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How Renowned Makeup Artist Pat McGrath Is Changing the Face of Beauty On Her Terms

10 minute read

Under the glowing red lights and crystal chandeliers of a banquet room tucked in the back of China Chalet — a Chinese restaurant by day, dance club for New York’s cool kids by night — the legendary Amanda Lepore shimmies on the dance floor alongside downtown ‘It girl’ and model Paloma Elsesser. Nearby, Gwendoline Christie (otherwise known to the world as the inimitable Brienne of Tarth) gets a drink at the bar while Teyana Taylor dances atop a table and club kid Sussi holds court at a banquette teeming with downtown’s pretty young things waiting to get their faces made up by the hordes of makeup artists who are bustling around the room, patting glitter on eyelids and painting on luscious bow mouths.

It’s a decadent, glamorous spectacle that can really only be summed up as “fabulous,” the superlative favored by the woman who made it all happen: one Pat McGrath, quite possibly the world’s most famous makeup artist. Tonight, the eve of New York Fashion Week, belongs to “Mother” (as she’s affectionately known to friends and fans) and her glorious Mothership Voguing Ball — an epic homage of a party to the ballroom scene — where fashion’s insiders and celebrities are rubbing shoulders with drag queens and the city’s nightlife darlings to celebrate the unlimited release of her makeup line, Pat McGrath Labs.

The varied, glitter-adorned crowd at the Mothership Ball is a testament to not only Pat’s influence as a makeup artist, but her commitment to finding and celebrating beauty in all spaces and in all walks of life, a philosophy she’s built her career on for more than 20 years as fashion’s favorite makeup artist. But while two decades in the fashion industry might make some people jaded, McGrath seems to have lost none of the exuberance for beauty that she first exhibited when she was seven and concocted her first DIY face cream at home.

McGrath’s time in the industry, however, has highlighted the glaring shortcomings that beauty and fashion has had as a whole when it comes to diversity, an issue that McGrath experienced firsthand as a young black girl growing up with a limited range of shades for her skin tone. As a result, it’s something that she’s consciously worked to change with her work on runways and for the world’s glossiest magazines. So it should come as no surprise that McGrath took this experience into account when creating her own products, from foundations to lipstick.

Ahead of the release, TIME sat down with McGrath to talk diversity in the fashion industry, social media’s impact on beauty, and what her favorite drugstore beauty bargains are. See five of the most iconic beauty looks she’s created for runway shows above.

TIME: What is your earliest memory of beauty and makeup?

Pat McGrath: I mean, really, my earliest memory was watching my mother do her makeup. She was obsessed with beauty and collected makeup and experimented with it. I think it’s a lot of young men and women’s experiences, growing up, watching the ritual of what their mothers would do.When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​a​ ​child​ ​the​ ​world​ ​of​ ​makeup​ ​was​ ​so​ ​different.​ ​There​ ​wasn’t​ ​the​ ​wide​ ​range​ ​of​ ​shades​ ​available for​ ​darker​ ​skin​ ​tones​ ​like​ ​there​ ​is​ ​now.​ ​So​ ​my​ ​earliest​ ​memories​ ​of​ ​makeup​ ​are​ ​rooted​ ​in experimentation—concocting​ ​new​ ​formulations,​ ​playing​ ​with​ ​different​ ​pigments​ ​to​ ​mix​ ​and​ ​match​ ​and​ ​blend and​ ​create​ ​something​ ​that​ ​matched​ ​my​ ​personal​ ​skin​ ​tone.​ ​

I feel like the offerings for deeper and darker shades have improved in the time since you started working in the beauty industry, as has diversity in the industry as a whole – do you think it’s improved as well?

Yes! While there’s always room for improvement, I really think that it’s great to see that it’s getting better, but I myself know that I can go even further and I’m really excited about that.

Is that something that you kept in mind as you were formulating your own line?

Absolutely, every color. We needed to make sure that they worked on every skin tone. That’s the best pigment anyways, something that works for everyone because it’s just so rich. I think nowadays, beauty-obsessed men and women, they’re obsessed with the formula, how it performs, that’s what’s so much fun today – you’re not talking to a naïve consumer. It’s fabulous!

With the Internet and social media, there’s been real growth in terms of beauty knowledge and beauty communities. Do you think it’s changed the way we approach beauty?

Of course! It started out with magazines and all those incredible articles and no matter how steeped in beauty I would be, I would read a magazine and tear the page out and go straight to the store to buy exactly what I’d seen. With Instagram, it’s taken it to a whole new level. You can see every minute, every second in your scroll, new ways of how to apply makeup, it’s so entertaining and it’s so inspiring.

I know that you source many of your models and even some of your staff makeup artists from social media. Do you have any favorite makeup artists or makeup bloggers?

