When Charlotte native Jami Svay was growing up, she loved to spend hours watching fashion shows on television with her mom. She remembers seeing Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell on the runways and promising herself that one day she’d make it to at least one show at New York Fashion Week. Now the 35-year-old makeup artist has worked shows for Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Billy Reid, among others. Her client roster includes celebrities from supermodel Brooklyn Decker to former NBA star Michael Jordan. And she’s an international jet setter, constantly en route to the next red carpet premiere or elite fashion event to keep her clients gorgeous. We chatted with the busy and bubbly mom of two about her glam career, her top product picks and what it’s really like behind the scenes at Fashion Week. Welcome today’s FACE of Charlotte, Jami Svay!
How did your career as a makeup artist begin?
I started modeling when I was 14 or 15 — mostly local catalog stuff, and one thing for Seventeen magazine. I loved clothes, but I didn’t want to go to New York right away. A friend was opening a modeling agency though, and I wanted to work there, so I started as a makeup artist. That was in 2000, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It had everything I needed for my personality. I love meeting new people. I love new challenges. And I love the feeling I get when I make someone look good.
How did you break into working for magazines and television?
When I began doing makeup, the first question people asked was what counter I was at in the mall. At that time, I didn’t even know where makeup could take me. I began paying attention to the credits I was seeing on shoots in magazines and reaching out to people to work on editorials and commercials. People were very inviting and welcoming. I’m glad, because it showed me there was a chance in makeup to be a real artist.
Did you always think you wanted to work in fashion?
It had always been a dream of mine. My mom was big into fashion — she’s a very stylish lady. We would watch runway shows together on TV when I was growing up. I told my mom, “I don’t care what I’m doing — I don’t care if I’m holding doors for people. I’m going to go to Fashion Week.” I know this sounds cheesy, but I really believe that sometimes if you put something like that out there in the universe, it can happen. You start to do the things that bring it to you.
Did Fashion Week live up to all your hopes?
Yes — 2010 was my first show, and it was for Billy Reid. I was learning that New York people aren’t as nice sometimes as Southerners. It’s really dog-eat-dog backstage. You have to get your job done on time. So I had to be strong. At his show, I had to literally fight for a table, and I was in a little corner, working hard to get everything set up for the models. This guy walks up to me and asks to borrow the table for a quick run-through. I was like, “You have to get your own table!” and he was like, “I’m Billy Reid. I’m the designer.” So I learned something — Google the client’s picture before you go work for them so you know them when you see them. Luckily, he saw the humor in it. And, of course, he borrowed the table. He was great.
And it must have gone well since you’ve done many more.
Ever since then it’s been word of mouth. I love it. People will say they’re sick of the shows, but for me, every time it presents something cool and new. You learn. And you get to see the trends firsthand.
Other than backstage stress, what’s the hardest part of your job?
You deal with a lot of personalities and some can be not so great. It’s funny, a lot of the divas are people who you wouldn’t have even heard of. Then you work with famous people who should be divas, and they’re so nice. I once worked with Julianne Moore. We were on the red carpet, and I mentioned I hadn’t eaten all day. She immediately offered to go get me some popcorn out of her dressing room. I couldn’t believe Julianne Moore was offering to go get food for me. She was so nice and chill. I love getting to work with people like that.
What are you telling your clients to wear these days?
Well, right now I’m doing a lot of makeup bag raids. I tell my clients what to ditch and what to keep. I take them shopping and tell them what to wear for their skin color, hair color and eye color. Then I show them how to use it. It’s been a lot of fun — I’ve done three this week. People can get in a makeup rut, so I’m sharing how to incorporate some colors; how to wear pinks and shades. After, people always comment that they feel beautiful.
What about you? What products are a must in your makeup bag?
I love Le Mer skin cream. It’s like crack to me. I’ll buy inexpensive drugstore face wash, but spend the money for that cream. I feel like it’s keeping my lines and wrinkles away. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, but I like a good mascara — my favorite is Benefit — and a nice lip gloss. To me, lip gloss is the icing on the cake. My favorite is NARS Belize. I’ve told my husband it’s in my funeral rules to be buried with it.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received, and who was it from?
My dad told me to love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.
What are three things you can’t live without, besides faith, family and friends?
Happiness. It keeps me going. Health. No matter what material things you acquire, without good health to enjoy it you have nothing. And hair conditioner — no explanation necessary!
Thank you, Jami, for giving us a look inside your life for today’s FACES of Charlotte article. And thank you to Justin Driscoll for today’s beautiful images of Jami Svay. See more of his work on his website, justindphotos.com.