You know when you just meet someone and know they’re a star? That was me, in Tucson, Arizona, this past April, for the fourth year of Benefit Cosmetics’ Brow Search, their annual nationwide makeup-artist competition to find the best in brows. Abby Wren was one of 24 finalists picked from nearly 3,000 entries to be an Arch Outlaw on Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, AZ. Wren is a makeup artist and alopecia awareness activist, having lost her hair in high school and embraced by nearly 180k followers on TikTok and 126k on Instagram, with her colourful, wacky, fascinating approach to makeup. And it’s not just all an aesthetic, either — the same kind, generous Wren you see on the internet was the first person to greet me, with the same amount of warmth, grace, and openness. That’s an art form, in my opinion — and straight away, I knew I was in for a fantastic and fun week of yeeing, hawing, and brow artistry.
The 24 finalists found themselves being coached by three of the biggest names in beauty: ILuvSarahii, Chloe Morello and MannyMUA, through four days of arch adventures and quick-draw competition hosted by Benefit Cosmetics’s Global Brow Expert, Jared Bailey, and the brand’s Director of Brand Outreach + Brand Ambassador, Maggie Ford Danielson. The goal of Brow Search is to boost and foster the next generation of aspiring makeup artists, all competing for $50,000 (approximately £39,692). The competition was real: The finalists had to make, edit, and post a ranch-inspired video, compete in an obstacle course, and do some archery, both on their brow arches and with a bow and arrow. The trip culminated in Wren’s crowning — giant, pink check and everything — and a bountiful time to celebrate. I, as a member of the press, and an uninvolved observer, may have said, "If Abby doesn’t win, I riot at dawn," but I’m not claiming I had any form of power or decision making here, just a gentle prod here and there. The brow competition winner without eyebrows: You can’t get much better than that, can you?
Regardless, I couldn’t turn down the chance to talk to Wren herself about winning Brow Search, her journey as a makeup artist, and how she may have had the best spring 2022 of any makeup artist on Earth.
Talk me through how you got here, your story as a makeup artist.
My story starts back in my tiny hometown of Polson, Montana where I grew up. I lost all of my hair to the autoimmune disease Alopecia Totalis back in 2006, right before entering my freshman year of high school, and it was devastating. The condition causes my immune system and white blood cells to accidentally attack hair follicles, resulting in hair loss. After losing my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows, I struggled to find new ways of expressing my femininity, so makeup really became that outlet for me and grew into my greatest passion. I went on to get my B.A. degree in Psychology and Art in college, then on to study editorial makeup artistry at JCI Institute in Vancouver, B.C., Canada a few years later.
After finishing school, I worked in Denver, Colorado as a freelance makeup artist, and that's where I really got my hands dirty in the industry. I took every job that I could get, from assisting other artists, doing bridal makeup, fashion and runway shows, editorial shoots, creative makeup — if it involved makeup artistry of any kind, I did it. That first year, I even remember taking my business cards around town and dropping them off by hand at bridal shops, Quinceañera shops, and production companies, in hopes of getting hired and to get my name out there.
Since then, it's been a wild evolution: My fiancé, Wade, and I moved out to Los Angeles and things really started to change from there. I started to open up about my story online through social media, and began sharing a lot more about my experience losing my hair to alopecia. I found that a lot of other people actually had the same challenges with the condition, but so many people wear wigs and try to cover it, rather than embrace it. In 2019, I stopped working on clients, and started creating bold makeup looks on my own face, using my bald head as my canvas to spread awareness about Alopecia, and how important I feel it is to embrace any circumstances that make us 'different.' Every single part of that crazy journey led me here to where we are today!
What's it like to be the winner of a brow competition, especially as an alopecia activist who, well, doesn't have them?
It still feels a bit surreal, honestly. For so long, I valued myself less because of my alopecia — for years and years, I struggled with confidence, and actually hid my hair loss behind hats and hair extensions out of fear that someone would find out about my alopecia. Now, being able to take back my power and share my journey through makeup — it's been the greatest gift of my life to grow into having that perspective. Winning this competition means everything to me. My hope is that sharing my story might reach someone else facing their own unique challenges, and hopefully it gives them courage and confidence to embrace and really love what makes them different.
What was your favorite memory from Benefit Brow Search?
Oh gosh, how could I ever choose just one moment?! There were so many unforgettable memories that we all made together throughout the week. One of my favourites was being able to share my story and my mission on stage with the other top three finalists [Maria Fassrainer and Miguelangel Vivas], and hearing them call my name on that final night. That moment will stay with me forever. Just knowing that my community showed up to support me, that the iconic judges and Benefit believed in me enough to get that far in the competition.. it still blows my mind. Everything came together at that moment and I'll remember and cherish it for the rest of my life. Core memory, made.
Okay, but everyone was saying you have the most incredible proposal story, making your Brow Search win just an extra-special cherry on top of a fantastic few months for you — can you tell us about it?
Oh my gosh, yes!! My amazing man — still getting used to saying fiancé! — Wade proposed just a few weeks before the trip, so it was incredibly special to celebrate with my new Benefit family and all of my new friends at the competition! Wade and I met almost five years ago in Vancouver, while I was going to makeup school there and he was in Victoria, British Columbia on a work project. He slid into my DMs after seeing my pictures on Instagram and said that he wanted to meet. We're both originally from Montana, so I figured, Hey… Montana guys are usually good people, sure, let's meet!
But he couldn't find a way to get from the island where he was in Victoria to Vancouver. The ferry was fully booked that day, and the little, prop planes weren't available that day. But he had all of his camera gear with him for work, so he pitched a helicopter company on the spot and convinced them to give him a ride to Vancouver in exchange for making them a marketing video chronicling his journey to meet me! For some crazy reason they agreed, and he flew over in the helicopter to meet me later that day. We fell for each other almost instantly, and went on to move to L.A. together soon after.
Five years later, in March of 2022, I got an email from my old makeup school asking me to teach a makeup workshop back in Vancouver, and I was so excited as I hadn't been back to Vancouver since I graduated makeup school and moved to L.A. Wade told me that he had a career-defining meeting the same day of my workshop, so he couldn't come with me to Vancouver. I was obviously super bummed, as that city was so special to us and our story, but I flew up to teach the workshop on my own.
So here I am, just finishing up my presentation that day, and I ask the class, "Does anyone have any last questions for me?" Wade comes bursting through the door, gets down on one knee in front of the entire class, pulls out a ring box with the most incredible black-diamond ring, and says, "I actually have a question for you!" I about choked on my water, I was so surprised, and it was without a doubt the best day of my life. Of course I said, YES! I swear I fall more in love with this man every single day, and he's the light of my entire life. I can't wait to be Mrs. Holland!
What advice do you have for aspiring makeup artists, both for beginners or those looking to build relationships with brands and clients and build a social-media presence?
My biggest advice is to stay true to who you authentically are, work relentlessly hard, and be kind. Life has a funny way of steering us in lots of different directions, but I've found that if you pour your heart and soul into doing what you love and find a way to give back to others, everything seems to work out ok in the long run.
I've personally found that by sharing my story and my work through social media, I'm able to connect with a community that I didn't even know existed before. Not only that, but now I'm able to be a leader for that community, and lift up others through my artistry and hopefully make a difference in their experience with alopecia. I never knew anyone who looked like me growing up in my small hometown; I felt like a complete alien.
If you had asked 15-year-old me, losing my hair back in high school, where I'd be at age 30, there's no way I'd be able to predict my life the way it is now. And that's the best, most beautiful part about life. You just have to stay in the fucking saddle, hold on tight, and try to do some good for others along the way. That's it.