Reggie Wells, who parlayed a background in fine art into a trailblazing career as a makeup artist for Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and other Black celebrities, died on Monday in Baltimore. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his niece Kristina Conner. She did not specify a cause or say where he died.
For Mr. Wells, every face was a canvas to explore. One of his most famous clients was Ms. Winfrey, for whom he worked as a personal makeup artist for more than 20 years at the height of her television career.
“Reggie Wells was an artist who used his palette of talent to create beauty no matter the canvas,” Ms. Winfrey said in a statement. “He always made me feel beautiful. Ooo my, how we’d laugh and laugh during the process. He was an astute observer of human behavior and could see humor in the most unlikely experiences.”
Once he started working with Ms. Winfrey, Mr. Wells began to attract the attention of Beyoncé and other Black celebrities.
Reginald Wells was born on Dec. 2, 1947, in Baltimore, one of seven children to John Henry Wells, a bus driver, and Ada (Johnson) Wells, a nurse. He graduated from Baltimore City College and the Maryland Institute College of Art and went on to teach art and dance in Baltimore in the 1970s, before moving to New York City to become a makeup artist.
He worked at a number of makeup counters in the city, The Baltimore Sun reported in 2017. A chance encounter with a fashion editor led to work with Glamour, Life and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, as well as on advertisements for Maybelline, Almay and Fashion Fair.
At a time when cosmetic brands did not cater to Black women, Mr. Wells found a niche working with Black stars and models who had struggled to find makeup options for their skin tones. Mr. Wells took matters into his own hands, blending lipsticks and eye shadows with palettes intended for white skin tones so they would work for his clients.
“I became my own chemist,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1998.
He also described himself as a “shrink with a makeup case.”
“I can’t tell them how to manage that husband, but I can tell them how to manage that lipstick,” he said. “We are psychologists in that we build self-esteem.”
He met Ms. Winfrey in 1986 while working with her on a cover photograph for Essence magazine.
“She said, ‘I’ve never looked this good before,’” he recalled in 2017. “I told her that I could make her look that good every day.”
By 1990, Mr. Wells had relocated to Chicago to become her full-time makeup artist. He would remain in that role for the next 30 years.
“Oprah never credited makeup companies in the beginning because we had to make it up. Oprah didn’t believe in lying,” he said in the 2017 interview. “I had to create all of the makeup. They just didn’t exist.”
But his work was not limited to makeup.
Mr. Wells consulted with lighting technicians on Ms. Winfrey’s show to come up with new ways to light Black skin on camera, using six spotlights — a setup traditionally used in theaters — for studio tapings.
His work was recognized in 1995 with a Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding makeup. He was nominated a total of five times. He also wrote a book, “Reggie’s Face Painting” (1998), in which he shared beauty secrets for Black women.
As much as Mr. Wells may be remembered for the celebrities he touched, his greatest legacy may have been the careers of the other Black makeup artists he helped along the way. Among them was Jacen Bowman, 40, who met Mr. Wells 15 years ago at a beauty industry event.
In an interview, Mr. Bowman described Mr. Wells as “the father of makeup” and “the beauty authority.”
“He used to tell me not to follow anyone else, to set my own trend and be the authority,” he said. “Reggie walked so we can run. We’re running so the ones after us can fly.”
Mr. Wells did not have a signature look, Mr. Bowman said. Rather, he approached every client’s face as a unique work of art and tried to bring out their inner beauty.
“No canvas was ever the same,” Mr. Bowman said. “Every time Oprah came out, she always had something different, something fresh. He was innovative like that.”
Mr. Wells is survived by his sisters, Priscilla Wells-Tingle, Orrie Wright and Patricia Banks.
Ms. Conner said her uncle was a humble man who was always looking to give back. That was especially true toward the end of his life, when he did the makeup for women in an assisted living center in Baltimore.
While he might have not have had a signature look, he did have a signature catchphrase: He addressed everyone he considered a friend or loved one as “Mary.” Even Ms. Winfrey.