You’ll almost always find a colorful, egg-shaped, candy-colored makeup sponge in any makeup bag. Beautyblenders and their many knockoffs are so common, it’s easy for people to forget how makeup sponges used to look before the Beautyblender was first introduced in 2003. Rea Ann Silva, a makeup artist, said that she was inspired to modernize the tools. The original (and ubiquitous) makeup sponge was both inexpensive and disposable. Silva recalls that the sponge was never designed to apply makeup on the face, making it look flawless and natural. In the early aughts, Silva cut corners while working on Girlfriends. The result was an iconic and game-changing beauty tool.
Let’s go back a little, shall we? Silva wasn’t born into the beauty industry. She is a Los Angeles native and was a Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising student (FIDM) but needed a part time job to make ends meet. She says, “I ended up faking my way to it until I was making it as an artist on a retail floor in a Chanel department store.”
This was Hollywood after all. She quickly rose from the Chanel counter and established her own life. Silva says that she feels very lucky that all this happened during the MTV revolution. She took every opportunity she could to do makeup for Dr. Dre and Tupac’s “California Love” music videos and other videos. While the non-union work was a great way to build her portfolio, it didn’t offer her the stability she required as a single working mother.
Television, however, was far more reliable. Silva was sought after because of a specific skill: airbrushing. This technique had evolved from beauty makeup to special effects. The sitcom Girlfriends offered Silva a job. It broke many barriers. Silva explains that the show would be broadcast in high definition and it was going to be the very first shot. “The four girls were beautiful young African American women. [creator] Mara Akil Brock and the producers wanted them to look natural and not overly made up.”
However, it was difficult to maintain a natural-looking makeup look. Scenes were shot in sequence and the airbrushing tool was too loud for use on set. Silva says, “I had to find a way that would allow me to apply the airbrush consistently throughout the day without having to use an airbrush.” Kelcey Fry (makeup artist) shared her experience in class and revealed that she would wet sponges to apply modern makeup close-ups. “I thought, This is my challenge with high-definition, everything looks like a close up. The only problem was that the sharp edges of the triangular wedges we used would create lines of demarcation when you thinned the makeup.” Silva came up with a DIY solution. “I cut the sponges and buffed the edges. I ended up with a teardrop shape and that is how Beautyblender was created.”
Silva was thrilled to share Beautyblender among her peers before she even considered producing it for consumers. She recalls that her first thought was that digital was the future and high-definition isn’t going away. She quickly realized that the tool was more popular than she thought. “The blenders would grow legs and disappear at the end every day because actors were giving them their sister, their friend and their mother.”
Silva said that it was a difficult task to get the tool ready for mass consumption. This was due to Silva still being a makeup artist and because the product was complicated to make. She explains that nobody had ever considered this tool and why it is the category creator. “A sponge material as soft and flexible as Beautyblender wasn’t ever cut into round, edgeless shapes.”
Three years after she made her first sponge, Beautyblender was finally on shelves. But the first mass retailer for the brand wasn’t quite what you would expect. A write-up she did in Women’s Wear Daily caught the eye of a Victoria’s Secret buyer, who loved the bright pink color. The partnership was brief, however, because VS quickly brought their beauty business in house. The biggest win was Sephora’s admission. “I was a makeup artist and I would just think, “Oh my God, what could happen?” Imagine if I happened to pass this store and saw my product displayed in the window. Beautyblender is now available at Sephora. The mega-retailer sells only the brand’s cosmetics.”
Silva said that Complexion products were an easy way to expand the brand. “I chose foundation to launch the Beautyblender because it is the best product.” She says it’s almost like a hotdog now has a hotdog bun. Silva, a Latinx woman who has been a part of her brand’s ethos from the beginning, was keen to offer a broad range of shades. She explains, “I used to mix lipsticks, eye shadows, and other unconventional products into my foundation to create different shades of skin that weren’t there before, I don’t know, four year ago.”
There are now more Beautyblender options than ever before. Silva was honored with a place in “The Only One In the Room” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “[My publicist] said, “Oh yeah, we received this call from Smithsonian. I was like, ‘The Smithsonian? “I thought they had the wrong person.” I think every makeup bag in America would disagree.”