When Queen B steps on stage or goes before the flashbulbs, her flawless maquillage is the work of Sir John, a celebrity make-up artist who believes that less is more and speaks of 'looking into his clients' souls'. He bares his to Harriet Walker.
Jesus had the Turin Shroud, Beyoncé has the white towel. There is no more honest testament to the staying power of her face – or of the creative talents of the man who makes it up, Sir John Barnett.
Proof comes in Netflix's recently released Homecoming, a two-hour rockumentary filmed around the singer's Coachella shows last year, in which Queen B's maquillage survives not only her signature, intensive cardio dance routines, but also the pat-down afterwards.
"You can see she dabs herself and throws the towel into the audience," he says when we meet. "And nothing came off. She went straight to bed afterwards and next morning was like, 'Dude, it's not even on my sheets – what's happening here?' "
The answer is an independent beauty company based in London for whom Sir John, 37 – known simply by his lofty-sounding first name and with more than 350,000 followers on Instagram – has recently become a "brand ambassador". Alleven specialises in smudge-proof, budge-proof body make-up, complete with moisturiser and SPF, which works like Photoshop in a spray can. You might not have a live tour coming up this summer, but you will have to take off your tights eventually – and when that moment comes, Sir John is here to help.
His other clients include Mary J Blige, Chrissy Teigen and the model Joan Smalls. He has worked for the legendary make-up artists Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath. At home, Sir John has become a household name as co-host of the reality show American Beauty Star, a sort of X Factor for would-be make-up artists, but he also travels the world giving tutorials that feel more like motivational pep talks than classic cosmetics-counter demos.
"Have you seen those Instagram videos?" he asks, of the ubiquitous how-to clips that pepper the internet and have turned teenagers into expert contourers with a battery of pro-tools (and an all too common drag-queen finish) rather than finger-painting beginners. "The average consumer is taught to slather it on. I am like, 'Oh my God, this is so much make-up.'
"We're in an age of exploration and democracy in beauty," he continues, "but we can take it down a notch. Like in Cardiff – not to shout out to any specific city, but I was in Great Britain last summer on tour – you could cut the foundation with a knife. Social media has done so much for the cosmetics industry, but it also speaks to our self-obsession and the vanity of selfies.
"I wish we could go back to the Nineties," he continues. "I like the iPhone X, but I want the first iPhone camera. We always looked so cute before high-definition gave everyone anxiety. My idea is just to buff up what makes you different, rather than lacquer over it. We're already perfect – we woke up like this."
Sir John is quoting the woman he first met at a Tom Ford catwalk show in 2010 and began working with soon afterwards – he describes his initial make-up test with Beyoncé as the most difficult smoky eye of his career. Now she won't start a tour without him in her retinue; he is the last person she sees before she goes on stage. In 2017, the singer named one of her twins Sir – we presume after the man who knows her face as well as her children do.
"My responsibility isn't just to her face, but to her emotional state as well," he says. "Everyone else is behind her tossing her hair and getting her dressed, but I'm the only one nose to nose, looking into her soul. Sometimes when I'm with a client, they get a text message or a call they don't like and something leaves them. I'm really psychic to energy that way, so I always try to make them laugh, even if I'm having a bad day."
Beyoncé spoke for the first time in the Netflix film of having high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia during her pregnancy, and of weighing nearly 15st by the time Sir and his sister Rumi were delivered by emergency caesarean. "I remember how difficult it was for her," Sir John says. "I'm here because of strong women – I was raised by a single mum."
His mother was 17 when Sir John was born in Buffalo, New York, where he grew up under the care of her and his maternal grandmother. "I didn't have a lot of friends, because I was tall and skinny but I didn't play sports," he says. "I was friends with all these old ladies – [aged] eight, hanging out with the Golden Girls, the only man at bingo." He twinkles, and I know how those old ladies must have felt.
Although money was tight, Sir John was always well turned out. He was determined to contribute to the household even before he was old enough to earn a wage, so he and his mother ate the vegetables he grew in their garden.
Home has always been important. His partner of seven years is William Harrison, who works with primary school-aged children with learning difficulties. They have known each other since their early twenties. Coming out to his mother was "the easiest thing ever", the latter says.
