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The Makeup And Hair Of “Empire” : Beverly Jo Pryor And Melissa Forney

By: Marjorie Galas

In front of the camera, “Empire” stars Terrance Howard (Lucious Lyon) and Taraji P. Henson (Cookie Lyon) lead a team of actors and musicians through emotional turmoil and the wrath that a family business built upon deceit and intolerance has wrought. Behind the camera, a team of artisans including makeup department head Beverly Jo Pryor and hair department head Melissa Forney work in united harmony to bring the shows distinct styles to life.

Pryor had worked on “Empire” creator Lee Daniels “The Butler” and was sent the pilot script to review. Excited by what she read, she jumped on board where she teamed with Forney. After the pilot wrapped, Pryor encouraged Forney to join her on the set of “Selma.” The two women closely collaborated on the Oscar-nominated film, capturing the styles of the late 1960s. As their work on “Selma” concluded, they learned “Empire” had been green lit. They headed to the Chicago based set and prepared to immerse themselves in the contemporary, hip hop based world.

Pryor and Forney built small but strong crews to support them on their daily needs of each episode. Working with Chicago locals, they found talented team members including key makeup artist Karen Lynn Accato and key hairstylist Telona Wilson.

“We used all local crew, and they were so talented,” said Forney. “We had a big cast but a small crew, including a lead stylist and barber on staff who handled all the leads and key actors.”

Added Pryor, “There are only three of us every day. If there are a lot of extras such as a scene for the white party (a club filled with hundreds of people) we may bring in some additional help.”

Before any scene is tackled, Pryor and Forney meet with costume designers Rita McGhee and Paolo Nieddu to discuss the clothing and colors worn in each scene. With general ideas in mind, they speak with producers Daniels and Danny Strong, key Fox executives, and the episode’s director. These collaborators confirm the look or share suggestions about specific styles they want to see. Before doing any work, Pryor and Forney will check in with the lead actors as well, who have to feel comfortable and live believably in the styles created for them.

“We might do a makeup test but often, we just don’t have the time,” said Pryor. “These people are all seasoned professionals, so we are able to establish a lot about hair and makeup through discussions.”

A goal of the makeup team is to balance a natural look with the dramatic flair. This becomes especially with a larger than life character such as Cookie, whose fashion is as extreme as her brassy persona. Pryor enjoys bringing bright colors such as reds and hot pinks into certain situations, while neutralizing her look with deep browns and natural skin tones for others. A great deal of attention is paid to the male actors as well. Flashback scenes may require concealing darker skin tones to emphasize a twenty to thirty year age difference. Facial hair also becomes a factor the makeup department adjusts, particularly during flashback sequences.

Hair pieces are also crucial to Forney’s team. While they will use an actor’s natural hair when possible, there are many circumstances when a wig will be employed, including flashback sequences or styles that are too labor intensive for the time allotted to create them.

“In an upcoming episode, there’s a flashback with Jamal (Jussie Smollett),” said Forney of a character who sports a closely buzzed look. “We see him in a shorter style that’s sort of a fro, with nice wave and curl. I had the perfect wig. We cleaned up the sides and did a test, and thought ’This is great!’ We sent a picture to Lee Daniels to approve.”

Forney often uses wigs from her personal collection on various film and TV projects. Whenever possible, she obtains wigs made of human hair which has a natural flow and allows for dying and styling. She finds unique styles whenever she travels, both outside the US and within every state.
“I was in New Orleans. During Madi Gras people wear all sorts of interesting wigs,” said Forney. “I was able to get some in amazing colors like pinks and turquoise.”

Pryor also has an extensive makeup kit she travels with. While she is very particular about the foundations she uses – many appear green or grey when projected on screen; she always tries to work with the lead actors’ product requests. While she prefers to be accommodating, she is always mindful of the action of the scene. If there will be kissing or physical contact, she makes sure neutral or soft colors are used.

“Red will get all over and we don’t have time to go in and clean up,” said Pryor.

Both Pryor and Forney use a photo library they can easily pull up on an iPad to ensure continuity of hair and makeup through production. This becomes especially useful when each department head starts a style on an actor that’s passed on to their support staff so they may focus on a new task. Their database is organized by scene breakdowns, allowing them to easily share any particular look that may be requested by a director or producer.

“Missy and I go over every scene and break it down. As we read the scripts, we’re looking at everything that’s required, including stunt doubles,” said Pryor. “We’re always going over it.”

The success of the show has been a welcomed surprise to everyone involved with “Empire.” Both Pryor and Forney are enjoying the experience that comes with defining characters whose styles have been embraced by viewers everywhere. They’re especially thrilled to be working on a series whose themes continue to attract millions of viewers weekly.

“We’re like giddy kids, we are so excited,” said Forney. “People are watching it and loving it.”

“Added Pryor,” I’m so humbled and grateful. I’m very excited to be a part of this. I am very blessed.”

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