“Makeup is like foreplay. If done well, they will always want more.” says Elton Fernandez as he pours me a cup of earl grey from a bluish yellow clay pot with black cats - crockery that could well have had Harrods signed across it. I ask him where he got it and he sheepishly answers making me promise not to include it in the story. Many more skeletons lay waiting in the closet.
What makes Elton Fernandez India’s most sought after makeup maven you ask? He’s done cover stories for Vogue, GQ, Grazia, Filmfare, American Traveller – just a handful of many publications he’s styled for. The first movie he directed makeup & hair for, had a stellar cast including respected actors like Juhi Chawla, Nandita Das, Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Suri among others. That was his big break. His YouTube channel EltonJFernandez recently clocked over one million hits. One of the world’s leading makeup brands just signed him as their official spokesperson and makeup expert for India.
Carpet shopping at the Bandra Exhibition
Possessing a slight build bordering on waifish, with a lunar pull inked on his arm, in a loose black ganjee, Elton adjusts his black and gold rimmed Tom Ford glasses. He lets out a burst of unabashed laughter and recounts what he used to do for money before getting into makeup.
“It was a short stint at this gaming (read gambling) company, where my job was to establish contact with irate customers, either because they were desperate to receive their winnings, or because they were desperately begging for us to not send in the debt collectors! As for my earlier years, I was schooled in Bombay, but went to university in Hyderabad, post which I worked at HSBC & Google too."
Through all these desk jobs, Elton would continue painting faces as a hobby. Having always been artistically-inclined, it began with him painting acrylic on canvas. One day, his makeup artist friend Sachin Dakoji urged him to “try painting faces, it’s a canvas that talks back”. That was the tectonic shift that propelled him to doll up people’s faces and personas. Plus he got good fast.
Jet set ready for a regular work day at HSBC
“I moved back to Bombay to pursue makeup full time when I was 25. I randomly applied for a job at M.A.C Cosmetics and bagged it. I had a surprisingly good start, and with a salary so much higher than I thought. Within a couple months, I would meet the love of my life. Everything was perfect and I felt like I needed to have a baby, so I got myself a Persian cat and named him Gandalf the Grey.”
Then recession hit and Fernandez got sacked. This forced him to push the envelope and start doing freelance work across the country. He had a printed book of his prior work and fixed meetings with all publications and started meeting people at coffee shops. One assignment led to another and before he knew it, his career began gaining momentum.
Today he’s young, successful and refreshingly progressive in his thinking of what that identity implies in a city like Mumbai.
“I came out to my folks when I was 23. They weren’t particularly happy. My mum lost the plot & dived deep into religious fervour. My dad was detached for a long while. That’s when, at 25, I decided to get out of there. I wanted to live - like really LIVE. Freely. Without constantly hiding behind a facade and wondering how not to offend the next person.”
Having said that, it wasn’t easy being bold about who he was, especially in Hyderabad. He was gay bashed on three separate occasions. "This happens often in small-minded cities. Small groups of homophobic men would slyly prey on vulnerable gay men outside of nightclubs. I used to travel by rickshaw and dress so ordinarily. They would tailgate until we stopped. They'd threaten the driver then give chase, and I’d just keep running until panic wouldn’t allow me to run or breathe further.” he says.
“At that point, you don’t feel anything. Thankfully. Post some punches, swearing, pushing around and cursing, they’d rob you and leave,” he further explains, with a pensive expression plotting each detail. "But it only ever caused me to be stronger."
We get down to talking about the nascent Pune pride parade he went to and how it was a great start to good things for the LGBT community in India.
“The reason the pride parade colors are bright and vibrant is because the community continues to be largely oppressed. The colors represent diversity within the community” he says. “When people tell me why can’t you just wear a regular shirt, trousers and be a normal man, I feel like asking them ‘why can’t you just have an imagination?"
At a friend's wedding in Rishikesh by the Ganga
“I always felt like such a misfit in Hyderabad…then I came to Bombay and met so many people. All of us are misfits but we congregate together and help each other blossom, adding power to the movement” he explains twirling his moustache.
“Have you ever done make up for somebody and seen an amazing friendship come from it?” I ask.
“It’s funny actually. That’s how I met my closest friend Monica Dogra. My boyfriend at the time introduced me to the music of Shaa’ir n Func (Monica was the lead singer) and I was just like what is this music? I was a boy from Hyderabad with strange taste in music.” he says. “Slowly I really started liking their groove and took one look at Monica and told my boyfriend I’d love to do her makeup...I felt she was an amazing artist but not yet a finished product. So I ended up doing her make up before one of her shows and we just clicked. She’s really contributed so much to my growth as a person and an artist, it’s unreal.”
