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Bella Hadid Hung Vanngo
courtesy of Instagram/@hungvanngo

Master of sexiness Hung Vanngo isn’t here for ugly make-up

The celebrity make-up artist just wants you to feel glamorous

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

Hung Vanngo was not dealt the easiest hand in life. Born in Vietnam, Vanngo spent three years of his childhood living in a refugee camp in Thailand before ultimately ending up in Canada where he lived with his older brother and sister, working in the evenings after school to help support the family. 

It was in high school that Vanngo discovered the captivating world of fashion magazines, sitting in the library where he would pour over images of the supers who reigned supreme at the time – Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell. After graduating, he was determined to pursue a career in beauty and did so, first in hair and then in make-up which he transitioned to after realising it was where his true passion lay. 

Through talent, hard work and sheer, unending persistence, Vanngo fought his way to the top, not giving up until the industry took notice of him. Now, thanks to his signature modern take on 90s supermodel make-up, including smoky elongated eyes, he is known as the master of sexiness and counts Selena Gomez, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Gisele among his fans and clients. His trademark of creating the most radiant skin has even led to hairstylist Mark Townsend nicknaming him Hung Van Glow.

Here we speak to Vanngo about his family’s journey to Canada, what sexy looks like in 2019, and why he isn’t concerned about technology replacing him.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Hung Vanngo: I was born in Vietnam with a family of four sisters and one brother. My mum was a single parent and she took care of us all by herself. When I was about six years old, my mum paid for my youngest sister, my brother and I to escape Vietnam. The people who took the money from my mum had said: ‘We can take your kids to America’, but they actually took us to Cambodia first. We stayed in the basement of a house, there was around 14 of us at the time, and we hid for a week until they could find a boat that would go to America. Then one night they said: ‘OK, tonight you’re going to go.’ I still remember everything so clearly. We got to the boat, it was a very tiny boat, basically enough for us to sit next to each other. We all fell asleep and woke up to them pushing us out of the boat, people were screaming. Then another boat came our way and took us to land and from there they put us into the refugee camp in Thailand. 

We were there for three years. We slept on cement floors and every day we would line up to get food and they would give us a container with enough water to cook and shower. That’s how we lived for three years. Then a maid at a hotel in Calgary and her family sponsored me, my brother, and my sister to go to Canada. My sister started working right away, she had to take care of us. When my brother and I were a little older, I think we were 15, we started working at night in the building to clean the offices and during the day we went to school and that’s what we did. We sponsored my mum to come over a few years later. 

How did you get into beauty? 

Hung Vanngo: I used to cut my brother’s hair on the staircase of the building because our home was so small, and the staircase was the only place I could properly cut it. When I finished high school, I talked to my brother and I said, ‘I don’t want to do anything else, I just want to go to hairdressing school – that’s what I want to be, I want to be in fashion and hairdressing school.’ 

When I told the rest of my family that I wanted to do hair, I don’t think they were very excited by it. I still did it though, I went to hairdressing school and when I worked in my first hair salon, they had a make-up station and I started practising doing make-up on people. I became really good so they started booking me for weddings and those kinds of things. I fell in love with make-up and thought this is what I want to do. Hair is a gift, I actually did really well, but it’s not really my passion. I loved how a little mascara could make someone look awake or a little blush could make someone look radiant right away. I loved their reactions and thought that make-up is what I want to do. 

So you started being booked for make-up...

Hung Vanngo: Yeah, but when researching the industry I soon realised that Calgary didn’t have the sort of market I was wanting. I reached out to pretty much the only established modelling agency there, I kept calling until finally, Kelly Streit (CEO & Founder of mode models) returned my call. He actually made an appointment for a haircut and that weekend, he booked me for a shoot with a model. Then he started acting as an agent for me and we became good friends. 

One day, Kelly said, ‘I’m going to take you to New York!’ and so I went to New York for the first time and I knew this was it… this was where I had to be! It’s hard to apply for working papers, however, so Kelly said I should move to Toronto which he said was like a mini New York. I went home, sold my car, quit the salon, and that’s what I did. Everyone thought I was crazy. Then a few years later I finally moved to New York. 

What would you say was your big first job… your big break?

