Ryan Burke is the second installment in The Creators series, a column where we spotlight the badasses shaping the current beauty landscape.
Before CoverGirl, Maybelline, and Rimmel made waves by adding Instaboys like James Charles, Manny Gutierrez, and Lewys Ball to their already stacked rosters of supermodel spokespersons, there was Ryan Burke. He’s less concerned with looking stereotypically “pretty” than he is with blowing minds with his mesmerizing looks that combine everything from shards of mirror to brass pipes. “I like very surreal makeup,” explains Burke of his unique aesthetic. “It has to have a flow and rhythm to it.” And much like a conductor who directs various members of an orchestra to produce a magnificent symphony, this pro is a maestro of makeup—coordinating three-dimensional elements and pigments into one spectacular piece of museum-worthy art that’s on display for one night only (typically on view at one of Ladyfag’s or Susanne Bartsch’s legendary soirees). Luckily, the face painter often captures the moment for posterity and posts it to Instagram, allowing those of us who can’t stay awake long enough to make it to Holy Mountain or Boom! to share in the spectacle.
It’s not exactly surprising that the prodigy’s “surreal,” “colorful,” “trippy,” and “abstract” take on makeup caught the eye of Pat McGrath, the reigning queen of runway maquillage. While Burke currently serves as an ambassador for Pat McGrath Labs, he says he joined the coveted crew as an assistant in a very “normal way” via an introduction from his agent and former McGrath team member, Ryan McKnight of Kreative Kommune. “Several people thought I got on the team because of Instagram, but it wasn’t,” he clarifies. While industry connections did get his foot in the door, it was Burke’s own uninhibited ambition that kicked it wide open. “I came in with no kit—nothing,” he says of showing up to Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall 2015 show, his very first backstage job. “They asked someone to come to the front and I said, ‘I’m going!’ I was in the very back, and I thought, This isn’t going to turn into anything if I’m all the way back here…so I went right up to the front, right in front of Pat, and she said, ‘This tattoo on this girl’s face is in the wrong place and it needs to be moved up, don’t you think?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so, sure.’ She asked me to take it off, put it back on again in a higher place—all while recording it on video and doing it in ten seconds! It was the first time I had ever met her and immediately after I did it, I went straight to the back because I was shaking.”
Clearly, his risk paid off. But the surreal pro wasn’t always so quick to put himself in the line of fire in front of the world’s premiere makeup artist. In fact, this small-town boy from the mountains of Virginia describes himself as an “introvert.” Here, how Burke used makeup to break out of his shell.
Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Burke
Amber Kallor: You are originally from a small town in Virginia, so how did you transition from that life to the one you live now?
Ryan Burke: That came about through an ex. He wanted to go to school in California, so I decided that I was moving too and we were going to live together. So, did that, then broke up with him. Then, I was there in L.A., and I thought it was better than Virginia, so I decided to see what I could do. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to be a photographer, so I pursued that.
AK: Growing up, did you ever experiment with makeup?
RB: No, I never touched makeup before I went to L.A. My mom never wore makeup, she never even wore a tinted moisturizer or mascara. And in Virginia, people don’t really wear makeup. If the girls wore any makeup at all it was just mascara. But I did dress up a lot as a kid and I had a big imagination. We didn’t have cable TV and weren’t allowed to use the computer or Internet for anything other than school, so I wasn’t exactly exposed to a lot of things.
AK: How did you first break into the world of beauty?
RB: I found my way into [beauty] through nightlife. A friend of mine was a drag queen at the time—you know, when RuPaul’s Drag Race first started and everyone was trying to be a drag queen, which I guess it still the case—and I wanted to go out with him and his friends, but that wasn’t really my vibe, so I started playing with other types of things. I did very geometric shapes and abstract stuff—not eyeliner and lipstick. I went on and learned how to block out my eyebrows so I had more space to draw. Then, I learned how to do liner and lashes, and on and on.
AK: Those makeup skills seem quite technical. How did you learn how to pull that off?
RB: I guess a little bit of YouTube, but I didn’t really care that much about it being “good.” I did watch YouTube for blocking out brows. I remember when I was teaching myself eyeliner, it was before I was going to a rave and I wanted to have eyeliner and lashes, so I sat in the bathroom for the entire day putting eyeliner on and taking it off until it looked okay. It’s just a matter of repetition and practice…It wasn’t until I moved from L.A. to New York and I got a retail job in makeup that I really bridged the gap. It gave me more of an understanding of beauty makeup—foundation, contouring, lips, eyebrows, and all of those things, which I incorporated back into my style. And obviously, I had to apply it every day on people, so I got to practice. And all the foundations that I used were powder, so when I went to work on Pat’s team, it was a lot of liquids and cream concealers. And apart from that, she has a very technical and specific way that she does makeup. It’s not something you would learn anywhere else. In that way, it was fine that I didn’t have too much of an understanding because I could learn her technique.
