Making Over BillyB

Portrait of BillyB by Whitten SabbatiniStory Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

On a Thursday afternoon in the first week of summer Billy Brasfield is sitting in a corner booth of the dining room of a gone-to-seed tourist court on the north side of his hometown, Aberdeen, Miss.
While he waits for his food and talks with two companions, Brasfield is remaking the restaurant. He has removed the stained acoustic tile from the ceiling, pulled up the overdue carpet and covered the wall behind the counter with mirrors.

Brasfield, 48, is a strikingly handsome man with a large, expressive face. His short white hair is brushed back, and heavy tortoise-shell glasses signal big-city sophistication. Heavily tattooed, a spray of teal and blue stars adorns his neck. The fingers of his right hand held together spell the word “Lucky”; the left, “Billy.”

By the time the cheeseburgers and fries arrive, the restaurant, at least in the mind of Billy Brasfield, or BillyB as he is now known, has become a shiny, chic and fashionable diner.

As a globe-trotting make-up artist who      attends to the faces of some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities — five days earlier he was in Toronto with Lady Gaga — you could say makeovers are Brasfield’s specialty. And while he has made a name for what he can do with blush and eye shadow, his impulse to make beautiful has manifested itself in other ways.

He says it began when he was 7 or 8 years old and he began rearranging the living room furniture in his mother’s ranch-style home. He would spend his allowance on things for the house.

“I wanted her house to look a certain way,” he said. “I know, it’s really weird.”

Years later, when a grandfather died and left him and his brother and sister $30,000 each, BillyB bought a house with the money. Thus began an awakening that led to his campaign to save the disappearing houses of his hometown.

“Every time I came home, there was another house gone,” he said.

By the standards of New York and L.A., where he lives most of his time, the houses in Aberdeen were laughably inexpensive. He began buying and rehabbing the town’s Victorian cottages.

An article in The New York Times about his preservation efforts piqued the interest of Home and Garden Television (HGTV). The result was a just-aired six-part mini-series titled “Hometown Renovation,” featuring BillyB as narrator and native guide.

The series, set in and around Aberdeen, follows Brasfield as he directs made-for-TV makeovers that include bringing back to life two derelict cottages and disassembling a forgotten country church, putting it on a truck and moving it to the grounds of an antebellum mansion. There it was reassembled just in time for the wedding of a young woman BillyB calls Aberdeen’s Princess Di.

The least apparent, though perhaps most daring of BillyB’s makeovers, is his own life. It is an old story, a parable of sorts — unappreciated and reviled in his native land, the outcast leaves to seek his fortune in the larger world. After a long absence — during which he finds his calling and with it a measure of fame — he returns home bearing gifts.

What gave him the wherewithal to leave Aberdeen for New York City where he knew no one and had few prospects? It seems to be a question he has been waiting years for someone to ask.

“It’s awful to say, but … I was so bullied. I think the bullying just magnified how much I didn’t fit in here.”

At the root of Brasfield’s non-acceptance was his sexuality: he is gay.

“As long as I stayed in a small town like this, that is all I would have ever been — ‘He’s the gay guy.’”

“It’s part of who I am,” he continues — the words gush out — “but it doesn’t define me. I talk about this kind of thing because it is going to help some kid. It is not the end of the world. It is a small part of what makes up a person.”

On a high school trip to New York City, Brasfield visualized a new life for himself.

“As soon as I got there I realized you could be completely anonymous. No one knew anything about you — it sounds like such a sad story but it’s not — I realized I could reinvent myself and be whoever I wanted to be.”

After high school and community college, Brasfield left the South. In New York he bluffed his way into a job at the cosmetics counter at Macy’s. There amid the glitter and hustle of midtown Manhattan, he learned his craft applying make-up to “real women.” One day his guardian angel appeared; a woman whose name he doesn’t know told him he was too talented to be working in a department store. She put him in touch with a modeling agency where he could give his ambition and talent free rein. Fame soon followed.

The number of A-list stars who have entrusted BillyB with their public face is dizzying: Beyoncé, Dolly Parton, Yoko Ono, Pink, Tina Turner, Sharon Stone, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, the list     goes on.

BillyB says he gave little thought to returning home during his first 10 years in New York City; though he says he was rankled by the portrayals of his home state in movies being released at the time, “Mississippi Masala” and “Mississippi Burning.”

“We’re not all ass-backwards, hateful, hood-wearing idiots,” he said.

Like so many other Magnolia State expatriates, BillyB took every opportunity to contradict the stereotype.

“My main objective for that TV show was to showcase Aberdeen, to bring some life back to this community, to show Mississippi in a positive light,” he said.

For 30 years now Billy Brasfield has helped women see themselves in a positive light.  Looking about his Aberdeen home, you see abundant evidence of it. Inscribed photographs cover the walls. Framed snapshots sit on dressers. On the mantle of his bedroom is a framed Polaroid of Mariah Carey. With it is a note: “Once again you made me look great. Thank you … for always being there for me. Much love, Mariah.”

Perhaps a more revealing idea of who this man is comes from a story he tells about the makeover of the mother of a friend during a sales promotion at an Oxford department store. On the backside of a crippling divorce after 24 years of marriage, Betsy Williams had moved to Oxford to begin a new life as a housemother for a campus fraternity. Her self-esteem was gone. Brasfield tuned in to the woman’s angst. He gave her a complete makeover there in the store.

“I treated her that day the same way I did Sharon Stone,” he recalls.

Later Betsy Williams told Brasfield how that encounter restored her sense of self-worth.

“I will never forget coming to meet you that day and how you made me feel,” she told him. “If that’s all you ever do, you are my hero.”

Portrait of BillyB by Whitten SabbatiniTHE QUOTABLE BILLYB

“I didn’t do well at school, but I was able to make my mother’s living room look great.”

“I had no interest in sports. It’s like that TV show, “Friday Night Lights.” It is so true. In a small town that is what people do for entertainment. To be popular, you have to do that.”

“All I knew at that time in my life (high school) was that I was the sissy and that was all I was going to be.”

“When you grow up in Mississippi, you’re either white or black, or you’re Baptist or you’re not. I still don’t know what I am.”

“I work with the most iconic celebrated women in the world and they are as insecure as anyone.”

“Sometimes it’s not always great to meet people you admire.”

“I’ve been behind the scenes with famous people, and I see how different their lives are. With the notoriety comes drama. My purpose is to have a simple life and the simplicity that comes with it.”

“I can look at a house and see it finished. Same with a face.”

“I will always be somebody from Mississippi. Mississippi far more defines me than other parts of      my life.”

“There is zero intolerance of me here now. Nobody has been anything but kind to me.”

“It’s funny that I’m almost 50 and still seeking approval.”