Skin Deep: One on One With Celebrity Makeup Artist Denise Tunnell

By Cicely V. Teal


Terrence Howard, Vivica A. Fox, Idris Elba, T.I., Taraji P. Henson, Tasha Smith, Lauren London and Outkast, just to name a few, have all been in the esthetic care of celebrity makeup artist Denise Tunnell. Her client list is far from modest, but modesty is exactly the quality she embodies. Tunnell’s career spans 11 years and this Baltimore, Maryland native remains grounded in an industry that can seem anything but.

As creative coordinator and co-owner of Illusions Cosmetics with her twin sister Janice, Tunnell has proven that her business acumen and passion for all things fabulous have taken her to the heights of the entertainment industry. Her film credits include Stomp The Yard, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, ATL, Big Fish, Idlewild, The Fighting Temptations and Hustle & Flow.

This accountant turned beauty aficionado understands the skin needs of African Americans and what it takes to be successful. Read more to see why this beauty maven thinks beauty is only skin deep. 


Her beginnings…

Tunnell is influenced by many strong, positive women, but her first influence was her mother. As a little girl she watched her mom be glam. “She was impeccable. Her eye shadow, her Flori Roberts makeup, her nails and her nail polish were perfect,” she said. From her roots and even through the corporate arena, Tunnell discovered her purpose.

GMO: Let’s discuss your beginnings in the business. Where were you in your life when you knew this was exactly what you wanted to do?

DT: At the time, I was an accountant. Companies were constantly going through mergers, so I was going from company to company, and there were a lot of layoffs. I decided to take a skin care course at The International School of Skin and Nail Care in Atlanta. I wanted to do skin care and ended up really getting into makeup, but my interest in makeup never overpowered my love for skin care.

GMO: What was the driving force for you in deciding that you wanted to dedicate your life to makeup, beauty and skin health?

DT: My sister had been doing makeup and she hired me to come to Chicago on a model shoot. I flew out, worked with her and I came back home. When I came home, I got back into accounting and did skin care on the side. I kept thinking about it and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.


Building her reputation…

When Tunnell decided she wanted a full-time career that encompassed skin care and makeup, nothing was going to stop her from reaching her goals. She began to work on the set of music videos and at news studios. From there, word began to spread. Tunnell understood that her clients were people with the same issues as everyone else. “Whether a celeb or housewife, people are people,” she said. She’s kept the philosophy throughout her career.

GMO: You have an extensive client list. What are some of the things that you’ve learned along the way that have helped to shape you and bring you to the place you are now?

DT: Working with a lot of celebrity clients has been rewarding because it has helped me to appreciate people and myself more.  I’ve realized that my purpose is beyond makeup. I am a Christian woman, so my relationship with my clients is like my ministry. People confide in me, and I want them to take away the right things from me when I’m in their presence.


Illusions Beauty and Cosmetics…

It is fair to say that the standard of beauty in the industry is based on Euro centricity. Products that compliment ethnic women are greatly disproportionate to whites. Illusions Cosmetics is providing women of color with a plethora of beauty products that suit their particular needs.

GMO: Talk about the beauty brand.

DT: Illusions Cosmetics was my sister’s [Janice] vision. She wanted to create an accessories boutique and she wanted makeup in the boutique, and I wanted to actually do makeup and skin care in the boutique as well. We started with lip glosses and lipsticks that were reflective of what women of color were wearing and then we launched the full line in 2006.

GMO: What are your most popular products?

DT: Our hottest products are the lip glosses. We have the Luster Lip Gloss and there are two collections: Cinematic Faves and Young Hollywood. We named the collection Young Hollywood because we were inspired by the styles of Lauren London and Khloe Kardashian.


Skin Science…

GMO: What is the best way for African American women to take care of their skin?

DT: Cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize and wear sunscreen. It is as simple as that. It is important that African American women understand their skin type. Women of color need sunscreen. There is this huge misconception among African American women about sunscreen. There is a difference between sunscreen and suntan lotion. Black women are just as susceptible to skin cancer as white women.

GMO: What are the best products to use?

DT: It is not about what’s best, but what’s right or wrong. It is about educating yourself about your skin type and learning what works for you and what doesn’t.


Advice and Retrospective…

GMO: There are women who may want to get into the industry you’re in. They may have a true affinity for skin care or may be intrigued by the idea of working with celebrities. What advice do you have for those who want to break into the industry?

DT: Makeup artists need to be able to master everything. Don’t get caught up in wanting to just be around celebrities. This is where a lot of aspiring makeup artists make their mistake. Master your craft and do lots of research. When I was coming up, I was reading tons of books. It is also important to utilize your resources and don’t just depend on other people to always hook you up. You have to be able to make connections and come together with others in the industry.

GMO: How has it been for you working with your sister and having that support system?

DT: I could not do any of this without my sister. We feed off of each other. There is so much competition in the industry and that often hinders people from learning from each other. My sister and I take our experiences and come together. That’s what most artists should do. 

GMO: What can we expect from you in 2010?

DT: We’re doing Blog Talk Radio. It’s a great forum for all makeup artists and people in the beauty industry. However, we don’t just talk makeup. We talk about what people want to talk about like fashion or hair. We bring in a mix of professionals to our beauty lounge and we encourage people to call in with their questions. It helps to steer newcomers in the right direction and it’s a great way to network.

GMO: How do you plan to expand?

DT: Really by just being the best person I can be. Everything I do is in God’s will, so I make sure my talk is my walk. My steps are directed so I must continue to be a light for Christ through my work.

Tunnell wants women to be comfortable with who they are. “It really is about what’s on the inside. Once women tap into their inner beauty, makeup becomes a minimal enhancement to what’s on the outside,” she said. “I want women to feel empowered.”


To keep up with Denise Tunnell and Illusions Cosmetics check her out at:

*Denise Tunnell Online

*Illusions Beauty Website –

*Beauty Talk –; (914) 803-4399

*Twitter –


Cicely's Facts:
Cicely V. Teal is a new GMO Staff Writer. Cicely graduated from Northeastern Illinois University with a BA in Communication and is studying to get her MA in Journalism at Depaul Univeristy. She has worked as an intern for WTTW Channel 11 and currently contributes to N’Digo Magapaper and Urban Influence Magazine. She can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .