Fresh faces, old places: Celeb makeup artist gives hometown a classic look
By LaReeca Rucker
Billy Brasfield felt like a colorful outsider growing up in monochrome Aberdeen. So after graduating high school in 1981, he planned his escape to New York City, where he has since painted the town as one of the world's top makeup artists.
Today, the 44-year-old has a different perspective. He is renovating 17 homes in Aberdeen, and has purchased and sold 20 others, investing more than $500,000 in the town he was so eager to leave more than 20 years ago.
A documentary television pilot filmed last year contrasts Brasfield's life as a jet-setting makeup artist in New York and Hollywood with his Aberdeen revitalization efforts. Called The Beauty Foundation, the World of Wonder production may eventually become a Bravo! reality series.
Brasfield began reinventing himself from "Aberdeen country boy" to "fashion guru" at Northeast Mississippi Junior College. He enrolled in fashion merchandising, but after accepting a job creating department store displays in Memphis, Brasfield quit college.
In 1984, he moved to New York with a friend, where the two auditioned on a whim for spots at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. When they were both accepted to the prestigious school, Brasfield convinced his reluctant parents to pay tuition for one semester.
"It was a hardcore acting school, and my Southern accent was so unbelievably thick," he said.
Brasfield dropped out of college again when his friend decided to move home but was determined to stay in New York. Using his Southern charm, he landed a job as a makeup artist at Macy's, a position he held several years before coincidentally meeting an associate editor of Vogue magazine who told him he should become a freelance makeup artist and introduced him to an executive at the Elite modeling agency.
"It was the Southern thing," he says. "I think they either found me charming or hysterically pathetic and threw me a bone."
Brasfield eventually quit his Macy's job and began working at a famous celebrity-filled nightclub called Area. Shortly thereafter, while working at another bar, he met a celebrity photographer who gave him his first paying fashion job, and the offers started rolling in.
"I went from cleaning the toilets in this bar to earning $500 a day doing makeup, and it completely changed my career," he said.
In the early '90s, Brasfield was asked to do makeup for an up-and-coming singer named Mariah Carey.
"She was new and green, and we just hit it off like crazy," he says. "She was incredibly loyal to me, and from that day on, I did everything for her, from the Dream Lover video to her wedding to (music executive) Tommy Mattola."
Because of Carey, Brasfield's career skyrocketed, and work with other music stars like Christina Aguilera, Eve, Alanis Morissette, Ashanti, Lauryn Hill, Lil' Kim, Missy Elliott and The Dixie Chicks followed.
When he began making more money than he ever imagined possible, his grandfather, Clarence, died in Aberdeen, leaving him an inheritance of $30,000 that Brasfield used to buy and renovate his first Aberdeen house.
"It became my mission to seek out historic Aberdeen houses that weren't going to make it," he says. "Right now, I have 17 houses, but I've bought and sold 20 others."
Brasfield says Aberdeen's lack of industry forced many residents to leave, which enabled him to purchase homes for $10,000 and $15,000 each.
"I realized that as inexpensive as the homes seemed to me, the people there had so little, they couldn't buy them," he says. "So I started acting as a bank for people who otherwise couldn't get a loan. I would basically sign the house over to them, and they would pay me a house payment of what they could afford."
Several Aberdeen citizens became homeowners, and revitalizing Aberdeen became Brasfield's quest. With the help of Dwight Stevens, owner of Stevens Auction Co. in Aberdeen and president of the Save Aberdeen Landmarks Group, a once dilapidated Main Street structure called the Kimmel building is nearing completion. The second floor has been transformed into three apartments, a day spa will be located on the first, and a New Orleans courtyard has been constructed in back.
Stevens says near the turn of the 20th century, Aberdeen, located between Columbus and Tupelo on U.S. 45, stood proud with some of the grandest Victorian homes in the state. It once had a three-story opera house and five-story hotel that covered a whole block, but many buildings have been torn down and others are decaying.
"We didn't have Sherman come through and burn it down after the Civil War, but we did have urban renewal, which was just as bad as Sherman," Steven ssays. "They changed the storefronts, and it really took away from the character."
When cotton was big business, there were a number of antebellum homes in Aberdeen, but industrialization led to their demise, as well as the disappearance of downtown business.
"Now, people go out of town to malls and Wal-Mart, and the mom-and-pop businesses are a thing of the past," said Stevens, adding that residents are now starting to see Aberdeen's potential again.
With high hopes for Aberdeen, Stevens says he believes the Toyota plant set to open in 2010 near Tupelo, as well as other burgeoning industries in the area, may bring residents back.
"I have a vision for real estate to be at a premium and people to realize the importance of saving these buildings and the downtown business district, which is the heart of any community," he says.
A life makeover
Aberdeen resident Ruth Brasfield, Billy's mother, says her son's interest in construction was evident at an early age.
"As a child, he loved Lincoln Logs and Legos," she says. "He built something all the time with those things."
He also was very determined. "If he wanted something, he found a way to get it," she says. "Billy was very young and very inexperienced with big city life. He had been raised and protected in Aberdeen, but I knew whatever he wanted to do in New York, he would be OK."
For Billy, hindsight was 20-20.
"This place I hated and couldn't wait to leave, I realized how great it was not only to me, but to America," he says.