Sir John started his career at MAC, then moved into visual merchandising in Manhattan's designer boutiques. When one of Pat McGrath's assistants made the introduction, Sir John found himself agreeing to travel to Milan within the fortnight, despite not having a passport, to work backstage at Dolce and Prada. He was sent from there to Naomi Campbell's hotel room to do her make-up.
"I was obsessed with her – she was a person of colour, and I never saw them [at work] back then," he says. "When I was on fashion sets, I'd go months without seeing anyone who looked like me. I remember agents telling me I had to take shoots with Naomi and Beyoncé out of my book and put in these unknown eastern European models so I didn't seem 'ethnic' to clients."
Sir John is now gym-broad as well as tall. He is softly spoken and habitually dapper, all over Instagram in sharp suits and, today, in pastel checks, but is nevertheless assumed to be a basketball player every time he flies business class. "My grandparents had to deal with a lot worse," he says carefully.
I ask him about President Trump, because I ask every American I meet about President Trump. "We were sleeping at the wheel in 2016," he replies. "It felt like doomsday in New York when he won, but it is temporary – he is a sign of something that is dissipating, an ideology that is leaving."
He has seen as much in his line of work. Online platforms such as Instagram have to some extent foisted diversity on an industry that was stuck in its outdated, whitewashed ways. Sir John has a team that helps him manage his account, but he admits to being as addicted to looking at social media as the rest of us. "I look at Instagram more than I watch television – it's a rabbit hole," he says.
He is anxious about it, too. "We have a responsibility in the beauty community to be aware of the woes of our business. If you only follow girls who are running from the Victoria's Secret jet to a party, and you're in Cardiff and it makes you feel like crap, then unfollow them. At the end of the day we're here to make people feel good, so why is the cosmetics industry making people feel bad?"
As the first line of defence when his A-list clients wake up with a spot or a breakout, Sir John has the world's best dermatologists and facialists on speed dial. He's a fan of the so-called "vampire facial", a favourite of Kim Kardashian's, where a patient's centrifuged blood is injected into their jawline, but hesitates when I ask about cosmetic surgery.
"I live in LA, where everybody looks similar in some way: they have the same lips, the same cheeks, the same doctor, the same dentist. I'd advise plastic surgeons not to ask what a woman doesn't like about herself in a consultation, but to ask what's already working and start from there."
In many ways, the products Sir John is touting on this trip are part of this drive towards uniformity: the cult of total coverage that has taken hold after so many years of "barely there" and "au naturel" – just another unrealistic type of immaculate complexion.
The Alleven packaging describes "the elegance of a cosmetic veil inspired by the needs of the modern woman, who is looking for a beauty cover that makes her perfect in any situation". There is a lot of vocab in here that annoys, say, a modern woman who just wants her skin to look nice. To quote Beyoncé's Beauty Myth-barnstorming power ballad Pretty Hurts, "Perfection is the disease of a nation."
When I try out a couple of the products, however, I'm surprised at how easy they are to apply and how light they feel.
Time – and speed – is an essence Sir John has learnt from Beyoncé.
"Hers takes 40 minutes and she does not like to sit down for make-up," he says. "Doesn't like it to the point where one time I did it in 25 minutes. Her hairstylist looked at me and said, 'She's never going to give you an hour again.' Sometimes I have to say, 'OK girl, let's go,' because the anxiety you get when there are 80,000 people out there waiting for you to finish with an eyelash …" He pulls a face.
Still, he must be pleased when he sees his work strutting around on televisions and big screens.
"When I hear Beyoncé in a club, I'm thinking about where I need to stand, whether I need to run backstage before the final three seconds of the song to make sure she changes her clothes. It's a choreography for me."
He pauses, then admits, "It's a champagne problem to have."
I tested Sir John's make-up: Here's my verdict
At first, I spray on far too much of the Colour Shield Hyaluronic Airbrush Foundation and open my eyes to see a Kardashian-style mask in eerily even terracotta staring back in the mirror. But after washing it off and applying much less, I'm left with a light, healthy-looking glow that does indeed "perfect" my complexion, while allowing just enough of my (hated) rosy cheeks to show through. The layer of Colour Shield Hydrating Tinted Protection that I mist over my legs gives them that one-tone Barbie look: corned-beef texture regulated, bruises and thread veins gone. Even better, the products are quick and idiot-proof: applied in seconds and dry in a minute, versus the hours required for the heavy Insta-face that's become the norm among so many young women.
Written by: Harriet Walker
© The Times of London