Ryan Kelly creates incredible art on her lips inspired by the likes of Harry Potter, Cup O’ Noodles and the Rolling Stones — and it’s gained her nearly 73,000 Instagram followers.
11 min read
It began, as so many stories do, with a bit of booze.
During Super Bowl Sunday in 2015, Ryan Kelly was sandwiched between her husband and their two dogs, watching the New England Patriots play the Seattle Seahawks. But she was much more interested in the halftime show than the football game, and it didn’t disappoint: Katy Perry performed her hit song “Teenage Dream,” flanked by two backup dancers dressed as blue sharks. The shark character on Perry’s left went viral for his seemingly out-of-sync, flailing moves, and a social media field day ensued (some called out his “bungled performance,” others hailed him as a hero).
Watching the show in real time, Kelly thought it was hilarious. Her husband suggested that she, a makeup artist who worked largely on weddings, use her skills to depict left shark on her face. “There may or may not have been alcohol involved,” she says. “We were having a lot of fun.”
Before Perry was even finished performing, Kelly raced to gather her materials and tripped up the stairs out of excitement. For hours, she worked on the look at the dining room table with an old Halloween face paint palette. Kelly painted “Left Shark” on her face, lips and neck, and two of her fingers served as the shark’s dancing fins. Then, she posted the look to Instagram.
Kelly’s brand took off from there, and it has since transformed into a lip art empire: She’s known as @RyanKellyMUA to nearly 73,000 followers. Read on for how Kelly finds inspiration, her content strategy and her most complicated lip art project (hint: It’s inspired by Harry Potter and took about eight hours to complete).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get your start with Instagram?
I already had an Instagram account before my first lip art post, but it wasn’t a makeup page yet — it was partially makeup-driven but also just my life in general. I was always kind of looking for that niche that separated me from other artists. There so many talented artists on Instagram!
I was going through makeup feeds and saw other people finding success through Instagram, so I had my eye out for something I could do. Even though I was doing beauty makeup for a living at that point, I really liked special effects and how people could manipulate shadow and light to completely change their entire face and look like a different person.
When my husband mentioned Left Shark, I didn’t think anything of it — it was just supposed to be silly. But after I posted it, people hopped on board and said, “This is the best lip art I’ve ever seen.” I didn’t even know what lip art was at the time, but I followed the hashtags and it just kind of snowballed from there. People were interested, so I started doing more and more lip art and less and less other makeup — then, it just took over.
How much of your time do you spend on a post, and what does that entail?
It kind of revolves more and more around the family life aspect. My new baby has two long nap times during the day, and the morning nap is when I usually scroll Pinterest or Instagram feeds and look at what’s trending and try to get some inspiration. The second part of the day is when I actually create and edit the look. I would say all in all, from inspiration to finish, it takes four or five hours. Actually executing a look is usually about an hour or two on average.
I’m lucky enough to have my own room in the house that I call my studio — I have a table and a camera set up in front with a light. If I’m recording a video I’ll just hit “Play” on the camera while I work. Otherwise, I just turn it on when I have to photograph the look. It’s hilarious because it’s me, usually home alone with the baby, and usually I have one hand on my chin perfectly placed and the other hand on the camera trying to take the photo.
What’s your content strategy? How do you decide what and when to post?
Inspiration can come from what movies are coming out, something I see in nature on a hike or even a children’s book, toy or color combination. It comes from everywhere, which is cool. Once you start thinking in that mindset of being inspired or loving art, it’s like you can’t turn it off. My family even gets annoyed with me sometimes!
This is such a sensitive subject right now because the algorithm is throwing everybody for a loop. For me, it’s better to post in the early afternoon — like between noon and 2 p.m. ET — and in the evening when people are just getting home from work — like 7 to 7:30 p.m. ET. I try to post every other day, and I don’t really post on weekends — so maybe three or four times a week. Sometimes I feel like if I give my page a little breather, then people are more interested when something comes up versus posting every day. I know myself — I know I’d feel burnt out if I was trying to come up with something every single day. Even though it is a job, you don’t want to feel like you “have” to do something, or you lose interest. I feel like that would be transparent and read through to people in the post.
How do you leverage your Instagram account and to what extent do you monetize it?
I’ve tried a lot of things, and it’s kind of different depending on the person or company I’m working with. In the past, we’ve come up with a concept together, or maybe a company has a certain product they want to push and gives me creative control, so I just post something saying I used their product. Sometimes they want video — to see the creative process from start to finish doing intricate lip art. And sometimes they just want to see what their product looks like on a pair of lips.
There’s a company called Storybook Cosmetics that specifically gears their makeup line to kind of nerdy, fun movies and books, like Harry Potter. I did a bunch of looks with them, and that was super fun. The look that’s taken me the longest in my entire career of doing this was a suggestion from one of the Storybook Cosmetics founders: the Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter. I was like, “OK, cool,” not even really remembering what it looked like, and I pulled it up on Google, and I was like, “Are you kidding me right now? This is, like, the most intricate thing I’ve ever seen!” It started as a lip art, and it ended up taking over my entire face. It probably took about eight hours, and it’s probably one of my favorite ever looks.
What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
You just have to figure out what works for you. Don’t try to model your page after someone else’s. There are totally amazing artists out there, and everybody should pull inspiration from people they admire. But finding what works for you is what’s going to separate you from every other thing that people have seen over and over again. I would rather have 150 unique followers who really appreciate what I do than 100,000 followers who don’t interact and don’t engage because they’ve seen it a hundred times.
It’s so easy to get wrapped in what everybody’s doing because things are trending, but once it becomes a huge trend like that, it’s almost as if it’s too late to jump on it at that point. It’s about staying ahead of the wave instead of riding it.
What’s a misconception many people have about Instagram?
People assume that if you’re making money on Instagram, you’re living this glamorous life, and now, with Instagram Stories, you can see all the PR packages people get. It’s a highlight reel — people are showing you the best of what’s happening. But what they don’t see is — if I could take a picture of my studio right now you’d understand — the mess that takes over your life with all these products. Editing takes time, figuring out what to post takes time, there’s a baby in the background and half the time I have no other makeup on my face except for this art thing on my lip and two nails I decided to paint with it. If the FedEx guy came to the door and I had to answer, he’d probably think I was certifiable. Yes, there are glamorous aspects, but it’s not a “glamorous life” — it’s all about smoke and mirrors.
Here are five posts that Kelly says most represent her brand.
“Sometimes simplicity is key! This look was well-received, but it only took about 10 minutes. Always a good reminder that art (and life) doesn’t always have to be so complicated.”
“This look is such a perfect example of art imitating life. I created this sonogram look to announce my pregnancy to our friends, family and social media crew. It will always hold a special place in my heart.”
“This Starry Night lip art was done very early on. It was one of the first times I ever really stepped out of the box to create something that I knew people would recognize and therefore have opinions about. It was incredibly scary but helped me to learn to push through my comfort zone and take risks. For that reason, it will always be one of my favorites.”
“I just created this look on Memorial Day, and I love it because it touches on something a bit more serious. I received some really heartwarming direct messages from followers who felt connected to this look because of their friends/family members in the military. Lip art is 99.9 percent silly and fun, but every now and then it feels good to use the platform to honor something more important.”
“I did a series of lips inspired by band/album cover art. This Rolling Stones lip is probably the most fun I’ve ever had creating a look. I didn’t want to take it off!”