Growing up, Angel Merino, also known as Mac_Daddyy to his 1.4 million Instagram followers, never expected to see his own beauty products at cosmetic counters. But after facing his fears, defying Latinx cultural norms, and finding his calling, he discovered a brighter future than he imagined for himself and paved the way for more "beauty boys" in the process. The following interview was told to Thatiana Diaz and edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in an all-women household with my mom, aunt, and cousin in Riverside, California. Being Latinas, they were all about beauty with the hair and makeup. I remember going with my mom to the hair salon and being there for eight hours as she did her hair. I would also go shopping with my mom at department stores at a young age. She'd always go to the Lancôme counter and pick up her staple skin-care products. With my family, beauty has always been a thing.
That familiarity with beauty became helpful when I turned 16 and got a job coaching a competition dance team. I'd see all the other teams with amazing hair, makeup, and costumes, and our studio owner would order these generic makeup kits for the parents to do their children's makeup before competitions. Everyone showed up looking different, and I thought, This is the one thing that we're missing as a team. I'm super competitive, so I took it upon myself to start doing everyone's makeup before events. I had no clue what I was doing; I didn't even know how to hold a brush, but it was more about uniformity than the details. However, this opened the door into the world of makeup for me.
I had another part-time job working at a kiosk in the middle of the mall selling flatirons. I was that annoying guy when you're walking through the mall, saying, "Let me show you how this works." There was this guy that also worked there, who was one of the first gay people that I ever met, and he was all about the glam. I didn't have anybody to relate to in high school, and I wasn't out yet. He and I would go over to the Nordstrom beauty department during our lunch break, and we'd eventually make our way to the MAC counter. My coworker introduced me to putting makeup on myself rather than just trying to do makeup on the dancers at my other job. He showed me the ropes, and that's when I bought my first MAC Studio Fix Powder and moisturizer. I took everything home and hid it all from my mom because I wasn't out at home either.
"When [superheroes] put on their cape and mask, they have a certain role and responsibility that they take on. For me, that's how the 'Mac Daddy' persona works."
I kept the makeup in my bag, and I would go to the bathroom when I got to school to put makeup on before my third-period class. It was minimal with powder and bronzer — eventually mascara and brows. There was one gay senior that I knew about, and I would see the way he was treated, and I didn't want to deal with that, so I never admitted what everyone knew. I started secretly practicing makeup more and more on myself.
Once I graduated high school, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do — not thinking that beauty was even an option. I went to Riverside Community College, and while I was physically there, I wasn't mentally there. It was primarily to make my mom happy because she migrated to this country for better opportunities, and some Hispanic parents are all about going to college and getting a degree. But I felt like I was doing a disservice to myself being there. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew that school was not my path.
I had other friends who worked at the MAC counter at the time, and I was always so drawn to it. The most intriguing part to me was the fact that every single person was so authentically themselves. That's when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in makeup, so I dropped out of college a little shy of two years. I had a conversation with my mom, and she was so upset that she didn't talk to me for a couple of months. I know it came from a good place. She grew up in El Salvador and worked in the fields. When she migrated here at a young age, she worked at a sweatshop factory selling clothes. Our parents were instilled with the idea that there is only one way out. There's only one way to make something of yourself, and that's to go to school, get a degree, and become something traditional like a doctor or a lawyer. Nontraditional careers are things that they didn't have access to or that they even knew existed.
Still, with my eyes set on the MAC counter, I interviewed there a few times, and they turned me down for my lack of experience. But I knew a couple of the girls that worked at Nordstrom, and they got me an interview with the cosmetics team. That's when I got my first real job and left the dance team and kiosk. My job was to fill in at any counter that had employees on vacation, maternity leave, or was short-staffed, so eventually I worked at every single counter in the store.
A few years later, I got the job at the MAC counter as a permanent artist. I was finally in an environment where being unique and different was celebrated rather than frowned upon. I was showing up to work with eye looks and makeup, and I felt so empowered every single day. That's when "Mac Daddy" came alive. One evening, I remember closing the counter, and we were listening to a song that said "mac daddy," and I thought it was cute. I work at MAC, and I liked the word "daddy" as being the "daddy of makeup." I ran with it, and it took off.
Now, when I'm in my "Mac Daddy" mode, that's super glam, extra, over the top, flashy, and confident. It's become a persona for me. I describe it as a superhero. They're a regular person, but then when they put on their cape and mask, they have a certain role and responsibility that they take on. For me, that's how the "Mac Daddy" persona works. I know how to turn it on whenever I need to, and it's a dimension of me, but it's definitely not all of me.
