I could write a little biography as an introduction to this interview, detailing the beginnings and subsequent dizzy heights of Kay Montano’s makeup career, but as you’re about to see, all is revealed about her unusual path to success as soon as we start chatting. And my God did we do a lot of chatting, I could have talked to Kay all the God given day.
Let’s just say that shooting the cover of the nation’s coolest magazine at age 16 on your first ever makeup job, and going on to create some of the most iconic editorial looks of the 90s before your 25th birthday, is a story pretty much unrivaled in the industry these days. Kay continues to work with with the biggest names in fashion as well as specialising in flawless red carpet work. Her client roster of Hollywood royalty is eye-watering, from Jennifer Lawrence, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie to Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway, the list goes on. It’s a fascinating story and Kay is a fascinating lady. We had a lovely long chat one afternoon, and Kay had so many gems for you guys, I only wish it could have been longer!
Mascara Wars: OK so I’m just going to dive right in! One of things that’s always fascinated me about you is just how young you were when you started your makeup career, you were 16 is that right? And your first makeup job was the cover of The Face?!
Kay Montano; The Face was my first job yeah, I’ve been around! I was 16, I was at school… Every week I wanted to do something different. I could’ve been an interior designer, worked for TV, film, been a musician, a fashion designer, anything where I could be creative, anything which disrupted the norm basically. I very much loved the subculture and the Avant Garde, that’s what I grew up in, in west London. I was very privileged to have grown up at that time in that environment, there could not have been a better education.
But at school I met somebody who dressed like me, who had dreadlocks in a school full of “casuals”, and she met Kate Garner from Haysi Fantayzee, and I loved them. I loved the way they were just this mad kind of hotch potch smorgasbord of different cultures and ideas. This girl Kate Garner, she had huge dreadlocks, ripped fishnets and spray paint graffiti’d corsets, I just loved her! We ended up hanging out with her… more like we’d just turn up at her door! And I was sat there with really hideous makeup, I had no idea. I had the most perfect, honey-coloured skin and I covered it with chalky white foundation, plucked and painted on really thin eyebrows and made my top lip smaller, I was a state! She said to me “What do you wanna do?” and I said, “I want to be a makeup artist.” She obviously bypassed my horrible makeup and she said well go and see my friend, photographer Jamie Morgan, his studio’s round the corner. So I go and see him and he also chose to bypass my hideous makeup and decided to take me on. He was 24 which seemed ancient to me, but some people are just really cool and love to help young people.
KM: I was a lot older when I did that, I was 25 and had already done Vogue and everything else… I also had a record deal, I was a singer for a few years in between! I gave up makeup for a while, because I was 19 and kind of felt like I’d done it! *Laughs* I wanted to do something else. I’d worked every single day and I’d been to Paris and back, met so many people, worked with Linda Evangelista and everybody by the time I was 18. I was quite curious about singing, so I completely stopped makeup when I was about 19 and didn’t come back to it until I was 23. I literally didn’t step inside a studio or put makeup on for four years! You’ve just got to have a vehicle and I had a vehicle, I was singing so I was happy.
MW: I love that you could just leave and then come back to it like that. I wonder if that could happen these days? I actually saw this statistic online the other day that really freaked me out, that said that in the last year, out of all the careers in the USA, makeup artist was the 7th biggest growth in any career field!
KM: There’s way too many! The thing is when I was a kid there was no such thing as a makeup artist. The only makeup artist that anybody knew about was Barbara Daly because she happened to do Princess Diana. But I knew about her before, I’d always memorized visually the makeup on all of the ads that she’d done. Instead of hanging out and snogging boys I was looking at Cosmopolitan and looking at fashion magazines and working out who did the makeup and hair. I wanted to be a makeup artist because of the images alone that inspired me, whereas now a lot want to be makeup artists because they want to collect products, and they want the lifestyle they’ve seen on Sex And The City, and that’s not interesting to me. And I was fortunate enough to grow up in a world where there was only three TV channels, so I was forced to watch either the news, or Panorama, or a film season on John Cassavetes. It was like going to film school, I knew all of the independent film directors, I was quite weird.
“Nowadays a lot want to be makeup artists because they want to collect products, and they want the lifestyle. . . and that’s not interesting to me.”
MW: That’s something that I think is so important, references are so important to me, obscure unexpected references from outside the world of makeup.
KM: Oh forget makeup! I don’t care about products. I have to keep up with them because of the whole PR thing, but for me once you’ve got a brown eyeliner it’s, “Phew, I’ve got the best brown eyeliner, I don’t have to look anymore.” I’m not into collecting it. The world is separated by two different types of makeup artist or beauty bloggers, either you want something because it works really well, or you want it because you’re just into the product. But I don’t believe you’re only as good as your pots of paint… they’re just pots of paint! There’s a post on my old blog that’s still out there called “How To Become A Makeup Artist” and I deliberately called it that so that the people who just want to collect pencils and products and photograph it all drawn up their arm would read it. Because it had nothing to do with makeup in that sense. It was; watch films, read books. It’s me in a nutshell.
