Four nights a week, Sonya Tapp briskly makes her way through a long series of inconspicuous doors at MGM Grand. She takes mysterious side exits, passes old trash bins and travels through outdoor grounds before arriving at her final destination, a modest, bottom-floor hotel room.
Here, she meets a tall man who has something for her. It doesn’t come in a silver briefcase and it won’t end with a mug shot downtown.
The tall man is Shaun Saunders, an MGM hair and makeup artist. He waits before a vanity mirror in the hotel room turned dressing room to give Tapp the high-glam transformation for which she came. She’s just one of eight model Tabu Ultra Lounge cocktail waitresses who has the luxury of professional hair and makeup before taking her first drink order of the evening. Considering the money it saves them in cosmetic products and the energy it saves them in the application, each waitress is more than happy to make the trek that eventually leads to the man with the beautiful plan.
Saunders, 42, personally designed every brush stroke and pin curl responsible for the signature Tabu look. "I wanted it to be good for nighttime," he says. "(The hair) had to be big and dramatic. The makeup had to be sultry. These girls have to look sexy."
And they have to look that way before doors open at 10 p.m. That means Saunders must finish each individual face and head of hair within 25 minutes. After seven years, it’s a cinch. On this Monday night, he has Tapp’s long auburn hair set into curls and cooling within 15 minutes. Her eyes, which he likens to Kim Kardashian’s smoky look, have Saunders starting with a creamy golden base before dipping into six more Makeup Forever eyeshadow shades. He swirls and taps, swirls and taps his brush until he’s got just the right blend.
His next girl should arrive shortly. She may or may not be in a talkative mood. Her boyfriend may or may not have upset her. Regardless, Saunders makes it his mission to put her in the right frame of mind. "If they’re not feelin’ it," he says over the Samantha Jones song he chose as tonight’s background music, "then I try to get them into it. I let them know I’m going to make them look so good."
It works, too. Tapp says Saunders puts her "into character" every night. He gives her the confidence she needs to cocktail those tables into the wee hours of the morning. It builds a relationship of trust, which is why four Tabu girls — and two more in June — have chosen Saunders for their bridal hair and makeup.
Saunders works Tapp’s eyeshadow and MAC Smolder black liner in a downward motion, directing everything to the nose for a bedroom eye. After dusting her cheeks with blush, he squeezes glue onto a false eyelash for the final "Bambi" effect. As the fake lash application often does, tears form in the Tabu waitress’s eyes. Rather than reach for a tissue, she squeezes the tip of her nose like a well-trained pupil.
"It stops the tears," she says. "(Shaun) taught me that."
Saunders knows his way around a dressing room. Prior to his current gig designing the beauty looks for the women of MGM, he spent five years singing and dancing in shows on the Strip. Siegfried & Roy, Legends and Folies Bergere are but a few stages he made his way across before earning his cosmetology license in San Francisco 10 years ago.
Now, he snips the Crazy Horse Paris wigs into shape, perfects the models’ bronzer for the Wet Republic ads and teaches Studio 54 dancers how to accomplish a bold and bright look. For each task, he puts careful thought into the venue, atmosphere and tone. Wet Republic is all about fun in the sun so Saunders braided and unbraided models’ hair to get those beachy waves. Studio 54 features aerialists in a circuslike environment. Pops of cotton candy pink dance across cheeks and bursts of color erupt on eyes.
Whether he’s getting models dolled up for an MGM event or through his side gigs for casino-hotel openings, Saunders has a clear vision every time. To ensure his team of artists is onboard with the final goal, he hangs up examples for reference points. That’s why parts of the Tabu dressing room walls look a little like a teenage boy’s ceiling. Pages ripped from magazines boast sexy images of Gisele Bundchen and Penelope Cruz, St. John and Dior ad campaigns. Rather than trying to explain the look he’s going for, Saunders just points to a photo. Works every time.
For his primary gig with the Tabu girls, however, he works solo. It’s just Saunders and the girls, each of whom stagger their arrivals. The dressing room has a wall lined with wardrobe options that put the little in "little black dress" and heels high enough to change the weather. They wait under names like Olivia, Amberlee, Joanna and Amanda, who slide into them shortly before taking the floor.
None of that can happen before they’ve taken a load off in Saunders’ chair, though. He’s the one making them look and feel sexy every night.
"He knows how to put you in work mode," says Tapp. "Even if you’re in a bad mood, he makes you feel like it’s gonna be alright. You know you’re gonna make good money."