Edward Bess Lets Down His Legendary Hair in a Tell-All Interview
Model-turned-beauty maestro Edward Bess on his enviable hair, the allure of self tanning, his obsession with the current political scene and so much more with W's Beauty Director Jane Larkworthy.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Edward Bess. He had launched a makeup line, and had a delicate complexion that made him look 20 years younger than he actually was. All I could think was, “Is this some kind of joke?” He then started walking me through his products, and my tune quickly changed. Wow, he knew his stuff. And said stuff was chic! Bergdorf Goodman, and others, agreed with me–and his product line (which expanded to include skin and hair care) has been consistently popular with customers. Now, ten years later, Bess is venturing into the world of fragrance, with three scents created in collaboration with renowned perfumer Carlos Benaim. For the occasion, Bess sat down to talk about his favorite fragrances of all time, how he made the transition from teenage model to beauty guru, and, well, just about everything else.
Can I tell you something? When I first met you, I thought you were a girl.
Even with short hair!
You were so pretty, if I can use that word.
Yeah. Thank you. I’ll take it.
Did people confuse your gender growing up?
No, but I always laugh at my family. My sister’s very straight. Her co-workers or bosses become enamored with the fact that I have a beauty brand. Or husbands of wives, if they’re buying them makeup. There isn’t a standoffishness between straight guys and me. It’s not that I’m saying they’re attracted to me, but they find me appealing not threatening.
What do you think it is?
They see that I’m not taking myself too seriously, as maybe most adults do. But the hair only heightens that. I used to have long hair when I modeled, but was afraid to go on TV one day with super long hair and appeal to women and macho men everywhere. I thought that may alienate my customer base. But I started growing it out and created a hair product [Black Sea Hair Hero] to protect it, and it became my number one best seller. It was just kind of a lesson to me: Don’t turn down the dial. Turn it up. I would have thought that hair like this would have turned off a more conservative clientele, even on Fifth Avenue, but no!
Don’t turn down the dial. Turn it up.
Do you always wear it down? Do you ever pull it back?
I do the man bun. Sometimes some of it down, some up. I guess I would be outnumbered in Williamsburg, but go to Midtown East and it’s still a novelty. There are still less artisanal coffee houses there, so between 57th and Park all the way down to my ‘hood in Chelsea, I’m good. But once I start getting too close to the Brooklyn Bridge it’s no longer that rare. I don’t get looked at twice in Venice, California. That’s for sure.
And your brows are amazing. Who does them?
Nobody. I never touch them. No tweezing, no plucking. When I modeled, I thought about getting someone to do them, but my agent said, “Oh no, honey. Don’t touch them.” I’m glad she said that.
How many years did you model?
Three. From the time I was 15 to 18.
And how did you get to the beauty world?
I stopped modeling when I was 18. It was great fun to be exposed to photography and makeup artists and everything, but it wasn’t really my vision. I had a lot to say, so I actually went back to college after dropping out of the 10th grade at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan. I got into the College of Charleston in South Carolina, out of the goodness of this woman who worked in Admissions. I can’t even figure out how it came to be, how people my age were still in high school and I, who had dropped out, was going to college. There was a summer internship program, and I thought, I’d like to go back to New York, and I thought of Jeffrey [Kalinsky, of Jeffrey New York], so I applied there. Then I realized that fashion was maybe not the plan. It was great fun, but I always had so much to say about makeup and beauty.
Where did your love of makeup come from?
I think my mom and my sisters. I applied makeup to all of the women in my family, even before I considered myself as someone who would end up in makeup. They turned to me for advice, even if it had to do with their clothing. They respected what I was saying as a young boy.
How did you learn about it?
It was just an innate thing. I was drawn to the masters, of course, like Kevyn Aucoin, who I remembered seeing on Oprah years ago. From modeling, I got to know Way Bandy and Scavullo, who had a big influence. That was my first gig when I was modeling. My agent said, “Honey, there’s a photographer named Scavullo and he wants to photograph you.” Isn’t that crazy? I had no clue who he was. I was 15.
So you were at the Professional Performing Arts School and you signed with an agency when legendary photographer Scavullo came knocking?
Someone stopped me on the street. I signed with Click and my agent sent me on a casting where they took photos of me, and the Polaroids somehow got into the hands of Francesco Scavullo. I had no clue who he was. But that was the beginning of me entering the rabbit hole into that whole world. When I was doing makeup on my family down in South Carolina, it wasn’t like I was poring over Vogue; it was simply doing my sister’s makeup and telling my mom, “Do this, don’t do that,” but once I started to experience it firsthand, I think I became like a sponge.
It’s great that you didn’t know how important the shoot was, because then you weren’t nervous.
Yeah, exactly. It is better to be naïve. When I started my makeup line, I was naïve, too.
But it all seems to be pretty instinctual for you.
Yes. Isn’t that the only way to be? It’s such a snooze fest to be so formulaic. That’s why doing the fragrances was so fun for me and for Carlos [Benaim]. I knew that I would have to seduce him to lend his name and his nose to something that would become part of his legacy.
What fragrances do you usually wear?
I turn to anything and everything. Usually something frankincense-y. And whatever Carlos makes, I love. I thought that I would be complex to figure out, because I was never married to a fragrance, but Carlos figured me out pretty fast. Before, here was not one I was married to. I would just try any oil that I came across, or something smoky, but in our initial meeting that he singled a scent and got it right. It was weird.
Do you remember what your very first fragrance was?
Yes, I do. It was Hermes Eau d’Orange. I got a sample at the Philips Club, where we stayed when we visited New York.
Such a fancy childhood!