MW: I agree totally! I’ve never been a product hoarder or even into doing my own makeup. I give recommendations, but more classic favourites that I’ve found over the years, I don’t understand wanting every new thing as it comes out?! I’m probably in the very last generation of makeup artists that started before Instagram came along and the influx of blogs and everything else…
KM: Yeah and before Photoshop! Photoshop wasn’t a thing and also the Kardashians hadn’t come along to really made makeup regress. That Kardashian look is a regurgitation of what used to be called “heavy natural” back in the day. In the early 90s there were two things going on in fashion, one was grunge, I was doing American Vogue with Steven Meisel and all of that was the grunge style, but then the other thing going on, was the Kevyn Aucoin school. And he was a brilliant makeup artist, unbelievable, but he pioneered what later became nicknamed “heavy natural”, where you make skin look like its not real skin anymore, and basically recreated people’s faces, using heavy, heavy base. He used to get a lot of his models to lie down because it took so long!
Then eventually in America you’d see girls like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, all of the rappers and RnB singers adopting that style. In the end it was never fashionable, it certainly wasn’t something that girls did in the street, and it was just about dying out, and then along come the Kardashians and bring it all back again! That really beige, caramel, matte, chalky thing! But then fashion has become a place that has so got to survive by meeting commerce, you have to go where the social media is. If Kim Kardashian is where the Instagram hits are, then the fashion business has to follow her. That never happened in the old days, we dictated what was cool. There is no cool anymore there is just the currency of fame, and fame is followers.
MW: Talking about the huge amount of makeup artists that there seem to be coming out now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but particularly on social media there are a lot of new makeup artists flat out refusing to work for what they consider to be “for free”…
KM: Oh don’t even get me started! I tell everyone, I flipping worked for free for YEARS! There weren’t even wheelie cases when I was a kid, I used to carry round a massive toolbox! Going up and down on London transport, heaving that thing around for free. Anyone who’s made it around the world, whether you’re an actor, a musician or a makeup artist you bloody well suck it up and you do it for free for ages. To even think for a minute they’re being taken advantage of… There’s more of a sense of entitlement these days but it’s more stressful in the end because if you don’t expect something to happen you won’t be disappointed. I’ve met so many successful people in life and the thing that those successful people have in common is that they’ve bloody worked hard and they’ve sucked it up!
MW: I always hear young artists asking how they can get assisting jobs, how they can get on show teams, I have my own advice on it and my own experiences, would you have any advice for them?
KM: Well work loads for free! Make yourself useful. The world doesn’t need another assistant and the world doesn’t need another makeup artist, there’s not enough jobs for the amount of really great people that there are already. So you have to make yourself indispensable. If you show something about yourself which is special, then people are going to notice, but the one who’s in there who doesn’t do anything until she’s asked and starts trying to get in with the photographer when your back is turned… Or I’ve had assistants who, when I’ll be doing a celebrity or an actress they’ll say, “Oh have you tried the other eyeliner? It’s really good.” And I’ll be like WOAHH *Laughs*
“The world doesn’t need another assistant and the world doesn’t need another makeup artist. . . So you have to make yourself indispensable.”
MW: Oh my GOD! I loved assisting, I think the range of artists I assisted really influenced my style over the years. I wanted to ask about your style, in your work as Beauty Editor at Lula and Violet I would always see that very feminine, romantic style? And with all your work, you seem to really love and celebrate women and femininity in your makeups?
KM: Yeah! Because that’s what I grew up on you see. That’s what I had a fantasy about. I grew up when I was very small seeing post-Biba, and it had romance to me, the women looked like dreams. I bought Cacharel as my first perfume because when I was watching the telly Sarah Moon did the commercial, who I loved… It was just that whole time period. No one around me was particularly stylish, but on the TV and in my nerdy little world of high fashion magazines that I’d go into they were. My Mum bought me my first Vogue when I was like 14, and I memorized it! I can still remember it, it was all Bruce Weber and Talisa (Soto, iconic 80s model). I memorized the way the skin looked, the way that the sheen was on the eye, or the way that the eyebrow was, down to the last detail. It’s the same with music, if you grew up loving rock or funk or folk, you’re always going to have that in your music collection and it’s always going to make you feel good.
MW: So do you ever take references with you on a shoot? Or do you very much just work out of what you already have stored so to speak?
