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Celebrity makeup artist Paula Callan: 'The first thing I said to my fiancé was, I'm 35, I have three kids and an ex-husband'

Ireland's top make-up artist, Paula Callan, talks to Liadan Hynes about finding love after divorce, surviving antenatal depression and keeping calm in the world of fashion


Ready for your close up: Ireland’s prime make-up artist Paula Callan. Photo: David Conachy

Ready for your close up: Ireland’s prime make-up artist Paula Callan. Photo: David Conachy

Paula Callan  at the launch of Paula Callan's new Callan & Co salon in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy

Paula Callan at the launch of Paula Callan's new Callan & Co salon in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy

Make-up artist Paula Callan and husband Kevin Cronin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

Make-up artist Paula Callan and husband Kevin Cronin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.


Ready for your close up: Ireland’s prime make-up artist Paula Callan. Photo: David Conachy

Nowadays, anyone with an Instagram account and a YouTube channel can call themselves a MUA (a make-up artist, it's pronounced Moo-aaah). It's a title that wannabes throw about with abandon.

But truth be told, there are only a handful of people deserving of such an accolade, and Paula Callan - Ireland's top celebrity make-up artist is - is unquestionably one.

Founder of not just one but two of Dublin's top salons (Brown Sugar, with her ex-husband Mark O'Keeffe, and her new Ballsbridge salon Callan & Co), Paula has worked in the fashion industry for 30 years - and in that time has painted the faces of every celebrity you could care to mention, from Sienna Miller to Helena Christensen, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Nicole Scherzinger, Cheryl Cole, Elle Macpherson, Erin O'Connor, and Joanna Lumley. She has worked at all the international fashion weeks, and is currently both lead make-up artist for the presenters and judges on RTE's Dancing with the Stars and make-up artist to Denise van Outen on Ireland's Got Talent.

Now, with stylist Sarah Rickard Lantry, Paula, who did Amy Huberman's wedding make-up, is using her wealth of experience to stage her first wedding event. Next weekend, the pair host Everything BUT the dress.

They're everywhere now, but when Paula, who is self-taught, began working in the industry, being a make-up artist wasn't an obvious career option. She was 16, hanging out in town with her best friend, when she was spotted by a make-up artist.

"She came up to me and said 'Have you ever thought about modelling? I was like 'Me?' I was the shyest child in the whole world," the mother of four says now, confessing that she is still an introvert who dreads a crowd, much preferring one-to one. Her first modelling job was taking part in a competition; it was here she first met long-time close friend Amanda Byram. "It was terrifying," Paula, who grew up in Airside in North Dublin, with two sisters and three brothers, recalls now. "I knew quite quickly modelling wasn't for me. I'm really sensitive. And it was like being in competition with your best friends."


Make-up artist Paula Callan and husband Kevin Cronin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

Make-up artist Paula Callan and husband Kevin Cronin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

Make-up artist Paula Callan and husband Kevin Cronin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

What she did enjoy though, was doing make-up on her fellow models. From an early age she had loved art. "I always knew about light and shade, colour theory. It just felt natural." Paula, who now leads courses in make-up artistry, had planned to become an art teacher. "But I loved getting into this world of fashion. I just didn't love me being the model."

After a year, she had had enough. "By the end I was kind of getting low self-esteem from the whole thing. I went into Rebecca Morgan my agent, and said 'I don't really want to do this any more'."

Rebecca suggested she become a make-up artist. Despite scepticism from some quarters at a model making the career leap, she soon built a freelance career, combining advertising and editorial work. Five years in, her sister Olive, 13 months older, rang one day, all excitement. "She said 'I saw an ad in the paper, MAC are coming to Dublin. I've sent your CV in. I knew you wouldn't do it'."

She was probably right, Paula acknowledges; she would have been too nervous. In fact, the call from MAC came before she had even reached home after her interview. "I burst into tears," Paula recalls now.

Within a year, she had been promoted to MAC's senior artist for Ireland and the UK, and for the next six years travelled constantly.

Her first fashion show was in London, working under the legendary make-up artist Val Garland at Alexander McQueen's show.

McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010, was there she recalled. "He was so lovely, just backstage, wandering around." Backstage at a show is intense, she admits. "I am calm when I'm doing make-up. I know what I'm capable of. If you don't get it right; I've seen people being ripped apart."

The McQueen show ranks as one of her most memorable, the other was an Oscar de la Renta show in New York, notable for very different reasons.

"It was the morning of the Twin Towers," she says. "I was only married about a month; I was 27. We were in Bryant Park. Me and one of the others went on a coffee run, coming up to a quarter to nine. We were leaving the tents, all giddy, as you are before a show. We walked up towards Fifth Avenue and there were people everywhere, standing in the middle of the street. It had just happened. Taxis had stopped in the middle of the road with their doors open. I went up to a guy standing in the middle of the road and said 'What's going on here?' He didn't say anything, he just pointed. I looked up and I could see the thick black smoke coming out of the World Trade Centre." The sound of sirens was everywhere, Paula recalls now. At this point everyone still thought it was a fire.

"We still went and got the coffees. As we were crossing the road we saw the second plane. You couldn't see what it was; we just saw the explosion. There was no sound until afterwards. It kind of came thundering down Fifth Avenue. I felt this big hand grab me from behind; one of the security guards from the tent. He was shouting 'Get the f**k back to the tents, we're being attacked. There's a f*****g war'.

On our way back to our hotel, someone screamed bomb, and there was a stampede. It was horrific. I kept thinking this isn't happening; it was like a movie."

