Bandy was born Ronald Duane Wright in Birmingham, Alabama, in a middle-class family. Bandy later admitted that his childhood was difficult as he was not interested in "traditional masculine things—fishing, hunting, baseball" like his brothers. As a child, Bandy preferred to read, sew and take piano lessons. His love of movie magazines and the stars featured in the pages led him to begin portrait paintings. He said, "I would make them up the way I thought they should look. That's how I learned about cosmetics—it's a direct outgrowth of my painting."
After high school, Bandy attended Birmingham–Southern College where he was a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. After two years, he dropped out to work as a department store model. He later enrolled in Tennessee Technological University where he earned a degree in education. Upon graduation, he got a job teaching elementary and high school English in Tennessee and then in Maryland. During this period, Bandy got married. In the summer of 1965, he and his wife visited New York City. Bandy later said, "The minute we arrived I knew I would never go back to my former life. This was a new beginning." Bandy quit his teaching job and he and his wife separated.
After moving to New York City in 1966, Bandy enrolled at the Christine Valmy Beauty School. It was there that he learned about proper skin cleansing and structure and became interested in makeup application. Bandy then became the school's "dermaspecialist" and was later assigned to teach makeup application techniques to students. The school was one of the first in New York to offer such a course.
Around this time, Bandy set about reinventing himself. He changed his name to "Way Bandy" explaining, "The name just came into my consciousness." Bandy never publicly discussed the details of his life before his reinvention and never revealed his birth name or real age. He then underwent a nose job and face lift and capped his teeth. In 1969, Bandy was hired as the makeup director at Charles of the Ritz where he met photographer Francesco Scavullo. Scavullo was impressed by Bandy's "face designing" techniques and the two became frequent collaborators.
In 1971, he left Charles of the Ritz to do makeup for the Broadway show No, No, Nanette . After the show closed, Bandy began working as a freelance makeup artist for print, television and films. Bandy's work was featured in editorials for Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar and Rolling Stone .
In 1977, Random House published Bandy's first book, Designing Your Face: An Illustrated Guide to Using Cosmetics . The book includes step by step techniques that teach Bandy's signature style of heavy, yet clean and all natural makeup application. The book became a best seller. In 1982, Random House released his second book, Styling Your Face: An Illustrated Guide to 15 Cosmetic Face Designs for Women and Men .
Bandy separated from his wife in 1965, but the two never divorced. He began a long term relationship with writer and antiques dealer Michael Gardine in 1973. The two shared an apartment in New York City and owned homes in Nantucket and Key West, Florida. They remained together until Gardine's death.
Intensely private about his personal life, Bandy never publicly revealed that he had contracted AIDS sometime in the early 1980s, fearing the stigma of the disease would cost him to lose work. He and friend Maury Hobson had previously discussed their displeasure with the way that designer Perry Ellis' AIDS-related death had been handled and promised each other that if either died of the disease, their true cause of death would be publicly announced.
In June 1986, Bandy developed a persistent cough and sore throat but refused to see a doctor because he did not trust them. He instead opted to treat his ailments with natural remedies which did not help. Bandy's health continued to decline.
On August 13, Bandy died of AIDS-related pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at the age of 45. He was cremated and a memorial service was later held in Manhattan. His ashes, along with the ashes of his lover Michael Gardine, were later scattered in a pine forest in Key West, Florida by his friend and estate executor Maury Hopson. Per his request, Bandy's cause of death was identified as AIDS-related in his obituary. He also requested that no survivors be named.