Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Alfreda “Fre” Howard Keck (she/her) is a force. Fre perfects her art daily within her own company, Faces by Fre, and concentrating on special effects, wigs, prosthetics, and makeup for a properly diverse clientele. Alfreda has gleaned experience ruthlessly, ignoring superficial obstacles the way they must be, and forging her own path by proving her skill quite simply, with confidence and the expertise to back it up. Project Forte is proud to present this conversation. Fre Howard has decades of practical expertise, working with a multitude of talent, who in turn are fighting for space within our evolving industry. Read more about her experiences and also of Fre’s invaluable lessons, for we all glean a fuller perspective upon considering another’s journey.
Kris Mendoza: Thank you for taking the time to do this!
Fre Howard: Well, thank you for having me on Project Forte. My name is Fre Howard and I am a professional makeup artist. I specialize in makeup, wigs, prosthetics, and special effects. I’ve worked commercially, but also in theater, film, and opera. I own a small company Faces by Fre, LLC with six employees. I’m originally from Michigan, and I now live in Philadelphia.
Kris Mendoza: I don’t think I ever knew you were from Michigan. What brought you to Philly?
Fre Howard: College, I am a Temple grad! I went to Temple University and I loved the city, so I decided to stay.
Kris Mendoza: How did you get your start in the industry? Did you go to school for this at Temple?
Fre Howard: I took classes in NYC and Canada, but I already had a love for makeup. In high school, I would do my friends’ proms and weddings, and then when I got to college I would do girls’ makeup and eyebrows in my dorm room.
You’ve got to find something to fill your life. You can’t stick with something that will drain you. So I interviewed as a makeup artist for this show called Del Vow Now . After that job, I worked on the set of Compromised, where I met Carla Morales, and started the web series, The Book of Nimrod. People started spreading my name by word of mouth so pretty soon I was working with folks from The Wire and other celebrities in town.
I recognized that the world of opera had diverse companies, so I sent letters out, and sure enough, landed jobs as the lead makeup and wig designer for the Curtis Institute of Music, for Temple University, and for Rowan University.
Kris Mendoza: Nice. I didn’t realize how heavily you were entrenched in the Opera world.
Fre Howard: Oh yeah, Opera gave me my start! And each season you get a variety of shows like new, fresh versions of La Bohème or Madame Butterfly. We see more people of color in the world of opera and that changed the landscape for me. I appreciated the old stuff, but hearing singers like Denyce Graves, or even Leontyne Price who I saw with my mom in Pittsburgh… I just couldn’t get that out of my head.
Kris Mendoza: So you mentioned diversity in that realm, and you see initiatives now in terms of inclusion and in some cases, quotas… are these positive and negative sides of the same coin? You see an affirmative action approach sort of mandating this kind of inclusivity, what are your thoughts on that?
Fre Howard: Well, let’s start with the pros. I’m called for jobs that I normally wouldn’t be called for, simply because the talent is of color and they’ve requested someone with the skills to style them. That’s an opportunity for me to work for someone who would otherwise not even think about hiring me. Viola Davis once said that opportunity is what makes the difference for people of color. Once I get one, my work speaks for itself and they can then see that mine is a small business which is also international. They can see that, “Oh, she’s not just some local girl who’s doing hair and makeup. She’s actually traveled with her craft.” That broadens their perspective. The reality is there are people globally who do this, and they’re not all in Hollywood. They’re right here in our backyard.
The cons, unfortunately, are that I don’t get a lot of calls for jobs that do not include African-American talent because they think that’s my specialty and that’s my lane, and that’s all I know how to do. Whereas, artists not of color have been hired to do all kinds of talent. Unfortunately, most times when a woman of color is on set and has a non woman of color doing her makeup, that stylist doesn’t even have the canvas of colors to treat their skin or the skills to do their hair.
I was just on a shoot in New York for example, and there were two people of color, one had braids and one had naturally curly hair. I could tell that’s why I was brought on. The first woman sat down and I noticed she had her makeup and her hair things in her lap… And I’m like, “Well, what is that for?”
She said, “I’m in awe. Can I take a picture with you?? I’ve been doing high end commercials since I was a child and I’ve never had a woman of color to be my makeup artist and hair designer.”
And I said, “Well, you can just take that and put it away…” so I moved her stuff to the side and noticed that what she uses on her hair was exactly what I had at my station. I mean, this woman was astonished, she kept talking about it saying “We have Kamala Harris now as a figure of what black women can do. And now today, I meet you here, working on this big commercial, and you’re a woman of color who has her own business and who has brought her own team… This is crazy! In all my days, I’ve never seen anybody where you are.”
