In her new memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama writes about her "trifecta," the three-person glam squad she credits for giving her the confidence to appear in public each day as first lady, and who knew "that a slip-up would lead to a flurry of ridicule and nasty comments." There was Meredith Koop, the fashion stylist, Johnny Wright, the lively hairstylist, and Carl Ray, the makeup artist Obama describes in the book as "soft-spoken and meticulous."
Speaking over the phone with Refinery29 in between book tour stops with Obama, Ray admits the opportunity came to him as a complete surprise. One day in 2009, about six months after the inauguration, an email from Obama's team simply popped into his inbox, asking him if he'd like to audition to be the first lady's makeup artist. At the time, he was the resident makeup artist at The Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., painting the faces of socialites, brides, politicians, and musicians alike. "At first I thought it was a joke," Ray says. "Like, Oh, come on. From the White House? But then I wrote them back, and then I started to get really nervous."
The audition took place at the White House (naturally), where Ray was given a few pictures that Obama liked of herself before she walked into the room, sat down, and let Ray get to work. "I remember saying a little prayer," Ray says. "Going upstairs to the residence, it was surreal. But then she came in, and we just started to giggle a little. We got along immediately, and really the rest is history."
After calling Ray back in a few times for events, Obama's team finally said they'd love for him to join her squad, and since then he's been in charge of her makeup for every single major event and appearance, from state dinners to speeches to trips abroad. "There’s times when she won’t even look in the mirror when I’m done, that’s how much she trusts me," Ray says. "She doesn’t give me any guidance. She tells me what she’s wearing, like jeans or a dress, and then I do my thing."
For Ray, the highlights of their time together are the quiet moments ahead of big events, where it's just him and Obama talking about their lives. There was also that time Ray did Obama's makeup in Buckingham Palace before she met the Queen, and the time he had to paint her face on the way to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, on a plane that was so rocky that Obama had to help keep his hands steady as he applied lipliner. Oh, and he's done Barack Obama's makeup plenty of times, too, gliding on some ChapStick and powder, grooming his brows, and making sure there were no razor nicks in sight before big events.
For most of her time as first lady, Obama's makeup had to be kept relatively uniform to avoid what she'd call a "slip-up." The only times Ray could really go bold were for trips abroad, when they'd use makeup to honor the different cultures they were in, whether that be a peach lip in Cuba or black eyeliner in India. Now that she's not living in the White House, Ray and Obama have been able to play with what he calls "fresher" makeup looks. And if you've seen her these past few weeks, like on the cover of Essence or on a book tour stop, you can tell she is undoubtedly radiant.
There’s times when she won’t even look in the mirror when I’m done, that’s how much she trusts me.
So, of course we had to ask him just what is creating that glow. Ray first credits the fact that Obama is now far more relaxed as a former FLOTUS, but also told us that she loves skin-care products from her facialist Jennifer Brodeur (whose other equally famous client is Oprah). She's specifically a fan of her Peoni line, which you can buy in its entirety right now for $395, on sale from its usual $500.
Thankfully, Ray's go-to skin care for clients is substantially cheaper; he loves both Kiehl's Ultra Facial Cream ($30), and Cetaphil ($8.99) for cleansing. As for makeup, he's not devoted to one brand, but favors Make Up For Ever Ultra HD Invisible Cover Foundation, Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer, and Fenty Beauty Mattemoiselle Lipsticks. (He couldn't tell us the exact highlighter he uses on Obama, unfortunately.)
After nearly 10 years working with one of the most recognizable women on the planet, Ray says he has three takeaways: Never be late, plan for the worst, and ultimately, believe in yourself and your dreams. "Before I got the offer to audition, I really put it out there in my mind [and] the universe that I wanted to do her makeup," Ray says. "I live in D.C., and who’d be the best person? Of course, it's her. And that's the power of following your heart."