You love Halloween? Sure you do. But no matter how much you’re looking forward to that sweet costume idea, you’re never going to be as big of a Halloween freak as Kelly Harris.
“It’s the one month where I’m normal compared to everyone else,” she laughed.
She’s not bullshitting: just days before we sat down over coffee, she showed up to the Sexapalooza convention in full zombie garb, boasting that she was there to represent necrophilia.
And now she is representing Columbus on Syfy’s Face Off, an elimination-style reality show that challenges amateur movie makeup artists to create gruesome and imaginative creatures against a ticking clock—typically each design conforming to a predetermined theme like aliens or macabre horror. Think Project Runway— ya know, but with monsters.
But crafting killer monsters is not a common career choice, especially for young women who are stereotypically expected to be interested in glamour rather than gore.
“I thought I was a werewolf as a little kid because I had 14 canine teeth,” Harris said. “When I was really young my mom didn’t let me dress spooky, so finally when I was a preteen I decided I wanted to be scary.”
While her friends were sizing up learner’s permits, Harris was making her own wounds, and by 18, she had started working on sets for short zombie films—the result of some local filmmakers noticing her zombie-like style.
“‘Hey, this girl dresses like a zombie—why not have her do something for us,’” Harris said. “It was sort of random; I just kind of fell into it. Then I knew I wanted to do it forever.”
Slipping into that niche may have been random, but her interest wasn’t. All those macabre masterminds exhibiting their gut-wrenching prowess in the scary movies of her youth galvanized her pursuit of a career in movie makeup. She was especially interested in the more subtle psychological techniques of Hitchcock and John Carpenter. The Thing left a bloody imprint on her brain.
“I remember seeing that eyeballed spider-head monster and exclaiming, ‘I want to do that!’” she said. “I also loved the classic monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula. Alfred Hitchcock was also a major player for me … Jason and Freddy never bothered me, but seeing the eyes get plucked out of someone’s head in The Birds really [messed] with me. I was more scared of birds than I was of Jason.”
Harris has lived all over Columbus, from the manicured homes of Upper Arlington to the ramshackle streets of the Hilltop. And though her career has taken on a glamorous shine, she has found a comfortable home in grittier environs.
“I really saw the two polar opposites [of Columbus],” she said. “At a certain point, we moved to The Bottoms, which ironically had a lot of art students. I like it here. It’s home. Honestly when I’m not working on set I just like to watch movies or shoot pool—very typical. I also work at a costume shop in Columbus, which I both love and hate. Let me just say that mall Santas are the worst—they are the biggest divas and everything needs to be super-magical. Their life is basically lying to kids to their face. At least when I take off my makeup I know that I am not a zombie, or when children ask, I tell them that I am not actually dead.”
The bizarre experience of participating in a reality show is something only a tiny percentage of the population can relate to. Harris had her share of struggles, but fortunately they were outshined by her excitement to geek out on set.
“The lab was my favorite,” she said. “There is no budget. I miss that lab; [it was] filled with giant amazing cabinets full of paint and the big wall of Krylon products. I could spend my entire life in that lab.”
The experience also carried all the traditional limitations—participants weren’t allowed read, draw, or watch TV for the weeks of filming—not to mention that those holed up together were already a little weird to begin with. Harris said they created plenty of strange ways to entertain themselves.
“There was this cat that belonged to the house that lived outside, and we started doing shadow puppets for him. One guy started reenacting scenes from A Christmas Carol by shouting lines out of the window. We were also convinced that the house was haunted. It got loony,” she said.
Though she has been doing movie makeup for years, being pitted against other talented competitors put in perspective for Harris just how much room she has to grow.
“Going in I was a bit egotistical, but [after leaving] I thought, ‘I am never going to stop learning, and that’s awesome,’” she said. “The worst thing you can do as an artist is to think you have learned enough. My motto is: ‘Try. Suck. Get Better. Repeat.”
She left with a better appreciation for her craft and motivation to be an example to young women who remind her of herself. Her message: “Be spooky; don’t be boring.”
“Don’t paint your nails—be a monster. Or hell…paint your nails and be a monster.”
Face Off airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on Syfy. For more about Kelly, follow @KellyKillsYou on Twitter. Photos provided by NBC Universal.