebrity clients and high income. A statue of a tiger named Pedro in the living room. A painting of a middle finger on her dining room wall. ("One of my most favorite artists is Chuck Close," she says.) Kris Jenner's In the Kitchen with Kris on a shelf. Bonelli even keeps three brands of water bottles in her kitchen: Whole Foods 365, Perrier, and Glacéau Smartwater. When I visit Bonelli at the end of one of her long workdays last month, I find her in an all-black leather ensemble lying on a leather couch, white animal fur rugs at her foot.
"I love leather," Bonelli says.
She keeps fake zebra-print rugs in her house in case her home décor offends any visitors, but for the most part, she seems uninterested in other people's opinions. She changes clothes at least twice during my visit, and she lets visitors float in and out of her house at their will. At one point, a hot Asian guy named Bobby walks in unannounced. He's come from Unravel, a clothing company owned by Bonelli's boyfriend. Bobby hands her a leather bag. She removes a pair of pants.
"Yassss!" she screams. "Who's the lucky bitch?"
"Is that suede or leather?" I ask.
"Lambskin," Bobby says. "Expensive lamb."
"We keep it real here," Bonelli says. "I have a trucker mouth. I run around naked. I. Do. Not. Give. A. Shit."
Bonelli credits her rebel attitude to her father, an eccentric painter whom she describes as wild. Growing up with divorced parents, she bounced between Valencia and Encino in southern California. Everyone practiced an art form. Her great-grandmother painted, her little brother went to architecture school and became an engineer, and her cousins went on to become professional writers.
"[Artists have] a specific personality," Bonelli says. "It's been beneficial to my career that I've known how to take care of an artist." Or as Khloe Kardashian puts it: "All true artists have a little crazy going on."
Bonelli's stepfather has worked in "the industry" for 37 years (he owns a production company that rents out trucks to different studio lots), but her parents wanted to keep her away from Hollywood, sending Bonelli and her siblings to church several times a week and banning them from watching television.
"[They were] holy rollers," Bonelli says. "[They wanted the children to] stay away from, like, life in general."
After church, Bonelli would visit her great-grandmother. Sometimes she let Bonelli watch TV: "old Disney" movies like Old Yeller, but not The Smurfs "because that was evil." One day, Bonelli caught an episode of The Munsters, a 1960s sitcom about a Frankenstein family. Bonelli thought, What is this shit?
"It was a world I had never seen before," she says. "[From then on], I was diehard blood and guts."
I've taken notes on drag everything and anything. For me that's where I first saw transformational makeup.
By the eighth grade, Bonelli wanted to drop out to study horror movie makeup. Her parents despised the idea, but she continued to ask them. As with Bonelli's wild artistic father, nobody could stop her creative urges. Her parents relented and let her take an esthetician course at night when she was 16. In class, Bonelli met a trans teenager in the midst of her transition who changed Bonelli's life forever.
"She would always be putting a shit ton of makeup on and giv[ing] me advice about boys," Bonelli says in an email. "I was so fascinated because she was seven-feet tall and was the most feminine creature I had ever met."
Bonelli started studying trans women and drag queens' makeup techniques. "I've taken notes on drag everything and anything," she says. "For me that's where I first saw transformational makeup." She credits the LGBTQ community with her success and for giving her the skill she uses on a daily basis.
Following high school, Bonelli attended the Make-up Designory school, studying special effects and animatronics. She wanted to work in horror films, and after graduation she designed special effects makeup for low-budget B-movies, earning $50 day rates. At Halloween, she worked at Danny Elfman's annual party, transforming his waitresses into real life mannequins, but she failed to make a decent living. So she decided to "sell out."
"I started doing beauty 'cause I was like, 'Fuck this,'" she explains. "I needed more money."
She earned her big break in 2006, working Pamela Anderson's Playboy shoot. On set she met the cast of The Girls Next Door, an E! reality show about Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends: Holly Madison, Kendra Wilkinson, and Bridget Marquardt. The girls hired Bonelli for "a random shoot" and then hired her to do Wilkinson and Madison's makeup full-time. "[Reality stars' makeup] is different thing [from horror]," Bonelli says, "but it's not just powder and chapstick" like the makeup artists use on Hollywood movie sets.
I help people with their anxiety walking down the stage with the nose jobs I give them. It's a mask.
Like on a horror set, Bonelli transformed people's faces at the Playboy Mansion. She enhanced women to make them look like glamor creatures from another planet; when girls go under Bonelli's brush, they look like they've gone under the knife. (She says all her clients have had tabloids start rumors about them getting nose jobs after she's done their faces.)
"[Makeup is] part of making a character," Bonelli says. "I help people with their anxiety walking down the stage with the nose jobs I give them. It's a mask."