KM: No never, I’m kind of guerrilla and I like it to be that way. I don’t need it because everything that I want from makeup is in my head, and if it’s not stored there it wasn’t worth storing! If I look at the actual original reference that I’ve since translated over many years in my head it actually doesn’t look the way I thought it did, and the very thing that I’ve turned it into in my mind is how it should stay.
I mean, if I’m taking pictures for instance, I take pictures for fun, I will use references because I’m less confident about being able to nail whatever it is that I wanted in my head. But with makeup I just don’t have that. Probably because I started doing it at 16, I’ve been looking at makeup since I was 14 so for me it’s like breathing, makeup is way too easy for me now, it doesn’t take much thought for me anymore.
MW: I also wanted to ask, as you do a lot of beautiful red carpet work, and I often find whenever I do red carpet, that sometimes the person I’ve got ready will then get in a car, and get stuck in traffic on their way to the event, and they’re in the car for an hour with their face melting off… Is there any way around it that you’ve got used to? Do you supply products to your clients say?
KM: Yeah I know it’s scary and shit can happen! I do certain things but just subconsciously, it’s not come from the intellectual part of my brain, it’s just practical. And believe me the reason I’ve got to that point is by fucking up, sorry to swear but the only way to learn is by making massive mistakes.
MW: Well that’s something I always love to ask, about any on the job disasters, it’s funny of course but I think it’s so comforting and somehow encouraging for other artists to hear that!
KM: Oh my God I’ve made so many mistakes, really crazy mistakes! My favourite recent one was a year ago, I go to work to do a Glamour cover with Keira Knightly and she was at the end of her tether, she was exhausted, the poor girl! They really do get burnt out when they promote a movie, it’s crazy how little sleep and how many planes they have to take, and I can tell for the last few months she hasn’t had a day off… So that’s the girl that walks in the door, and even so she’s amazing and lovely and polite and gracious as always.
So I put her makeup on and then everyone says “we’d love her to be really brown and tanned” so I thought yay – I’ve got this great new product, a really nice light-reflecting, bronze-tinted oil, it’s going to look lovely. Anyway, a couple of hours later I’m looking at my hands and I was like, FUCK, its got DHA in it. It was FAKE TAN! And then I realised poor Keira, I’d put it on thinking I didn’t have to worry about where it went, so it was half way up her thigh, half of her boob, half her legs, half her arm, only on the inside, nice and streaky. I’d just thought a little bit here and there for the picture! So she’s basically completely patchy when she went home because of me. Her publicist was furious with me, it was awful. I sent her bunch of flowers saying “Ohhh I feel terrible!” and I thought I’d never see her again. The next time I saw her I said, “I really never thought I’d see you again,” and she was like, “Well, the flowers were nice Kay.” *Laughs*
I mean, I’ve had zillions. Half the time you work with somebody once and you don’t know how much oil their skin is going to create over the next five hours, so I’ve not put enough powder on, or I’ve put her moisturiser and foundation on and kept her dewy and then it’s just slid off her skin and looked really bad in a picture or on a press junket… Of course I’ve had all of that!
“The only way to learn is by making massive mistakes!”
MW: And have you learned any ways round it?
KM: Yeah I have, over the years without thinking about it you organically change things, just subtly. Say if I touch someone’s skin when they’re in hair, if their skin doesn’t feel sticky, it feels a bit dry, well a tip I learned from Barbara Daly is that you put lots of moisturiser on and then you wait a while, and just before you’re going to put makeup on you put one ply of tissue on, press and then anything that is left over is about the right amount of moisturiser you need. If it’s really absorbed they really needed it. It just plumps up the skin a bit and then when you put makeup on it shouldn’t be sliding off!
The worst thing I ever see on a show is all of these girls thinking you’ve got to “prep” skin. Now think about it, when a model, a human being, wakes up in the morning they wash their face. And after they wash their face, they put moisturiser on. They’ve got enough moisture, so when they’re about to do the show why do they put this thick moisturiser on before makeup? Why would you put something really greasy between your makeup and your skin? You have to use so much powder to stop it from shining, but if you mix powder with oil what do you get? A thick base!
I’ve noticed for years with many makeup artist assistants, that the most common mistakes that they were making were just from not using their brain. Say just painting really thick “uniform” foundation on from the top to the bottom without looking to see if it’s needed. Are there still dark circles and spots? Yep. That’s when I just step in and I say why are you putting that thick base over that bit of skin that was perfect? If that skin is perfect that’s what we’re trying to replicate, there is nothing out of a bottle that looks as good as that bit of skin on her forehead!
That said, I know I did it with my own makeup when I was young. *Laughs* I wish someone had told me when I was a kid. And I’m sure I would’ve said, “yeah. . . but it’s like, really cool!”
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