From makeup artist Kabuki’s perspective, his career path is a crossroads of coincidental luck meets unquestionable talent. From being the go to backstage beauty painter for Moschino, Zac Posen, The Blonds and more to his early years of painting his own face as an underground club performer at the Pyramid Club, the artist has built steadily on his strengths of creating sublimely executed looks. Throughout his career, photographers like Steven Klein, Mert & Marcus, and Terry Richardson have called upon the beauty maven to create cover looks that range from classically executed to fancifully over-the-top. Despite whatever makeup moment he devises, his creativity never fails to inspire all with its perpetual element of fun. Presenting an exclusive look at original video shot by Colin Gray, Models.com talked to Kabuki to discuss his career and how he seamlessly fused art and beauty together.
I understand you as a creative in the sense of artist because I see a lot of the time you sketch things out. How did you get your start as far as transitioning from design to makeup?
The painting and drawing started very early for me, from age 10 onwards. There is a Youtube clip of me on this tv show called “Kidsworld”. I was eleven and I would show my drawings of slightly camp subjects: dragons, Pierrots, peacocks in Japanese gardens. I still have a strong northern English accent in the video since my family had just moved to Florida. My dad worked as an artist for Disney. Orlando had a great big library and I found books on Erte, Aubrey Beardsley, Leon Bakst, Kay Nielsen. Their drawings were like portals to another world of amazing and exotic people. Now the make-up interest was triggered when I found a photobook of David Bowie (and I heard his back catalog of music). That same year in 1983, Boy George was turning the rules of gender upside down in the mainstream pop culture. I bought “When Cameras Go Crazy”, a book consisting mostly of photos Boy George and his friends from The Blitz nightclub, before he was famous, and their make-up and style got me excited. I was finding that there was a real-life version of the paintings and illustrations that I loved.
In my teens and 20’s, I had a very androgynous face that was perfect for make-up. So, I learned a lot about applying make-up flawlessly and how similar it is to painting at a very young age. A friend moved to Brooklyn and needed a third roommate. I moved in and managed to get a job in Manhattan doing textile design. This allowed me to stay in NYC, the land of creative freedom. I kind of found out about the underground club world by accident. I met a woman who called herself “Allison Wonderland”. She took me to the Limelight and introduced me to her boss, a big party promoter at the time. I gave myself a club kid name and “Kabuki Starshine” was born. Everything branched off from that. The make-up on my face became my portfolio. One of the most exciting things that happened was meeting Anohni, known as Antony Hegarty at that time, who was putting together a unique theater/performance group together – Blacklips Performance Cult. We did shows and plays every Monday night at the Pyramid Club. Leigh Bowery used to come and watch us when he was in NYC. My contribution was somewhat minuscule compared to Anohni’s amazing talent, but it did push me to make my visuals even more compelling than they might have been otherwise.
So, that change of canvas. You went from textile design to faces, which is more organic. Was there a moment where you were like, hmm me painting on peoples’ faces is more rewarding?
It’s all interrelated but for me, the big difference is that painting and designing are solitary and make-up is interactive and quite often collaborative. It’s fun to finish the jigsaw puzzle by enhancing a designer’s vision with the appropriate make-up. Even if it’s a very natural fresh look, it’s exciting to see the whole effect spring to life and become one with the model or celebrity. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s certainly true of my first big break – doing Sarah Jessica Parker and other cast members on seasons one and two of “Sex and the City”. I have Patricia Field to thank for that. Luckily I had done some tests with just about anybody I could, so there was something to show the producers other than snaps of myself. But it was all because of Pat that I got that gig and got into the union.
Amazing! So you talk about Sex and the City, you talk about coming up on that underground New York fashion scene. What would you consider your first solo fashion industry experience as far as you being the lead makeup artist backstage or on a shoot? Did that organically come out of Sex and the City?
