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A born-and-raised Bay Area girl, TV personality and style expert Jeannie Mai grew up in San Jose, where she lived in a three-bedroom home with 16 family members "who all came over from Vietnam." With a natural instinct for helping other women feel beautiful, Mai wasted no time pursuing her dreams after graduating from high school at 16 and packed up for San Francisco, where she started her fashion and beauty career as a MAC makeup artist. "I learned a lot from my mom when it comes to empowerment and confidence through personal style," Mai says. From living with so many people, she learned "how to stand out, how to be heard, how to 'do you.' You can't be waiting for somebody else."
While working for MAC, the self-professed #wearapist and co-host of upcoming daytime talk show The Real found herself prettifying the faces of stars, which led to an unexpected career in styling. When celebrity clients like Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys were in need of pro fashion advice, Mai stepped in and encouraged them to embrace their curves—at a time before ladies like Beyonce, Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez made hips officially cool. "I found myself learning that when I teach women how to change their body shape, that every woman has the perfect shape, you just gotta find it through your wardrobe."
Mai realized she needed to share her talents with women who weren't on the covers of TV screens and magazines, so she packed her bags again and moved to LA at 24. "After doing this on a one-on-one level, a ten-on-one level, [or even] a twenty-on-1 level, I [needed] the biggest medium I can share this message quickly and at the time it was television. Today it's social media. But television was the thing."
After arriving in LA, Mai knew she had to find an agent—so she grabbed a Yellow Pages phone book and looked for the largest advertisement she could find. "I remember thinking the biggest [ad] is the agency that I would have to follow because they're the ones with the most money," she recalls. That agency was William Morris. A month later (and "with some elbow nudges from a couple celebrities that were there"), Mai was signed and began her career as a TV host.
We got to know the incredibly charming and funny force over sips at Juice Pressed Here on West 3rd Street, where the former host of the Style Network's How Do I Look? shared her inspiring path to success, secret fried chicken recipe, and much more.
Mai with her 'The Real' co-hosts Adrienne Bailon, Loni Love, Tamera Mowry-Housley and Tamar Braxton
What inspired you to do what you do?
"I've always been infatuated with that power that feeling beautiful gives women. And let's be honest, we don't always feel beautiful when we just wake up out of bed, maybe Beyoncé because she woke up like that but not everybody is sipping that juice! So, it was important for me to teach women how to not to use makeup and wardrobe to hide themselves, but instead to explore and shine themselves."
What did you love about living in San Francisco?
"San Francisco is unlike any other city. It's very free, it's built on the philosophy of, 'you are unique.' nobody blends in, everybody is unique in their own way; and creativity. So, I really feel proud that there was such a city that was built on just believing in that. LA's about beauty, and who's sexy, and youth [...] San Francisco is freedom, and rights, and liberal arts and being unique."
How'd you make the transition from beauty to fashion?
"So I started doing makeup for celebrities, then I went into a couple situations when the celebrities I was working for didn't have stylists. [At that time], styling was a trait that was never before respected or appreciated, because there weren't showrooms back then; now the culture's changed. it's a lot more easy.
But before it was the artists going out to the stores, buying things themselves, spending tons of money on outfits they'd wear, not really understanding their proportions well [...] I'd just step in and help [and ] when I would come home back to San Jose all my friends would ask me, 'How did you give Christina Aguilera a more unique, womanly body [instead of making her] overly sexy?' I was styling Alicia Keys at the time too and she was way curvy, and it never looked right because she never embraced her curves so it looked like she was ill-fitted."
What do you consider as your first big break?
"You know, it's really weird. That's the only question I won't allow myself to answer. Only because I like that feeling—it's in my head, it's weird I know—I like continuously looking for that next break. If I feel like I've already had it, I feel like I've 'made it.' For me, it's better to just keep my eyes down on the ground, eyes on the prize and not look up at how far I've come.
The big breaks to me are when women write me emails or tweets saying 'I listened to what you said', or 'I told my parents this', or 'I confronted my fear by doing this.' I don't want to count my 'big break' yet because I like looking forward to every big break to come."
In addition to having a serious drive, what else do you credit for your success?