So we’re like unicorns that pop up. And it’s sad because there are a lot of unicorns, but people just don’t know about them. I am in 3 unions and I can work bi-coastally, but they don’t know about women like me because they are only given the names of people in their established networks. It’s a difficult circle to break into.
Kris Mendoza: You mentioned Kamala Harris so I’m guessing this is fairly recent. This is 2021?
Fre Howard: Oh yeah. It was right after the inauguration.
Kris Mendoza: Got you. That’s wild that it took her that long to have an experience like that. You mentioned Viola Davis and I recently saw a clip of her saying, “I’ve got an Oscar, I’ve got a Tony, I’ve got multiple Emmys, and still, I’m paid a fraction of what my white counterparts are. Wherever I go, people think they’re complimenting me by saying, ‘you’re basically the black Meryl Streep’.”
Your stories kind of remind me a little bit of that. I can imagine people saying “Let me reach out to Fre and her team or another African-American-owned business or something when we need to. But when we don’t, we’re going to stick to this familiar crop of folks.”
I mean, it stinks that I have to ask you this, but are the capabilities different in your experience?
Fre Howard: Frankly, yes, in that I have the intuition to work on people who look like me but also the experience of working on those who don’t. I have the skills to do Asian skin. I know how to do a monolid. I know how to assess color and approach your undertones properly.
My experience tells me that someone, maybe from Northern Europe, with more red in their skin and hair would look ashy with yellow based makeup on their skin. Or that a man might be looking for subtle treatment, so don’t go too close, but blend the foundation into his facial hair so it doesn’t look like he’s wearing anything at all. It takes experience to know they want to look clean and crisp and bright on camera, but they don’t want to look like they’re wearing makeup.
Amazingly there are people I’ve worked with in this industry who don’t know how to do that. It’s not something they’re trained to think about.
For example, I took a class with one of my unions… It’s about properly assessing talent quickly when you get the opportunity to day play … and day playing is when someone from the head hair and makeup team says, “We need an extra person,” and they call you in, not to do the run of the movie or the run of the show, but as extra hands that day. You come on and you “play” just for that day. I was excited about this course because the instructor was really well-known, and I knew some of the work they had done. But what they got to a section on skin color, they didn’t show a single slide of an Asian, Latino, or Black person.
How are you going to teach all of your brothers and sisters in solidarity? We are of all colors. How could you have a slide show that didn’t represent all of us? And I think that’s ‘white privilege’ when they just…
Kris Mendoza: They don’t think about it.
Fre Howard: They don’t think about that. They don’t think about me, so they don’t think about hiring me.
I’m not at the top of their list, even though I may have crushed it the last time I worked with them. They think about hiring “Karen” because they always hire Karen. It’s easier.
Kris Mendoza: It’s a matter of exposure, so we do need a little bit of intentionality, as a phase to go through – where we purposely hire people of color, or women, or folks in the LGBQT community, until we build awareness and therefore equality.
Fre Howard: Yes, because despite my portfolio, I don’t get the calls and I get a fraction of what others get paid. I have yet to go into a job and not have to negotiate my rate, outside of Maestro and Five-Five Collective, who have not tried to low-ball me. And this is sad to say but I’m telling you the absolute truth: people ask, “Can you work for $200 a day?” They want to give me $100 for hair and $100 for makeup for a 10-12 hour day. That’s not even what I get to do a bridal consultation.
I am in three unions, 799 in Philadelphia, 798 in New York, and 917 for the casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas. I earn more working union jobs than non-union jobs, but some clients approach me with non-union jobs and want to pay less than half of what I normally get.
Being in 3 unions is hard to do because, to get in, you have to really prove your skill level. You have to show that you can lay hair on a face and make a fake beard. You have to exhibit your range of color. You have to show that you know how to do hair for period pieces and special effects and bald caps, and laying a prosthetic and burning edges and doing tattoos, and covering tattoos and doing it all quickly.
So I’ve got the skill, the unions say I have that. My resume and my portfolio shows that, and yet people come to me asking if I can do a consultation for 25 bucks. I pay my daughter’s piano teacher $80 for an hour session. Why would I work 10 or more hours for so little?
Sometimes people don’t understand that makeup makes the film… hair makes the film. You can have the best lighting, you can have everything else working for you, but if you don’t have that talent, that canvas in your chair, believing what you’re doing to their skin enhances their character, you have nothing.
Kris Mendoza: Well, I think it’s one of those things you don’t know you need until you don’t have it. And a lot of art department things fall into that murky category where, if it’s done well you almost don’t know it was done on purpose. Sometimes people don’t appreciate it, until they don’t have it or they see it done badly.
