inside nam vo beauty closet

The Makeup Artist Who Broke Instagram with Her Dewy Highlighter Technique

We raided the beauty closet in her West Village apartment.

By: Hannah Baxter
Styling: Hannah Baxter, Monique Kamargo
Photography: Alec Kugler

Thanks to cult-favorite beauty brands like Glossier, Becca, Fenty, and more, highlighter has become one of the most treasured products in a makeup kit. But there is one artist who has taken our love of a good highlight to the next megawatt level. If you haven’t already seen Nam Vo’s Instagram videos or followed her trademark hashtag #dewydumplings, please put down your beauty blender and take a few notes. The industry veteran has cultivated a rabid audience in the span of just a few months, going from around 10,000 followers to nearly 100,000. After deep-diving into her gram and watching her apply the signature “Nam Vo Glow” to both models and herself (she has her own ring light in her apartment for maximum reflection), we knew we needed to witness the highlighter hypnotism for ourselves.

The impressive six-shelf beauty closet is the first thing we notice after she invites us into her West Village studio. “I literally gave away five suitcases full of makeup,” she says while we scrape our jaws off the floor. Neatly labeled trays of foundation, blush, lip colors, and eye colors dot each row, with a custom Beautyblender jar labeled “Queen Nam Vo” sitting front and center. And of course, there are the highlighters. So many highlighters. “Highlighting gives people ‘glowgasm,’” she explains after pulling out a few of her cutest bras for a shot (she’s equally obsessed with lingerie). “It hits all the marks because its oddly satisfying. You see light. Its something magical; its like sorcery on the face.” Vo herself is glowing like an angel under the spotlight, and she encourages us to open, test, and explore her makeup and skin-care bounty. In between demonstrating her application technique and complimenting our own glowy cheekbones (rest assured we upped our game for this shoot), the artist gave us the scoop on her growing popularity, her love-hate relationship with Instagram, and of course, her top five favorite highlighters.

“It’s so weird, [in] the last two years, my career has completely changed. The whole industry has completely changed. I came to New York with nothing, and it was my dream to do Italian Vogue and work with Steven Meisel. My dream has changed. [laughs] I want to be doing the advertising in Italian Vogue.”

“It’s a very interesting time for makeup artists, because talent [alone] seems like it’s not enough. Because of Instagram, you’re kind of like your own magazine. Back in the day, I was with a really big agency, Jed Root, and [if] I wanted a client, my agent would try to pimp out my portfolio to people and I would hope to get picked. But now clients come to me because of social media. I really like glowing makeup, and a lot of times I would work on campaigns and it wouldn’t photograph well. My best content is when I shoot it with my iPhone, and people just connect with it more. When’s the last time you brought in a CHANEL campaign and said, ‘Make me look like this?' No one does.”

“I didn’t know how to use Instagram until eight months ago, and I started doing little highlighting videos. [laughs] I was just at an Instagram meeting the other day, and I said that it ruins romantic relationships and it makes careers. But it’s kind of crazy, like if I open a highlighter right now and I love it, within five seconds I could talk about it, and it’s being sold. That is a lot of pressure because the industry’s completely changed, but at the same time, it’s something that artists could really use to their advantage. Because my strongest-performing photos are not covers of Vogue anymore—it’s models sitting backstage.”

“You look at somebody like a Kylie [Jenner] and Anastasia [Beverly Hills], and you look at Glossier, I think that those are two different animals. A couple years back, I kind of freaked out and I was like, ‘Oh my god. I don’t know how to do that heavy, over-the-top contouring. Maybe I should learn.’ Then I was like, ‘Just stick to what you’re good at, and the people will come.’ I’m glad that I did because I think that trends come and go. Contouring, carving the eyebrows, shaking, baking, strobing—but beautiful skin will be timeless. Maybe this over-the-top glow isn’t always going to be in, but even underneath all of that makeup, everybody, to some degree, wants to feel naturally beautiful and have radiant skin.”

“I had a coming-to-Jesus moment on set doing a video. They were like, 18, 19, 20-year-olds running this cosmetic company, and I kept putting lip gloss on the model, and one of the girls pulled me aside [and] goes, ‘Nam, nobody wears lip gloss anymore. Only 30-year-olds do,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. I’m like the "dated" person on set!‘ But I still love lip gloss. I think it looks healthier. Someone told me that lip gloss is so out that it’s coming back in. That’s what they told me. [laughs].”

“My mom is Vietnamese, and [for a] lot of Asian women, our worst fear in life is having sun spots. So my mom always instilled fear in me, like, ‘You better take care of your skin! You better wash your face! You better use this cream, and you better walk with an umbrella home! You better be scared shitless of the sun!’ I really think that’s probably the root of why I’m so obsessed with my skin and the glow. My entire life—no matter if I’ve been drugged, drunk, dying of food poisoning—I’ve washed my face every single night. Except for that one time I had an edible and then I knocked out and woke up with a bunch of makeup on. But no matter what happens in life, I’ll wash my face.”

