The Rembrandt of Make-up Artists

Laura Mercier’s latest cosmetics collection, Art Deco Muse (pictured), is an exquisite homage to the style that emerged in 1920s Paris. To mark its launch, here’s a profile I wrote about the renowned make-up guru in 2009.

It’s a little disconcerting to be sitting opposite a renowned make-up artist who is used to looking into the faces of the most beautiful women in the world. But the vivacious Laura Mercier is a pro, not just with the make-up brush, but also at putting the “normal” women she regularly meets, while promoting her make-up collection, completely at ease.

Mercier, French-born with dark, Mediterranean colouring and a slightly boho style of dress, is not at all what you might expect a Parisian-schooled beauty guru to be: she’s warm, friendly and has an exuberant, passionate personality.

It’s undoubtedly the combination of her talent and her nature which has established her, over the last two decades, as the go-to make-up artist of a string of megastars, including Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker, both of whom have raved about her abilities. “She’s the Rembrandt of make-up artists,” Madonna has said, while SJP has long admitted to being “Laura-dependent”.

Ironically, however, Mercier started out with neither the ambition to be a make-up artist nor the self-confidence that one might imagine as essential in a stressful, competitive job that involves being continually surrounded by beautiful, fashionable people.

Born in Provence, she was, she says, “an ugly duck who wanted to stay in a corner and draw and paint”. The interest in cosmetics came about when she became fascinated with her mother’s going-out ritual of applying green eyeliner and orange lipstick. “Because I was good at art, she asked me to do her make-up and nails as I got older. I enjoyed it but my passion was painting so I went to painting school in Paris after I’d done my baccalaureat.”

Unsure of what to do after her art studies had finished, Mercier followed the advice of a family friend, who had seen the maquillage she had done for her mother, and applied for a course as a beautician. The beauty school was the finest in Paris: the grand old Carita School, founded by sisters Rosie and Maria Carita in the 1940s.

Sighing with nostalgia, Mercier, who talks ten to the dozen and barely pauses for breath, recalls: “The Carita School was a great experience. By the time I went there, Maria was dead; only Rosie was remaining but it was still very tough. It was super-serious. You were taught the Carita technique with the products that were made in a special lab, in the most artisanale way. Fantastic products that we will never see again.

“Everything was so disciplined. It was wonderful; it had personality. There was the Carita make-up too and, in the institute adjoining the school, they did all the actresses and princesses – Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani etc.”

Mercier’s background at art school made her stand out from the other students and attracted the attention of one of her tutors, Thibault Vabre, who appointed her his assistant as soon as she graduated. She began to do her own work for Carita, and taught at the school for three years, before setting up as a freelance.

The scene in the early 1980s was very different, not least because the French fashion crowd was quite small and self-contained. Whereas now the same make-up artists, hairdressers, photographers and models pitch up at all the fashion capitals, Mercier remembers it as an era when the job of a make-up artist was much more vital to the success of photo shoots. “It was very old school. There was no retouching of photos at all, so you had to be really good.”

In 1985, Mercier moved to New York to help launch American Elle, but her big break came when she started working with Steven Meisel, whom she describes as “this monstre sacre, the most respected photographer in fashion”. Mercier credits Meisel with teaching her about the business, boosting her confidence and opening the door to her most famous client of all – Madonna. But being a member of Meisel’s studio, she had to be “100 per cent his slave”, and that took its toll.

“I was unhealthy – there was no time to think about yourself, or the fact that you’re inhaling smoke all day and you’ve got asthma. These guys are not regular photographers. The demand from them is extreme and you’re on duty all the time – you’ve got to be right there every instant until the shoot’s finished. It could be 2 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock – it doesn’t matter. You have no right to be sick, no right to go on vacation, no right to have a life, really. I didn’t make a decision to have no life; it just happened. There is no way you could have a family, children; no way.”

As at Carita, Mercier stood out from the rest of the crowd in New York – not least because – as a result of asthma medication, she was overweight and frumpy. “I had absolutely nothing to do with fashion,” she admits. “I was way heavier than I am now. I had long hair that I just tied up in a chignon – totally old-fashioned – and I wore shapeless black tunics. I wasn’t interested in fashion because I didn’t have the body for it.

“I was interested in it on the model, but what interested me more was the light Steven was doing for the face, how the face and the texture of make-up would catch the light. I was obsessed with that. And the way I was working corresponded totally with what he was expecting from a make-
up artist which was: no ego, it’s not about me. I was just a working robot to make a picture; a picture that’s going to appear in the magazine and end up in the garbage, basically. But it was fantastic.”

Surely, though, it must have been tough being overweight and lacking self-confidence and having to spend your days with drop-dead-gorgeous models? “You wanna know something? I think what really pushed me in that business is the fact that I don’t think that my mother loved us very much. We were three sisters. She did her best but I think she’s kind of screwed up herself in terms of not having received much love from her parents and grandparents. And that doesn’t give a lot of confidence to a child.