Back at the hotel, mobiles were down. The hotel receptionists frantically worked the desk phones, trying to find out what was going on. Suddenly, a call got through, and the entire place froze in silence. "It was really frightening by that stage," Paula says. "The guy picks up the phone, and then says 'Is there a Paula Callan here?" It was her mother, calling from Ireland. "I bawled crying. My mom was amazing," Paula recalls. "She got on the phone and said 'Don't worry, I'm going to get you home'. And I just believed her, because she was so calm. She said to me afterwards 'I don't know how I did it, because we honestly thought we were going to lose you'."

She was in New York for the next week, finally getting on the second flight to Dublin and home to a huge "welcoming committee" at the airport, she remembers with a smile. Among them was her now ex-husband, hairdresser Mark O'Keeffe. The two had originally been set up by mutual friend and hairdresser Michael Doyle. Soon after marrying, they opened Brown Sugar, Dublin's first hair and make-up salon, now with numerous branches, which Mark currently runs.

At first, the idea of setting up their own place was "a pipe dream. Everywhere we went people would say 'oh look, it's hair and make-up. Like salt and pepper. And then I said 'you know what, we should do that". Now it's a given that every hair salon has make-up.

"Mark is an amazing businessman," Paula says of her ex-husband. The couple, now divorced, co-parent their three children.

There will never be a perfect time to have a child, Paula, who went back to work within weeks of having her first child, daughter Charlotte, now 12, reflects.

She's quick to point out that she had huge support from her mother, and that she could go back for a couple of hours at a time, rather than 9-5, five days a week. Isabella was born less than two years later, then Ely after a year and three months. "It was very full on," Paula says now. During her third pregnancy, with her son Ely, she suffered antenatal depression.

"I remember feeling really horrible and down. I had this theory that I was having a boy, because I didn't feel like this on the girls."

Her mother pointed out that she was working long hours, on her feet all the time. She told herself she was also coming home to two small babies. But deep down, she knew something wasn't right. "I wanted that to be the reason, but I knew in my head that it wasn't. I knew I could cope with stuff like that. That this wasn't normal. I remember thinking 'If I feel like this now, what am I going to feel like when I have a baby?'"

It wasn't exactly anxiety, she says, clarifying the feeling, which lasted after Ely's birth.

"I would have always thought that postnatal depression was that you didn't bond with your baby, or you didn't like your baby. But I just wanted to get all my kids and hide them under my jumper, and sit on my couch, and not have anyone near me. I just wanted to keep them safe from the world; I felt like the world was horrible. It was a horrible, horrible feeling. I felt like 'What am I after doing? I've brought these gorgeous little babies into this disgusting world'. I just couldn't see a bright side, and that's not like me at all."

The having to put on a brave face and go about everyday life, as she describes it, was a further strain. "You feel like you're two people. You're trying to be happy. You're putting on this front. I kept going 'No I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm just tired'. But you know it's not that. And Ely was a very cranky baby. I used to be awake all night with him.

"The birth had been extremely distressing," she explains. She was induced, and Ely was born within half an hour, whereas her other labours were long. Now, she wonders whether that increased the feelings of depression. Her midwife had not deemed her in labour, and Paula felt that her consultant was keen to get away on his holiday. "It was so traumatic," Paula says now, visibly upset.

It was the same midwife who after her son's birth, gently suggested that something was wrong, and that Paula should go talk to her doctor. He suggested medication. "I didn't want that. I wanted someone to talk it out with me. Tell me it was normal and that I wasn't a freak." Craniosacral therapy for her and her baby helped somewhat. She felt the same, if not quite as severely, on her fourth baby Caleb. Paula and Mark had separated some time after the birth of their son Ely.

A year afterwards, on a rare night out for a friend's birthday, she found herself in Lillie's Bordello nightclub in Dublin. "I'd never been there before, it was so random," she smiles.

"I remember I saw Kev when I walked in. He was staring at me, and I thought 'weirdo'," she laughs.

Kevin Cronin, now Paula's fiancé, works for An Post. Strikingly handsome; "I thought he didn't look Irish. He lived in Leeds from the age of 16 to into his 20s, training with the youth football club."

Eventually, he made his way over to talk to her. "The first thing I said to him was 'You don't want to talk to me. I'm 35, I have three kids and an ex-husband'. And he just went 'So?'." Kev was then 25. "It is scary," she says of embarking on a new relationship after divorce. "It's not just after a marriage. It's after years of being with someone else. But we just got on really well; it's just been really easy. And he's very mature, I think because he lived away for a very long time. He wasn't like a 25-year-old. "The couple are engaged, and have a six-year-old son, Caleb. "I never thought that would happen," says Paula of finding love again after divorce. "Not once."

Next weekend's event is an informative day for brides covering everything other than the dress. "Your make-up, skincare, tanning, hairstyle, flowers, cake, honeymoon, wardrobe," explains Paula. "Easy hair and make-up for day two and the honeymoon." All brides get a bit overwhelmed just before the time comes to leave for the church, she says. "I tell them I've seen this 100 times, this is normal, you're fine."

Divorce hasn't quashed her own appreciation of the big day. "I still love the fairy tale, the whole romance of it," she laughs. "I still want my wedding. I might be 50something getting married again, but how and ever. It's never too late."

'Everything BUT the dress' takes place this Saturday at the Iveagh Garden Hotel, noon-4.30pm. @everything_but_the_dress_event. Tickets are available through www.eventbrite.ie

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