The idea that a woman can do anything, be anything, is taken to something of an extreme by makeup professional Nicole Bruce. She's a huge force in a small package, who moves and talks with breakneck energy, and makes her own face into an infinite canvas.
Nicole started onstage as an actor, where diversity was her stock in trade. "Because I'm a character actor, I was typically asked to do something, something or another, to my face, makeup-wise," she says. "Be it blocking out half my eyebrows and making them go straight up, at a 45-degree angle. Or, can you add jowls and age, and all that stuff. So I built my skills up that way, and grew quite adept at changing my face into just about anything people wanted me to do while I was acting on stage."
When you look into the photo gallery of headshots on Nicole Bruce's website, you're looking at the entire cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends, Golden Girls, The Big Lebowski – and all of them are Nicole Bruce. She becomes men, even African-American men, as well as women of all ages and ethnicities. She also turns herself into Greek Gods, rock icons of the ‘80s, Muppets, and even … food.
Just to get people's attention, and show that she really can change her face into anything, Nicole added a headshot series to her web site, of her face … made up as … well, here she's bacon, there she's eggs. A hamburger. A waffle. With a pat of butter on her forehead.
A Natural Start
Nicole Bruce was born in California, into a theatrical family. Her parents managed theaters, where they produced, directed, designed and performed. Nicole came to Bloomington with her mother and older sister when she was four, after her father suddenly passed away.
She had a long, off-and-on journey to a Bachelor's degree in Theater from IU, with a concentration in acting. As a working actress, she moved from Bloomington to Chicago, to Arizona, and back to Bloomington, and finally to Chicago again – where the spark for acting faded.
While dealing with that uncomfortable truth, Nicole turned to a favorite coping mechanism.
"There's a SyFy show called ‘Face Off,' that deals primarily with the film industry and its makeup artists, special effects makeup artists and all of that," she remembers. "So I was living in Chicago and I just kind of got a jonesing to see it again. ‘Oooh, I haven't watched Face Off in a while!' I always loved the show, and I remember the very first season of it, thinking, ‘I would love to do that!' And then I kind of pushed that thought out of my mind, and went about my business."
At the time, her business was the struggle of being a professional actress – a struggle that had lost its shine.
"So I was watching it again," she recalls her binge session, "and Season Four came up, and there was a gentleman who had won the season, Anthony Kosar. And it flashed on the screen that he was from Chicago.
"Well, there I was sitting in my Chicago apartment, going, ‘Wait a minute, he's from Chicago, and he won the season, I wonder if he, like, teaches classes or anything?'"
Sure enough, in Westmont, about a half-hour outside of the city, Anthony Kosar had built a school for special effects makeup and character fabrication. Nicole signed up for a mask-making class. She declares emphatically that "it absolutely changed my life."
Molding and sculpting latex and foam rubber to make faces came naturally to her, from previous courses in studio art and growing up with a family of artists.
"Long story short," she says, "I left Chicago and moved back down to Bloomington, and made a concerted effort to change my career trajectory. Yeah! I wanted to be a makeup artist and a fabricator!"
Fantasy and Reality
Nicole made many trips north for more classes with Anthony Kosar. Still, beyond the fun of making faces, bodies, wigs and clothing, Nicole had to think about making a living.
"Those [makeup and fabrication] vocations are already really well defined in film and television," Nicole muses, "whereas in theater, I think sometimes, they don't know what to do with makeup, and special effects makeup – how to create those looks, and also how to delegate those kinds of designers. A lot of times it it's thrust upon the costume department which makes sense, but a costume designer doesn't inherently know how to do a lot of this makeup and fabrication or special effects makeup. Not even just simply special effects makeup, but even beauty makeup sometimes, too. You usually have a wig designer and stylist who comes in, but you've never really had a makeup designer, or a makeup artist. And I understand, too, it's usually a budget thing."
Then an unexpected niche market opened up to her – and she now has clients all over the country, for COSPLAY, the fantasy-media dress-up subculture.
"When I started this, I don't know why I didn't consider cosplay an avenue at all. And that's just simply my own kind of ignorance and negligence," she says. "Though I've attended ComiCons and am aware of cosplay, I just did not even consider the possibility that I would get people calling me up and asking me, ‘Can you make me a so-and-so costume?'"
