Listen to this story
When it comes to naming the most iconic makeup artists of all time, no list would be complete without his honor, Joseph “Joey” Mills.
During his reign as the leading makeup artist of the 70s and 80s, Mills was quite extraordinary, an anomaly even. Not only is he recognized as the very first published African American makeup artist, but he is also the only makeup artist, Black or white, living or dead, whose work is featured on the most major fashion magazine covers ever—well over 1600! And he did all this when advertising, marketing and beauty publications were dominated by whites.
Mills’s rise to prominence was an unexpected trajectory for a basketball-loving son of a single mother (her name was Doshie Mills) growing up in Philadelphia, PA. In an interview with Makeup Artist magazine in 2011, he discusses his mother’s big love and acceptance of the son she recognized as gay early on: “My first model was my mother…she was very chic”, he described.
Doshie died when Joey was a teenager, which led to a bout with housing insecurity for him (he lived inside a bus station at one time). At just fifteen years old, he lied about his age to get a job working at a makeup counter in a department store in Philadelphia. Never tempering his voracious appetite for beauty and fashion, he later moonlighted as a model, so he could surround himself with like-minded folks. Eventually, Eileen Ford (of the world-renowned Ford Models agency; she was known as a Starmaker in the business) sees Mills’s work and starts booking him. Soon after, his work landed on the covers of Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan magazines. In 1979, he was called in for what he assumed were test shoots and trials for Vogue magazine, but his artistry ended up on the June cover of that year.
Mills became the most sought-after artist of the era. It seemed everyone wanted to book him and he never seemed to stop working, often published in competing publications in the same month. Known as “a model’s best friend” in the industry and affectionately called Miss Mills by his friends, he never arrived on set without wearing his trademark red baseball cap, armed with a larger-than-life personality and innovative ideas. His fresh approach to makeup, one he coined as ‘natural glamour’ in his book New Classic Beauty: A Step-by-Step Guide to Naturally Glamorous Makeup, made him wildly popular with fashion designers, most notably Calvin Klein.
Those thick eyebrows and striking eyes you saw on Brooke Shields in the Calvin Klein jeans ads were a Joey Mills special that started an eyebrow trend still popular today. He preferred a full, defined, well-groomed brow, but kept natural in appearance, a stark contrast to the dramatically arched, bleached brows that were popular at the time.
As his popularity grew, Mills went on to build an impressive resume. He slayed the lips and cheekbones of model Darnella Thomas when she appeared in the Charlie perfume ads in the 70s, the first African American woman to model for the ad campaign. He regularly “beat” the faces of supermodels, top entertainers and members of royalty like Beverly Johnson, Diana Ross, Melba Moore and Princess Caroline of Monaco, all rocking personalized versions of his signature natural aesthetic. His work was featured on the covers of every major fashion magazine, including Vogue, Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar and he was Head of Makeup at the most high-profile runway shows that included those for Valentino, Versace, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass. He also designed the makeup for Cecily Tyson’s character, Miss Moffat, in the Broadway show The Corn is Green and the 1978 film The Eyes of Laura Mars, as well as many other TV productions.
Mills appears in several scenes as himself in The Eyes of Laura Mars (a film about a controversial fashion photographer inspired by sex and violence), applying makeup on models. It was one of the first instances of an artist being showcased alongside their work. Although the film was met with lukewarm reviews, the looks that Mills created were considered groundbreaking; and paved the way for celebrity makeup artists to do the same, affording them opportunities to build platforms, branding and marketing for many of the products and makeup techniques we can’t live without today.
Mills’ success in an all-white space had everything to do with his fearless ambitions and refusal to allow his minority to dictate his purpose. He was an outspoken man and didn’t mince words about how he never wanted to be known as a “Black makeup artist”. In 1983, he told Shop-talk magazine, “When you say, ‘I want to be the top makeup artist,’ that’s okay. But when you say, ‘I want to be the top Black makeup artist,’ you have defeated yourself. Ninety-eight percent of my magazine covers are for white publications. I’ve done 150 covers for European magazines. I claim more covers there than any other makeup artist. You cannot let your Blackness be your limitation. Do all makeup.”
Friends called Mills a diva, but only because he could deliver, and he did for twenty years straight. By the end of the 1980s, he slowed his runway show and editorial pace to focus on private clients. At the time, a new generation of makeup artists were on the horizon, the disco glamour looks he loved were moving out and the grunge trend was in. But, his close friends say he often kept these kinds of personal disappointments to himself, including his 10-year battle with lymphoma.
Mills died in March of 2021 at the age of 80, leaving an unmatched legacy and loving memories for his friends and colleagues. Peggy Dillard-Toone, one of the first Black models to grace the cover of Vogue (August 1977), met him at a shoot for Mademoiselle, and remembers how much he made her look and feel like herself. Some of her favorite photos of her career were those where Mills styled her makeup. In an interview with Allure magazine, she also recalls his unabashedly direct points of view, particularly in spaces of little to no Black representation: He’d often review magazine layouts with editors and offer unsolicited advice like, “I’m sorry, but Black women don’t wear white stockings with everything. I don’t know what demo you’re looking at.”
Exactly. We didn’t do it back then and we certainly don’t do it now. Thank you, Joey…for everything.