Jeannie Mai’s “gift of hosting” didn’t come easy. In a recent Zoom meeting, I caught up with the 41-year-old cohost of The Real and Dancing With the Stars favorite to find out how she became the determined, fun-loving boss she is today, and let me just say, her energy is contagious. Here’s how Mai climbed her way to the top, and what she has in store for this year and beyond.
What was life like for you growing up?
Growing up in the Bay Area [San Francisco], I was filled with esteemed appreciation for what my parents went through to get me to the U.S. I’m a first generation–born Vietnamese-American. They made sure from the get-go that I knew my parents had survived a great journey to come from Vietnam and escape communism. Everything I had in my childhood was appreciated, whether it was my education, the house we lived in, the ability to later sponsor more family members over. And my mom was very integral in teaching me about identity. Having come from a country that stripped you of your identity or your worth, she was very adamant from my early ages for me to be proud of who Jeannie Mai is. That meant using my voice, my looks, my personality, my smarts—everything I had was meant to be identified. I had a very colorful personality growing up because my mom celebrated that, and I’m so thankful for her. Today, so many women are still finding their way and finding their voices, and I always think back to those lessons that my mom taught me if I ever doubt myself today.
You started your career as a makeup artist for MAC. Have you always been into beauty?
I started out my career as a makeup artist because my mom taught me how inexpensive makeup was to color in who you are. She’s very big about walking into a room and leaving an impression, so makeup was a very attainable vehicle for me to step out of my house and declare who I wanted to be, whether that was more wild-child, more business-executive, or natural in my own skin. Makeup helped me define that. Being able to give that look and identity to other women was such a highlight of my early 20s.
When I was a makeup artist, I traveled and worked for MAC as a representative to not only do celebrities’ makeup, but I also brought it home to teach everyday women in the Bay Area. No matter what field they were in, I used makeup to reach them and help them color in what they wanted people to know about them. I was really good at that, and it felt good to help other women discover themselves.
How did that chapter evolve into being on camera?
I really think the gift of hosting came from my busy household. We had 15 people living in a three-bedroom home—it was me, my brothers and my mom and dad, and then we sponsored more family members. Every day I was constantly checking in with grandmother and finding out what words she learned to speak in English; or checking in with my aunts and getting them into the dating scene and helping them change the way they dressed because they couldn’t dress the way they did in Vietnam here in San Jose. I was helping to teach my brothers and making sure they were reading and learning and getting into school the way they should. It was always about incorporating one another, and I think that’s the gift of hosting, making everybody feel included.
At some point I combined my hosting skills from home with my makeup skills, and I believe that’s exactly how I landed in TV because at the time, it was the only medium to speak to millions of people at once—there was no social media like there is today.
What was your first TV gig?
It was KTBU in the Bay Area. I presented myself to the station and told them that I could fill in their commercial time slots by teaching women how to do makeup. I had a knack for business, so I understood that they were getting paid for their commercials, but there were also areas of time where there would just be a green screen of some image that they would leave on for like 30 minutes until the next segment. I pitched to them that for those 30 minutes, I could teach women how to dress up for a date night out or how to do a job interview look, and I would also use different brands of makeup, so they could reach out to those brands and hopefully get an ad spot. I made the company money, but I also got my skills together, learning how to be on camera and how to produce my own segments.
That was a really, really pivotal time for me because later on when I went to LA and nobody was hiring me, I already knew how to produce my own shows. I already knew how to present myself in a room, and how to immediately jump on camera and not look so “green.” That was a really important time.
Do you do your own makeup for your TV appearances?
I like doing my own makeup, but honestly, I don’t have as much time anymore. Now I’m thankful to have somebody help me do my makeup because I use that time to rehearse my notes, do Zoom meetings with producers on what’s about to happen or what I’m preparing for, research the person I’m interviewing, or just prepare for my own day, or post on my ‘gram. Having someone else do my makeup is better for me because then I can use my time more efficiently, but I absolutely still do my own makeup for The Real. Everything you guys saw on Dancing With the Stars as far as my interviews, that was my own makeup, but when I went out on stage, I loved that I got to have my makeup done because I could prepare for my dance.
What was your Dancing With the Stars experience like?
Although I was heartbroken to leave the show early—I discovered a health issue and had to get throat surgery—it was such a humbling experience because I did not realize I had some insecurities that I had not dealt with until I was forced to every Monday night. I’m very thankful for the show because it helped me combat my anxiety about doing something out of the box like dancing. I’m not a ballroom dancer—I didn’t know that life. I had this immense amount of anxiety that made me freeze in the moment. I shut down, I didn’t talk to anybody, I started beating myself up in my head, I started discouraging myself.
I didn’t realize that I did that so often until my partner Brandon actually called me out on it. He said, ‘You’re so confident in the rehearsal studios, and then all of a sudden on the day of, you’re just a whole different person. Why do you talk to yourself like this?” I didn’t realize I was so comfortable doubting myself or throwing around ‘what if’ situations that weren’t helpful to my mental health. Today, I’m really learning how to catch myself in the moment when I’m talking down to myself. I’m grateful to have walked away from the show knowing how to better handle my fears than to let them live with me any longer than they should.
What new projects do you have coming up?
I am SO excited to develop my very own clothing line. I’m partnering with an amazing company that will give access to every type of woman around the United States in a price bracket that I could afford when I was younger. I was that girl who made my own clothing and shopped at vintage and thrift stores because I couldn’t afford those great brands out there that offered more quality clothing that I deserved. But, now I’m able to create those types of looks and outfits that can suit a woman for anything in her life. I’m preparing the patterns now, I’m putting together the silhouettes for every body shape out there, and I’m so excited that my clothing is going to be the type that can propel women into their best potential in life.
Are there any beauty staples you’ve used for years?
A few staples I still live by now would be micellar water for removing makeup. I always used micellar water when I was younger, and now they come in so many forms with different additives that make your skin smoother and brighter. I really love Garnier’s Micellar Water and I wish I had it when I was younger because I would try to find good ones, or actually make my own. I also live by the classic Palmer’s Cocoa Butter for my skin—nothing lasts like cocoa butter. It’s just one of those things that you put on and don’t have to worry about for the rest of the day. Jay and I share a tub of it at home and we run out of it all the time. I’m also big on turmeric in my skin-care—I actually mix it into my products. Turmeric in night creams as a mask; turmeric in scrubs as a polish. There’s something about the purity of turmeric that gives my skin this amazing glow.