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Keeping Up with Kiki: Meet Cairo's New Makeup King

Farah Hosny meets with pro makeup artist Ahmed 'Kiki' Ismail, who's back in Egypt after kickstarting his career in NYC, working with some of the biggest names in fashion from Stella McCartney to model-of-the-moment Cara Delevingne...

When we meet up with Ahmed Ismail, aka Kiki, aka the guy who’s worked his makeup magic on everyone from Cara Delevingne to Liu Wen, he’s just finished doing bridal makeup for a wedding and is lugging around a makeup case the size of an overstuffed carry-on that wouldn’t get let on a plane if you had the misfortune of encountering an anal flight attendant. Being someone whose entire beautification kit consists of a stick of eyeliner, this seems like an awful lot of makeup. “Oh this is nothing,” he says brushing it off with a laugh. “When I moved here from New York I literally had two suitcases filled with makeup.”

We suppose it comes with the territory, though the makeup artist hasn’t actually been in the world of glitz and glam and lipstick and lashes for very long. Kiki started out about as far from the fashion world as you can get, studying CSR in Copenhagen, before he decided to ditch the corporate world and delve into makeup. A bold move, but one which definitely paid off, considering that since that life-altering decision three years ago, he’s worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Dree Hemingway and Stella McCartney. “With CSR, I felt like, yes I loved it and all, but I wasn’t passionate about it…I wanted to be doing something artistic,” he says simply. After dabbling in art and fashion design, he realised that makeup was where he felt the magic. “With makeup you see the result right away; that transformation that you create. And I like that.”

So in 2011, he abandoned business for beauty, packing his bags and making the move to the Big Apple to study at the MakeUp Forever Academy. “I was doing makeup before then but not professionally – I was like, I’ll charge for my work after I get myself educated. I wanted to study it properly, so that when I tell people I’m a makeup artist, I’m actually certified.” He’s a study in contradictions; equal parts confident and yet constantly questioning himself; at once aware that he’s damn good at what he does, and yet of the “I was never really sure of my talent” camp; both a colourful, draw-on-the-walls, free spirited artist type, but also kind of a secret nerd, who places massive emphasis on studying your craft with commitment. “At the academy, I was super committed and organised and stuff – I mean, I was there to do this, so why not do it properly?”

A blend of pure luck and undeniable talent, Kiki rapidly found himself nabbing major shoots on the fashion scene in New York. “Look, it was a case of right time, right place, all that!” he laughs. “But I’m also really stubborn; when I want something I will do it. And there was one makeup artist, Anastasia Durasova, I was determined to work with her.” He ended up racking up shoot after shoot with the Russian artist that he’s still starstruck about to this day. “I owe all my big shoots to her,” he admits readily. It was via Durasova that Kiki ended up assisting on that Garage shoot, Deep Breeding, where a deluge of models were brought together, everyone from the icy-eyed Jessica Stam, to China-doll-like Lindsey Wixson, Liu Wen to Jourdan Dunn, and, yes, she of the statement-making, game-changing eyebrows, Cara Delevingne.

Durasova, the key makeup artist on the sheet, gave Kiki a call to ask if her protégé was available. “I was like yes, of course!” he exclaims in one breath, “Without even knowing anything about it. I mean, even if I wasn’t free, I would free myself up for her.” His blind trust ended up tossing him on a massive shoot, split up over several days, and complete with dogs of divergent breeds, which the various models were styled to resemble. “The call sheet hadn’t had all of the models’ names. It was so overwhelming!” he laughs, “And then every once in a while another model would walk in and I was like oh my God!” Yes, we imagine rubbing elbows with gorgeous glamazons is rather overwhelming.

“But that wasn’t even the most daunting gig,” Kiki says, raising his eyebrows conspiratorially, quickly glossing over the shoot we’re still obsessing over. “I was doing a Stella McCartney show in 2014 – that was the year that everything happened for me – anyway we were all backstage and it’s hectic and busy and then someone came in. And everyone went silent. It was Anna Wintour.” He widens his eyes and stares at me intently. "Everyone was paralysed!" he says, cracking up. “Literally. Everyone moved to the back, and the models all stood in one line. And I was like ‘this is not happening.’ ” Apparently, The Devil Wears Prada didn’t use as much artistic license exaggeration as we may have thought…

But despite essentially nailing the whole makeup thing in New York, Kiki decided, in what we personally think is the most unexpected move ever, to move back to Cairo. “Look, it was a crazy experience,” he starts. “I swear, I always say if I was dreaming, I wouldn’t have imagined everything that happened to me in New York! But, I don’t know…I missed my family and friends, and my life in Egypt so badly,” he says finally, speaking volumes of how simple straight-up homesickness can tarnish the most high flying, lavish lifestyle. “I mean, I was doing well and everything but in the end…I had to come back,” he says simply.

Since returning though, the outgoing artist, who seems to be perennially in black, has been on a roll, from a City Stars shoot that's plastered all over the city to leading a course at Studio Emad Eldin, he’s certainly in high demand. “I feel like the fashion industry here… it’s started blooming,” he acknowledges. “I felt like we were trapped in the 80s and 90s, which is like, the worst era for fashion and makeup - too much makeup, too much colour. It was like theatre makeup!” he groans, burying his face in his hands with a laugh. “People here seem to think the more dramatic makeup is, the better. They’ll put red lipstick, and then false lashes, and then pencilled eyebrows – it’s too much. It’s really distracting. You have to see what the strength is, and then play it up.”

Though for now Kiki’s content with staying and experimenting with Cairo’s up-and-coming style scene, we imagine at some point he’ll be tempted to succumb to the myriad offers to work abroad. But the makeup guru won’t be switching up career paths again. Makeup contains an undying appeal to him. “It’s a transformation. You could be anyone you want. Any character. Anything. I love that element, that transformative ability.”

You can check out his Facebook page here or follow him on Instagram @kikiismailmakeup