It’s been quite a journey for beauty artist Hung Vanngo, who went from living in a refugee camp to keying runway shows in New York, where he now works. He emigrated from Vietnam to Canada at age 11; since then, he has made a name for himself in Toronto and the United States, doing editorial, runway and advertising jobs. You’ll find his imprint in fashion magazines ranging from Elle to GQ, and on the famous faces of Nelly Furtado, Renée Zellweger, Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny. In anticipation of his appearance at the International Make-Up Artist Trade Show in Toronto this November, we asked him about his work, his life, his artistic leanings and his travels.

Make-Up Artist: So, how old were you when you moved from Vietnam to Canada?

Hung Vanngo: I moved to Canada when I was 11 years old. But when I was 8, I escaped from Vietnam in a boat with my brother and sister and a bunch of other people. My mother and two other sisters stayed behind. We just traveled to Thailand, but had to wait 24 hours to be let in. Then we lived for three years in a refugee camp. Some people had to stay much longer.

MA: That must have been really difficult. Were your siblings older than you, at least?

HVN: My brother was a year older and my sister seven years older.

MA: So she was 18 when you got to Canada. Did she work to support you? How did you get by?

HVN: It’s different in Canada. There’s national health care, and the government gives you money to help pay expenses so you can go to school. My sister worked part-time jobs, and when we were old enough, so did my brother and I.

MA: Was it hard for you to learn the language?  Was it much of a culture shock?

HVN: It was a culture shock at first, but I adapted quickly. I think it’s different when you immigrate at an older age. Eleven is still pretty young. One thing I didn’t master was the language; I’m more of a visual person. I’ve still got an accent, but hearing my brother speak, you’d never know he was from Asia.

MA: Your biography says that you spent a lot of time drawing and painting as a child. Was that in Vietnam, or did you start once in Canada?

HVN: I started to paint when I was really young in Vietnam—my mother let us all pick something we wanted to do and I chose painting. I took private lessons from six to eight, but that was a luxury we couldn’t afford once we left Vietnam, unfortunately. But now, because of my work, every day is like painting. I just use human canvases. Even when I was a child, I was always painting faces, never anything like landscapes.

MA: When did you first develop an interest in make-up?

HVN: I started hairdressing school two days after I graduated from high school. In Calgary, where we lived, you don’t hear of many people making a living doing make-up, so I didn’t even consider it. There was a make-up station at the first salon I worked at, and I played with make-up on friends and co-workers whenever I had the chance. I fell in love with doing make-up more and more each time I played with it at the salon.

MA: So how did you transition from hair to make-up?

HVN: In my second year working at the salon, I began contacting photographers and modeling agencies in Calgary to do tests for their models’ portfolios. Slowly, photographers and the agencies recommended me for local magazines and advertising clients. I never had to assist anyone.

MA: What was your first solo job? How did you get your agent?

HVN: I really enjoyed doing freelancing work and realized if I want to do it as a full-time career, I had to relocate to a bigger city. There [was] not enough work there; I need to be in a market that [has] lots of opportunities for creativity.

I visited New York City and right away, I knew that’s where I wanted to be, but I had a very small and weak portfolio, not enough tear sheets. A friend of mine suggested that I should try Toronto. I took the advice, thinking I have nothing to lose really, so I quit my job in the salon and moved to Toronto. I went to see all the agencies and they were all very iffy about taking me in. Finally I joined a modeling agency in Toronto which also represents hair and make-up artists.

My first paying job that I got from that agency was a catalogue for Sears, I believe.

MA: What other clients did you work for in Toronto?

HVN: All of the local magazines, Elle Canada, Flare. So many ad clients: [Department store] Holt Renfrew, for whom I still work, [fashion retailer] Le Chateau, Danier Leather. I was in Toronto for three years; you go there so you can get enough experience to move to New York.

MA: How was it when you finally got to New York? Was it tough to break in?

HVN: So far in my career, I’ve been really lucky. When you move to a new market, any market, you have to start all over again. In Calgary it was a small market—everyone knew my work. In Toronto, the big agencies didn’t want to sign me up at first. It was the same in New York, but after a year, agencies came to me. You just have to say, ‘I’m going to work really hard and make it.’ You’ll have to go through that wherever you go.

