Kelsey James Works with Matthew McConaughey, Natalie Portman and More to Bring Out Their Beauty
The hair and makeup artist crafts looks for red carpets and print editorials with a bold lip and peaceful presence
By Tolly Moseley
There’s an adjective that comes to mind, perusing the Instagram of Kelsey James. Impeccable? Moody? Maybe it’s two words, an adjective and a noun: “bold lip.”
Kelsey hails from a small town outside of Austin, and is a self-avowed introvert. But growing up, she was always fascinated with TV and film, and sensed there was something there for her. Today, she’s the hands behind some of those stars on-screen, crafting their hair and makeup with immaculate detail. Some like it natural. Some like it (wait for it) … bold.
“Even when I do red carpet or press events, we’re creating a character,” says Kelsey, now 13 years deep in the hair and makeup game. “Sometimes, introverts like me literally adopt a character, such as: ‘she just inherited 20 million dollars!’” And we both laugh, and I reference “Inventing Anna,” the Shonda Rhimes adaptation of a true story, wherein fake German heiress Anna Delvey literally plays that character. But here’s the actually funny, actually meta part: Anna is played by Julia Garner, a client of Kelsey’s. “Such a sweetheart,” Kelsey says.
Kelsey got her beauty education right out of high school, both in Los Angeles and right here in Austin, attending Avenue Five Institute in 2009. A mere two years later, she was assisting on Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” tour, applying Taylor’s signature Covergirl red lipstick to dozens of her biggest fans, hours before the show. (For Swifties: this was the post-Jake Gyllenhaal chapter of TS relationships, if you’ll recall. Just to anchor you in history).
As Kelsey’s career progressed, however, she found her skillset pulling her in a different direction: print editorial, where her artistry could shine.
“I pitched magazines, reached out to fashion photographers I admired, and either flew out to them or vice-versa. I found I could translate my love of film in a different way, and use those shoots for storytelling.”
It’s one of two main registers Kelsey works in, beauty-wise. On the one hand, her fashion portfolio transports you to the realm of fantasy: to old Hollywood, to the more baroque corners of the 1920s, to filtered light on sun-kissed skin. I mention one shoot in particular, where the model’s face is covered in Jackson Pollock-like splatters. “That was a special one,” Kelsey smiles.
But on the other hand — and often with celebrities, right before events — her goal is to make it look like she was never there. Like no one’s trying too hard. Take regular client Matthew McConaughey for example, who she gussied up right before “The Tonight Show” taping here in Austin, fall 2019.
“I think once you get into clients like him that have their own persona, you’re putting your idea of their character on them,” Kelsey says. “And in the case of him specifically, he’s such a pro that you’re trying to make the process as smooth as possible, and settle into a rhythm. He’s definitely taught me a few things.”
On that note, Kelsey shares something with me that I had never considered before. We think of red carpet events as all pomp and circumstance, dresses that act as armor, faces that elicit wonder. The whole thing isn’t “relatable” (to borrow a modern buzzword) because that’s not the point: these are shock and awe moments of beauty. And yet — underneath the makeup and hairspray, there’s still a vulnerable, real-life human.
“A large majority of the time, you’re the last person they talk to before they have to perform in some capacity,” says Kelsey, talking about the backstage moments with A-list clientele. “So I consider that space sacred.”
Sometimes, that intimacy devolves into the humorous, with Kelsey playing on-the-fly style consultant. She recalls a time Natalie Portman asked her to choose between three dresses, right before a premiere of 2018’s “VOX LUX.”
“They were all equally stunning,” Kelsey laughs, admitting that this isn’t really her realm of expertise. Still — Natalie went with her pick.
Locally, Kelsey has a soft spot for certain brands who embrace a very specific aesthetic (Understated Leather is a fave). That includes JVN, the new haircare line from Jonathan Van Ness.
“His energy just fills the room in such a positive way,” Kelsey says. And it’s here that I notice something about Kelsey, something I’m sure she brings to every client interaction: an energy that soothes, while her hands beautify.
“I try to be that peaceful person,” Kelsey says. “And just help these people feel the very best they can.”