BayouArtist | The Art of Beauty
Article by STARLA GATSON
Photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Meka Bennett talks with BayouLife about being motivated by her family to attend beauty school, and how she went from working at a mall salon to working with celebrity clients.
When Meka Bennett was young, she sat on the floor in the bathroom doorway, watching her mother get ready for a bartending shift at an exclusive restaurant in downtown Houston. The little girl eyed her mom carefully as she brushed eyeshadow over her lids, swooped mascara onto her lashes, and swiped red lipstick across her lips, counting the minutes until she was gone and her makeup collection and closet were hers to raid.
Moments like this regularly occurred throughout Bennett’s childhood — “I’ve worn probably every outfit in my mama’s closet while she was at work, and she had no idea!” she jokes — and sparked her love of all things beauty- and fashion-related. She says, “A lot of my inspiration came from my mom and aunts. The weekends were our beauty time. We went to the salon on Saturday to get ready for church on Sunday. We couldn’t mess up our hair. We had to sit on the couch and not move when we got dressed so we wouldn’t get dirty. I knew looking good was important; that was instilled in me growing up.”
That lesson followed Bennett to adulthood. The Louisiana-born, Texas-raised Shreveport resident admits she often spent up to three hours getting ready for her four-hour shift waitressing at Red Lobster, saying, “It was like putting on a show for customers.”
The time and effort were worth it, though; Red Lobster guests loved her hair and makeup looks as much as she loved creating them. But as much as she loved impressing the tables in her section at the seafood restaurant chain’s Atlanta location, Bennett knew she couldn’t stay there forever. She began considering her next steps when her mother made a comment that changed her world.
“She said, ‘Meka, you spend so much time in the mirror. Too bad you don’t get paid for it,’” Bennett recalls. “And that’s when the lightbulb went off.”
It hadn’t dawned on her until then that people would pay money for hair and makeup services. What would it look like to get paid to do the things she already spent so much time doing, the then-single mother of two wondered?
Motivated by her mother’s words and the compliments she often received on her appearance, Bennett enrolled at Fayette Beauty Academy in Fayetteville, Georgia, to try turning her hobby into a profession. Once she started classes, it clicked: this is what she was meant to do.
Bennett was determined to start her career as quickly as possible, so she breezed through the program quickly, taking on every extra credit opportunity available to finish early.
“That was the most amazing feeling I ever had,” she says of finishing cosmetology school, “because I felt like I had accomplished something huge.”
Between working at a salon in the mall and creating makeup looks for herself, the newly-licensed beautician had created a name for herself locally. Things were going well, yet deep down, Bennett felt sure she was destined for more.
“I felt God tell me, ‘If you want bigger and better, you have to move because you have to challenge yourself; you have to step out on faith,’” she says. “And then I was like, where am I going to move? I’m in Atlanta; it’s popping, busy, and great.”
Deciding where to go turned out to be easier than Bennett thought it would be. She sat her boys at the table, unfolded a map, and instructed them to close their eyes and point to a location while she did the same. When she opened her eyes, the choice was clear, she says, “We all pointed at the same place, and it was California.”
Bennett didn’t know anyone in the Golden State, nor had she ever been there to visit. Despite this and her concerned family members urging her to reconsider, she bought one-way tickets to California for her sons and her.
One by one, doors opened for Bennett in California. She found a job at a salon near her home. A client, moved by her story, decided to give Bennett her car. While on a routine trip to MAC Cosmetics to replenish her makeup supply, Bennett was recruited to work as a freelancer for the company. These instances proved the stirring in her soul she’d felt in Atlanta was spot-on; there was indeed more for her.
“I was so fulfilled,” Bennett gushes. “I was in my element. I had hair clients coming to the MAC counter to get makeup and makeup clients coming to the salon to get hair. Next thing you know, I was busy. I truly enjoyed it.”
MAC Cosmetics was impressed with the work the booked and busy artist was doing for the company. So much so that they sent her on her first celebrity gig, an assignment with the pop group Danity Kane. That job, Bennett says, was the launching pad for her career.
Now, at the time of this article’s writing, Bennett has been in business for 22 years. During this time, she has done makeup and hair for celebrities, private clients, and on photo sets, including about nine years’ worth of fashion shoots for BayouLife. She stays busy and is always on the move, traveling all over the world to work. Surprisingly, she says most of her opportunities come from word-of-mouth referrals.
“I don’t even own business cards, and I don’t have a website,” she says.
However, what she does have is a passion for her work and a desire to serve everyone she encounters well.
“I have a mentality of treating people the way I want to be treated or the way I’d want my grandma or mom to be treated,” she explains. “That’s what gives me joy: being able to be of service to a stranger and [have] them leave my presence feeling like they had a great experience. Whether you’re well-known and famous or a stay-at-home mom, you’re going to get the same treatment. That’s really important to me.”
Part of that treatment is making sure the client loves the look at the end of the process, Bennett says. The reveal — turning them to the mirror to see what she has done — is her favorite part of the process.
“I was in Arkansas for a wedding, and when I gave the bride the mirror, she looked at herself, teared up, and said, ‘Oh, my God; I’m flawless!’” she says, recalling one of her more recent gigs. “Those are my favorite words. That’s when I realize my job is done. I can go home and sleep peacefully with a smile on my face.”
For Bennett, the joy of this moment doesn’t come from knowing she changed someone’s appearance. A stellar smokey eye doesn’t indicate that she has done her job well; it’s playing a role in changing someone’s perception of themselves and boosting their confidence. That’s what Bennett loves doing, she says.
“I an honestly say I look forward to it every day,” she admits. “I look forward to meeting all these new people and leaving a lasting impression with my art.”
She listens, she explains, to what the client is saying and pays attention to how they portray themselves. That’s what helps her execute the customers’ vision, build relationships, and hold an impressively lengthy streak of satisfied clients.
Learning how to positively impact anyone who sits in her chair is just one lesson Bennett has picked up during her career, and it’s probably one she’ll share in the next phase of her professional life as she focuses more on educating other artists. Though she already teaches classes, Bennett says she sees more instruction in her future and hopes to inspire others in her industry to love their craft as much as she does.
“I feel like there needs to be more artists driven by their passion and what’s in their heart and the talent they have, not by money or being an opportunist,” she says. “I believe that when you do what you’re good at, the money and opportunity are going to come.”
The last phrase isn’t just something she believes; it’s a truth she has experienced, and her story is proof. That’s why she’s eager to share it with others.
“I want to inspire people to do what they love so [they’ll] never work a day in their life,” she says. “Everything I’m saying is true, and I live it.”