Pat McGrath MBE and British Vogue go hand-in-hand. She has worked her make-up magic on some of the magazine’s most memorable covers, including Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful’s debut issue starring Adwoa Aboah in 2017, in her role as Beauty Editor-At-Large.
Regularly collaborating with the cream of the fashion world crop like Nick Knight and Steven Meisel, as well as innumerable fashion houses, McGrath’s ability to lend an other-worldly, fantastical touch with the looks she creates is unique to her hands (and it is often quite literally her hands, as she famously prefers them to brushes in many cases).
Over the course of her 25-year career, she has done more than 500 magazine covers, has painted the faces of some 190,000 models and has been backstage at around 3,300 shows. (She travels to fashion weeks with 67 trunks of make-up – “but that’s down from 87!”)
To celebrate her multi-award-winning make-up line, Pat McGrath Labs, finally coming to the UK, at Selfridges, McGrath sat down in conversation with Jessica Diner, Vogue‘s Beauty & Lifestyle Director. Here’s what McGrath had to say…
On having a Plan B
“I really wanted to be an opera singer growing up! That was it for me. I wanted to be the Maria Callas of Northampton. I remember coming down to London to have proper vocal training and everything, and I had the ability, but my coach told me that I was very young and should enjoy life a bit more first. So that was when I sort of took myself off to nightclubs and galleries and started meeting people… But I’d always been obsessed with London. Always, always. I would tell my mum I was coming to London for an exhibition at the Tate, spend the whole time clubbing and then have to run to the Tate to buy her a postcard.”
On learning from her mother
“My mother really was not going to let a lack of availability of make-up for dark skin in Northampton stop her from having fun. Every Friday she would drag me out to the shops and we would get the one or two darker shade foundations that were left. Then we’d go and rummage through the fabric section and get remnants. She would always be saying to me, ‘Look for the colours’, and she showed me how to pick out colours in fabrics and then reflect that in your make-up. She hothoused me into this career, really! But my mother would do a full make-up look every day.”
“I can very clearly remembering coming home one day and crying in my living room after a really disappointing day of test shoots. I just felt so defeated and I thought to myself that I would just have to give up. And suddenly, the phone rang – it was a client I’d done a shoot for some two years ago, who’d remembered me and wanted to ask me to come to Japan for my first-ever tour.”
On making it big
“I don’t feel that I ever had a ‘big break’ so to speak – it was more a series of micro breaks. It was when I was young and working on the King’s Road that I met Kim Bowen and Steve Jones – we started talking because they loved my look! Kim asked me what I wanted to do, and when I told her ‘make-up’, she invited me to come along to some shoots on i-D and The Face, and then I started booking some of those shoots and working in the music industry. It was at i-D that I met Edward, and we’ve stayed such dear friends to this day.”
On where the ‘Mother’ moniker came from
“I was just always like a mother hen back in those early days of working on shoots. I would be the one to go and get food and drinks for everyone – shoots weren’t catered then – and I would be the one telling everyone, ‘Oh no darling, we don’t do the Tube'”.
On backstage beauty
“Doing show beauty is a little bit like being a detective. We’ll get a brief in from a designer about what kind of girl they’re designing for, and then me and my team have to crack that and piece together a look from what they tell us. But I’m not trying to create trends, really – make-up looks and moods just happen. I remember doing the Swarovski crystal lips at the Christian Dior show in 2003. That was seen as so rebellious – you have to remember, it’s a couture show, it’s meant to all be very ladylike! But it really took off. When I finally managed to make my own version of that, it was Lust 004, the glitter lip. I remember seeing Naomi [Campbell] wearing it on the red carpet at the MTV Awards in 2016 and being overwhelmed with joy.”
On introducing her line
“Really, I was giving in to pressure! People kept commenting on my Instagram and my Twitter every day, saying, ‘Okay, when’s your line coming?’ and the guilt was getting to me! I had planned to wait two years, develop the line as a whole but, in the end, I decided to just release what I had. Kind of like a fashion line doing drops and when it’s gone, it’s gone. So I realised the Gold 001 Pigment, which was this product I always wanted to make, almost like a gift to the fans, and it absolutely flew.”
“The biggest thing that’s changed in my career is definitely social media. It’s really changed the industry! Before Twitter, I just thought of myself as being in the background, but it showed me that I actually had fans and people who knew who I was. That was one thing that really motivated me to do my line, so I could connect more with that community.”
On advice for budding make-up artists
“You really have to love beauty and fashion, because there’s nothing easy about it. It can be the most wonderful job, to be able to work and play in cosmetics, but it will not be easy. Persevere! Don’t stop. You really have to keep that joy because that’s what keeps you going. Just go forth and continue. Make something new and really hone your craft. Find out who you are.”
On her legacy
“I want people to see me and know that anything is possible. The fashion industry is really not all full of snotty, awful people, we are joyful and we have a laugh. I want my legacy to be one of change and positivity. I really believe in that.”