The possibilities of fantasy cosplay fabrication are limited only by the client's imagination. And, cosplay pulls from much more than just movies, comic books and television.
"There's video games, there's anime," she counts, "and a lot of it, I realized that as long as I have the reference photos, I don't necessarily need to know anything about what the client has asked me to build. I just need to know what it looks like, and anything that they want to have specialized or changed for them."
When it comes to working on the human face – if you're doing a human face, and not a space alien that needs latex prosthetics – for Nicole Bruce, it's all about the paint. "I like to actually show, truly, the power of makeup," she says. "I'm talking about the old school, makeup brush or paint brush, and cream makeup or powder makeup – what with a trick of light and shadow you can do to transform a face."
Shape, Color, and Character
For one of these "transformations," Nicole takes on the challenge of recreating a well-known character, usually one that is played by a well-known actor, guided by reference photographs for face shape, hair, and even expression.
"It's changed how I see faces, just in general. All I see, really, are shapes, now. I see what I would have to do to make my face look like that face." These shapes are an organic part of a natural human face. "Things I was never really cognizant of before," she says, "like the shadow underneath the nose, underneath the cartilage of the nose. How much cartilage is actually there, how high someone's nostrils are, how long their septum might be."
For all of that, Nicole came to the studio wearing the most minimal day makeup you could imagine.
Besides shapes, Nicole now sees complex skin shades and color undertones that the rest of us miss.
"I'm kind of a pinky-olive shade," she says of her own skin, "so I'm not the fairest shade on the spectrum for white people. There are plenty of white shades that are far, far fairer and paler and pinker than I am. I have quite a bit of green undertones on my skin."
When asked, she studied her interviewer's skin for colors and undertones.
"It's kind of pink, kind of a pinky undertone. Let me see, it's the tiniest bit yellow, but only in spots. It's actually pretty fairly even. It's actually a really nice kind of pinky-peach."
Bruce says transforming into a male character is easier, but when she talks about male and female faces, she's really looking at the individual person's unique facial shape, rather than their overall gender identity.
"Jennifer Anniston's face comes to mind. She's got an extremely squared-off face," Nicole says. "Square jawline, really strong, and all of her features are actually kind of square. So she actually has quite a number of masculine features.
"Prince, conversely, comes to mind in terms of men who have really feminine features. He had absolutely gorgeous, huge, deep-set eyes. So naturally, obviously, for myself, I had to create an entire crease and lid to create that. But again, they were huge, gorgeous eyes that were very feminine."
No matter how well Nicole can change her – or your – face to replicate somebody else's, it still helps to know your real face – how it works to make you you.
"Obviously, if there's something about your face that you already like, you don't have to touch it! I mean, when people really like their eyes and they like the size of their eyes, you don't need to go onto YouTube and find some secret, hidden contouring trick to make your eyes smaller," she advises. "And I would even say that for actors, quite frankly – it depends on what is required of them for the show, naturally but if they're just putting on makeup for the sake of, ‘Well, I have to put makeup on every inch of my face if I'm going on stage!' That's not necessarily true. And it certainly isn't true for every day makeup."
Does playing with extreme character changes put people into a better relationship with their own real face? Nicole immediately replies, firmly, "No."
"Not everybody that I've worked on is necessarily comfortable without makeup. Some people are. I'm always really proud and amazed by people who are really self-aware and incredibly honest about all the things on their face, that they want to change or would like to see different – ‘Is there any way to hide this? Can you make this happen?' You know, I haven't experienced too many people with too much of a skewed version of what they look like. I haven't had anyone come in like, ‘My nose is enormous,' and in truth their nose isn't really that big. No, I think people have actually been really honest. At least so far!" she laughs.
Light and shadow – and sometimes a little latex – can fulfill a fantasy of being someone else, for a while – even when the eye of the beholder is our own.
"This is kind of the brilliance of makeup," Nicole Bruce declares, "and why I love it so much."
Nicole Bruce's galleries of transformation self-portraits are found at her website, www.nicolethebruce.com. Music for this program was provided under Creative Commons license by bensound.com.