Who is Todra Payne?
Many years ago when I was working as a receptionist at a law firm, I knew I was lost. Nothing about the corporate world felt right to me, but I didn’t know what the heck I should be doing. Ironically, the law firm was located a block away from Bryant Park in New York City, where many of the runway shows for Fashion Week were held.
I remember walking past the park one day and discovering the buzz and craziness that accompanies setting up for Fashion Week. Eighteen wheelers lining 39th Street held racks of the latest fashion creations. Models scurried in and out of tents for last minute fittings. Security glared at anyone who looked suspicious.
I can still feel the excitement I felt that day as I slowed down to watch the “show.” My face was pressed against the green iron bars surrounding the north side of the park. My heart was racing. Everything inside of me said, “That’s it! That’s where I belong.”
I finally pulled myself away from the park and dashed to work – late. For another three years I worked in an office setting. I switched from the law firm to a big name ad agency (one that’s often mentioned in Mad Men) because I thoughtÂ a creative environment would be a better fit. I even thought maybe I’d pursue a career as a copywriter.
But each year, I’d walk past the park during Fashion Week and the energy I felt was undeniable. It was like knowing that guy across the room is your soul mate, but you don’t have the courage to even introduce yourself. I didn’t know what to do. I dreamed about being a part of the fashion world until it bordered on obsession. I felt ridiculous. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do in the industry.
Then, an interesting thing happened.
I realized I wasn’t making enough money to survive my life. Funny how you overlook those minor details when you’re in your 20′s. I rearranged my budget, cutting out everything other than transportation back and forth to work and food. It still wasn’t working. Living in New York City on a receptionist’s salary was challenging.
I prayed for a solution. I talked to friends and family. In the end, the only solution was to get a second job. I can’t even express to you how upset I was. I didn’t want to spend my weekdays and my weekends working to support the basics. But the stack of bills on my little kitchen table were proof I didn’t have any other options.
A week later I went out and got the easiest weekend job I could think of – a makeup artist at a cosmetic counter. I’d done that during my late teens and was told I was good at it. So, my weekend job was on a brand new line called, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics.
My first few weekends at the counter were relatively slow. And then, like a hurricane, things picked up. It seemed I was catapulted head first into the newest makeup craze. BB Corporate was calling me during the week to see if I could work hours outside of my weekend schedule. Counter managers at Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman were paging me (that’s what we had before cell phones, for all of you really young people!) to see if I could work. They needed all hands on deck.
Eventually, I realized this “weekend job” was becoming more. I was even starting to travel with a team of artists who did “Bobbi events” as we called them – store promotions where Bobbi would show up and give customers makeup advice, while her team interpreted the look.
I was having a blast. But HR at my 9-5 was not. They called me in for a talk. I had to stop breaking up my vacation time with a day here and a day there. And what was with all of these calls at work about working somewhere on the weekends. They didn’t think it was a good idea for me to have a second job. Blah, blah, blah.
A few weeks later, I quit.
I continued to freelance for Bobbi Brown. Then I picked up hours at Face Stockholm, a boutique brand that’s popular in Europe. Versace asked me to work hours at their counter. Before I knew it, I was doing just fine as a makeup artist. However, I still wasn’t a part of the fashion world. But now I was getting a clearer picture of how I could be.
One spring day while working at the Face Stockholm store on Columbus Avenue in NYC, a young woman came in. We talked for a long while and hit it off nicely. She came in a few more times during the month. During one of our conversations, she told me she was the personal assistant for Harrison Ford. She asked if I’d be available to do his wife’s makeup for the premier of her new movie.
Two days later, I was standing in Harrison Ford’s kitchen, eating corn soup and talking to his daughter, Georgia. It was surreal. Harrison Ford asked me a few questions, small talk mostly. A few moments later,Â his (then) wife, screenwriter, Melissa Mathison walked in. I was impressed that she looked like a full grown woman, not a beach bunny.
I did her makeup at their kitchen counter. Her daughter asked if she could play in my lip gloss. I was invited to dinner.
I left on a cloud. I could not believe what had just happened. Then a few weeks later, it happened again. I was called back to do Melissa’s makeup for another event. By now friends were telling me I needed to take my makeup to another level – get an agent. I had no idea how to get an agent! But I was incredibly naive to how hard it actually is, so that worked in my favor.
I called two agents whose names I’d learned from working at the advertising agency. The first agency was incredibly rude on the phone. I still wasn’t used to the curtness of New York City. I called another agent. I told him I wanted to assist one of his star makeup artists.
I can imagine him rolling his eyes on the other end of the phone. But he told me I could come in and meet him. I went the next day. He wasn’t particularly excited to see me, but after I nearly burst into tears (works every time!) he agreed to see me for about 18 seconds. In some cosmic way, those 18 seconds changed my life. He took me on as an assistant.
A few days later he sent me on my first job – a makeup assisting gig at Bryant Park during Fashion Week.
I felt like crying tears of joy as I entered the park with my industry pass. I walked past models whose faces I’d seen just minutes before on the newsstands, gracing the covers of Vogue and Elle. I peeked at the clothes that would be the season’s hottest picks. I thanked God I was living my dream.
That first job lead to many other assisting jobs. In a short amount of time, I was too busy to work the store counters any longer. And one year after my first Fashion Week gig, I was signed as a full fledged artist working with celebs like Mariah Carey, Soledad O’Brien, Kimora Lee and Anna Kournikova. Each month my work was on the pages of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and WWD.
Today, I work a lot with advertising clients on television commercials and print ads, while pursuing my other passion – educating women on the availability of non-toxic cosmetics and championing the small brands that make them.