“Like most people I know, developing my look was a combination of trial and error, and the borrowing of what other people were doing on the dancefloors or online,” says Jenkin van Zyl. The makeup techniques he’s since honed have resulted in character transformations like the blue-complected horned being displayed in Tim Walker’s V&A show last year. “I endeavor not to take it all too seriously,” van Zyl says. “I still operate out of a plastic shopping bag filled with exploded makeup!”
On a typical day, one might find the artist and filmmaker wearing an ensemble representing various historical periods pulled from the “heaps of dusty theater costumes” hanging on racks around his East London flat. Van Zyl’s also gotten pretty good at applying the facial prosthetics that appear in his Instagram images as well as the films he creates, which often require inflatable suits and quite a bit of fake blood. Today’s “latex wrestler cowboy” look encapsulates his attraction to “the femme within the masc, and vice-versa.” Even as a blown-up vision of powerful muscles, the effect is “comically vulnerable and on the brink of popping. In fact, inconveniently my abs burst while filming!” he admits. “In the confusing and overwhelming maze of gender and sexuality, I try to seek out shifting sands and the humor in their contradictions.”
Growing up “stir-crazy in the suburbs” of Surrey, England, inspiration came in the form of fantastical female musicians like Grace Jones, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush mixed with filmmakers John Waters and Julia Davis who “depict grotesque or deviant characters with compassion, nuance, and heart.” Van Zyl’s own work filters his references “through a funhouse mirror.” The latex suits used in 2019’s Looners nod at Oskar Schlemmer’s modernist ballet costumes, for example. He has a theory, “art is a good excuse for bad behavior,” and regularly dodges security to capture footage on deserted film sets (Looners included scenes in the Game of Thrones fortress). “Queer form of storytelling is a collage,” he says. “I often try to take on the baggage of different genres, like a sci-fi, western or horror, and use them as vehicles for imitation, parody, and reinterpretation.”
For his personal beauty codes, having fun with the execution is more important than technical precision. Van Zyl applies faux horns to his forehead practically daily, and sometimes even falls asleep in them. The process begins with a pair of sharp, small shears similar to Anastasia Beverly Hills Scissors that can trim prosthetics like ear extensions and “Pinocchio” noses to fit individual features. Then, each piece is brushed with Spirit Gum liquid adhesive, which dries to a cobwebby, sticky finish when it’s ready for application. Silicone edges can be stippled with a product like Revolution Beauty Liquid Latex to blur the transition between real skin.
Then, van Zyl chooses a color scheme. “I’m a sucker for cheap n’ cheerful Kryolan makeup because its outdated theatrical aesthetics make me feel like a true old queen,” he says. A clown white base coats the face before van Zyl blends and tops the look with powdery blue contours. Graphic details around the eyes and neck are mapped with a brush-tipped eyeliner similar to NYX Epic Wear Eye & Body Liquid Liner. White setting powder locks in the final lines and doubles as a way of “highlighting the kind of brighter areas of the face” for a photo-ready finish strong enough to withstand the level of sweat that wearing a skintight waterproof suit inevitably invites. Rather than worrying too much about “lockdown DIY grooming,” he frames his face with faux swirls of hair and puts on a little hat. Taking the final masterpiece off is its own process. “Because my face tends to be a crust of stubborn greasepaint, superglue, and prosthetic residue by the time I get home, I have to drunkenly steam myself in a boiling shower before I use Kryolan Make-Up Remover to dissolve all the gunk into a slurry that can then be removed with something tried and tested like Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser,” van Zyl shares.
Tonight, he won’t be going to a club or “grimy basement corridor,” but instead will “take a trip on an escalator to hell: the dystopian saloon of London’s Canary Wharf.” Squeezing past entryways and floating up glowing escalators on the way to a dinner under the stars, it’s a fitting scene for the moment. While he works toward an installation for Glasgow International next summer and starts pre-production on his new film Rat King, he’s also interested in addressing the obvious low point that the past year has created. “I work in the production of fantasy, and science fiction and fantasy aren’t about predicting our future so much as diagnosing our current aspirations and anxieties,” says van Zyl. “We have to take consolations where we can find them though, and somehow try to mix into this dread a heavy dose of humor.”