Who am I not following? I follow everyone because I love to watch them progress in their career as young makeup artists. I remember when MySpace started and that’s when I would start to see kids do their own shoots. I remember as a child sitting in front of mirrors for hours and hours and hours, and now they sit in front of a camera. I think now we’re just seeing the documentation of something that’s always gone on. It is incredible that you can see and nurture such talent. It’s been incredible to work with them. I love to look at all those young artists’ work, and then bring them in, have them work with me at shows.

Do you see it as mentorship? How important is that to you?

It’s so important. If I hear a rumor about a certain person at a makeup counter, I’ll go and meet them and ask “Do you want to go to Milan? Do you want to be a makeup artist? Do you want to travel?”

Did you have anyone like that who helped you? How did you get your start?

Oh absolutely! I started my career with a stylist named Kim Bowen. I’d met her in a club and I remember being star-struck at her when I was really, really young. She asked me what I wanted to be and I told her ‘makeup artist.’ And she let me go on all the shoots, I’d just go along and watch and help her. I had no real formal training, I’m completely self-taught; I’d gone to art college, but only for a year, but obviously, I was obsessed with beauty.

Who are your muses as you create beauty looks and products?

They’re infinite! From Kim [Kardashian West] to Naomi [Campbell] to Paloma [Elsesser] to Duckie [Thot], Miss Fame, I love them all! All this beautiful, formidable, strong, courageous women and men of all colors and sizes.​They​ ​are​ ​my​ ​personal​ ​icons,​ ​and​ ​they​ ​are​ ​gorgeous​ ​proof​ ​that​ ​beauty​ ​has​ ​nothing​ ​to​ ​do​ ​with one’s​ ​age,​ ​gender,​ ​body​ ​size,​ ​socio-economic​ ​status,​ ​race,​ ​religion​ ​or​ ​culture. Social media really opens up the whole world to you, you can cast from everywhere. I remember seeing Paloma on Instagram many, many years ago and I remember thinking, “I’ve never seen such beauty!”

Who do you think your biggest beauty icon is?

Just one? There are so many! I always do Grace Jones and my mother, two beautiful Jamaican women.

How long did it take to develop your makeup line?

Anywhere from 2 years to 6 months for a product. It’s not an easy task, but when you have a have a girl in a beautiful gown backstage and you have less than a minute to put a lip on her, you don’t have time to shade it in. I develop products that are perfect for me and my work backstage. How to get a lipstick on in 2.1 seconds without having to become Leonardo DaVinci. That was my real aim, to create a line that would include all my real tricks and secrets.

How hectic is it backstage doing beauty at a runway show?

The fastest I’ve ever had to do beauty for a show was 50 models in one hour. Typically, I have a minimum of 23 people working with me. When I started, there would be 18 girls in a show, now there are shows with 150 girls, which means you just need a bigger team. And the timing of there being so many shows and so many girls arriving late, you need to have lots of hands backstage. Of course, that’s why I live on a motorbike during Paris Fashion Week, it’s my happiest time. We have a whole fleet of motorcycles because the cars are stuck in traffic and sometimes we’ll have to send motorcycles to the cars and my team loves it, they feel just like James Bond.

In your job, you have access to the best beauty products out there, but what’s your favorite drugstore beauty steal? And what do you splurge on when it comes to beauty?

The moment I get off the plane, anywhere in the world, I go straight to a drugstore and get all the latest balms and creams and everything. I especially love getting lashes. Eyelashes back in the day, they would have amazing eyelashes in the drugstores! For my beauty splurge, I go to amazing spas around the world. I’m a spa-holic.

What is it like to collaborate with a designer for beauty that embodies their collection?

I walk into rooms with thousands of pieces of glorious clothing and accessories and it’s all so inspiring and fabulous. And of course, you have a story: Who is the woman? Who is the man? What’s the feeling? I’m given references, ideas and the reasoning behind the show. Then we do a makeup test on about 4-6 girls, and we show all the looks. I always love having direction from a designer or a photographer because you want someone who’s going to ask for something that cannot actually happen and that’s the kind of challenge that I adore. It’s what pushes me to create new products too, because sometimes you need to be pushed to think of something new.

Givenchy : Runway - Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2014
A model walks the runway during the Givenchy Ready to Wear show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2014 held at 'la Halle Freyssinet' on Sept. 29, 2013 in Paris, France. Victor VIRGILE—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Stella McCartney: Runway - Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2012
Cara Delevingne walks the runway during the Stella McCartney Ready-To-Wear Fall/Winter 2012 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on March 5, 2012 in Paris, France.Victor VIRGILE—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Maison Margiela : Runway - Paris Fashion Week - Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2015/2016
A model walks the runway during the Maison Margiela show as part of Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2015/2016 on July 8, 2015 in Paris, France.Francois G. Durand—WireImage/Getty Images
Alexander McQueen : Runway - Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2015
A model walks the runway during the Alexander McQueen Ready to Wear show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2015 on Sept. 30, 2014 in Paris, France. Victor VIRGILE—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
SLUG: ST/ Fashion  DATE: 03/04/2010  CREDIT: Maria Valentino/FTW
Balenciaga fall/winter 2010/2011.Washington Post/Getty Images

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com