Rokael Lizama started his career grooming men like Drake and Kanye West. And now, he's an in-demand makeup artist for A-list celebrities like Beyoncé, the Kardashians, and Mariah Carey. When we asked about the pivot in his career, he confidently says, "It was my destiny to be doing makeup."
For Hispanic Heritage Month, the Mexican-El Salvadoran makeup artist shares the journey, from homelessness to entrepreneurship, that led him to build relationships with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Plus, he shares a powerful message to the Latinx community. The following interview was told to Thatiana Diaz and edited for length and clarity.
An Unpopular Choice
I moved from Mexico to the United States around the age of five. Growing up, I always loved anything that had to do with transformation. I loved seeing people come to life by just changing their hairstyle or their makeup. I also used to love those makeover television shows; I was obsessed with this one series on MTV that was called Becoming. There, I saw the power of makeup, hair, and wardrobe, and I just knew that I wanted to do something with that.
My parents didn't accept my career choice at the beginning. Most Latinx parents want you to have a stable career, like becoming a lawyer or a doctor. We all need doctors and lawyers, but for me, I felt I was going to make much more of an impact creating makeup or hair looks. I knew it was a calling that I had to fulfil, regardless of what my parents thought. My mom would say, "You're investing too much money buying makeup, and you're making nothing."
"No matter where you come from and how hard it may seem, things can turn around in a second. You just don't know what could be right around the corner."
At the time, I was living in my car in L.A. My mom offered to pay for me to go back to a different college and pick another path because "makeup was not working out for me." I'm so glad I didn't listen. I love my mom, and if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be where I am — but I just knew I had it in me, that I was meant to be doing this. We all have to pay our dues, and I knew that in the long run my parents would see that and appreciate the work that I was putting in.
A Change Of Heart
When I started working around the age of 19, I was applying to jobs as a hairstylist, and I got my license in hair grooming. I groomed Drake when he came out with his first album; I was also grooming Kanye West, Diddy, and Ray J. Hair was something that I was passionate about at first. Then I ended up leaving hair completely and switched to makeup.
I felt like I had more of an impact on the person in front of me with makeup in comparison to hair. I would see these clients morph into another person, and I loved having something to do with that. That's how I knew it was such a powerful art. Hair is very important as well. But with makeup, you can add a smoky eye or lashes, and a person sees themselves in a different light. They're left like, "Wow, I never knew I could look like that." That was more powerful to me.
My break came when I was working with Lilly Ghalichi. Lilly knew my situation — at the time I was living in my car — and she was like, "Look, I'm traveling all the time, why don't you just stay with me?" We became roommates and we did a trade-off: I would pay her in makeup services, and in return, I lived with her in her apartment. I went from living in my Mazda to a beautiful penthouse in West Hollywood. This was an important part to my story because it's proof that no matter where you come from and how hard it may seem, things can turn around in a second. You just don't know what could be right around the corner.
Turning The Corner
In doing Lilly's makeup for Shahs of Sunset, we were going so over the top, and people were noticing that. I started to get calls from celebrities like former Spice Girl Mel B, and I worked with her a lot. Then, she introduced me to Kim Kardashian — so I was in with the Kardashians. And soon, I started working with La La Anthony. She happened to be with Kelly Rowland one time while preparing for a red carpet event, and Kelly asked me, "Can you do my mom's makeup?" I thought she meant her biological mom. I show up, and it's actually Beyoncé's mom, Tina Knowles. It was not who I was expecting in the makeup chair. From there, Knowles said, "You should work with my daughter," and the next thing I know, I was getting calls from Beyoncé's team.
I've been working with Beyoncé on and off since 2015, being brought on to things where she needs me. There came a time when she felt like I should come on tour [and he's currently doing Beyoncé's makeup for On The Run II]. She's very involved in everything she does, especially anything that has to do with her image. Anything she is working on, it's basically her doing. The biggest lesson I've learned from B is work ethic, to always challenge yourself and really take yourself to a place where you haven't been yet.
From Dreams To Reality
I feel like I've gotten to accomplish a lot of my dreams. But my dreams from when I first started are definitely different from present-day. I'm working on a makeup brand, and I can't wait to see it come to life, and see everybody wearing my products.
Latinx people are very hardworking — and that's a great quality to have — but people tend to take advantage of that sometimes, especially in the [political] climate that we're in. In this business, you will be told "no" so many times, you will be turned down, and you will be rejected in many different ways. My biggest piece of advice is that you can't listen to any of that, because at the end of the day, who you are meant to be is who you are going to end up being, as long as you work hard.
It doesn't matter what you look like or what your cultural background is, we all have gifts that we're meant to share with the world. That's what I strive for everyday: To make myself proud and make my culture proud.