Tuesday 21 November 2017

Faking it: Edel Coffey goes under cover as a make-up artist

Ever wondered how models really behave? Edel Coffey goes undercover as a make-up artist at London Fashion Week to find out

Make-up artists and models vie for space backstage
Make-up artists and models vie for space backstage
Edel’s work needed no adjustment

Edel Coffey

Twice a year, the style capitals of the world are taken over by the foot soldiers of fashion as they play host to Fashion Week. This event may come and go beneath most people's radar, but for the fashion pack this is the highlight of the industry's calendar. Fashion Week is where designers showcase their new collections, and fashion writers flit from show to show, cramming into make-shift rows to unpick the latest designs and decide which trends us mere mortals will follow next season.

Last week was London's turn and, while the Pope's visit stole some of the limelight, it still felt as if London was consumed by fashion.

The backstage area of fashion shows is notoriously tense and bitchy, fraught with tired models, fraying nerves and tight deadlines. I went undercover as a MAC make-up artist to see what it was really like.

Somerset House, a beautiful neo-classical building in the heart of London, is a flurry of stern, skinny women in oversized sunglasses, with BlackBerrys and iPhones clamped to the sides of their heads.

I am assigned to the Betty Jackson show and I arrive at 10am, a little early for my call time because I hate being late. It turns out I am late. The call time was wrong and so I arrive in a bit of a panic as opposed to cool and collected as I had hoped. The good news is I'm not the only one and the other make-up artists arrive at the same time, pulling wheelie suitcases of make-up behind them.

MAC make-up artist Sam Bryant is in charge today and gets the other artists to gather round while she demonstrates the look she wants us to achieve. She starts with a creamy base, then says: "You don't need me to tell you how to achieve a nice creamy base." A voice in my head silently screams, 'Yes I do'.

She moves on to the eyes, which have a very trendy green base, with a bold streak of green acrylic paint. There's no mascara or eyeliner, thankfully, but this look is harder than I think. It doesn't help that my hands have started to tremble with the nerves. Nobody except MAC senior artist Lesley Keane knows I'm a journalist, so I'm expected to do what everyone else does and not get in anyone's way -- also easier said than done when you're packed into a small space with scores of hairdressers, make-up artists and models.

I'm trying to stay cool, mimicking the other make-up artists. After the demonstration, we are sent to our stations to wait for the models to filter through from hair to make-up in a giant conveyor-belt pattern.

All that glitters ...

As the first models arrive, I'm feeling dry of mouth and moist of hand. My trainer tells me lesser journalists have backed out at this point. I'm tempted, but harden my resolve. Besides, it's too late to back out now as a giant gazelle woman is heading my way. Her name is Olga, she's 5ft 11 and from Latvia. She plonks down in front of me, a coffee in one hand and a chocolate croissant in the other (really). She has glitter all over her face from her previous show. I start by removing it. Except it won't come off.

I give it a second wipe but every time she turns her head the light catches another piece of glitter. This is not good. I eventually get it off using a dry mascara brush to painstakingly remove each particle. I'm trying to stop my hands shaking. I don't want to give myself away.

I listen in to the conversations going on around me. At the station to my right, an ethereally beautiful and incomprehensibly thin model is saying she was unsure about getting work at this Fashion Week as she was being told she's "too short" or "too fat". To my relief, she uses air quotation marks, which mean she doesn't think she's too short or too fat.

To my left, a beautiful model who can't be more than 15 is having trouble with cracked, dry lips. Her skin is flawless, but her lips are sore and broken in the corners. She explains she's on anti-acne medication that perfects her skin but dries her lips. I suppose that's an occupational hazard of working with adolescents: they get acne.

I try to focus on my own model, who is scarfing down her croissant and gulping her coffee. She has been up since five and hasn't had a chance to eat since then. This is better than last year, though, she tells me, where she was so busy she ended up snatching an hour here or there on sofas in hair and make-up.

A novel pokes out from her giant handbag. She tells me, with a sheepish smile, that she is reading an adventure-romance. But what is it we want from life if not adventure and romance? It seems as good a book as any. Her look-book is also in her bag, which is a model's CV, containing all her best pictures and showing how versatile she can be. She shows me a few images. She stops on a simple portrait from Paris. "That's me," she says. A dominatrix-style shoot from a German magazine is "not me", she laughs.

I ask her where she lives, but she doesn't have an answer. She is based mostly in London but travels all the time. She goes home to Latvia for three weeks every year. Across the room, another model is complaining about a dehumidifier blowing warm air in her face, and when the make-up artist tries to adjust it, the model slopes away from the seat and disappears. They can seem like errant children who simply want to escape, and it's easy to see why there is a woman with a checklist of models, marking them off.

Not being browbeaten

As show time gets closer, a girl sits down at my feet and starts working on my model's nails, removing varnish from fingers and toes, and applying a bright-yellow polish. The heat from the lights and the hairdryers is overpowering and the make-up is not working well in my hands anymore. I think my model's face is looking shiny and after I apply the green acrylic paint, she pops her eyes open and it immediately transfers onto her brows -- exactly where it shouldn't be. She looks like a Warholian silk screen. I try not to panic. I wipe off the green and start again, reapplying the base and the green acrylic, and telling her, in a tone that is surprisingly stern to my ears, to keep her eyes shut until I tell her.

The concept of personal space goes out the window. People clamber around, moving you and your tools. "It's like an earthquake," says my model. Girls strip naked in a heartbeat, and hairdressers and make-up artists vie for position to make last-minute adjustments.

The art of perfection

As the models get into the line-up, ready to go out on the catwalk, it's time for the last-minute checks to make sure everything looks flawless. One model's legs are looking dry, so I have to apply some moisturiser -- "but don't make it shiny". It's feels a little bizarre to be dabbing concealer on girls' elbows or massaging moisturiser into someone's thighs, but it's all very normal. Bruises, scars and imperfections must be hidden.

When the models are approved by the head artist (I am thrilled when my model passes muster and requires no adjustment), I sneak outside and take my seat. Jimmy Choo is next to me and Tracey Emin is a little further down in the front row. The lights go down, the music starts pumping out and the models hit the stage. When my model emerges, I purse my lips and think I should have been more heavy-handed with the concealer under her eyes. I've already adopted to the hyper-critical standards that come with judging perfection.

Five minutes later, it's all over and, I think, all that work, that stress, that pushing and pulling for this tiny moment that disappears like a puff of smoke before it all starts again.

It is, of course, part of the natural order of fashion, the perennial rebirth that defines fashion, the endless cycle of creation and deconstruction. It's self-generating and self-defeating all at once. And absolutely thrilling.

Irish Independent

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