Oh, it wasn’t always that posh. There were struggles.
Like what? That you couldn’t get the penthouse sometimes?
Yeah, sometimes it was already booked. Damn.
Ok, so now you’re painting a different image of your childhood from what I’d been imagining.
You know what it was? My family always had style. It wasn’t that they had the most money, but they were stylish. I think that that’s been the lesson. It’s not that they’re the most well-to-do. And I’m more drawn to that in someone than anything else, as shallow as that may sound.
What is your first grooming memory?
I remember my dad teaching me how to shave with his Gilette foam down in South Carolina. I must have been 14, when does one start to shave? I never fussed over my hair. I never went through phases where it was colored or anything. Even now, it’s not too fussy, I don’t think too much about maintenance. But I always did like facials. That was something I really got into.
Are you still really into them?
Yes, very much. I love someone I think I first read about in W, actually: Jordana Mattioli. She was at Dr. Kolker’s practice then. Now’ shes at Complete Skin MD on 64th Street.Oh my god, she’s SO GOOD. I haven’t been for four months now, but when I have the time, I like to go monthly. There was a time when I was into dermaplaning. Have you tried that?
Yeah, I think dermaplaning is cool. I love the feel of the razor on my skin.
I think it was too much, though. My skin got to be dependent on it, and transparent. It was too much.
What skin products do you use?
My skincare is very masculine. My Deep Hydration Cream was made FOR me. I have very dry skin, so it’s really rich, really moisturizing. It was inspired by the Black Sea, so it’s loaded with algae. I use that, day and night, and my Radiant Lifting Serum. It looks like men’s skincare. Men love it.
If we pulled back your shower curtain, what would we find?
Submissions for some more products I’m working on, so just a little teaser that Hair Hero will not stop once you’re out of the shower. Mountain Ocean Skin Trip body Moisturizer. It’s from the seventies and I’ve used it for ages, but it’s a thing now. Urban Outfitters sells it. I also like a Buf-Puf from Clydes Pharmacy. It’s intense. Face cleanser is something I’m working on. I like thick, rich cleansers.
What about deodorant?
Nothing fancy, from the drugstore. I do like Marvis toothpaste, but that’s kind of cliché. Doesn’t everybody say that in Vanity Fair?
Yeah. And Pratesi sheets.
Totally. Take that out. Change it to Aqua Fresh.
No. What flavor?
Licorice. But I don’t discriminate. I also like Arm & Hammer.
Is there a women’s fragrance, aside form your new oness, that melts you?
I love [Viktor & Rolf] Flower Bomb, which Carlos did. Sometimes I’m drawn to the sweetness.
What does your mother wear?
Something I’ve given her, probably.
So she’s not loyal.
No. But you know what her first fragrance was? Niki de Saint Phalle. That fragrance was intense! Even more than Opium. When she’d go out, she’d sneak in a cigarette here or there, so it was always mixed in with the scent of Niki. Any time we’d find a cigarette in the glove compartment, she’d say, “Those aren’t mine!” So cigarette smoke and Niki de Saint Phalle. She’d probably like to get a bottle now. I should find one for her birthday.
Did your dad wear a scent?
No. I think down in South Carolina, that’s not a big thing. A guy went to a barbershop, not a hair salon.
What beauty trend do you hate?
I think it’s time to can the contour. I’m sure everyone says that, but makeup should not be about changing the way you look and transforming who you are and being unrecognizable and being like, “God, look how bad I looked in the before!” It should be about bringing out what’s already there, looking like a better version of yourself. It’s just unrealistic. Who is going to walk down the street with dark shadow here and bronzer here and not feel like McCavity from “Cats.”
McCavity. Very funny. What’s your best selling product?
My hair product. That and my lip liner.
In a certain shade?
Natural. It’s iconic looking and has a creamy feeling and women love it. That and my lipstick. I know I’ve done something right when women come up to me and say, “I love your ____.” They are my needle, so if I keep moving the needle and they keep saying that, I know. They’re not just buying it because it’s mine or because I sold it to them or they watched me demo it. I know they love it. And I’m the same way about products. Why do I still use Skin Trip? I like everything about it—I like the box, I like the smell, I like the feel. I like Clarins Body Oil, I’ve always loved it, so I get why someone would be loyal. It’s the same reason you love salty toothpaste. Now I’m going to go out and buy some more.
Meaning, you don’t care if it’s not fancy?
Sort of. I mean, it CAN be fancy. It’s just when you get hooked on something, that’s the beautiful thing about a beauty product that you love. There’s a sense of loyalty built into it.
What’s always in your dopp kit?
There’s some medicinal thing from Westerly Market that I like that’s supposed to be good for cold and sinus. There’s nothing fun, though: I like Supergoop sunscreen.
What SPF do you wear?
50. That was the cut-off. Remember a few years ago, doctors were like, “Wear 70!” then they stopped allowing brands to claim anything higher.
You never go out in the sun, obviously.
No. No, no, no, no. It’s just not fun. I turn red. I’m not going to be J. Lo. I like the look on other people, but it won’t be me.
Have you ever spray tanned?
No. People tell me I should try it, but… I’d look all blotchy. The knuckles, the feet. My sisters do it, and they’re always like, “Oh god, look at my feet.” Won’t they have a pill for self tanning soon? Isn’t that just what you want in your blood stream?
Ok, last question. What are you currently obsessed with?
I would say Snapchat, but that’s not a good one…
Snapchat is your Marvis. You can give two answers.
You know what? The political race. I can’t stop. That’s what I look forward to when I get home tonight to see what… I’m not going to say I’m political, but I’ve never seen a spectacle like it. I’m obsessed.
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