Mckenzie. You may not have heard of her and trust us, that’s your loss. She’s the alter-ego and drag persona of makeup and hair artist Raphael Gagnon. Mckenzie, and the art of making her up, ushered in a very real, new world for Raphael. Performance became the conduit for revealing Gagnon’s true talents behind the scenes and honing his craft. There is some additional overlap between the person and the persona in a shared community, but that’s where the similarities end. And how does Raphael the artist see himself off the stage? “Me? I’m a gentle human,” he says.
This is an accurate self-assessment. Raphael’s energy is open and there’s a tenderness that’s rare. You get the sense that there is a slight shyness that he graciously pushes to the side to meet you at his best; an entirely regal thing to do.
Raphael grew up in the suburbs outside of Montreal. Eager to complete high school, Raphael couldn’t wait to establish himself in the world. In his teenage years, his grandmother took him to his first Pride celebrations. Too young to see a drag show at a bar, they instead went to the local parade. For Raphael, it gave him a taste of what was to come—adulthood, community and a chance to perform. At nineteen, after a brief stint pursuing fashion design, he made the move to Montreal.
“I had no plan. I was just trying to pay my rent and make friends and start my life in the big city,” he laughs, recalling those first years. “It was really when I started to be part of the gay community and go to clubs and meet gay people—that’s when I discovered drag queens. I was like, ‘oh my god! How can I do this? How can I become this?’”
Raphael’s journey into beauty is tightly bound to his drag career. In 2016, after entering Drag Moi, a contest for new queens, he was selected among a small group of finalists to attend a drag school. The whole experience was a catalyst for not just his performance pursuits but also for his dreams off-stage. Seeing himself through the eyes of others as he embodied Mckenzie’s carefree and confident persona had an effect that carried over into his real life.
“When I first took the stage, I was so stressed, worried and in my own head. I went to get a drink and my hands were shaking, getting my money out of my pocket. But when the show started, something just clicked. From that moment on, I became a superstar.”
While building his community, he felt encouraged to take his love of beauty further, completing a degree in makeup artistry at LaSalle College in Montreal. Around the beginning of the pandemic, Raph struggled with the age-old new grad conundrum—finding the necessary experience to gain employment. He took on a job as a private driver, shuttling people to and from television and movie sets. It resulted in a fortuitous friendship with Québécois actress Catherine Renaud. During their travels, Raphael revealed his passion for doing hair and makeup and Renaud made quick work of arranging a meeting with the head of beauty on-set. Raphael spent the next 8 months closely working with them.
“I just needed someone to give me that first shot,” he says. “From that point on, I realized I don’t want to do any other job.”
Over the past five years, Raphael has also worked outside of movie and television sets. He’s even become the go-to assistant for senior artists on editorials and creatives at TEAMM. His skills are broad-reaching, armed with insights from how beauty reads in motion and in static imagery. He adores working with skin, creating magic with products and textures to achieve the perfect base. Recently, Raphael expanded his toolkit by working with prosthetics on an independent web series called P.A.M.
“I’m always on the path of learning. When I was given the mandate to create special FX for some scenes, I fell in love with this genre. Now, I’m coming to fashion shoots and being like ‘do we need a black eye?’”
A free spirit, Raphael embraces taking the lead and being able to create a vision that elevates the projects he’s part of. His background as a personal assistant has developed a skill set that’s proven highly advantageous in an industry where selflessness can be scarce. Although it could be him in the spotlight, Raphael also dreams of potentially being a beauty director for another performer. He’s attracted to the type of intense creative collaboration a long-term partnership would yield.
“Taking care of people—this is a big part of who I am,” he says. “Being able to combine that personal element with my background in beauty is something I see for myself.”
— Interview by Naeme El-Zein.
View portfolio : http://teamm.agency/artists/raphael-gagnon/