That first year in New York, I called agencies, photographers … and I flew back to Canada every couple of weeks to make money! It’s only an hour flight to Toronto. If you’re determined, you can make it work.

MA: When we first spoke, you were in the midst of New York Fashion week. That is so fantastic. Do you do a lot of runway?

HVN: I key a few shows for New York Fashion Week for each season and some shows throughout the year. I love doing shows also, but we don’t do that very often. Fashion weeks are twice a year and the rest of the time, I’m mainly doing print work.

MA: Which designers have you worked for?

HVN: When I first moved to New York, I asked the people at M.A.C. to help put me in a big show. I’d never assisted before New York, but I wanted to see how the big make-up artists worked. I was part of the team on shows such as Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Badgley Mischka, Temperley London. The shows that I keyed make-up for in the past few seasons are Ports 1961, Jeremy Laing, Paul Hardy, Liz McClean, Patrik Ervell, Michael Bastian, Erro …

MA: Tell me about the looks you created this season. What’s coming down the runway?

HVN: This year, I did three shows. It’s all about beautiful skin; very, very soft. One of the designers is Rad Hourani. His clothes are very unisex, so I made the models look beautiful without looking like they were wearing a lot of make-up. You go along with the looks the designer is showing. It’s not like you just say, ‘I want to do a crazy eye.’ But you know that.

MA: Are there a lot of differences between working in America and Canada?

HVN: There is definitely a way bigger market in the U.S. than Canada for the type of work I do. There are more opportunities here. In Canada, we do mainly national magazines and commercial clients. In New York City, we do magazines and clients from all over [the] world.

MA: Do you travel a lot for location shoots, or do mainly studio shoots in New York?

HVN: It’s about 50/50. I’ll be gone most of November on location. In fall and winter, you travel more than you do in summer. You know, when it gets colder here, we just shoot in warmer places.

MA: Where are you going in November?

HVN: Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve never been.  I’m very excited!

MA: What have been your favorite, or most memorable, jobs?

HVN: I was in Tokyo for 10 days for an advertising client. We only shot in the evening, so every day we had time to check out the city. It was more like a vacation for me.

MA: Any dream clients, photographers, models you’d like to work with?

HVN: I appreciate all the clients [and] photographers who hired me for work. There are many other clients, photographers [and] models that I’d like to work with, but I’d rather not mention names!

MA: Is there someone in the industry you admire?

HVN: I love the work of a make-up artist named Val Garland. She’s based in London.

MA: What is it about her work that you like so much?

HVN: Well, she’s not famous like Pat McGrath, she’s not that well-known. Her work is never … she never does anything really, really crazy. She can do a heavy, dark eye but it doesn’t look like a tranny, you know? You’re never staring at the photo thinking, ‘Who is this model?’ She doesn’t cover up the model, turn her into something else. I’d never do that, either. There’s a way to show the beauty beneath the make-up. That’s the whole idea. I love the face. She’s got the same aesthetic … and she came from a hairdressing background, too!

MA: How would you describe this aesthetic?

HVN: My make-up usually leans towards lighter, radiant skin.

MA: What products are you using to get skin radiant?

HVN: It’s not just a product, it’s a process. I like to start clean, I take everything off. If the model or actress comes in with moisturizer, lip balm, eye cream on, I take it off. It’s very important to ‘gut’ the skin. Then I put on a moisturizer. You prep the skin really well, and everything goes on easily.

MA: What moisturizers do you prefer?

HVN: Crème de la Mer. Embryolisse is a French cream that make-up artists love, but it’s difficult to find here [in North America]. It’s got no scent, it just moisturizes. It’s perfect under make-up and no one is allergic to it.

MA: How do you keep up with trends and techniques in the industry?

HVN: We are the artists who do shows, editorials, so realistically, we are the people who help to create the trends of the season. But I also read lots of fashion magazines, playing with new products and trying different looks on models when we do editorials.

MA: What are your favorite looks right now?

HVN: My favorite looks change depending on the face I am working on. But classic looks with a modern twist are usually my favorite.