Meet Kate Synnott, the LA-based Irish make-up artist who paints the faces of the world’s most famous women
From Nicole Kidman to Jessica Biel and the Delevingne sisters, Dubliner Kate Synnott has made up the faces of the world's most beautiful women. She tells Sophie Donaldson how her baptism of fire in the London fashion world led to her work with LA's top A-listers
A quick scroll through the Instagram feed of Kate Synnott, the Dublin-born, LA-based make-up artist, and you'd be under the impression that her life is a glossy whirlwind of red-carpet events, celebrity clients and Hollywood glamour.
There's certainly some truth to that, but her career trajectory has also involved an awful lot of hard grafting. Indeed, it's been a long journey from a Dublin Airport cosmetics counter to becoming a favourite make-up artist to some of the world's most famous women.
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Aged 32, Synnott has worked in the industry for 15 years, having left school after third year. Determined from the beginning to have a career in beauty, she managed to land a place at a local college despite not having completed her Leaving Cert.
"Somebody had dropped out at the start of the college year and they said if I wanted the place, I could have it - but I would have to work for it. I went to the college every day during the summer to meet them. I suppose they wanted to see if I was serious," she says.
Clearly, they saw her drive and Synnott emerged from college with four diplomas, including make-up artistry and beauty therapy. At the same time, she was working in Dublin Airport at the MAC make-up concession. She "begged" for a transfer to the MAC concession at department store Brown Thomas, and it was there, aged 17, that she met renowned make-up artist Paula Callan.
"Paula is my best friend now," says Synnott. At the time, Paula and her then husband, Mark, were opening their own salon called Brown Sugar. It would become the go-to destination for Dublin's It-crowd of models, TV presenters and actresses, and remains one of the capital's most successful beauty businesses.
Kate took up a post as Paula's assistant and when her boss took maternity leave, Kate stepped in as head make-up artist, a position that put her in touch with magazine editors and stylists.
"I was very open and driven - I would pretty much do any job, at any time, for free, because I knew what I had to do," she reflects. "I never passed up a job because it was on the weekend, say, or because I had plans with my friends. I always put work first from a very young age."
Having worked with the who's who of Ireland's entertainment and fashion industries, she knew that to really boost her career she'd have to look further afield. And so, she left her career in Dublin for the bright lights of London, and it was there she discovered that things don't always go to plan.
"I was excited, but terrified, but crucially I was so naïve, it never occurred to me it might not work out," she laughs. On a more serious note, she continues: "When I got there, I got a rude awakening. It was the hardest year of my life.
"Nothing happened for me. The first year was hell. I thought I needed daytime availability to take fashion work, even though it wouldn't be paid, because it was going to help my portfolio. I went to so many agencies and they said my make-up was great, but no one would ever recognise anything in my book because it was done in Ireland and it wasn't relevant to the London market. I found it really harsh. They told me to scrap everything I had and to start again. So I did."
She decided her options were to work either early-morning call centre shifts or get a late-night waitressing job in order to keep the daytime free, because "shoots never happen at night". By the end of the year she'd managed to book a few editorial jobs and build up a decent book, but it was far from the career she'd left behind in Dublin. And so, she considered coming home.
"I told my mum and she said if I did, I'd feel like a failure and I needed more than a year. Of course, she was right," Synnott continues. "By the second year, things were starting to fall into place. I started to get regular, local clients in nice neighbourhoods like Chelsea and Kensington, and I started to meet more people."
She also began working the Fashion Week circuit, which can be creatively fulfilling and great for networking but is mostly unpaid, with crippling early starts and crowded, frantic backstage areas. It was here, however, she would have one of those chance meetings that can change the course of somebody's life.
"I was approached by a woman who worked for Charlotte Tilbury, who said she'd love me to come work for them. They needed someone to do retail, which I wasn't interested in at all. Despite that, I met with Charlotte and took the job," she says. "And I did a lot of retail but in the end, I ended up becoming her assistant. Once I met Charlotte, everything took off from there."
Admittedly, she was starstruck meeting the British beauty mogul for the first time. "She has always been such an inspiration for me. Her work would be all over my moodboards, and the first time I went into her HQ, I saw all the same photos on the wall that I'd saved as inspiration," she says. "I was drawn to her work. She's amazing, and an incredible businesswoman. I learnt so much from her and would not be where I am today if I hadn't had the opportunity to work with her."
Synnott became Tilbury's second assistant and began working with Tilbury's high-profile clients. Although she was blown away the first time she met supermodel Kate Moss, on a photoshoot for British Vogue with photographer Steven Meisel, she says it was the way the British model work the camera that held her fascination, rather than her celebrity status. This unfazed attitude is perhaps in part why she's become a favourite with so many A-listers, many of whom are repeat clients. Discretion and professionalism are presumably key to working so closely with the world's most famous women - particularly when you're privy to seeing them without a scrap of make-up.
After five years in London, Synnott and her husband, Dave, were hankering for a literal change of climate. Sick of London's grey skies, and inspired by a year spent living near the beach in Australia, they settled on LA.
Despite Los Angeles being a notoriously fickle town, populated by the doggedly ambitious and ruled by a cut-throat industry, the couple instantly felt at home. Their first year in LA was "light years" away from her baptism of fire in London five years previously, in part because of the support of Dave's aunt, the former Miss Ireland and actress Olivia Tracey.