She fell in love with the work and with Madison, Wilkinson, and Marquardt, whose makeup she also eventually did. "I was really obsessed with them," Bonelli says. "Each one was so kooky in their own way, so it was fun. I love each one." Nostalgically, Bonelli recalls Wilkinson standing on a counter doing her "booty-clapping dance with a thong on." While A-listers act guarded, Madison and company lacked any inhibition. To Bonelli, they were the new rock stars, 21st-century Ronettes in an era when the closest thing to a female rock star was Avril Lavigne.
Through glam sessions, Bonelli also became the girls' confidant—a role she continues to play with clients. When E! tried to get the girls to sign a contract forfeiting their websites to the cable company, Bonelli says she urged them to ask for a better contract.
"Some people in the industry definitely don't like me because I'm really honest," Bonelli says. "I'm really not out here sucking anyone's dick. Let's be real."
Family members in the industry urged her to stay away from reality television. Hollywood still considered reality television second tier. "While I started doing the reality TV, everyone was on a huge strike," Bonelli explains. "Craft service people were not even giving work, and it was looked down on that I was doing this." In 2007—the year Britney shaved her head, Paris went to jail, and Lindsay's career exploded—Bonelli met the mother-and-daughter duo that would change Los Angeles's (and the world's) perception of reality stars as D-list: Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner.
[Kris] is so epic, literally my inspiration in life. I always tell her kids, 'I don't care about you. It's all about your mom.'
"The first time I met Kris was on a shoot that I was doing for Kim Kardashian," Bonelli remembers. "I was like, 'Who is that?' I didn't know who [Kim] was—this was before the show—and Kris Jenner was telling me step by step how to do [Kim's] lips, and it was amazing. She has not changed at all. She's so epic, literally my inspiration in life. I always tell her kids, 'I don't care about you. It's all about your mom.'"
Bonelli became enamored with Kris and started working for her and her daughters, doing their makeup for their reality show, promotional appearances, and other business endeavors. Since the days when the girls dated football players, Bonelli has helped the Kardashians with looks that have been copied in an endless stream of YouTube tutorials.
On reality show shoot days, Bonelli does makeup from 4 AM to 7 AM. Doing Kris's makeup, she witnessed the momager start doing business calls at 4 AM when New Yorkers start working at 7 AM East Coast time. "I've heard for the last eight years the way [Kris] speaks to people and gets shit done," Bonelli says. She imitates Kris: "You don't have five million dollars? Well, go find it."
"The next day, they're crawling back," Bonelli says. "I was never raised with an idol; I was never like, 'Oh my god, Britney Spears!' I wasn't raised that way. If I had an idol, I would say [Kris is] my idol because she's like a super woman in all areas of life. She's just really brilliant."
Kris became Bonelli's biggest "muse," as she refers to the business tycoon. Where artists traditionally create work inspired by a muse, Bonelli applied her art to her muse's face and sought her ideas. "I'm creating different looks with the muse," Bonelli explains. "I die for [Kris]."
The fact that they're so into lashes—especially Kylie these days—that is definitely a nod to drag queens.
As she collaborated with Kris and the other Kardashians, she started traveling with them. Kris and her daughters became her closest friends. Khloe Kardashian says they grew to trust Bonelli with their private secrets. "Joyce is not only so incredibly talented but she is incredibly loyal," Khloe says. "Glam time is such a personal time, and you want only people who are trusted and who inspire you around you at those vulnerable times. Joyce is always so positive, motivating, energetic, trusting."
At one point, Kim invited Bonelli to live with her because she had purchased a giant home and was living alone. "Of course I was doing her glam everyday, so she loved that," Bonelli says. Every day, Kim woke up at 4 AM to work out. According to Bonelli, she would come into her room and scream, "Get up!" Bonelli's response: "Oh hell no! I'm not about the workouts, bitch!"
"Sometimes I went, but she just doesn't stop," Bonelli says. "Seeing it firsthand, she's just very, very inspirational. However you want to apply it to your job, whatever it may be, that whole family is very inspirational. You can't be lazy if you want that kind of success. That's why I admire them—their hard work."
As the Kardashians' fame rose, so did Bonelli's business. At one point, she did makeup for both Keeping Up with the Kardashians in Calabasas, California, and Holly's World in Las Vegas on the same days. She would film in Nevada until 1 AM, and then her assistant would drive her to Kris Jenner's house so she could arrive by 5 AM. After she finished contouring the Kardashians' faces, she'd fly back to Vegas. As Bonelli says, "It was psycho."
Bonelli continued to take on new clients: Demi Lovato, Lindsay Lohan, Nicki Minaj—the list goes on and on. Although Bonelli creates a unique look for each star, she says celebrities specifically seek her out for flawless skin and lashes. "I don't think anybody really does lashes the way I do," she says. "When I haven't seen Kim for a week or two, because I'm with her sister, or her mom is out of the country or somewhere, she'll be like, 'Oh, I miss my Joyce lashes.'"