“Sex and the City” got me into the union so I could do other tv and film work. I’ve done seven movies. One of them, “Party Monster” caught the eye of Steven Klein, who remembered me from my club kid days. I got a call to come and bring some photos of my work. He got excited when he saw the stranger stuff, tests done on myself and on my friends. He had the idea of doing these more avant-garde looks on Karen Elson, changing the make-up on each page. When the story came out in Italian Vogue, it caused quite a stir; people still remember it. Right after that, stylist Patti Wilson brought me onto some of the fashion shows she was doing. One that I remember well: Heatherette. They wanted seven different make-up looks and threw things at me like “Can you make some models look like disco balls?” Of course I said yes…
Their shows were always over the top.
It wasn’t just a regular show, it was like a media circus. I remember I had my makeup in the corner and I think they wanted me to do Paris Hilton and the camera men just descended with all of their equipment. I couldn’t even get to my makeup! That was one of the craziest shows and also my first but once you get through that nothing fazes you!
Speaking on exciting shows like Heatherette or Jeremy Scott, do you think the industry has changed? Has it been tamed a little bit? Is there still that magic and exhilarating feeling backstage?
I guess I’ve been lucky to work with designers I love, where the energy is authentic and the models are super into it. I do a lot of the actual make-up myself at shows, especially on the “big girls” so I’m much too busy to be jaded. It’s so interesting to see how a look adapts to each face and how it works with the whole collection. Even with natural make-up, there is a lot of work that goes into making every girl look flawless. So yes, it’s still exhilarating, like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. What’s changed is how immediate everything is because of social media. The show happens and by the time you pack up your kit, it’s all over the place. Everywhere.
Is that a positive or a negative as far as when it comes to like beauty and fashion in the industry? Do you think it’s changed for the better as far as the immediacy in visuals or not?
I can see it being a problem for fashion more than with make-up, but there is no going back to the old way. The internet is definitely a playground for make-up fans. It’s odd when I see people recreating looks I’ve done on fashion shows or videos because it’s hardly ever the way I did it originally. I am flattered that it caught their attention. For the general public, it’s great to see a Youtube video and actually see someone do a start-to-finish demonstration. With make-up, it’s really about the quality of the product and the application of it. It’s better that someone is comfortable with the idea of using makeup or that they’re not mystified by it or afraid of it because it should be something that’s fun. I don’t see makeup as something you have to put on to leave the house, it should be something that you’re comfortable with and you put it on because you like it.
Yeah! What do you think makes beauty powerful?
I’m no psychiatrist but I can say that in real life, beauty plays a big role in projecting a strong self-image. It’s a tool for facing the world. Something that makes you feel confident. Like wearing clothes that fit you properly. Knowing little tricks that can conceal or minimize signs of tiredness or blemishes will make you feel more pulled together. And people will pick up on that on some level. In the less real world of magazine editorials and fashion shows, beauty can be a medium for exploring ideas and identities. A work of art within another work of art which is the story or the collection.
And what do you consider the basis of good makeup?
A good skin care routine. Great products, good brushes and applicators. Some understanding of how to apply the basics. And a mirror with a good light, a light that simulates daylight as closely as possible. If you don’t have a steady hand, sit at a desk where you can rest your elbows. Common sense tips like these can make a significant difference in the end result. After you feel comfortable with the process, you can play and explore and make aesthetic choices that express who you are inside.
As far as for runway shows and the process for collaboration, how does that come about? Do you normally talk to the designer before hand, to kind of talk about the inspiration and you kind of come up with what fits? What’s the process?
I do like a little warning beforehand, especially if a specific product is required. I generally request some info from the designer or stylist. Each designer has some kind of aesthetic consistency and that helps in understanding the inspiration board or other references that are sent to me. I like to be over-prepared and will grab things or ideas up until the last minute, often just seconds before I leave for the make-up test. It’s important to be very open to the vibe of the collection and the casting and everything else while at the test. I’m always surprised how well things fall into place. Quite often, it’s after the test that the real work begins. Mixing custom lipsticks or hand-cutting metallic eyeliner for all of the models. Whatever will make things run like clockwork the day of the show; It’s all in the preparation.
