I lived in New Zealand when I was very small, and when I was about five we moved to England. Initially, we lived with my mother’s parents in Liverpool, in the house where she spent a lot of her teenage years. I remember finding this big box with drawers in it, sort of like a jewellery box, and it was filled with all this amazing Mary Quant makeup from the sixties, and pots and tubes of colour that I just fell in love with. By the time I was a teenager, I thought I wanted to be an artist and I was always drawing for my portfolio. I’d draw faces on big white sheets of paper and paint them with those pots of colour. I even designed a magazine for my friends and family! I never knew you could be a makeup artist, as a job. I remember when I was 13, a friend of my mum’s got me a book about stage makeup - not glamorous stuff, but aging the face and sculpting it, theatrical makeup. I thought, “Wow, this is a dream job!” But nobody knew what it was then, and I didn’t have any connections in makeup or beauty. Besides, we didn’t have the Internet back then, so it’s not like I could just look it up.
When I left school, one of my best friend’s - she’s still one of my best friends - dad had a beauty salon, which I thought would be good to help me train. I worked there two days a week and did a course in beauty therapy at the same time because that was the only way I knew to break in to the industry. Finally, I moved to London and found a course at a school that, funnily enough, I found out later that so many people had trained there! It was one of the first places where you could learn photographic makeup training - Jeanine Lobell, the girl that started Stila, she trained there as well. I met Lee (Pycroft) the other day for lunch and she asked me about where I trained and I told her about this place, Complexion and she went, “Oh my god, I went there!” (Laughs) It was this funny place where all the teachers were working makeup artists so some days they’d be there, some days they wouldn’t, and you did your own testing and things. Now when you look in magazines there are thousands of places that teach makeup and they charge a fortune, it’s gone really corporate. This place was like, pitch up and just get involved. I did four nights a week for three months there, so I could work during the day. I did all sorts of jobs - I worked in an architect’s office and at Harrods at the makeup counter. I was terrible at selling the makeup because I used to say to people, “You need this kind of foundation, d’you know what, we haven’t got it here but if you go over to Estée Lauder, they've got this great shade.” Or I’d say, “Chanel have got a lip colour that would be perfect for you, we don’t stock it but you should try it, it would go really well with your skin tone!” And my bosses were like, “Hold on a minute, what’re you doing?” And so I got sacked! (Laughs)
But it gave me an insight into how people buy. What I’ve learnt ever since, just watching people put makeup on, is that very often they’re confused; that's one of the reasons I started making my films. Makeup is so marketing heavy these days, it’s all about the new palette and the new trend but actually, there are the basics of makeup which is to do with knowing your own face and learning what works for you. That’s much more important than a new texture of lipstick or a new trend. There’s so much out there, it can get confusing but in a way it’s great because there’s a lot of incredible makeup now in all these great formulations for colour and longer wear - when I started doing makeup none of that existed. There wasn’t even retouching then so when I had to do makeup for magazines, I had to make sure it was perfect. I remember doing mascara ads in the beginning of my career and seperating the model's eyelashes with a pin! That picture of the eyelashes close up, that’s what you would see in the magazine. I suppose a lot of people that are younger now think, “Oh it’s fine, they’ll retouch that,” whereas I never had that luxury. When I started, Charlotte Tillbury and Pat McGrath and Val Garland and all of us, we had to do the makeup exactly as it was going to appear in the magazine.
After the evening course in London I went to Milan because at the time, there were a lot more magazines in Italy than there were in England. It was a really good place to test and get your portfolio together. Testing is when you work with brand new photographers and models and everyone’s new and learning, so for every ten tests you do you get maybe one nice picture to put in your portfolio. I was doing two or three tests a day, so by the time I came back I had a reasonably good portfolio. I say to young artists now, "It’s all about the portfolio, without it you’re not really a makeup artist." A portfolio is how you measure your career. It doesn’t matter if you start with two weddings and haven’t had the best photographers - we all have to start somewhere. You'll start working with better photographers, you'll get better at judging the light and what makeup looks good on which faces. But you can’t say, “This is a look I did on myself when I went out on Saturday night.” You’d be surprised at how many people I meet who say they’re a makeup artist without having worked on anyone but themselves.
