Billy B: The Aberdeen Queen
Name a diva, and A-list celebrity makeup artist Billy B has made her gorgeous. No question he can beat a face, but can he beautify a Southern town? That’s what we’ll find out when Billy B — better known back home as Billy Brasfield — returns to Aberdeen, Miss., in Hometown Renovation, a six-hour docudrama miniseries debuting May 20 on HGTV. Before boarding a plane to Nashville to do Dolly Parton’s makeup for her new video, Billy opens up about his empowering homecoming, why he turned down Bravo, and why it took him a while to warm up to one of his most famous clients, Lady Gaga.
Advocate.com: As you made clear in your “It Gets Better” YouTube video, growing up gay in Aberdeen, Miss., was no picnic. Why go back?
Billy B: Well, my mom’s still there, and I know she’s never going to leave. But I also saw a need there. Small towns in America are dying — big businesses come in, mom and pop stores can’t compete, there’s a domino effect, and before you know it, the community’s gone. But what makes Aberdeen especially valuable is it has over 200 houses on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s really charming and beautiful, but it upset me that on every block I drove down there were empty lots where houses had been torn down. It just freaked me out as a gay man, because I wanted it to be pretty and nice. [Laughs] So I left there because I was gay, and I came back because I’m gay.
What’s it like to return to Aberdeen as a gay adult?
There’s absolutely zero intolerance of me there now. If I were just Billy the sissy, working at 7-Eleven, would people be so respectful to me? Is it just because I’m famous now and work with famous people? But we’ll never know, so I don’t focus on that. People are very kind to me, and on this show I’m working with really Southern people. One of my favorite things about the show is that there are sometimes subtitles, even when they’re speaking English. But I think that going back was part of my journey — not to get too Oprah — of healing myself.
Have you had any gratifying “look at me now!” moments?
That happens to me literally daily with any triumph that I have. Years ago, I acknowledged that much of my drive was about “Watch this, motherfucker.” It’s not from a bitter place, but it drives me to succeed. When I left Aberdeen and moved to New York, I didn’t have the support of my parents. I lived in a YMCA in Times Square in 1984, which was not a cute place to be. The only thing I’d ever done was work retail at a department store in Aberdeen, and I did their windows because I was creative. I’d been in New York a few months before my parents cut me off, so I naïvely went into Macy’s in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, walked right into personnel, and said, “I’d love to work in your windows.” I think this woman felt sorry for me, so she gave me a mercy job. She said, “Well, if you’re creative, what about cosmetics? Can you do it?” I said, “Oh, yeah! I’m good at it.” I’d never done it before. So I worked on the main floor of Macy’s, which is a zoo, but I refused to fail, and I refused for that to be another reason to be ridiculed. I was like, I may suck at football, and I may not want to touch a pair of titties, but I can move to New York and succeed, and you motherfuckers can’t because you’re stuck in Mississippi. To this day, especially when I do any kind of TV thing, I’ll call my mom and be like, “What are people saying?”
What does a makeup artist know about fixing up houses?
I’d been quietly doing that for years prior to the show. It was just another hobby and creative outlet for me. I don’t consider myself a designer, and I’m not trained — nor am I trained as a makeup artist — but I’ve always had this ability of being able to look at a house, no matter what condition it’s in, and see it exactly the way it should be — that wall should come down, that window should be here, and all of that.
When did you decide to turn your hometown renovation hobby into a TV show?
It all came to me. I was on a job with this gal, Isabel Gonzalez Whitaker — she’s an editor now at InStyle magazine — and I was telling her about it. She thought it made a great story and said, “Do you care if I pitch that to somebody?” I said, “No.” She called me two days later and said that the New York Times Home & Garden section wanted to do my story, and they did. The guys from World of Wonder, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, read that story in the Times, and they called me and told me they wanted to turn it into a television show. I’ve seen a few hours of the show, and I’m kind of like the hillbilly version of Jeff Lewis on Flipping Out.
Was HGTV your first choice?
We almost did something with Bravo, and that was probably two or three years ago. At that time, everybody wanted to be with Bravo. I met with them a couple of times, but they had an agenda, and I knew that I would’ve just been the vehicle to do a very funny show at the expense of the State of Mississippi and the people in my hometown. Not to make them out like villains, but that’s what’s good television for Bravo. So I decided not to do it with them. I let it go away, but one day the World of Wonder guys called again and said, “Do you still want to do a show? HGTV is really interested.” I’m a fan of the network and thought it was the perfect place, because I didn’t think they’d care who I am, what I do, or who I know — and they didn’t. When we were in talks with Bravo, their people actually said, “It would be great if your client Sharon Stone came, we blocked off Main Street, and did a big auction where she’s the auctioneer, and everyone’s there, black people and everything, and we have chicken and watermelon — it’ll be great.” I was like, What the fuck are you talking about? I realized it would be a three-ring circus.
