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When candidates put on their best faces

N.H. makeup artist has 5 presidential primaries to her name

Kriss Blevens in her salon at work on client Dorothy Verani.
Kriss Blevens in her salon at work on client Dorothy Verani.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Women still step into Kriss Blevens’s makeup studio asking for “The Hillary.”

It’s not on the menu, but Blevens knows exactly what they want.

She transformed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s look for her debate against Barack Obama during the New Hampshire primary in 2007, bestowing a youthful glow. That evening, Clinton sat in Blevens’s chair just before taking the stage, and the candidate’s assistant handed Blevens a red lipstick.

“I felt sick to my stomach . . . and I said, ‘I’m not feeling it,’ ” Blevens, 51, remembered recently while inside her Main Street studio, where the teal wall matched streaks in her hair. “Hillary Clinton just lifted her face and just said to me, ‘Do what you feel.’ ”

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And she did.

No one ever has been closer to the country’s most powerful politicians — well, at least to their faces — than Blevens. She has powdered the pores of every major candidate in the last five presidential primaries — and at times, she’s prayed with some, including Obama.

As the New Hampshire primary season starts anew, Blevens and her team will again pull out their brushes, making camera-ready the 14 Republican White House hopefuls expected at the Voters First Presidential Forum at Saint Anselm College. She is the evening’s designated makeup artist, but she has long been known as the “makeup girl” around New Hampshire politics.

The night will add to her extensive portfolio: Bill Clinton. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Barack Obama. Mitt Romney. George H. W. Bush. George W. Bush. Al Gore. John F. Kerry. John McCain. So far this season, she has also touched up the noses of Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham.

With 22 candidates vying to be president, the 2016 contest is shaping up to be busier than ever. But Blevens has managing pandemonium down to a science. She has 15 freelance makeup artists on-call, ready to dispatch to locations around the state.

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Blevens can have a man camera-ready in 45 seconds, and a woman in three minutes. But she prefers not to rush.

Kriss Blevens blotted Herman Cain with powder during a break in the first televised Republican presidential debate of 2011 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
Kriss Blevens blotted Herman Cain with powder during a break in the first televised Republican presidential debate of 2011 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.Jim Cole/Associated Press/File

“My job goes way beyond making them look good,” the nonpartisan makeup artist said. “To me, it’s about helping them connect with their inner self, their truth, their peace.”

Senator Jeanne Shaheen has known Blevens for about 20 years, and calls her “one of my favorite people.”

“When she’s doing my makeup I always feel up,” Shaheen said. “And that’s good when you’re going in to do television. You want to feel upbeat and be positive.”

Blevens isn’t overbearing with those in her chair, said Kathy Sullivan, committeewoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

“She’s really personable and makes you very comfortable,” said Sullivan.

Blevens is among the few who see White House hopefuls in ways that most Americans do not. (Among the others? Cameramen at television studios.)

“They are the folks who get to see these candidates when the candidates are not necessarily quote-unquote ‘on,’ ” she said.

Some candidates sit silently while she works. Others practice speeches. Many tap out messages on smartphones.

“But most like to strike up conversations with me,” she said. “They like to dig into some of the things that are going on in the state of New Hampshire, to become a little closer to New Hampshire voters through me.”

Blevens rarely talks politics with candidates. But this year could be different. Her stepdaughter died from a heroin overdose just over a year ago, and Blevens has become a vocal advocate for recovery and fighting addiction. When the moment seems right — as has happened several times already — her advocacy and cosmetology connect, as she tells people her stepdaughter’s story of undiagnosed mental illness, addiction, incarceration, and ultimately death.

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Governor Maggie Hassan called Blevens a “good friend” and a “passionate advocate” for addressing substance abuse.

Becoming a makeup artist to politicians and many others was not the path that Blevens intended to take. Her goal was to work on Wall Street. Always something of a free spirit, she headed to London for college, studying international marketing and business.

She fed her creative side by serving as a model at the London School of Make-up, where she “learned everything there was to know about theatrical makeup, glamour makeup, all of that, but I never connected with it.”

Kriss Blevens with Barack Obama.
Kriss Blevens with Barack Obama.handout

Blevens returned to the States to finish her degree and entered the Miss New Hampshire pageant, hoping to win a scholarship that would pay for a master’s degree. Her talent: performing a number from the Broadway classic “Cats” in full cat makeup that, of course, she did herself.

She won, and it was while volunteering her time as Miss New Hampshire by helping women learn how to apply makeup that Blevens had her a-ha moment.

“It was like a goosebump, white-light experience for me,” she said “A voice said to me, clear as day, ‘You’re going to be a makeup artist.’ ” (She never earned the master’s degree.)

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Politics didn’t enter the picture until years later during a chance encounter between Pat Buchanan’s campaign manager and her then-husband, who happened to mention that his wife did makeup.

Today, Blevens has worked with just about every major television network from Fox to CBS to ABC. But her big moment came in 2007, when she did Clinton’s makeup before the debate with Obama.

“That makeover changed my life, and I am forever grateful,” she said.

Kriss Blevens with Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Kriss Blevens with Hillary and Bill Clinton.handout

And while her business has taken off in ways unimaginable, with two studio locations — and a building she now owns — and products in salons throughout New England, the foundation of her work remains the same. Each brush stroke, she said, is an act of service because she sees it as her higher calling.

“I always pray before I do makeup,” she said.

Sometimes, she even prays with candidates.The most memorable moment in her 28-year-career, she said, came when she held hands with Barack Obama and prayed.

It was in the basement of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood in 2008, just before a key Democratic primary debate. The candidate looked tired and drawn, and she remembers saying to him “Are you prayed up?”

“He looked at me, and he said, ‘I could sure use more,’ ” she recalled.

And so the two began to pray. The prayer’s exact words are lost to time but one phrase, she said, remains: “Remember the moment you were called to great purpose.”

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Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@akjohnson1922.