My superhero strength was tested when I faced my biggest fear, which was coming out to my mom and the possibility of her not being OK with it. I had this fabricated idea of her shipping me away to my dad to live in El Salvador, where my dad moved back when my parents got divorced. I always say that my mom pulled me out of the closet when I was around 16 years old. On my way to a friend's birthday dinner, my mom spotted a small tear in my Guess olive green crossbody pouch — which had all my makeup in it – and she insisted on sewing it. She grabbed the bag against my wishes and found all my makeup. I was crying and finally told her that I was gay. She took it way differently than I thought and was supportive.
For my entire life up until that moment, I felt like I couldn't be myself, and not being yourself in a home environment is horrible. I finally felt relieved, but I also knew that it was something very new for my mom. It was a process. It took a lot of open communication; we've built such a strong, open dialogue ever since that day. Then my family found out, and at the beginning, it was different. I don't think people knew how to digest it, especially worrying about my safety given how society looked at the LGBTQ+ community back then. Once they started to see me develop as a person and knew what I wanted out of life, I think that gave everyone — especially my mom — a sense of security and reassurance that I would be OK.
Then, my mom ended up getting very sick. She had a stroke, and she was then in a deep depression. Going back to the days of watching her feel good after doing her hair and makeup — and how that gave her confidence and made her feel beautiful — I started doing those things for her whenever she was feeling down or wasn't feeling her best. Once I saw how transformative it was for her and how much it helped her and my relationship with her, it validated my career even more.
Beauty is so transformative and empowering, and it just makes people feel good internally — for myself, too. When I was going into high school, I was getting made fun of and picked on all the time for being different. I dealt with many fat jokes and people saying, "You're fat and gay." I turned to applying my Studio Fix in the bathroom before going to class to make myself feel better. That's when I knew: This is something that I want to pursue as an actual career — and that's what I did.
While I was working at MAC, one of my friends told me about an app called Instagram. I started posting photos of my clients' before-and-afters, and they were getting lots of attention. At this point, my skills had improved a lot. We would also receive new product launches at work, and I'd go into the stock room to take photos and do swatches. My Instagram account took off, and I built an audience.
I was at the counter one day, and this girl walked in and recognized me and freaked out. I was so confused, but it made me realize, Wow, I think this will become greater than it is now. And it did. I was getting hired via direct messages on Instagram, and my career as a makeup artist went to the next level as I began freelancing. I got so busy that I left my day job at MAC; I knew that I needed to take a chance on myself.
While freelancing, I would find myself having to mix four or five different highlighters to get the impact or look that I wanted. This struggle inspired me to create my own brand. I felt like there were so many things lacking in my makeup kit, and I knew I needed to fill that void. I remember sitting in front of my computer and googling, How do you create makeup? How do you start a brand? That's when I found labs in California, and I was just cold-calling them, trying to get information and schedule meetings. Once I figured out the amount of money that I needed, I started saving. I was even crashing on my friend's couch in Los Angeles to save on rent.
Then, I came up with the concept of a makeup class tour because I had this growing audience on social media. At the time, I had around 300,000 followers from all over the country. We called it the Flawless Faces Makeup Tour, and I toured 12 different cities around the country. We would rent out a Westin hotel ballroom with just two small light umbrellas, a couple of pop-up banners, and the brands that I started to work with on social media, who would also sponsor it. Surprisingly, we were selling out of 50 to 75 seats at every tour stop. I took all of the money that I made on that tour, and invested it into creating my brand: Artist Couture. I took all the product photos myself and bought a generic website template. For the launch in 2014, I completely sold out on my pre-sale and eventually landed in a major retailer.
In looking to my culture and how that's impacted me, I'm inspired by how hardworking my community is. My mom's upbringing and her parents working in fields and her migrating here and working in a sweatshop — the work ethic and drive are instilled in me. Not only do we work hard, day in and day out, but we're always lending a helping hand to a family member or friend.
Now, as a brand founder and content creator, I would definitely say investing in yourself and believing in yourself — while staying true to your roots — is the best thing that you can do. So many people wait for the "right time" to take that leap of faith. There's never going to be the right time. You have to push yourself over the edge to achieve your dreams. I want to continue trailblazing, advocating, and putting myself out there so that it's a lot easier for the younger generation to find themselves and to feel like they belong — because we all do.
Latinidad is ever-evolving. It cannot be defined by a blanket term or monolithic idea. That's why it's important to look at its future with respect to its past and present — and that's our mission. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29 Somos and Latinx Heritage Month, we'll explore the unique conversations and challenges that affect these communities.