In this way, Bonelli's designs closely resemble the trans women and drag queens she credits with her success. Amber Alert, a New York–based drag queen who has impersonated Kris Jenner while lip-syncing "Stay with Me" from Into the Woods, considers lashes a fundamental part of any drag queen's features.
"Personally, I don't feel like I'm in drag till I have eyelashes on," he says. "The fact that they're so into lashes—especially Kylie these days—that is definitely a nod to drag queens."
Amber Alert notes the Kardashians, and many of Bonelli's other clients, have become global sensations alongside the return of RuPaul on his hit Drag Race reality show. Where previous drag queens needed to lip sync to gain attention, the Logo stars only need to walk into a room in an incredible look. "It has become popular in drag where it's not so much about being the entertainer," Amber Alert says. "It's about being a model, or at least modelesque." And nobody trends online for simply walking out of a car more than Kim Kardashian, whom drag queens imitate. Bonelli has helped establish the second golden age of drag.
For a year and a half, another drag icon, Nicki Minaj, took Bonelli away from the Kardashians for her world tour. During the tour, Bonelli realized she was pregnant with her son, Zeppelin Black. About to become a single mom who sometimes works 22-hour days, Bonelli reevaluated her finances to hire a full-time nanny named Lucy. "Let's be real: I need to pay for a nanny, so here goes the weave," Bonelli says. Since then, she has worked and traveled with Lucy and Zeppelin as she goes around the globe doing celebrities' makeup. "God bless Lucy!" Bonelli says. "I have a whole tribe."
When I visit her, she has Lucy and her assistant, Autumn, helping her with her busy day. At one point, Bonelli sits with a three-year-old Zeppelin in her lap. He holds her makeup bag, and she has her iPhone in one hand and a coffee in another. "Being a makeup artist and being a mom," Joyce says. "This is what it's like." Zeppelin leans his head on her shoulder. She pats him on the back. She's clearly a good mom.
For a long time part of the strategy was that no one would know how much money I was making—I drove a shitty car for the longest time.
Bonelli says she loves working with the Kardashians, because they're also working mothers—they understand her busy life. On set, the Kardashians bring their kids, and Bonelli takes Zeppelin to work.
"[Zeppelin's] friends with a lot of my clients' kids," Bonelli says. "He's just grown up with them. That's such a blessing."
"Joyce has been in our family for almost eight or nine years," Khloe Kardashian says. "I say she's in our family because she literally is like our sister."
Last year, Bonelli traveled with the family to France for Kim and Kanye's wedding. On the flight back, their section of the plane had an empty seat—Rob Kardashian famously skipped the wedding—so a stranger named Ben Taverniti took the seat. He sat in awe watching Bonelli hand the Kardashian girls makeup. Eventually, the two started talking. He told Bonelli about Hudson Jeans, where he works as a designer, and his passion clothing line project called Unravel. Like a commercial version of Yoko Ono meeting John Lennon, the two artists instantly connected over their respective commercial art forms. Today, they've been dating for over a year.
Their relationship comes at a crossroads for Bonelli. For years, her income has come exclusively from celebrity clients. While other "makeup experts" has reveal their secrets on YouTube, she has kept her skills private. (Why would her clients pay her well if she gave away the goods online?) Until very recently, she didn't even employ a manager, and she has enjoyed influencing Americans' makeup trends from behind the scenes, like a shadow government. (Companies regularly call her into trend meetings.)
"I don't know a lot of makeup artists that make a million dollars a year either, without a product line," Bonelli says. "For a long time part of the strategy was that no one would know how much money I was making—I drove a shitty car for the longest time. Now it's a different time, and I make money off of, just like everyone else, the paid posting." In the upcoming months, Bonelli plans to take her brand to the next level and become a public face. She has hired a manager and has an app in development, which she believes will disrupt the beauty industry.
It's really going to change the game in a whole other way. It's going to make a lot of different strategic parts of the industry obsolete.
"It's really going to change the game in a whole other way," Bonelli says. "It's going to make a lot of different strategic parts of the industry obsolete."
Kim has advised her with her branding, Bonelli says. She remembers when she set up her Instagram she considered calling the account "Glam BTS," and she says Kim told her, "You can't do something funny, you're always trying to do something funny or whatever, but it has to be your name to brand yourself."
As our conversation ends, the lights from the mansions in the Beverly Hills shine into Bonelli's window, illuminating the room. Bonelli is excited for what the future holds, but most of all, she wants to continue transforming celebrities faces—sculpting people into characters, as Michelangelo did, as she dreamed of doing the first time she saw The Munsters.
"It's just an exciting time for me and the pieces coming together in different projects for a lot of my friends, whether they're designers, or my clients, celebrities with huge brands," Bonelli says. "I love being a piece of everyone's empire."