It’s interesting. I never thought of your particular position as directly affecting people of color who get in front of the camera. But when you talk about the average makeup artist who doesn’t know how to treat different pigments, that’s because there’s a lack of diversity in front of the camera as well as behind. Those fellow artists really aren’t getting the practice you’ve been forced to have with diverse skin tones.
Fre Howard: Sure, I’ve had assistants want to shadow me, so I ask them to bring their kits… I want to gauge their skills, I want to see their brush to skin techniques, etc… Every time I bring someone in who’s not of color, they don’t have anything in their kits past their own shade. It’s like they don’t realize there are darker Latinas, darker people of Asian, or South Asian Indian, Eastern Asian descent. And you know, maybe they like their skin to be a little lighter or darker than it is, so you have to have that in your kit. Sometimes I look at portfolios and there are absolutely no people of color at all, not one. And it’s unfortunate that this has been acceptable for so long.
I did a job years ago, pro-bono, for a fashion week in Lehigh Valley. Kris, I had about six women lined up, of color, waiting for me to do their makeup.
Kris Mendoza: Meanwhile, there were five other white makeup artists?
Fre Howard: I was so tired! But I was really moving. I could hear them talking, “She’s been knocking us out, child, she got us… I only been here for 10 minutes. Have a seat. You’ll be fine,” I mean, they were all about to go to the bathroom with their makeup before they saw me. They don’t even expect anyone to consider them and they’re the ones working the product.
The same thing happened at a press junket I did… that’s when a movie is on the trail. They do these press junkets for the local TV stations or radio stations who come in and interview the stars of the film. People of color were swarming, “Can you tighten up my curls? Can you put some oil on my braids?” Even the men of color were coming in… I had this one guy from Spain, we still keep in touch, who wanted to have a photo with me, saying “What’s your Instagram? I can’t believe you’re here! I’ve not seen a woman of color.”
And he was like, “Can you line me up real quick?” so I took out my clippers… they were so excited and I thought, “It’s a press junket! A lot of these movies have African-American leads, why don’t they have artists that can do an edge up, that can do braids, that can do palm rolls of locks? Other people have that…”
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely…what are some of the levers that need to be pulled in order to challenge that status quo? It sounds like you’re constantly having to jump with a weighted vest on, compared to your contemporaries. Do you have any thoughts on what needs to change going forward?
Fre Howard: I think people need to be open, first. And thinking about that, I can’t help but feel heavy. I have been in the game for a long time and I have the credentials to do anything really. I could be doing a television series… but even though it takes seeing someone like Viola Davis or Lupita Longo in front of the camera, that’s not enough to change things where I am. That’s still not an accurate reflection of our world… of who’s hitting the pavement, working their butts off, taking classes, going to school, learning new skills, and getting certified or unionized.
Kris Mendoza: So we need to make space on the ground floor?
Fre Howard: We have to lift each other up. Even with you and I, and our relationship…Meeting other women, the same people Maestro met through working with Faes by Fre.. I’m proud that I’m ushering in diversity to our industry and these women are smashing it, now in totally different fields. Simone Holland is behind the camera and Bianca Moon is doing lighting and G&E! Neither of them do makeup anymore, and what a beautiful legacy that is for me to offer opportunity. I take pride in that. It may be hard to feel like a stepping stone when someone moves on, but it’s not a competition and that has nothing to do with my momentum. There’s a seat at the table for everybody. It’s not going to change my trajectory. It’s not going to change my artistry.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah. I’m so glad to hear you say that because I also feel the same way, in terms of hiring talent, developing talent, and people we collaborate with. Sometimes it feels like a thankless job, like, “Why am I investing in this person, building them up only for them to move on?” But when I looked back at it, that’s not the reason we’re investing in them. We’re doing it for them, and if we’re not doing it-
Fre Howard: Who will?
Kris Mendoza: Exactly. I think that’s an unsung part, but at the end of the day, you take pride in seeing other people succeed.You may not get the credit or recognition for anyone’s particular ascent, but you know that you seeded the ecosystem with diversity and that gave them the opportunity to grow.
Fre Howard: I think, like you said, the higher scope of it is, who else will take on this challenge? Because no one else is going to give a black girl from Ghana a chance of doing makeup on a major production, or to go to the Sundance Film Festival or the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to see their name in lights and their film being screened. I’ve raised those opportunities for people in my company and it just fuels me to work harder for all of us.
Kris Mendoza: That was a good segue because, we’re talking about make-up artist roles, but you obviously also wear the hat of a business owner. Let’s back up a little… did that really start as a side hustle? At what point did it become the main grind and then how did it grow into having a team of six people?
Fre Howard: That was so organic, Kris. This story, you can’t even make this kind of stuff up. I got fired on my day off, I’m not kidding. I glossed over this before, but I was a telephonic therapist for a large insurance company, and I’d been doing that for over 15 years. I was on my way to retirement! I didn’t think about vacations, so I had time wracked up. That’s when I started working for the Curtis Institute of Music and then Temple hired me to do their opera season.
