Nellie: Tanzanian makeup artist making waves in Hollywood

Nellie Muganda

What you need to know:

  • Nellie Muganda has for decades worked as an A-List makeup artist for A-list celebrities in Hollywood, from John Travolta, Michael B Jordan, John Legend, and Lupita Nyong’o to everyone’s favourite Batman Cop, Gary Oldman.

Her smile exudes confidence and warmth, her presence in any place she enters is always significant, and her eyes have seen a world most people only get to glimpse on screen; most people only get to experience it in real life.

Nellie Muganda has for decades worked as an A-List makeup artist for A-list celebrities in Hollywood, from John Travolta, Michael B Jordan, John Legend, and Lupita Nyong’o to everyone’s favourite Batman Cop, Gary Oldman.

Nellie has had a brush on the celebrities of all races and ages; she has padded their faces for either a photoshoot, a television interview, or an award show.

Her work has graced the front covers of popular magazines in the United States.

Hailing from Musoma, Tanzania, Nellie first went to the United States in 1974; four years later, she graduated with a business degree.

She got a job at an insurance company and later worked in accounting at a utility company.

She still felt something was missing in her life, so she decided to enrol in master studies, but she changed her mind.

For a moment, she was in limbo, until one day, when she was reading a newspaper, she saw a post about a new modelling agency opening up.  Nellie got curious and visited them.

At the model agency open house, the owner was instantly fascinated by Nellie.

 “She asked me what my plans were, and I informed her that I wasn’t happy with where I was’’ Nellie explained.

The agency’s owner convinced Nellie to run it for her. That began her entrance into the glamour world of entertainment; she was in charge of grooming and training the new models so that they could get jobs in advertising.

Luck was on her side; the owner of the agency was a former actress with many friends in Hollywood and connections with agencies in New York, London, Paris, and Milan.

The models that she trained became very successful, and at one of the graduations, an owner of a modelling agency in Los Angeles and San Francisco came to meet her.

She was impressed with two of Nellie’s former students who were now working with her agency.

She asked Nellie to go and work with her.

With all the blessings from her former boss, Nellie moved to San Francisco.

Her first assignment was to judge a beauty Peugeot and seek new models to be signed by the agency.

Two months later, she got a phone call from a photographer who wanted to work with her. She started doing makeup for the photographer as a part-time job.

One night, the photographer invited her to dinner and presented her with a portfolio of all the models she had done makeup for.

To add to that, they had also talked to other photographers who were also eager to work with her as their makeup artist.

Nellie now had more clients for her make-up business while still working with the modelling agency, but that didn’t stop her from expanding her work.

She soon started working with children’s photoshoots.

She noticed the dolls they were playing with had unkempt hair, and she ended up fixing the dolls’ hair to the amazement of the owner of the dolls company.

They called their company and asked her to design their dolls’ hair.

Though she was hesitant, they were confident in her skills and talent, so Nellie worked on several of their dolls.

The dolls she designed were so successful that the New York Times did an article on her.

Soon, celebrity photographers started talking about her. One photographer working with jazz musicians called her to do their makeup.

That job moved her to Los Angeles, and now that Nellie was immersed in the world of superstars, she soon started doing makeup for album covers for jazz icons like Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, and George Benson.

This might seem like the pinnacle of her career, but Nellie was just elevating; the biggest studios in Hollywood came knocking on her door, and she started working with Pixar, Lucas Film, and Disney. She was doing makeup for their interviews about their upcoming movies and whenever they had events.

The Tanzanian-born makeup artist would later work for the legendary English pop icon Paul McCartney; she was also called by Pixar for the makeup as they were producing one of their most successful animation movies, ‘Toy Story.

“The only time she was truly starstruck was when she was working with movie star John Travolta.

“When I was in college, we saw his movie, The Night Fever; he looked incredible,” she gushed.

In her ever-evolving career, she is presently working with Silicon Valley CEOs.  “I work with Google, Apple, YouTube, and many other tech firms,” she said.

Whenever there is a conference, event about a product launch, or television interview that involves the top brass of these tech companies, they call on her to make them look good on camera, and Nellie never disappoints.

“I call myself Lake Victoria’s daughter; all the fish I ate in Musoma made me very smart,” she said while laughing.

A Tanzanian lady rising to this prominence in Hollywood and working with elites in Silicon Valley is a great achievement.

“Being confident in what you do and thinking you are not less than anybody else is the key to achievement,” she explained.

“You have to look at yourself and say I am better than them,” she added.

As a black lady with an African accent, she was always doubted; they didn’t believe she would know the different shades of white people’s skin tones.

“What they didn’t realise is that as an African, you grow up with people of different skin tones; even in my family, there are people darker and lighter than me, so you see it every day, and you know,” she said.

Initially, she didn’t get paid for the makeup jobs she did for some photographers; they were just testing her skills.

These so-called test jobs ended up in magazines, but Nellie was not paid for them.

Even the actors were impressed with her work; soon she travelled with A-list actors, and those who didn’t pay her realised she was now in high demand.

Despite her good education and her degree in business from a reputable university in the United States, Nellie chose to practice makeup, contrary to her normal job.

“I make more money than a person working in a bank,” she said.  Even her family was unhappy with her career choice, thinking she was wasting her education. “Even our thinking in Tanzania is that you expect to get an education and expect a job; you never ask yourself what you are good at,” she observed.

Nellie is confident Tanzania has so many talented people, and young people shouldn’t be afraid to go for what they are good at.

“If you are a good carpenter, do it; if you want to be a chef, be creative with your dishes; people will know about you; don’t copy what everyone else is doing,” she advised.