“I used to call my boyfriend ‘dumpling.’ I would call people like, ‘cupcake’ or ‘dumpling,’ and then one day I just called someone a ‘dewy dumpling,’ and then once in a while I would hashtag it. I had no idea that it would take on the life that it has. This is crazy—so my friend was in L.A. the other day at a restaurant bathroom, and she heard some girls touching up and saying, ‘Do I look like a dewy dumpling?’ So she recorded them and was like, ‘Oh my god. That’s my friend.’ You know what it is? It’s cute; it’s like being plump, moist, and delicious, and I think people just like calling themselves ‘dumpling.’”

“My top five [highlighters are]: ColourPop Lunch Money. Rituel De Fille Rare Light Luminizer [in Lunaris.] Becca Champagne Pop. Marc Jacobs Dew Drops, and Danessa Myricks, she has a powder highlighter. It depends on the skin. I like my highlight to look like a mirror and foil, and some people just want to look a little bit moist. So that might be like an RMS [Living Luminizer] situation. Some people want one step more; it might be a ColourPop situation. I like to think of myself as the highlight whisperer. I can look at you and just determine. I’m like, ‘Hmm. You would be extra. You would be subtle. Your mom would be this.’”

“The number one place to highlight is on the highest [part] of the cheekbone. It depends. If you’re more of a mature woman, I’m not gonna put a Kylie [Cosmetics] highlighter on you. But if you have smooth skin and you want to burn people’s corneas out, then I use the Kylie one. If you want to be just medium, I might speckle a Becca one. But oftentimes, what I’ll do is I’ll do a cream, and then I’ll layer a powder on top. Like the Glossier Haloscope, that’s great for somebody that’s more subtle. That’s a good one to pop your highlighting cherry. [Apply] in a C-shape. I go [suck in cheeks] and then I lay it flat and then I go in [with a brush] and push it and blend it. [Also] center of the nose, corner of the eye, bow of the lips. I use a brush, sometimes a Beautyblender, a lot of times my finger.”

“I get probably a box [of products] every day. Usually, I lay it all on my kitchen counter and then in the morning, when I get ready, I’ll walk over to the counter and be like, ‘Mmm. Let me try this lip stain.’ Foundation and skin care is hard, because I need to wear it for two weeks before I decide that I like it. I might be like, ‘Oh, that day I didn’t exfoliate.’ The number one question people ask me, every single fucking day—it’s not a bad question—is: what is your skin-care regimen? I’m going to drop a video soon and break it down, but the problem is [that] I change my skin-care regimen every two months.”

“I need to see everything when I’m experimenting or doing a look. I’ve only had this closet for three weeks. It’s kind of like my little library. It’s like your closet. If you don’t see that dress, you don’t wear it.”

“Brushing my teeth, all that other stuff is a chore to me, but putting on my skin care, it feels like I’m treating myself. I think a lot of women, especially American women, don’t feel that way. They’re like, ‘Oh shit. Let me just wipe this off.’ So I gel cleanse, oil cleanse, use a toner. I serum, I moisturize, I eye cream, and then if I’m feeling a little dry and I need something else, then an oil on top of all of that. I got the new AmorePacific Vintage [Single Extract Essence]; I really like that. I like the Tatcha Essence; I like the SK-II Essence. I kind of go through my phases. I get really into Asian formulations, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, the Americans are doing something interesting, too.’”

“I have to fill in my eyebrows. I’ll put a little concealer underneath my eyes and maybe blush and a tinted moisturizer. I don’t wear a lot on myself. I don’t have a good makeup face. Some people—J.Lo and Kim K for example—they have real estate. I don’t have a lot of space for makeup, and I actually think that I look better more on the natural side. I can’t take a good beating. Some faces, they look really good beat. I like to keep it simple on myself, and people are always shocked. I literally never have makeup on me. Never. Not a concealer, not a powder. Nothing. I don’t touch up my makeup. Once I’m done and faded, I just accept my destiny [laughs].”

“I think it’s such an American thing, and it’s a normal question to ask: ‘When are you going to come out with your own makeup line?’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t even book a facial appointment.’ I literally forget to pay for my cell phone bill. So for me, to think about a business sounds like a really crazy endeavor. But I always told people, ‘I would love to do a pop-up dewy dumplings café.’ I want to build a place that has magical Jesus lighting; where, when you go there, you’ll want to take a selfie, you’ll have a cute drink, and you can learn about beauty products. Maybe one day when I have the right partnership. But I like the idea of having a destination. So who knows? Maybe there will be a ‘dewy dumpling’ destination, and maybe somebody wants to read this interview and give me money and organize all of that. I’d be open for that.”

“I have so many amazing tools. It’s 2018—let’s get with the program. We’re sending men to the moon; we’re cloning sheep; we’re doing crazy shit—so take advantage of technology. I have the ReFa rollers; I have the jade rollers. I have LED masks; I have the LED dome thing. I have steaming products. Honestly, if you’re a baller on a budget, you can’t invest in an LED mask, or you can’t have the ReFa rollers. Jade rollers you can buy for like, $15 on Amazon. It’s going to help to de-puff. It just feels good, and I think it stimulates blood [flow].”

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