As a new women’s show season gets underway, Models.com centers on the beauty business for an in-depth look into the rising talents making waves with their unheralded style. First up is Marla Belt, the notable makeup artist that stands firm as one-to-watch with her bold experimental style and dazzling beauty creations. Moving to New York after high school in the early 90s from Ohio, Belt attended FIT and then Parsons for illustration and became bewitched by the New York party scene. Translating her talent from printed canvas to the human visage, she soon got recruited by the master face painter herself, Pat McGrath. Models.com spoke to the budding makeup artist about her humble beginnings, what it was like working with one of the greats, and what striking out on her own means to her.
What was your impression about first moving to New York? As far as the different scenes, were people as bold in comparison to Ohio?
It was really different then, because there was no internet. There was definitely a lot more artists living here then. When I was at FIT we used to go to all of the clubs. Every night was a different party, and we would make these outfits to go. We’d plan a week ahead, to go to Roxy, The Tunnel, or Limelight, whatever party was happening.
And so how did makeup come into play? When did you first decide, “Hmm, I might want to go this way”?
I was always doing my makeup. I mean, when I was five years old I came down for the first day of kindergarten with a full face of makeup on! My Mom said, “go upstairs and wash your face!” I was always putting makeup on dolls and even in Ohio I was obsessed. It was 1981 and MTV first came out so I was obsessed with all the music videos like Culture Club, Duran Duran, & Madonna. I couldn’t afford to buy Vogue magazine, so I would go to the library and take out the pages that I wanted. I remember I would know all of the makeup artists because I would look at the editorials and ads.
That’s when I realized they didn’t use the same product as what they said they used because I remember this product that I thought was an amazing piece of makeup, so I went and bought it and thought “this is not the same color!” I wanted the white foundation that the girl had in the picture and went to the counter and she replied, “…there’s no white foundation.” So then when I moved to New York, I really got into dressing up and at Parsons I met with a bunch of students and then I started testing with people.
So, that’s where you got your main start testing and working with creatives?
Yeah, it was at school because people noticed the way I looked or how I wore makeup and would go “oh, can you do this for my shoot?”
They always say the best advertisement is yourself!
Yes absolutely! I would wear wigs all the time that matched my outfits. It was during that time of the 60s and 70s influence in fashion.
That seems like the perfect time. Makeup was so much more bolder and people took risks. It’s funny to think about gender fluidity now in the context of 2017 when in the early 90s and late 80s all the way up to I guess 92, 93, all these bands that used to play and like totally glam it up.
Yeah, even the straight guys would wear eyeliner. It was really different, because you’d wear like a woman’s blouse, as a guy. I don’t know if straight men nowadays would be bold enough to do that.
Maybe for Gucci! So you also used to work for MAC? Take us behind that experience.
Yes, after I graduated from Parsons, I started working at MAC Cosmetics at the Christopher Street store in West Village. At the time, there was just that store and one at the (Henri) Bendel location. So at our store we would get so many celebrities – Grace Jones, Lauren Hutton, Uma Thurman, Bette Midler, Janet Jackson. It was fun, and it looked like a club because it was the only location. We’d get lines outside the door going down the block.
How was the experience in comparison to when you eventually moved to editorial? Did you always feel like you wanted to focus on editorial? Because creatively you had something to say, or did you feel like working in retail?
Yeah, I mean I did shoots with MAC when I worked there for about 10 years. For me, it was a whole package. I always wanted to do editorials. I wanted to do the styling too, so I’d always do my own shoots. You know, if I couldn’t have an actual shoot to do.
And what made you then want to assist and work with Pat McGrath? How did that opportunity come about?
It was weird because there was a friend of mine who was working with her, and I don’t even know how he met her. He was a club person. And I remember at the time I really wanted to leave MAC. I wasn’t able to be as creative as I wanted to be. I was doing retail and I wanted to be more out there, and do makeup and fashion. So my friend contacted me out of the blue and said “Pat’s looking for people for her team, are you interested? She wants to meet you!” And I was said “Yeah!” And she came into the store that I worked at and asked “would you want to do the Dior show with me in Paris?” And I said “You don’t have to ask me twice!” After I did that Dior show, she asked me to be full time and I was with her for eight years.
After that time, I was getting ready to leave and had a couple shoots for Women’s Wear Daily in my book but not a lot. I had a relationship with Beverly Streeters and she had contacted me. “I heard you wanna leave, we want to represent you!” I was like “are you sure?! I don’t have a book or anything.” **laughs** And she was said “oh don’t worry about it.”
Nice! But since then you’ve been doing a lot of really great work. I mean you’ve been collaborating with so many great photographers.
Yeah, it’s been really amazing to get, opportunities to work with both Richard Burbridge and Ben Hassett.
One of the first shoots I did, with Ben he had invited me to his office and was totally open. “well…what do you wanna do?” I had this whole idea of doing a German expressionist shoot, but make it kind of punk, post modern. Still influenced by the colors and the graphic quality. And he was like “ok, that sounds cool.” I gave him the pictures I was looking at of artists. It was daunting because the editor of German Vogue was there and I had two girls and had to do seven looks. I really think it’s one of the most amazing shoots I did.
How is normally the process when you’re collaborating with a photographer?
It’s mostly for beauty shoots that I get to actually collaborate. I give my references and most of the time they have an idea of what they want. I don’t know if London’s different or if Paris is different but in New York everyone is very commercial, you know with not a lot of makeup usually.
Pretty run of the mill stuff,I assume?