"If you really want something, if you push down doors and shove people out of the way for it, and then do it with an attitude of gratitude—I feel that's the biggest thing that got me to where I am today. [It]s about] appreciating people the entire away, making them realize that I appreciate every little handout, every little connection, every little email or phone call made for me. The people that I'm still friends with today know my integrity."
You're married to Freddy Harteis from Hollywood Hunter. Have you ever gone hunting?
Yes! He's taken me a couple times to crocodile and elk [hunting], but I never hold the gun, because I can't watch Bambi go down! So I refuse to pull the trigger, but I eat the meat. I love wild game."
Who's your personal style icon?
"For back then, gosh, there's a lot. I really love Diane von Furstenberg because of the way she created her pieces that became absolute statements for women and transformed them, and she herself with her major fro; she had a white fro. She just dressed to the nines and everything was dripping in absolute comfort but at the same time looked so iconic.
For today, I really like what Gwen Stefani does, she's very consistent. the fact that she's turned from rock star to reggae lover to mom and now an icon, she still maintains that turned up quality. She's really cool. I like her a lot too."
Who's your beauty icon?
"Aishwarya Rai. She's a very famous Bollywood actress. Stunning. Not only is she gorgeous, she's raven-haired with very pale skin and beautiful eyes, but she's a really warm-hearted person. I did her makeup twice in '99 and 2002, and she's very warm and enriching. She is so grateful towards everybody around it. And without a drop of makeup, you almost come at her with a makeup brush and you're like 'I can't do this to you.' She's stunning. Now she's [in her 40s] and she's so gorgeous."
Fail-safe dinner party recipe?
"Ooh I love this question! It's wings with your favorite flavored potato chip. You mix a combination of Frank's Hot Sauce with [butter, Worchestershire sauce, sweet and sour sauce and a dash of Tabasco] and you roll the chicken wings in it. Then you roll the chicken in the chips and one more roll in the hot sauce, [and finally] you throw it in the grill or bake it. It just crisps up into like, Jesus."
Fashion rule it's okay to break?
"Mix, never match. I think you should mix everything when it comes to prints, your nail polish colors, your lipstick tones, even the length of your lashes, just mix things up. You customize things and you stand out from what the norm is. Mannequins match, you don't need to."
First designer purchase?
"First designer purchase was an Alexander McQueen bag. I had met him on the runway in New York; [it was] a long time ago in the beginning stages of my career. I was nervous interviewing him and he took my paper away and he said 'Darling, you're going to have a conversation with me. Forget this and forget who I am. Where are you from? What is your favorite thing to do on a Saturday afternoon?' [...] He stayed longer than I ever would expect a busy designer would stay to talk and for that I became an admirer. It was one of the best interviews of my life. So Alexander McQueen was my first."
Do you remember what the item was?
"Yep! It was a spring 2006 clutch handbag. I believe it's eel skin, with a silver punch and it has an asymmetric clasp to it."
What's your ultimate way to unwind?
"The first part of that, wine! One, I love a deep dry red cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Number two would be dark chocolate, I love anything dark chocolate. Number three is I love good music. I'm down for like, an old-school hip-hop moment. I'm all about something like, Red Light Special from TLC, or anything from Aaliya, or Tony! Toni! Toné! [...] If I need to feel a little thug, Wu-Tang from back in the day."
"Right now, I love jasmine and lavender mixed. So I go to Whole Foods and I buy the two oils and I [mix them] together. It's hypnotic; it's relaxing but it's also very feminine and fresh."
What are three things you can't leave the house without?
"Number one: false lashes, I do love a good lashy moment, I feel sexy with them. Number two, I do love this Foley + Corinna bag. They immediately add a little glam moment. I've seen my schedule change instantly and I need to always have a quick chic look. I bought three of their bags, they're amazing; it's my go-to handbag. The third thing I wouldn't leave the house without would be a really positive compliment to myself. I gotta compliment myself in some way so that when I leave the house, I remember that quality that I'm thankful for [...] It's just something to make you reset your day and reset your mind."
Camping or glamping?
"Hmm, I can do both but I just need toilet paper. I can do anything with good toilet paper. I'm gonna say camping, but I need toilet paper and wi-fi. That's it, I'm good!"
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