AK: Which makeup brand did you work for before joining Pat McGrath?
RB: BareMinerals. So random, right? It’s completely the opposite of what I do!
AK: Working with Pat McGrath must be worlds away from the BareMinerals counter! What have you learned from her?
RB: She wants everything to beautiful. She likes a sexy look. Anything that we do, even if it’s a little crazy, still needs to have that element in it. A lot of it is about the shape of the eye and where things are placed—everything has to fit the face. Personally, what I do, isn’t always pretty—it’s more interesting, but I developed my style through her originally. When I started going out and I didn’t know how to do makeup, my friend asked if I had seen [Pat McGrath’s work], and of course I hadn’t because I didn’t know anything or anybody, but I thought, Oh my gosh, glued-on eyebrows! I can’t draw eyebrows, I’m just going to cut them out. I’m going to cut up paper and plastic and glue it to my face. Through that, I found my own style.
AK: I’ve read that RuPaul’s Drag Race has reached out to you, but you don’t consider your makeup “drag.” How do you describe your approach?
RB: It’s definitely androgynous—I don’t try to go for feminine or masculine, there are usually both elements in there to some degree. I like it to look surreal. I want to it to be trippy, but everything needs to have a rhythm and flow around the face. It’s abstract, surreal, impressionistic, painterly, but then I’ll do something really structured! My style is all over the place, but I always focus on rhythm and balance of color and shape.
AK: What does rhythm mean in terms of makeup?
RB: It’s the way that it flows on the face. It’s almost a sense of movement. It could be a directional thing—like all the angled pieces point around in a certain way. Or, if I do a beaded look, they have a rhythm in how they flow around the face. Nothing is just there.
AK: In previous interviews, you’ve described yourself as an introvert, but your looks are anything but. Why has makeup become your ultimate form of expression?
RB: I’m more expressive now as a person, but I’m still a bit introverted if I don’t know people. Makeup allows me to put myself out there in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. If you dress up, it gives people a reason to talk to you and approach you. I’m not the type of person to go up to someone I don’t know and say hello. When I was in L.A., I didn’t know that many people at first and I was just kind of there. But I noticed when I started dressing up, people would come up to me and I started making friends and having fun.
AK: Now that you’re in New York, you still go out a lot. What are your favorite spots and how long does it take you to get ready?
RB: It takes a long time now. I looked at an interview from a few years ago and it said that I took three hours to get ready. God, those were the days! It takes me way more than three hours. I started getting into headpieces a few years ago and that obviously takes way longer because I need to source the materials and come up with the idea. I have to make [a headpiece] today for tomorrow, and I have to make it today because tomorrow I have to do the makeup. I don’t have enough time in one day to do both things. It can take anywhere from an hour to six hours—it depends on how complicated the headpiece is. Three hours is the least amount of time it takes to do makeup—it’s always more than that. I usually give myself five to six hours to do makeup, which allows me put it on without stressing too much. Some people think it’s crazy to sit there and do it for so long, but people write for that long, or sketch for that long, or paint for that long—it’s just a different type of art. If you’re sitting there relaxed and you’re painting and creating, it’s not that big of a deal. The more time you have, the more you can add on and make it bigger. I love it. I put on music and it’s a nice day. Also, I never know how I’m going to look, so it’s a very experimental process. It’s not necessarily doing what I already have in mind, it’s figuring out what to do. I’ve had to start over many times because things don’t always work!
Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Burke
AK: Your passion for transformation is reminiscent of Leigh Bowery and the Blitz Kids, but you take makeup to the next level and the next dimension. How do you get all the three-dimensional pieces to stick and stay put when you’re out all night?
RB: Fortunately for me, I don’t sweat! A lot of people can’t do that because they sweat and things fall off. I’m able to use eyelash adhesive for most things and it’s fine. Sometimes, I use Pros-Aide for bigger pieces. I also use Telesis, which is a little stronger than Pros-Aide. I go through so much Duo [eyelash glue] it’s insane and I usually carry it with me in case things fall off, which does happen.
AK: How do you achieve bold, budge-proof color?