After I came back to London I went to see Mary Greenwell’s agent, because I wanted to assist her. They told me my book was good enough to not have to assist anyone but I wanted to do a few shows with her anyway. Because you might be really good at doing the makeup and understanding the lighting but how do you react when a supermodel like Naomi Campbell or an actress like Cate Blanchett walks in? How do you behave with them? That’s what’s good about assisting a makeup artist, you see how everyone reacts. Are you very friendly? Do you stay quiet? That’s all part of it too. It’s a people business, you have to mirror them and know how to fit in. So I did a season of shows with Mary, some in Paris and some in London. The first show I ever did with her was Rifat Ozbek. It was the time of the supermodels, so it was Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda (Evangelista), all those girls, and it was great just watching her with them. She was very familiar, very relaxed, but always aware of the situation. It’s something that I’ve continued to learn. If I go on a red carpet job where I’ve not met the actress before and she’s jet lagged or tired you have to be very sensitive, maybe very quiet. Other times they’re looking for fun, or they’re looking to be mothered, and you have to judge that. With people in fashion, there’s a way of being and a sort way of making everyone feel that you’re a part of it. You can’t be awkward in any way. I try to be calm always, like yesterday at the (London Fashion Week A/W 2013) Matthew Williamson show, when six of the models arrived after the show was due to start. Anna Wintour was already sitting down and that means you can’t keep the show any longer! (Laughs) You’ve just got to be able to manage the team and be firm but get it done and stay calm. All that takes experience. It takes a while to learn.
At the end of my first season with Mary the agent said, “Actually, we’d really like to take you on.” It was a brilliant agency. They only had Guido (Palau) Sam McKnight, Mary and Guy Kendall - it was really tiny but really hot. After that my career took off and then I was a makeup artist. Up until that point I didn’t think I was, really! (Laughs) This was twenty years ago.
I remember my first aha! moment. I’d been with Mary’s agency for about six months and I was starting to do well and get great editorials. Looking back, it must’ve been because Mary couldn’t do it but my agency called and said Cindy Crawford needed someone to do makeup for ELLE, would I be up for it? So I did her makeup for this shoot; we got on really well and she asked me if I could come with her to do this big TV thing. I was due for a minor operation but I thought, "I’ll just keep going for a couple more days." (Laughs) It was this big concert for Fox TV in America and she was doing a bit of backstage for the event. We were just hanging out with Guns n Roses and as they were about to go on stage they said, “Will you girls come on stage with us?” And so we walked onto the stage at Wembley stadium with them! And it was like OK, I’m actually on stage with Guns n Roses and Cindy Crawford, this is like a dream! Because I’d been somebody that had grown up in a really normal family with nobody famous, nobody doing anything in fashion, or vaguely connected to the arts. So mixing in these worlds, and being there having worked really hard and done a good job, knowing I wasn’t there just as a hanger on - it was important to me. Integrity is everything to me. If I’ve edited a film (for LisaEldridge.com) and I realise it isn’t as good as I thought it was, I won’t put it up. Companies ring me up and say “Could you do a video about our foundation and we’ll pay you?” and I’m like, “Of course not.” But then I’ll see somebody does it the week after. And I just think, "Ugh, I couldn’t." I feel like everyone would know it isn’t genuine. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and every time I take on a job, I really want it to be good. I want to do it brilliantly. I don’t really ever want to lose this feeling, or to say “It’s fine, it’s good enough.”
I always use peels on my skin because I get breakouts and get really congested with blocked pores and stuff like that. I use a lot of lactic acid, which I swear by. Lactic acid is just more gentle than glycolic acid but it dissolves all the dead skin off the top. I don’t believe in microdermabrasion and scrubs, I don’t like the idea of physically scrubbing away at your skin. If you’re oily it increases the oil, if you’re dry it increases the flakiness and if you’re sensitive it gives you broken capillaries. Whereas lactic acid just dissolves the skin cells so you don’t have to do any scrubbing, and then you wash it off. A good one is the Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant which has lactic acid and a bit of salicylic acid which is a dream for skin like mine. It’s very gentle. I use that twice a week because if I don’t, my skin will break out.
I use a lot of serums because my skin is prone to being oily in the centre and dry on the cheeks, so it helps to nourish it without making me feel greasy or shiny. Hydration is so important if you’ve got oily or combination skin. I’m also obsessed with double cleansing. I went out to the ELLE Style Awards recently and with one thing leading to another I got home at 6.30 in the morning and went straight to sleep. I couldn’t remember getting in, I must have been a bit drunk. (Laughs) I woke up at 9.30 the next morning and I had taken off every scrap of makeup! I said to my husband, “Have I got any makeup on?” because I’d hate to think I went to bed with it, and he went, “No!” I went to my bathroom and found my Eve Lom cleanser with the cloth and everything. Can you believe it? I’d double cleansed in that state! (Laughs)
I’m prone to acne and if I don’t look after my skin, I break out. I had it in my 20s the first time, really bad on my jaw and on my forehead. Luckily high neck sweaters were in, and I had a fringe at all times. (Laughs) At the time I was using these face washes that were really strong and were stripping my skin and it was just getting oilier and oilier. I always tell people if they’ve got acne to use gentle, gentle products while cleansing because you don’t want to affect the balance of your skin. Skincare is incredibly important to me. You can’t put makeup over bad skin that’s dull or flaky or spotty. You have to have a good base to start with. I got this from my mum, I think. remember growing up she was really big on skincare. I remember her always doing these massages on herself which I used to think was a bit weird but now, she looks amazing!
As told to Komal Basith.
Lisa Eldridge photographed by Komal Basith at her home in London. © Komal Basith