Ernest Collins, a makeup artist, hairstylist and photographer who elevated black beauty in elite modeling circles in Chicago, Milan and Paris, has died at 67.
Mr. Collins was discovered dead Sunday at his Near West Side home and studio by a relative who went to check on him. The cause was heart failure, according to his family.
He attended South Shore High School and used to style hair in the home at 80th Street and Euclid Avenue where he grew up. “The Emotions, the Pointer Sisters, they came to my grandmother’s [Ernestine’s] house, and he did their hair,” said his nephew, Michael Hardrick.
He went on to beauty school at Pivot Point academy on Howard Street in Rogers Park.
By 19 or 20, “He was on tour with the Pointer Sisters,” doing hair and makeup for the chart-topping group, said his friend Tom Styrkowicz, a photographer based in Kansas City, Kansas.
He was part of a cadre of black beauty professionals to make their mark on the Gold Coast in the 1960s, according to hairstylist Leigh Jones. His Ernest Collins salon was one of the first black hair shops on Oak Street.
“He was definitely a pioneer,” his nephew said.
As his reputation grew, his clients included model Tyra Banks, basketball legend Michael Jordan, singer Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations, actors Sheryl Lee Ralph and Gabrielle Union, model-actress Roshumba Williams and Oprah Winfrey.
Mr. Collins did campaigns for L’Oreal, Fashion Fair and Iman cosmetics, Soft Sheen hair products and Alberto-Culver. His work appeared in magazines including Ebony and Town & Country.
He developed into an expert photographer with an eye for beauty in every shade.
“He went to Milan and Paris to do photos for big designers at fashion shows,” Styrkowicz said. “He was probably one of the best fashion photographers in the world.”
In the early days of his career in Chicago, he sought out African American models. After moving to Europe, he boosted the careers of many young women of the African diaspora. He gave some models from Africa their first big breaks, according to Carmen Collins, his sister-in-law and one of his early models.
“He basically brought a lot of black models to the forefront,” Jones said. “He saw in these young black women what some other white photographers didn’t see ... he made them stars.”
“Ernest was the consummate artist,” Jones said. “He would do hair. He would do makeup. He would put you in the clothes, and then he would do the shots. He knew his vision, what he wanted to capture. He saw the lighting, he saw the accessories, he saw everything.”
And using his makeup kit and artist’s eye, he’d combine different shades of foundation in the cup of his palm to perfectly match models’ skin tones, his sister-in-law said. “When he got done with you,” she said, “you looked like the most beautiful person in the world.”
“He did beautiful makeup, beautiful,” said Kerry Harper Melchi. After she graduated high school in 1977 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and moved to Chicago, “He started my career” as a model. “He had an eye for composition, the whole thing — makeup, lighting.”
Working in Milan in the 1980s, they often ate dinner together and hung out. She said one memorable night, “We went to see Boy George and Culture Club. It was this tiny little venue — it was in a tent kind of thing.”
In Europe, his career soared. “They didn’t look at his color as much,” said another nephew, Christopher Collins.
He stood out in fashion circles for his collegial nature, said Mark Roscoe, a designer of custom couture. “In this business, you’re dealing with so many egos,” he said. “With Ernest you were able to share information and truly have a collaboration.”
Mr. Collins put fledgling models at ease and mentored other fashion professionals. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” said make-up artist DeLisa Lee, who collaborated with him on shoots for Brune magazine in Paris. “He always pushed me–just, ‘go for it.’ ”
Mr. Collins used to enjoy dancing to House music at the Warehouse, his sister-in-law said.
“He saw beauty in everything he did,’’ said makeup artist Laura Weathersby.
In addition to his sister-in-law Carmen Collins and nephews Michael Hardrick and Christopher Collins, he is survived by his brother, William D. Collins; nephews Jay Hardrick and Aric, Fred, Jonathan, Malcolm, Roy and William N. Collins, and many great-nieces and great-nephews. A future memorial is planned.