Confessions Of A Body Painter

Photo courtesy of: Athena Zhe.
The following is an interview with Athena Zhe, body painter, FX artist, and owner and CEO of Athena Entertainment. She was also a contestant on SyFy's Face Off. As told to Fawnia Soo Hoo.

I was managing a couple of health-food stores before I started body-painting. I had this lady come in one day; she was a face painter and she always saw me painting menu boards. One day, she approached me and said, "Oh, I see you know how to paint... Can you help me do some face-painting for street fairs?" And that’s pretty much how I started. I did a couple street fairs, I got a hint of makeup and face-painting, and then, half a year later, she told me about the Face & Body Art International Convention in Florida. I went there, and I saw people doing amazing stuff, and I thought, Hey, why don’t I start body-painting now? It took off from there.

Fine Art
You have to approach body-painting from a totally different perspective than face-painting, which is primarily for children. It's an art. You work with body shapes. You implement colors to make skin tones come out or eyes pop more. Or you match the theme of whatever the model's wearing, or what kind of creature she wants to be. So it’s a much bigger project than spending 15 to 20 minutes painting a face. It can take as long as 10 hours, depending on how detailed it is.
Next-Level Contouring
You often see how makeup artists shape cheekbones and noses — it's the same thing with body-painting, just with bigger areas. You can make boobs look bigger very easily just by shading underneath them and giving the model painted cleavage. When you look at her, especially if you take a picture, you won’t even tell the difference. It’s amazing how much stuff you can do with paint to create optical illusions.

Dry Down
I always tell clients not to put any oil on their skin. Why? Most paints, especially the ones I use, are glycerine-based and water-activated. If there is moisture on the skin, then the paint can be compromised. For example, if I paint on dry skin, after the paint dries — which only takes about 30 seconds — then the model can touch the skin and it’s not going to come off. Meanwhile, if she puts on moisturizer underneath the body paint, the paint will be reactivated by the moisture and, if you touch the skin afterward, it can get smeared.

And definitely don’t come with wet hair. Because the water will be dripping, and it will smear the paint. Get your hair done prior.
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No Sweat
It happens very often if someone starts dancing — people sweat. That’s why I always tell them, "If you see you're sweating, just go to the side, cool off, and do not touch the paint until you're dry again." For really high-energy dance performances, I tend to use a lot of alcohol-based paint, which is a good thing and a bad thing. The good: It doesn’t rub off or smear, and stays on for a long time. The bad: It’s very hard to take it off afterward.
Photo courtesy of: Athena Zhe.
Zhe with rapper 50 Cent.
Cover Up
I prefer clients to wear pasties unless they request otherwise. If I do corporate events, they typically require wearing a bra, or even a bodysuit, and I have to paint over that. But if it's a private client, it’s really up to them. They’re hiring me to do artwork, and if they want to be without pasties, I’m totally fine with it. It's just a part of the skin, really. But you have to be much more careful with the design you pick. Let’s say you’re going to paint the model all-white, and the nipple creates a shadow and it will be really noticeable. So you create some busy textures and designs around the breast area, so you can camouflage the nipples and they’re not going to be so, you know, out in the open.
I provide G-strings as well, depending on the event and the requirements. It’s either G-strings or full panties or even booty shorts, depending. Bathing suits are fine, as well — all in nude colors. And with the underwear, I actually glue it onto the sides so it doesn't shift while the model is walking around — otherwise, you can see the bare skin underneath.

Or Don't
For some private clients, the models don't need to wear underwear at all. And, like painting the nipple, you want to try to camouflage that area. But also, don’t just paint it all-black. You want to create lines or abstract designs...so it will look nice and beautiful.
You Might Want To Shave
It makes applying body paint easier.
Free Ball
No matter how much you camouflage them, you will still be able to see men’s parts. To be honest, I rarely do men. Sometimes, if clients want to do it for their own photo shoots — it’s very popular for gay men's magazines — I do some of that. You paint it to match with whatever theme you're going for. I always use airbrush for those cases.

Bedside Manner
I’ve painted so many people that I look at them almost like a doctor would look at patients. If you see the models are insecure, you go slower and you make them feel more comfortable. Especially if the model is shy, you will start by painting her face or her arm, and she still has her clothes on until it’s time to get to other areas. Of course, you don’t want to throw out any naughty jokes. Keep it as professional as possible.
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Strange Requests
The weirdest was probably during Fantasy Fest in Key West on Halloween. It was actually the beginning of my career. This guy came in — he had a big belly, and he’s like, "Can you paint an alien on my belly and write on it, 'one in the oven?'" So I’m like, "Okay, no problem." I get some wild and crazy body-painting requests, so it wasn’t really a big deal. But the unique part about it was: He came in two days later, all sweaty, and he was so proud. "Oh my god, Athena, you will not believe this. I did not take a shower for two days, because I love my body paint so much. But can you touch it up?" Yeah, that was an awkward moment. I’m sorry, the warranty is only for 24 hours!
Skin-Deep
It’s amazing what body-painting does. You can paint somebody who is in a really bad mood, and they transform into this amazing tiger or cheetah or whatever you paint on the person. I’ve been body-painted a few times, and I always get a kick out of it because I don't feel like myself. I don't have to worry about my skirt going up, or my bra strap going down, or my belly sticking out, or my belt being too tight. I feel like I become this superhero for a few hours, and it’s an awesome feeling. Everyone should try it.
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