RB: Most of the time, it’s cream colors as a base and pigmented eyeshadows to set. Then, I add glitter, pearls, or paper.
AK: From where do you source the different materials that you adhere to your face?
RB: Everywhere! When I first started, I had a box of paper from Michael’s and I used paper for everything. But as the years went on, I started amassing different materials online and in different stores in different cities. Now, I have a huge collection of glitter, paper, pearls, and crystals.
AK: What is the most out-of-the-box object you’ve ever used to devise a look?
RB: I’ve used a broken mirror. And I’ve done it about five times now and I’ve never gotten cut. I would just be nervous if someone ran into me! I did this look once for Ladyfag’s Marc Jacobs party that was made out of tiny brass pipes from Blick. I put them on with nail glue, which gave me asthma. So don’t use nail glue—and not just because it’s bad for your skin, but because the fumes are terrible for you to breathe in. But you know what, that shit stayed on! I’ve also used toothpicks and popsicle sticks.
AK: Your makeup is a serious time commitment, so how often do you go out?
RB: It depends on the week, but there are a few monthly parties that I work. I do Ladyfag’s Holy Mountain and Susanne Bartsch’s Boom! Ladyfag lets me host whenever I can for a few of her other parties, but I do at least one [event] a week, sometimes three or four. But it’s really hard to do more than three because it takes so much energy to put together each look.
Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Burke
AK: Would you ever repeat a look?
RB: No, the only reason I’ve done that is because people request a specific look. There are so many things to do, I don’t really want to redo anything. Maybe I’ll do something similar, but I always do something different. It is expensive and requires a lot of materials, but I have a storage unit filled with headpieces. I also throw away half of them because some are only made to last one night.
AK: Before mass brands like CoverGirl and Maybelline enlisted boys as faces, you were already serving as an ambassador for Pat McGrath Labs. What do you think about so many cosmetic companies following suit?
RB: As far as I’m concerned, I’m more of an avant-garde type of makeup artist. I’m not really so much beauty. For me and my relationship with Pat, I represent an artistic side that she’s fond of. The other brand ambassadors are more [traditional] beauty. But I think it’s really amazing that this is finally happening, because men do wear makeup. In urban areas, you see it a lot. It’s not just a weird thing some people do, it’s getting to be bigger and bigger—lots of men are wearing makeup now.
AK: Do you think makeup for men will eventually go mainstream?
RB: It’s still pretty much gay men who are [wearing makeup], but for it to go mainstream, straight men would have to get into it too. And I think they could. There are some straight men who groom and do their eyebrows. And after working in a store [like BareMinerals], straight men would come in looking for concealer. They aren’t doing a full face, but a lot more men wear makeup than you might think. The [guys that came into the store] weren’t super comfortable with [buying makeup], but maybe more men representing beauty brands will make it more acceptable. I do think that the men who are representing these [mass] brands have a heavier face of makeup because the brands want to sell product, but I wear makeup during the day and I don’t look like that. I try to be as minimal as possible, but I’m still wearing foundation, concealer, and do my eyebrows. I picked up how to do natural, minimal, clean makeup from Pat. I think that eventually should be a focus [for brands]—there is way for men to do makeup that’s not for Instagram.
AK: Manny Gutierrez recently received some hatred on social media for wearing makeup. Have you experienced anything like this?
RB: Nobody really goes after me, but if they do, I just block or delete them. I don’t get too much of that. My makeup is really different from his and he’s also a lot more high-profile, so a lot more people are exposed to what he’s doing and many people are bothered or uncomfortable with men who look “pretty” because they are insecure or whatever the reason is. The people who find and follow me are usually part of the artistic community, so I don’t get that type of hatred. I don’t even read the comments for the videos that I post on YouTube! But on Instagram, that [type of negativity] usually doesn’t happen.
AK: I imagine your friends and family from Virginia who see you on social media are quite blown away.
RB: A few people have messaged me and said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it! Remember when we went to school together?” And I respond and say, “Yeah, we weren’t friends. You ignored me.” I’ve made a point to add several people who were not so nice to me in high school on Facebook just so they can see what I’m doing. Most of them still live in Virginia and aren’t exposed to the world. I want to say, Look! This is what happens when you step outside.
AK: What’s next for you?
RB: I’m working on a few video projects and a few bigger shoots. My goal this year is to come back to photography. It’s still what I like to do the most. I love doing makeup a lot, but I like photography more, so I’m going to do both…The style [of photography] that I’m really interested in is very surreal, colorful, trippy—kind of like my makeup.
Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Burke