But I’ve worked with Karl Templer and he always has amazing ideas. Like a real makeup point of view so, I like working with him. I like being a part of the whole process. It’s the difference between being an artist and being an applier. I don’t wanna be just a makeup applier. I want to have a point of view.
What normally inspires you as far as beauty? Do you look to the art world a lot? What’s your normal process?
I think at the core, I was a visual artist and a painter. That’s my background, art history and I love to go to museums. I just get inspired by the colors in the paintings. But also stuff around the city. Just to walk around and see all the stores and the way people are dressed. I don’t think I’m inspired by Instagram and the whole way beauty is now. Or with celebrities. I try to be more, outside of that world. To me they’re always trying to sell something.
I guess my work would be described as eclectic. I always like to find something strange in a beauty look. Something that’s not always expected. And playing with different textures and colors. And layering too, I like to layer a bunch of things. Like with feathers and textures so it looks like an ombre degradation. So playing with that idea of ombre feathers. I shop a lot at trimming stores, since I live in that area, the garment district. I’m always going to fabric stores and thinking “ I could use this for an eyebrow.” I never like to think just basic beauty, so that’s important. For my beauty work I like to be more creative.
Is there any big evolutions that you’ve noticed in the beauty industry since you’ve started? Good or bad?
The Instagram thing has kind of taken over. It’s just weird to see how in those shoots, they only involve artists depending on how many followers they have or how many likes they get. To me it’s very odd, it doesn’t mean that you’re a good artist. I’ve heard stories like where people hire them for shoots and they can’t do any of the makeup. I don’t know I just think that’s strange.
Yeah, it seems like the digital social media revolution, it has its pros, where you can talk about and display your work but also cons because it’s a popularity game.
Yes and everyone has a price. I know people too, they sell on their Instagram, time. They promote some product, and after seven hours it expires. And they sell it for money, and to me it’s not being an artist. It’s not really being authentic to your craft.
Would you ever want to do your own makeup line?
Ummm, I don’t know, I’d really have to figure out a way to do it that’s an unique approach because there’s just so much out there. There’s so much choice. I feel it almost speaks to us and our current state of hoarding. Everybody wants everything and there’s too much of everything. I kind of liked it when it was more simple. Even me, I have to get rid of most of the makeup that I get from people, because it’s just too much stuff.
So what would be the best piece of advice that you could give someone who wants to be a makeup artist anywhere? What would you say they should do?
Well for me you know I have an art background, so I think that’s important. An understanding of color theory. And light and shadow is important. Because your makeup is subject to the light it’s photographed in. So for me I can tell if the lighting’s not right, I can see it. Sometimes I can say something and sometimes it’s hard for me to say something to the photographer. But then I can kind of know how to change the makeup. So I think it’s important to have that background and have that experience in assisting someone in the industry. Cuz it was hard. It was hard to break into that. I think if I wasn’t with Pat for so long I don’t know if I would have been with Streeters. So I always say with fashion artists it’s important to assist with somebody who is already in the industry.
It makes sense. I mean, you don’t have to do it on your own dime, and you can learn…
The experience I got from Pat you could never pay for that. It was an amazing opportunity, really amazing hard work. Don’t get me wrong – it’s grueling how many days you work and the hours and the shows but it’s totally worth it because you get that experience in the end, and you get that discerning eye that she has. I feel like I really learned a lot from her. How to see color and references. That’s another thing that I think is important too is to know references. A lot of people don’t and then you get to a shoot and you’re like “I want this 1930s makeup” and you get to the shoot and I guess people are lucky they have phones now cuz you can just look stuff up. Back then you had to come with all your pages and references and names and what you wanted to do. I think it’s still important to have that and to be passionate about your craft and to look into it and research.
It’s funny that you said learning art history and art theory, because the one thing that I learned working with photographers, this term Chiaroscuro, which is “just dark” like something in shadow or knowing about shadows and learning about shadows. At first I thought a face is just a face, but once you look there’s so many lines and there’s so many things that are in shadow, and you have to be aware of that when it comes to makeup.
I just look at it as another medium. You know, it’s not painting with oils or water colors, but it’s painting with makeup, it’s the same concept.
Are there any face types you’re drawn to when it comes to muses? Model muses? Or do you not think about casting as much?
If I have a choice of girls, I try to look for a girl with not a wider face but more space to play with. But then it also depends on what the shoot is. If it’s something more masculine I prefer something more androgynous. I think to me what I notice is if somebody doesn’t make the makeup come alive with their expressions. Because it doesn’t matter how good of a makeup artist you are, if the girl doesn’t bring it, then the final product is just OK.
I didn’t realize it before I started working here but casting is so important. And some of the girls are 15 or 16! Beauty seems so specific because it is just face and eyes.
Yeah, people think there’s a formula or a ratio of eyes to lips that makes a beautiful person, but I don’t think it’s all that. Sometimes you get these girls that aren’t that attractive but when they get in front of the camera, something magical happens. They can really have this character to them and this attitude.
Is there anything that you would love to do that you haven’t done yet? Because of your amazing trajectory now and because you’ve worked with Pat. But what would you love to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet? In beauty or in general, is there anything left that you would love to explore?
There are definitely photographers that I would love to work with Paolo Roversi and Tim Walker. If you have an artistic sensibility, I’m more attracted to that. I mean I care about money jobs, but I just want to be expressive and be able to play. I think the shoots should be fun, you know? It doesn’t happen all the time, so I look for those opportunities. I’ll take my own money and do it. It’s worth every penny.