“I had asthma, I was on cortisone at an early age, I had a weight problem. I was not obese like you see in America, but for France I was heavy. And I felt, I think, because I was not loved, that I was the ugliest duck in the world. I really, really was tortured by the fact that I didn’t find in myself anything good. My mum was very negative. The minute I would come down from my bedroom to go to school, she would have a mean criticism; never anything good. I thought I really was that bad.

“When I came into this business, it was great: because no-one cared what I looked like, it seemed that I only had to be good. I had to be a good assistant. I had to be ready to quickly touch up make-up between changes of clothes without bugging the photographer. I was well-educated, very polite, very discreet, very laid-back. It was not about me – I had no ego. People loved that. I was sad and depressed as could be.

“I had absolutely no personality but I was able to disappear. It was all about my art and since people loved my perfection, they complimented me all the time. I finally existed. And I think that’s why I love that business so much, because it eventually gave me self-confidence.”

Mercier is the first to see the irony of an unhappy, overweight girl finding confidence from being with beautiful, stick-thin models, but she points out: “People like Madonna or any of the actresses I’ve met are the same. They don’t want the perfect, lovely, pretty-figure type of hairdresser or stylist or make-up artist because you are there to make them shine. They appreciate when you know your place.”

It took three years of persuading by Steven Meisel for Mercier to get up the nerve to meet Madonna. “She’s an icon, and I’d heard that she’s very demanding and says things that can be humiliating, but Steven had talked to her about me and was convinced that we would get along. I thought: ‘Okay, I’ve got to transcend that fame otherwise I won’t get any further than where I am now.’ ”

Who was the most famous person she had worked with before Madonna? “Probably the supermodels but that was easy because they were babies when I met them, and they became girlfriends. The most famous person was Catherine Deneuve, who scared me to death. She was
very mean to me and that traumatised me. So I was nervous about meeting Madonna but she was a sweetheart. She gave me the scenario for her video of Take a Bow, which was to be filmed in Spain, and left me to read it, then she came back  ad asked for my ideas.”

Mercier immediately knew that a retro look, inspired by the legendary movie star Ava Gardner, would be perfect. Madonna agreed. Nevertheless, the night before a dummy run of the make-up, Mercier was to be found throwing up in her hotel room. The nerves didn’t subside when she started doing the make-up. “I was out of my comfort zone because we were in a hotel, not a studio, and she was sitting in a big armchair, not on a high stool, so I had to kneel on the floor. I was petrified. I remember I was perspiring, and I had to get the eyeliner perfect.

“After I finished the first eye, she said: ‘Wait a minute.’ And she went to the mirror and looked at it from every angle possible. My heart was pounding as she turned to me and said: ‘It’s perfect – we can do the other one.’ At the end of the video, she hugged me and whispered in my ear: ‘You are a great soul.’

“From that point on, the door was open and whenever I was alone with her at the beginning she would asked me questions about my family, to help me relax. She could feel I was terrified and she knows that can happen. You can be this way at the beginning but then she wants you to be comfortable with her, and get on with the job. We always respected each other’s position. I never wanted to be friendly with a celebrity; I never thought it was the right way.”

There was aboslutely no chance of a cosy friendship formng with the terrifying US Vogue editor Anna Wintour who, says Mercier, was “underplayed” by Meryl Streep’s fashion maven in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. What wasn’t translated from real life into fiction was her daily 6am ritual of having her hair and make-up done while she reads, with the unfortunate make-up artist squatting on the ground and trying to work on a face that’s pointed downwards.

After working non-stop with Madonna for eight years, and then with Celine Dion and Mariah Carey (“It would be literally 27 hours non-stop to shoot a video!”), Mercier was, by 2000, exhausted. She had stopped doing magazine work partly because she had her own line of cosmetics to work on and promote, but also because so much was being retouched that there was no need to hire a talented make-up artist.

She continued to look after some private clients. “THe actreses and pop stars always need you, but then you become their lave,” she exclaims.  So, gradually that has been phased out too (Sarah Jessica Parker was the last to go), leaving Mercier free to pursue the creative side of her work, coming up with products that adhere to her beauty principle: the “flawless face”, and meeting regular women who need help with their make-up routines.

Mercier loves helping them regain confidence in their looks. Just meeting her is bound to give the ego a boost, becaus she genuinely beliees that “everybody has the potential to be beautiful”, since so much of beauty is derived from the personality. “I have always had a fascination for people who are not obviously beautiful, who are not perfect,” she says. ” Often, if you look into the details you see that a face is not perfect. Look at Jackie Kennedy, she was not obviously beautiful – her eyes were very far apart. Or Sophia Loren, who has a disproportionately big mouth. But the defect becomes an asset. Catherine Deneuve and Grace Kelly are undeniably beautiful but they’re slightly boring, a bit bland. I like a little more hot pepper!”

And with that, the mesmerising Mercier heads off to make another group of adoring women feel good about themselves.

* First published in The Scotsman Magazine, March 2009.

(c) All text by Alison Kerr

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One response to “The Rembrandt of Make-up Artists

  1. Pingback: Paris Comes to Polmont | Style Matters

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