Behind the scenes at an Olay shoot with Monica Dogra
We talk about his career, his workaholic ways and his first ever holiday last year.
“I was doing a shoot and asked my model friends what they were doing later? The models were like ‘oh we’re going to goa’. They invited the stylist and me to join….We went with it..by bus. It was crazy! We got caught in the monsoon floods together and lost a rental bike. Got drunk. I realized how much I hate backpacking and how much I need room service. I also kept chasing the stylist all around the house, biting him! hahaha”
He explains how working with fantastic Bollywood stars just spoilt him because after that he just couldn’t work with B-Town dimwits who’re in it for the glamour and not the craft.
“Which celebrity would you get with if you had a chance?” I ask smiling.
He thinks for a few seconds and says “Adrien Brody. I would bear his children!”
“What’s your type though?”
“I’m not elitist when it comes to sex. As long as they’re clean, healthy and fit. Rich or poor; Old or young - For me it has to be a waistline I can put my arms around.”
“What’s your count?”
“I’m not putting a number to it. That’s scary. Let me put it this way: If a man has sex once a week with maybe a new partner every now and then. I started at 18. You do the math.”
Once I pick my jaw off the floor, I ask him what his modus operandi is.
“Well, if I’m travelling on a job, I leave my house in the morning with my work kit, do a shoot – maybe style a bride or whatever, log onto my Grindr account. There’s always someone else looking in the area. I’ve met some amazing men on that platform.”
His house is exactly the contemporary antique storehouse one would expect it to be - coupled with modern pop pieces like for example a pink cupboard - on top of it a large gramophone, a large black record for a clock and some miniature silver rickshaws. It’s an eclectic mix.
Partying it up Bombay style
“Any client who you found to be extremely obnoxious?”
“Well, there was this young starlet and she was a nasty piece of work. Just ordering everyone around her, behaving like the milky way revolves around her. I just did my job and left. A few months later we bumped into each other at a club, and never met after.”
“Which celebrity face would you love to work on?”
“I’d say Cate Blanchett, Marion Cottilard, Julia Roberts, Deepika Padukone”
“Who looks better with makeup?”
“I think it’s not about looking better with makeup but about whose face wears makeup well. I’ll tell you this though: Chitrangada looks incredibly beautiful without any makeup.”
“Do you prefer working on men or women”
“Women any day!” he says emphatically.
“What’s a complete no no in makeup?”
“Taking beauty advice from all and sundry. Most people will make you feel inadequate. You have to filter general opinion.”
“Give us a must-do tip?”
“Always hydrate your skin: use a good moisturizer; bright attentive eyes aren’t ever out of fashion; use a lash curler and oodles of mascara”
“A trend for this season?”
“I don’t necessarily follow trends”
In Dubai with Alia Bhatt for an awards night
“How many relationships have you been in?”
“I’ve had 6 relationships. I’ve been in deep love with 3 of those 6. 5 of those 6 lasted for no more than 2 months and the longest one lasted 6 years.” he says. “In addition, I’ve also had 5 relationships with girls. Yep! But couldn’t even get myself to make out with even one of them! I dated a girl for over a year, and we didn’t even kiss!"
“Didn't even kiss?”
“That’s what being in the closet is about. Confusion and denial. You want everybody to think you’re straight. That entire time I was having affairs with men, but in my head I was straight. I fall in love with women too... it’s just never been sexual.”
“I love powerplay, domination, submission. I can go from kitten to cat in 60 seconds. I’m passionate and very unpredictable. I love taking artistic photos of my partner the morning after, editing them and running poetic filters through them.”
He shows me his whatsapp chat group of gay friends who exchange notes, pictures, advice on hookups, measurements and staminas; It’s also a social forum where they plan nights out, etc. While talking about his latest squeeze, he explains his current stand on relationships : “I’ve tried monogamy. I don’t think it’s natural. It isn’t for me at least. I’m sure there are people for whom it works but it’s not for me. I’m pretty polyamorous. It’s been over a year since we broke up but my ex will always be the love of my Life. I think we will end up marrying each other.”
I tell him how I think India needs more headstrong individuals comfortable with their sexuality and talking openly about it, giving people a reason to open up too.
He shoots back with, “Recently, somebody commented on a picture saying ‘Are you a man or a woman’ to a picture I had posted of me wearing a bindi and winged liner. I replied saying “I am a woman with a bindi, a moustache and an XXL c**k. The girl apologized.”
“People will always love to hold you back.” he says with flinty confidence. “But I’m not one to dumb myself down just so I can fit myself into their mould. Not me.”
Words by Roshmin Mehandru