After that, I got called from local 799 to fill in for a show, which I took a day off to do. It was fun, I felt rejuvenated. They asked me to stay for the run of the whole show, and I took the time off to do it for a week.
But then I was so depressed.. because I felt like I had to make a decision and I didn’t know which move to make. Do I stay with this company that I’ve been with for almost 16 years? or do I start my own business and start just doing this and only this? So I took my FMLA. I needed to take time off, get my head right.. and the first day I started my FMLA, they called me and said, they’re letting me go. The next day I got the job doing Hairspray Live.
Kris Mendoza: That sounds like the world telling you, this is what you need to be doing. Also … it sounds illegal to fire someone when they are on their FMLA, that’s a whole other story…
Fre Howard: It’s a whole other story Kris. It was like, “Wait a minute, can you do that? Because I’m protected, right?” Everyone suggested I get an attorney and sue, but I thought “You know what, I’m going to be in New York tomorrow.”
And I haven’t stopped moving.
So it was, like you said, the universe saying, “Yeah, I’m going to force you to make a decision.”
Kris Mendoza: It seems like you really love what you do, is that fair to say?
Fre Howard: Oh, it is. And people knew it, even at my old job. When I was in the office, if I was sad about something, they’d say, “Hey, go to Fre’s desk and let her do some makeup on you. You’re going to dinner tonight, right?”
I’d be all sad, and they’d say, “Hey, can you put some lipstick on me? So they knew that brought me joy. I just didn’t know it.
Once I had the opportunity to do this, it was all I wanted to do. I love going to classes. I love teaching. I love learning. I love everything about it. I’m living a dream and I am paying my bills through work that sustains me. I’m supporting my team through my hard work. And there’s no better feeling than saying, “It’s payroll day and I’ve got the money to pay all of you.”
Kris Mendoza: Truly. And I recognize you’re not just employing people, you’re a role model. A black woman owning her own business, employing staff, treating people fairly.. I think people see that even though you can’t quantify what that does for your business or what that does for someone’s career.
That visibility which you may or may not be aware of, is huge for other people of color and younger women that are aspiring to run their own business or do what they love doing. I’m sure that’s true even for your daughter at home, to see you happy in your work probably speaks volumes as she pursues what she wants to do.
Fre Howard: That was a hidden blessing, owning my business meant I could have my daughter with me sometimes. She was able to learn how to break down my lighting system and to help. Pretty soon she was saying, “You know what, I want to learn how to do eyebrows. I want to learn how to put on eyelashes.” Or remembering, “Oh my goodness, mom. I really miss being in the theater, listening to opera… or being on a train, driving to New York to work off Broadway.”
Kris Mendoza: And totally as an aside, I think I saw that she took on her first modeling gig a couple of weeks ago?
Fre Howard: She did, Kris! She crushed it too. They loved her. In April, she’s going to have her first solo with T-VOCE and the Philadelphia Opera at the Cherry Street Pier, so the arts is her thing!
I’m so proud of her. I’m starting to think I need to get her an agent.
Kris Mendoza: You are a mom-ager as they call them, right?
Fre Howard: A mom-ager, right! So she’s killing it right now. I’m so excited for her.
Kris Mendoza: Awesome. That’s so good to hear. Any parting thoughts, Fre? Anything that I didn’t ask you that you feel is something you want to share?
Fre Howard: I wanted to say, lastly, I think that it’s awesome to have a relationship with Maestro. Whatever you do, whether I’m on the list or not, I read everything that you put out, because I want to be a supporter of you. I think that we have to uplift each other, and we may be from two different ethnic backgrounds but we share the same kind of heart for our industry and what we like to do.
You and Jo Shen, for example, you’re people I can trust. We’ve even done a job together where someone higher up was particularly hard to work with for me but I was the one who got your support. I respected you so much for that. Not everyone takes the time to apologize for the way someone else treats me on set but you went out of your way to say, “this is not how Maestro does things, this is not how we treat people”… and that it was not what you wanted me to experience.
I’ll never forget that feeling, it fueled me to want to work with more people like you. Gone are the days where I take a job for the money. I work for people who understand the craft, understand the industry, understand the artistry and respect the humanity in it. I really want to thank you for that day.
Kris Mendoza: Well, thank you for that. Yeah, I distinctly remember that particular job and everything that ensued. I think you hit the nail on the head, because whatever your background, ethnicity, gender association may be, we’re interacting with fellow humans regardless of their background, who are fighting for the same opportunities as everyone else.
Fre Howard: Empathy. That’s it.