How This Makeup Artist Went from Refugee Boat to the Oscars

Courtesy of milor tran

Hung Vanngo is a makeup artist who transcends time zones. When he’s finally able to make the time for this interview, he’s about to pack yet another suitcase (for Brazil), despite having just returned from Moscow a day earlier. In 2018 alone, he traveled to Dubai, Singapore, Australia, London, and Paris — all while living between New York and Los Angeles. But when asked whether he’s tired, he swats away the question. “This is a blessing for me,” he says.

That message can seem contrived, especially in the age of #blessed selfies, but Vanngo means it in earnest.  “It’s an immigrant mentality,” he explains.  “My family never would have had a chance if it wasn’t for people giving it to us, so I’m passionate about the opportunities I have.”

Vanngo and his two siblings were born in Vietnam — but owing to poor living conditions after the end of the Vietnam War, his single mother decided she needed to find a better life for her children. With political asylum hardly a viable option, she eventually settled on a last resort: traveling by refugee boat. Without adequate funds, she was forced to put her kids before herself, paying the fare for her three children to make the voyage without her.

A hotel maid in Calgary, Canada, would be the one to give the Vanngo children the kind of life their mother dreamed of. Phung Tai Dang was volunteering for various disaster-relief organizations when she came across a photo of Vanngo with his brother and sister, who were placed in a Thai refugee camp following the near-fatal shipwreck of their boat. “She brought us to North America to live with her, and she helped us get jobs and schooling,” he recalls. “Hers is the story of how ordinary people quietly make life better for others.”

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Vanngo adapted to his new life quickly, but says he never could get a grasp on learning English. Instead, he was “always painting” and playing with colors, captivated by the fashion magazines of the ’90s (Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Allure) and the models who epitomized the era (Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington). During his studies, he heard about beauty school and was encouraged by the possibility. “In Vietnam, hair and makeup is only a career for people who weren’t able to finish school,” he says. “It’s not respectable.” But Calgary offered a fresh perspective.

After long days on the hair salon floor, Vanngo would tear through magazines for makeup looks to recreate (his favorites were by Kevyn Aucoin and François Nars), practicing on willing clients and, later, test-shoot models. The modeling agencies responded well, and word-of-mouth traveled all the way to paid advertising gigs with major clients, like the high-end department store Holt Renfrew.  Within a few short years, Vanngo had made a name for himself in Canada.

RELATED | Hung Vanngo's 12 Easy Essentials for Glowing, Photo-Ready Skin

But it wasn’t enough. “I visited New York for the first time, and I told myself, ‘This is where I need to be,’” he says. Four years later, Vanngo’s agent would acquire the visa needed for him to move to New York City. After a short time working on commercial projects, the eagle-eyed agents at the legendary agency The Wall Group requested a meeting. Vanngo has since become one of the most in-demand makeup artists on their roster.

He now has an army of Vanngo Girls, including Selena Gomez, Emily Ratajkowski, and Rose Byrne. His makeup is so sought after that it immediately prompts a close-up selfie from its wearers, with Vanngo carefully tagged in each image. His body of work — viral makeup artistry, if you will — has earned him over one million Instagram followers.

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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“Clients ask for me when they want to be bold with their looks,” he explains. And yet, Vanngo still has his signatures — you can spot his work as soon as it hits the red carpet. He’s particularly famous for a “snatched eye,” as seen on Jennifer Lawrence at last year’s Oscars. His other go-to is incandescent, glowing skin, the result of a complicated cocktail of multiple highlighters and an ultra-disciplined skin ritual.

Beyond booking the best clients and creating looks for magazine covers, Vanngo is mostly reticent about his accomplishments — except for one. “In my culture, my mother wouldn’t be happy about my doing makeup, especially as a guy,” he says. “We sponsored her to come live in Canada, but she’s a lot older, so she doesn’t necessarily follow all that I do.” So when Vanngo was honored at last year’s InStyle Awards as Makeup Artist of the Year, he decided to bring his mother to show her a bit of his world. At the end of the ceremony, she planted a kiss right on the center of his forehead. “She didn’t say ‘I’m proud of you,’ but she didn’t need to,” Vanngo says. “It was the highlight of my career so far.” 

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