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For the former Calgarian, big dreams and a fighting spirit fuelled his rise in the celebrity economy

If Hung Vanngo is coming to your dinner party, you better not be running late. The sought-after makeup artist, most recognized for his work with celebrities such as Julianne Moore, Selena Gomez and the Jennifers (Lawrence, Lopez, Aniston), is also well known for being extremely punctual – in the rare case he’s not early for a job, his clients immediately start to worry. “They’ll call me or my agency because they think something is wrong,” says Vanngo, laughing. (For the record, he sets two alarms, and refuses to hit the snooze button.)

Keeping a close eye on the clock comes with the territory when your work requires crossing time zones as often as Vanngo does. When he’s not heading to places such as Brazil, Dubai, Singapore and Australia, he’s a regular on red eye flights between Los Angeles and his home in New York, getting his clients camera ready for everything from film premieres and photo shoots to the Met Ball, and of course the red carpet.

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Makeup artist Hung VanngoSofia & Mauro/Handout

Similar to accountants in April, celebrity makeup artists work overtime during award season, which is traditionally bookended by the Golden Globes in January and the Academy Awards in March. For Vanngo, the celebrity frenzy’s overlap with fashion month’s parties and runway shows in London, Paris and Milan, makes it the perfect storm.

But the artist has weathered plenty of those to get to where he is in his career. The chaos doesn’t faze Vanngo – who also paints faces for editorials in magazines such as Vogue and Elle and ad campaigns for luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin. “In order to be successful in the world I’m in, you have to have health, strength and endurance,” he says, pointing out that a lot of people can’t deal with the intense pace. “My mom had six children and is a single mother. I saw how hard she worked. I think everyone in my family, we all have that kind of work ethic.”

Born in Vietnam, Vanngo began his career in Canada, after a harrowing journey to get here. Faced with political turmoil and poor living conditions caused by the Vietnam War, his mother used the money she had saved up to put her three youngest children – Vanngo and his sister and brother – on a tiny migrant boat. His mother, who stayed behind, thought her children were destined for the U.S., but things didn’t go according to plan, and they ended up on the shores of Thailand, where Vanngo and his siblings nearly died walking through a mudflat, before locals came to their rescue.

For the next three years, they lived in a Thai refugee camp where they spent their nights sleeping on a concrete floor, uncertain about their future. It wasn’t until a disaster relief volunteer in Calgary saw their photograph and decided to sponsor the children that his mother’s dream started to come to fruition. Vanngo and his siblings arrived in Canada shortly after.

As a teen, Vanngo remembers hanging out in his high-school library, reading back issues of fashion magazines. He was fascinated by the nineties supermodels, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen among them (both of whom he now counts as clients), and their gorgeous faces, perfected by famed makeup artists such as Kevyn Aucoin and Francois Nars.

A few of Vanngo's famous clients, clockwise from top left, Julie Garner, Jodie Turner-Smith, Karlie Kloss, and Selena Gomez. Photos courtesy of Hung Vanngo

He filled notebooks with human faces, sketching cheekbones, lips and eyes, sharpening his skills for a career he didn’t yet know he could pursue. After briefly going to hairstylist school, he worked at a local salon. But after playing with the cosmetics station at the salon, and practising on clients, he decided to pursue becoming a makeup artist.

He moved to Toronto in 2003, taking whatever jobs he could. Word of his talent travelled, eventually earning him steady work with Holt Renfrew, Canadian fashion label Lida Baday and Flare magazine. For many, the success story would end there. But Vanngo knew he wanted to end up in New York, and in 2006, after securing his visa, he made the leap. But that also meant starting fresh again, in a city where the talent pool was much larger.

“You hear so many stories of makeup artists who move to New York and then move back because they didn’t make it,” he says. “You have to make sacrifices.” When everyone else was working five days a week, Vanngo pushed himself to work seven. If he didn’t have a job booked, he’d be on standby, makeup kit packed and ready, in case his agency called looking for someone to fill in when a more established artist didn’t show up or was late. He did this all while flying to Toronto several times a month for gigs with his Canadian clients to help pay for his living expenses.

