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Reggie Wells, a Baltimore native who was Oprah’s makeup artist for 30 years, has died

Reggie Wells, a celebrity makeup artist from Baltimore, was Oprah Winfrey’s makeup artist for three decades. (Courtesy of Reggie Wells)

Wells also did makeup work for former first lady Michelle Obama and actress Halle Berry, but he was equally comfortable transforming the faces of senior members of a retirement community in Park Heights

Reggie Wells loved to recall how he would “beat the face” of celebrities — a positive slang term among makeup artists that meant applying makeup flawlessly to their skin.

And he beat the faces of the best, including Beyoncé, Halle Berry and former first lady Michelle Obama. Oh yeah, and he was also Oprah’s longtime personal makeup artist for 30 years.

Wells’ makeup work took him to South Africa, Australia and the Middle East, but the Baltimore native was equally comfortable transforming the faces of senior members of a retirement community in Park Heights. Wells died Monday after a long illness. He was 76.

The third oldest of seven children, Wells was the son of John Henry Wells, a bus driver, and Ada Wells, who worked as a nurse. He grew up in Baltimore County.

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A graduate of Baltimore City College and MICA, Wells became an art teacher in Baltimore in the mid-1970s before moving to New York City, where he pursued his dream of becoming a makeup artist. There, he mastered his craft by working at makeup counters before catching the eye of a fashion editor and eventually working with Glamour, Life and Harper’s Bazaar magazines. But it was at Essence magazine where he did makeup for models and celebrities on more than 100 covers. That work resulted in his work with Winfrey and other major Black female entertainers.

In 1995, he won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Makeup. He was nominated four additional times.

Wells said he was once told by the late Joan Rivers that his makeup was so good his clients looked like they had had plastic surgery.

“He was the life of the party. He was the one that, when he walked in the room, everyone was in awe. He could command the room,” said his niece Tasha Jackson, who lives in Albany, Georgia. “He was a storyteller. You were so drawn into the things he said. It was captivating. It allowed you to think you were there at the story. No one could compare to his ability to captivate you.”

But his life wasn’t only glitz and glamour. Wells recalled being physically attacked for being gay when he was growing up and later losing countless friends to the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s.

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But Wells’ ingenuity was his saving grace, as he had to custom create his own makeup for Black women from foundations and powders made for white skin tones. At that time, no major cosmetic companies made makeup for Black women. It was Wells’ pioneering makeup techniques that caught Winfrey’s eye, he told The Baltimore Sun in 2017.

“It makes me proud to have a family member who has achieved that much and has given that much to women of color. He’s someone I look up to and admire,” his niece said. “I’m devastated as well as happy that he was my uncle. I’m at a loss of words. He was a friend. He was a mentor. He was everybody to everyone. It’s sad, but I’m glad he’s in a better place.”

Caprece Jackson, a Baltimore-based fashionista and fashion historian, was saddened by the death of Wells. Jackson said his level of Black excellence shined “as brightly as a Baltimore Son,” and he kept “Oprah camera-ready, flawless, natural way.”

She added: “I appreciated seeing his name in all the major women’s magazines, his trips back to B’more, and attending one of his workshops during the height of his career. It was all so exciting and glamorous.”

Martice Jamar Thomas, a Baltimore-based celebrity fashion stylist and makeup artist, said Wells inspired countless Black creatives in Baltimore and beyond.

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“Reggie Wells was one of the very first to brand himself and be as big of a celebrity in his industry as his celebrity client,” Thomas said. “We all looked up to him.”

Ngozi Olandu Young, a celebrity makeup artist whose work includes productions such as “The Watchmen,” “Mare of Easttown” and most recently, “The Color Purple,” said Wells was an “eminent” makeup artist.

“I’ve always felt especially proud that he was from Baltimore. He definitely left his mark on our industry,” she said.

Later in life, Wells returned to Baltimore to be closer to his aging father.

He spent his free time at Weinberg Manor, a senior living residence in Northern Baltimore, offering makeup makeovers to the Black women there — recalling his decades of elevating Black beauty.

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“He was always giving back, making sure that everyone felt good about their appearance on a day-to-day basis,” his niece said.

Wells is survived by two older sisters, Priscilla Tingle, who lives in Georgia, and Patricia Banks, who lives in Baltimore, and a younger sister, Orrie Wright, who lives in Perryville. Funeral services have not yet been determined.

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years. 

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