As a makeup artist, you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business, but I think it’s safe to say that your collaboration with Lady Gaga has garnered the most attention. How did that collaboration begin?
I’ll be honest: All of my gays were like, “Lady Gaga this, Lady Gaga that,” and I had no idea who the fuck she was. And then I thought, like everybody else, that, visually, she was another manufactured pop star who didn’t have an ounce of talent. As long as I’ve been doing this, and after everyone that I’ve worked with, I’m just not interested in working with people like that. But I was requested by Hedi Slimane, who shot the Fame Monster album cover. Gaga didn’t have a choice — kind of like when you work for American Vogue with Anna Wintour, and you just surrender because you can’t bring your own team and they appoint who you work with. Hedi said to her something like, “I’ll shoot you, but it has to be my style and what I do.” The weird thing was that I’d never worked with Hedi before either. I’m New York-based, but I was out in Los Angeles, so I was probably just the lesser of the evils of L.A. talent — I have no idea. But she didn’t choose me and I didn’t choose her.
What was that first experience like?
I was not sold at the end of that day. There wasn’t much of a connection. It was kind of a weird day. There was no bonding, no kiki-ing, and it was very utilitarian. So I thought, OK, that won’t happen again. But then she booked me for the very next day. I did her Flare cover — the one where she has pink hair and top and bottom lashes — and I wasn’t sold then either, let me tell you. The third time was Saturday Night Live. She did “Paparazzi” with that sphere costume — remember, it kept hitting her in the head? I’ll never forget it. I was standing just up camera by a speaker, and I was watching it hit her head, and I’m thinking, Jesus Christ, what is happening? Then she sat down at the piano with that thing on. And as I was watching the monitor, I saw her adjust it and frame a beauty shot for herself, and then she started playing that piano and singing, and I was like, You better work, bitch. I was sold instantly. I've worked with her regularly ever since. I didn’t do the videos for “Alejandro” or “Judas,” and, actually, I haven’t been doing a lot of stuff with her lately. She’s been working with [director-photographer] Nick Knight — we worked together on the “Born This Way” video — and his main makeup artist who he’s worked with for years is Val Garland, so I think that’s who Gaga’s been working with lately.
So you weren’t responsible for that big beauty mark she was rocking on American Idol.
No, I don’t know what that’s about.
Can we still say you’re in the Haus of Gaga?
Oh, yeah. Listen, if Wikipedia says it, it’s good enough for me. I’ve worked with everybody, and I’ve never seen anything like Lady Gaga. It’s corny to say, but it’s been an honor to be involved with her.
After working on her “Born This Way” video, your tweet about being brought to tears by the experience got picked up by Perez Hilton. I hear that you were upset by some of the negative reader comments.
Listen, any time that you open yourself up to a homosexual audience, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. Faggots can be so fierce and mean. But I’ve actually learned how to handle those things by watching Gaga. I’ve watched her read things about herself that were difficult for me to know that she’s reading. When people say she’s ugly and other vile things, she reads every bit of that. But by facing your haters, you educate yourself about what people are saying, you take what you can learn from it, and fuck the rest of it. But I’d been up for 28 hours or something when I tweeted that, and I never in a million years thought that would happen. I woke up five hours later to a zillion text messages and e-mails, and my tweet was everywhere. I kind of felt sick to my stomach, because something like that had never happened to me before. Look, a lot of people hate Perez, and Perez loves her, so that sets her up to be attacked on Perez’s site. But some of the comments were valid. One of them said something like, “He’s a fuckin’ makeup artist and a faggot — of course he’s gonna cry.” And I thought, Well, that’s true. [Laughs] What got me were the stupid comments like, “Oh, she pays him to say that.” But the things that have been said about me on RuPaul’s Drag Race have been far worse — like that, because of my lisp, I sound like the reptile section of the zoo.
You frequently substituted for Santino Rice as a judge. Did your relationship with World of Wonder, who also produces Drag Race, help you get that gig?
There are more degrees of separation than that. When Ru had The RuPaul Show on VH1, Michelle Visage — who’s now a judge on Drag Race — was his cohost. Michelle used to be in a girl group called Seduction, and I did Seduction’s makeup. So I’ve known Michelle since she was about 17 in New Jersey. When I had time, I’d come do her makeup on the VH1 show — I didn’t get paid for it — and hang out, so that’s how Ru and I became friends. And World of Wonder had produced my show for HGTV, so yeah, I was already part of that family. Hopefully I’ll be back next season.
What was a highlight of your Drag Race experience?
I got to sit next to La Toya Jackson. I mean, come on!