Hung Vanngo: In my life, there’s one thing that I always say to people: Be good to everyone around you because you never know what is going to happen.’ Before I moved to Toronto I was a creative director at a salon in Montreal. The salon had an assistant for me, his name is Christopher Williams. He was very good at talking and selling and promoting but he was bad at doing hair! I’m a very direct person so I said to him, ‘I want to be honest here, you should do what you’re good at and what you’re passionate about but for hair you have to have a gift a little bit’ and he wasn’t passionate about hair, he was passionate about people so I told him he should be an agent and helped him get sponsored by my friend’s agency in the US. 

When I started working in New York, Helena Christensen was looking for a new make-up artist to try out and Christopher said that you should try this guy. That’s how I started and I worked on a Numéro Tokyo cover shoot with Helena and Harry Josh, the hairdresser. Helena really loved me, she would request me after that and Harry Josh was really supportive. I think meeting Helena was one of my first big breaks because she was a huge supermodel and she had a choice of who she wanted to work. She did a cover for i-D and it featured her, Eva Herzigova, and Claudia Schiffer all on the cover. She requested me and convinced Claudia and Eva to just use me instead of each of them having their own make-up artists. That was considered one of my first big covers, and that’s what really started my editorial career.

So you see everything comes full circle. My first big break was because of my own assistant. It’s just life, you never know where people end up or how everything comes around like that. 

You’ve been called the master of sexiness…

Hung Vanngo: I mean honestly, I don’t know about that nickname – girl, I was joking about that I would never call myself that seriously! 

I think it’s true though!

Hung Vanngo: I mean I always appreciate beauty, and when I’m working on a shoot where people say, ‘we want to make the girl look really raw and rough’ I’ll say, ‘are you sure?’ Because who wants to look ugly and raw? People want to look sexy and glamorous!

What do you think sexiness is in 2019?

Hung Vanngo: Being confident and strong in who you are. One of my clients Emily Ratajkowski is so beautiful and so sexy but she’s also very smart. She has a voice and she uses it. She fights for women’s rights. I think it’s not just the look, but also the confidence and what we believe in – that’s sexy as well. 

You do a lot of red carpet make-up. What do you do differently from a red carpet to editorial? 

Hung Vanngo: They’re completely different, it was definitely trial and error. It took me years to understand to understand how red carpets are photographed, the lighting, where the shine is going to be.

When you do make-up for a photo shoot, you can change things completely in a studio with the lighting. I don’t have to put any foundation on a client and she’ll look amazing because of all the amazing lighting. You can change the light to get rid of eye bags, you can make the face smaller, if you want to really show the highlight on the side, you just create the right light and it’ll just bring out everything you need to bring out in the face. Whereas on red carpets, people shoot you from every angle, the flashes can clash with each other and you have crazy lighting so you really have to prepare.

How do you think the industry has evolved since you started?

Hung Vanngo: The industry has changed so much and I know there are a lot of mixed feelings in regard to social media. I understand there’s things people don’t like about it, but for me, I embrace it. It’s done a lot of wonderful things for my career. When I go to Antalya or to Dubai or anywhere – people know who you are, they know your work! Even if you’ve never been there. It’s all from social media; the exposure is amazing.

What advice would you give for young artists hoping to break into the industry?

Hung Vanngo: A lot of young make-up artists need to learn the craft and learn the history. Yesterday a photographer told me a story that he was shooting a young model and he said to her ‘give me Linda Evangelista poses’ and the model said: ‘Who is Linda Evangelista?’

If you’re a model, you should know these legends and it’s the same with make-up artists, if you’re a make-up artist and you’re asking, ‘Who's Kevyn Aucoin?’ you need to learn your craft. When you go to a shoot and have a client you should be able to say: ‘I want to do that 90s Cindy Crawford lip liner.’ Those top talents work with the best of the best. If you ever get to that level, you need to prepare your skill. 

What do you think the future of beauty is? Now we have all these apps and technology that is social media and filters… do you think it’s going to keep going down that path? 

Hung Vanngo: The best thing about beauty is that I don’t think there is any app or machine that can replace true artistry. I don’t think a machine can apply make-up the same way you would do it on your face because, for me, I apply my make-up with my hand and also my heart. 

I really view the face and see what I should do with it, and how I should enhance the beauty. I don’t think technology can recreate that because you can’t create a soul. When you look at make-up you can see it’s not a robotic application, you can see that someone has made the clients feel beautiful. No technology or machine can take over that.