Last week, makeup artist Riccie Johnson reported to her job at the CBS studios on West 57th Street, taking two buses, to get “60 Minutes Sports” correspondents ready for their on-air reports. The CBS makeup artist for 62 years, has powdered all the greats — The Beatles, Sinatra and U.S. presidents. And she’s still at it!
Declining with a laugh to give her age, or even reveal what graduating class she was in at Georgian Court University in her native New Jersey, the 80-something makeup artist is now in her 61st year of getting people ready for their close-ups at CBS.
For almost 62 years, Riccie Johnson has started her day at CBS News the same way — by carefully unpacking her brushes, tubes, and pencils on a counter beneath a lighted mirror. She’s a makeup artist and, some would say, an institution.
Johnson was there for the beginning of 60 Minutes in 1968 and she still does the makeup for the correspondents every week. “And, you know, they’ve changed through the years, so the makeup gets a little more intense,” Johnson jokes mischieviously with a smile.
Johnson’s work has graced the faces of U.S. Presidents Johnson, Ford and Nixon and Clinton. She also made up Frank Sinatra, who warned her about his hairpiece. “He said, ‘Don’t get too close to the lace,’ and I said, ‘I won’t.'” Sinatra responded, “Thank you, dear.”
But her most famous makeup moment involves The Beatles. She made them up just before they walked onstage for their American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964.
“They were quiet,” Johnson recalls. “They were anxious. A little nervous, I want to say.”
Decades later, Johnson happened to run into Paul McCartney in the halls of CBS. To her surprise, he remembered her. McCartney said to her, “You used pancake makeup and eyeliner, and when we asked you about the eyeliner, you said, ‘It’ll be fine.'”
The Fab Four seemed unsure of her decision to apply eyeliner, but Johnson knew it was best for a performance on black and white television screens.
“I thought, ‘It’s black and white. How can we show their features best? Their eyes.'”
Johnson started in television in 1950, hoping to get her break as an actor, but instead she was offered a job in makeup and was trained by legendary Hollywood makeup artist Dick Smith.
“When I first started at CBS, I worked on game shows, ” says Johnson. “That’s where I met my husband. He was a cameraman.” She vividly recalls the moment they met: “I got hit in the head with a boom. It hit me in the head and I was wearing glasses, and the glasses broke. I was standing there with my hands in front of my face, and I hear this voice saying, ‘CBS will pay for these.’ And there was Jay, standing there with the two pieces of glasses.”
Johnson is the mother of seven children, and she managed to raise them while continuing to work for CBS. When CBS launched its morning news program with Joseph Benti in the 1960s, the show asked for Johnson. “I did that for about 12 years,” she says. “It was a good schedule for me because I could be home when the children got home from school.”
Johnson has done the makeup for all of CBS’ famous newsmen over the past six decades, from Pelley to Cronkite to Murrow. And whatever the news event, there’s a good chance Johnson was there.
“I remember when Robert Kennedy was shot, and we were waiting in the studio,” Johnson says. “I remember the anxiety of waiting to hear his condition.” You don’t see her in the famous footage of Cronkite reporting on Kennedy’s condition, but Johnson was there, watching from the wings. “I always have to stay, in case there’s touch-ups or whatever to do, so I stayed ’til the end,” she recalls. “I was there, praying.” Turns out, she knew Kennedy. She’d done his makeup, too.
Bill Clinton didn’t want Johnson to work on him at all before a debate. “He was afraid he was going to look too made up,” she explains. “He came in rather tense, and I told him, ‘Mr. President, I assure you I have a very light touch.’ ” He signed a photo for her, “Thank you for making my old face look good.”
Since the late 60s, Johnson has worked with the 60 Minutes correspondents just before they tape their studio segments. Among the most talkative in the makeup chair was Mike Wallace. “He was very demanding about the way he wanted to look. He wanted to look dark,” Johnson says. “And if he didn’t think he looked tan, you heard about it.”
Wallace was also known for saying the unexpected. In 1995, Johnson worked on a 60 Minutes shoot when Wallace interviewed Ann Richards of Texas and Mario Cuomo of New York. The two governors had just been voted out of office and they’d recently appeared together in a high-profile Doritos commercial. Wallace was planning to grill the former governors about the commercial, but beforehand, in makeup, he privately asked Johnson for her opinion.
“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s dignified,'” recalls Johnson. And in the middle of the 60 Minutes interview, this is what happened:
Mike Wallace: The lady who made you up? She said to me, “Why would they want to do that? I mean, it was undignified. I admire these people and they’re selling Doritos on television.”
Ann Richards: Really?
“I almost fell off my chair,” Johnson tells Overtime. After the interview, Ann Richards approached Johnson, saying, “I’m so sorry if I disappointed you.”
Johnson later said to the famous 60 Minutes correspondent: “I’ll never tell you anything again, Mike.”
As for her own regimen, “I wear very little makeup,” she says. “A little under-eye concealer, eyeliner and lipstick. At my age — whatever it may be — less is more.”