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Hung Vanngo with Jennifer Lopez.

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Emily Ratajkowski with makeup artist Hung Vanngo (right) and hair stylist Harry Josh.Photos courtesy of Hung Vanngo

His big break was around the corner, though. In a full circle moment, he ended up on a cover shoot in 2009 with supermodel Helena Christensen for Numéro Tokyo magazine, a much lauded publication among fashion insiders. On set he was introduced to Vancouver-born hairstylist Harry Josh, who Vanngo has called his guardian angel. Struck by Vanngo’s humility and passion, Josh – already a force in the industry and the genius behind Gisele Bundchen’s beachy waves – became a friend and supporter, connecting him with his network of photographers, models and stylists.

Since then, things have changed a lot in the profession. For one thing, artists like Vanngo have become almost as famous as their celebrity clients, and as public, sharing their personal lives on Instagram and TikTok. But Vanngo has been famously low key, preferring to stay behind the camera for the most part. It took some serious coaxing from model friends such as Karlie Kloss and Emily Ratajkowski and the isolation of the pandemic, for Vanngo to finally launch his YouTube channel – @hungvanngo – in 2021.

In his inaugural video, filmed in Ratajkowski’s apartment during one of many lockdowns, the model seems to melt at Vanngo’s touch. “I haven’t had my makeup done in ages,” she sighs, as he lightly presses and massages hydrating serums and creams into her skin, a Vanngo signature, like the pristine black baseball cap he wears in every tutorial. Believe it or not, those magic hands were one of the reasons Vanngo was so camera shy in the first place. After filming an audition tape for a big beauty contract, the brand turned him down. “They said ‘we love Hung, we love his makeup and his personality, but his hands are a little too big for the camera,’” he recalls.

Fortunately, for his half a million subscribers, he didn’t let that criticism stop him from sharing his step-by-step tutorials and beauty wisdom, all delivered in a voice as soft and precise as the delicate brushes he wields.

Now that his YouTube channel is off the ground, he has ambitions to do more, such as launching his own beauty line. But the unexpected death of a friend recently has given him some perspective about prioritizing his health and saying no more often, as hard as it is. “This year I need to make more room for myself,” he says.

After not being able to see his mother and siblings during the pandemic at all, last year he went home to Vietnam several times, including a trip in August for a big reunion. And when he’s not there, he has his work family, a close-knit group of friends including renowned fashion stylist Kate Young and Gomez, who threw Vanngo a surprise birthday party on set this past December, where everyone serenaded him in custom red sweatshirts with his name emblazoned on the front.

An early client, Gomez was also with him on one of the most important nights of his life back in 2017, presenting him with InStyle magazine’s Makeup Artist of the Year award, with his mother looking on in the crowd.

Secrets of his success

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Berocca: When in Europe, the fashion crowd stocks up on this vitamin C-rich energy supplement that’s hard to find in North America. “If I’m travelling a lot, I take it every morning when I wake up, especially if I’m tired or not feeling my best.”

Hydration on repeat: “I don’t drink anything other than water, and I live on smoothies,” Vanngo says. “When I want to be really healthy, I make the green smoothie recipe Julianne Moore gave me.”

Harry Josh Pro Tools Pro Makeup Wave Setting Clips: These clips from Vanngo’s close pal (and fellow Canadian) celebrity hairstylist Harry Josh are perfect for keeping hair off the face while he’s applying makeup.

Podcasts and audiobooks: Vanngo’s in-flight entertainment includes catching up on High Low with EmRata, hosted by longtime client and friend Emily Ratajkowski, Fat Mascara for beauty industry news, or What’s Contemporary Now? for interviews with leaders in fashion, art and design. He also listens to audiobooks by poet and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh.

Jonathan Adler Hashish Ceramic Candle: To make his hotel room feel more like home, “I always try to bring a candle with me,” says Vanngo. This one is a blend of black currant, green apple and patchouli notes.