"She took us under her wing. She picked us up from the airport and put us up until we found a place of our own," Synnott explains. "Olivia was able to show us around and tell us what the neighbourhoods were like.
"We found an apartment in Santa Monica that we loved and she told us it was crazy expensive but we were sold on how beautiful it was. Luckily, she insisted on showing us more apartments that were around the corner, actually nicer and half the price," Synnott says.
Home now is a relaxed neighbourhood close to the beach, midway between Culver City and Marina del Rey, and far enough from the heady lights of Hollywood. Other Irish friends in LA, such as TV personality Lisa Fitzpatrick and hair stylist Andrew Fitzsimons, who works regularly with the Kardashian clan, made the transition easier.
She continued to work for Charlotte Tilbury but was soon being offered a lot of freelance work whilst being approached by agencies who wanted to represent her.
"I didn't actually want to leave - I was very happy working for Charlotte but it seemed like a good opportunity and I had to take a leap of faith," Synnott says. "I signed with The Wall Group, my agency, who are great. They keep me really busy and are wonderful at introducing you to new clients. For example, they saw that I'd worked with Poppy and Sienna Miller, so they said, 'Let's see if we can introduce her to Cara,' and that's how I've started working with her."
The Poppy and Cara to whom she refers are the model Delevingne sisters. Along with actress Sienna Miller, they form part of her formidable client list which also includes actresses Nicole Kidman, Jessica Biel, Emma Stone, Dakota Fanning and Kate Bosworth, along with supermodels Cindy Crawford, Lauren Hutton, Adriana Lima, Bella Hadid, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Ashley Graham. Over the course of her career, her work has featured in publications such as British Vogue, Elle and InStyle, and she's done make-up for A-listers at every major red-carpet event, from the Oscars to Cannes.
We might be used to reading notorious tales of outrageous celebrity behaviour, but Synnott insists she has not had a single bad experience in her three years in LA. "I never forget how lucky I am. I have some of the most beautiful women in the world to work with, and I admire their work ethic," she says of the celebrities she works with regularly, although she's quick to point out she's not the only make-up artist that would work with "the talent".
"Most of them would have a handful of hair stylists and make-up artists they work with, and they would choose whomever they think would suit a particular job," Synnott explains.
"The thing with working so closely with people is that sometimes you develop a rapport, and they book you again, which is great.
"But sometimes you just don't click on that level and I've learnt that's completely fine. You are not going to connect with everybody, all of the time. Being rebooked for clients is a great feeling, because you know they were happy with the job you did."
Based on Synnott's Instagram feed, she's got a lot of happy clients. Her social media feed is a veritable who's who of the entertainment industry, a glossy cavalcade of perfectly made-up famous faces. While she has a healthy online presence, with more than 32k Instagram followers, Synnott would like to do more.
"Instagram is really important and I'm constantly battling with myself because I feel I should be doing more," she admits. "A lot of make-up artists have great Instagram careers. You have to stay relevant. I'm really grateful for my following but the people I work with have hundreds of thousands, or millions, so it puts it into perspective," she continues.
"There's a lot of work you do that you don't post on Instagram - people think they have a pretty good idea of you but there's so much that simply isn't seen because people really just want to see make-up shots."
Whilst Synnott says she would never rule out moving back to Ireland, Los Angeles is home for the moment, not least because the couple are expecting their first child in two months' time. In the meantime, Synnott's career is going from strength to strength, a product of many years of hard work.
Life may not be as it seems on Instagram, but life in La La Land is turning out to be pretty good indeed.
Beauty bag secrets: Kate's top 5
1. Carasoin Cold Fusion Moisturiser
Carasoin Spa, nestled in the heart of West Hollywood, is a favourite with LA locals. The luxe spa offers all manner of beauty and body treatments, as well as an in-house line of products. This moisturiser is a vitamin-rich lotion made from cold-pressed ingredients. The thick cream texture 'melts' at body temperature so it's fully absorbed by the skin.
2. Heliocare SPF 90
Year-round SPF coverage is essential in sunny Los Angeles. Kate swears by Heliocare SPF 90 - and yes, you read that correctly. SPF 90 ensures very high protection from the sun's damaging rays. The gel texture of this lightweight transparent cream means there's no sticky or chalky residue and it's also waterproof, ideal for those quick dips in the pool.
3. Clé de Peau Correcteur Visage concealer
This award-winning concealer is perfect for covering up dark circles, spots and even fine lines. The hydrating formula is rich with Chestnut Rosa Fruit and Green Tea extracts to combat oxidation, and it's also SPF 25.
4. Hourglass Ambient Lighting Bronzer
If you want to achieve a perfect sun-kissed visage that makes it look as though you've been cavorting on Malibu Beach all summer, this is the bronzer you need. The bronze pigments offer a rich, natural-looking glow while the lightweight formula means there won't be any unnatural-looking streaks.
5. Kiehl's Buttermask for Lips
Sometimes our lips don't get as much TLC as the rest of our face. If you've got a dry, flaky pout, then an overnight application of this soothing balm will soften and smooth lips. It can also be worn underneath lipstick - simply apply, wait 15 minutes, blot and then add your colour.