Is there ever any time where you have to do some convincing? Like maybe the idea of what a designer might have of what they consider to be their look to be very safe, within reason…do you ever try to convince them that maybe we can do a red lip or maybe we can do this type of texture – how does it go in that sense?
If I feel that strongly about an idea, I do it at the test and let them (designer and stylist) decide. If it looks really great, it will sell itself without me having to talk it up. Mostly what I do is find solutions and tie together all of the elements that are already present in the designer’s vision. There are several ways of expressing any idea through make-up. The theme could be anything from ancient Egypt to rock and roll to a Victorian doll. I have to use my instincts and skills to find the best way to do it for each particular show.
So you’ve been doing shows for almost 12 years, do you have any special moments? Did you have any pinpoints?
I remember my first Manish Arora show in London. There was a ton of prep work and I had to do it all, instead of sleeping. So many looks in one show that I couldn’t believe it went off without a hitch. In my delirium afterwards, it was great to see my aunt who had come down to London from the north of England to see the show. I also remember my aunt saying “Well, I’ll let you talk to Isabella Blow now,” who was summoning me over. It was sensory overload. More recently, I had a great time doing the Moschino Resort show in Los Angeles. It was a star-studded, of course. Anna Cleveland was twirling and looking amazing in a Hindu Shiva multi-armed printed kimono. The first time I worked with her she was just 13, for a Dolce and Gabbana campaign. I love the energy she brings backstage.
Do you have a certain philosophy when it comes to beauty makeup? Focusing on the dichotomy of those two different worlds in makeup, a look that is more traditional or classic versus a look that is more painterly – what would you point to as far as your philosophy when it comes to beauty and your approach to it, and everything in the middle to.
If it works, it works. Transformation through make-up can be a very subtle thing, a shift in energy. The sheer texture of a light-diffusing primer or a hydrating lip balm. Or, as you said, it can be more extreme, more stylized, more artificial, if you like. I’m a big fan of movies, old movies It doesn’t matter how mannered Bette Davis is acting or how improbable Fellini’s world is, you get transported by it. You suspend belief. That’s the main goal of beauty make-up – to suspend belief.
You’ve done so much! Is there anything else that you’d like to do that you haven’t done? Are there any boxes that you’re still trying to check off?
I just did a collaboration with MAC – my own make-up line – to be featured in select MAC stores in 2017. That was a great experience and I’m very proud of the results. James Kaliardos and Diane Kendal also did their own line, together we are the MAC Makeup Art Cosmetics Collection. I worked with choreographer Wayne McGregor at the Royal Opera House in London, a ballet called Woolf Works; I’d love to collaborate with him again. I’d like to work on my own projects more, when I don’t have to worry about deadlines – projects that blur the line between artwork and make-up and might find their way into shoots or shows.
What about personally? I saw you did a book titled “73 Drawings by Kabuki”. Would you ever consider doing a traditional beauty art book where you create the looks?
If I was approached by a publisher to do that, I might consider it. I’d probably want to be the photographer also and that’s a lot to take on. I’m a huge fan of Serge Lutens and how he worked on all aspect of the image, not just the make-up. It’s a lofty goal. It’s less involved to simply make drawings and painting or take quick snaps and put them on Instagram. I like sharing my drawings that way and I’m very resistant to selling them. I want to keep them all, even the doodles. Yet, I have no problem with doing make-up that gets washed off after the shoot!
Exactly! You put in all of that hard work and then at the end of the day it gets washed off.
It’s fine. Hopefully there is some evidence of it in the photo or video. I guess I would become a tattoo artist if I wanted everything to be everlasting. Someone I know got a large tattoo of one of my sketches on his entire upper arm. I think I was talking on the phone when I drew the sketch originally. And now it’s permanently on him!
Where do you normally look for inspiration? Do you look to the past? Your dreams? Your thoughts?
With some of the facial accessories I’ve made in the past for show and shoots, it usually starts with playing around with materials and letting them tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Of course, there has to be a plan on how this will be wearable and completed in time for the show or the shoot. After that, just as in the make-up designs, imagination takes over.