'Growing up in the south of France, I wasn’t obsessed with skin and makeup. I was obsessed with being an artist. Whatever artist—starving artist, bad artist. [Laughs] But, doing something with my hands in terms of colors and textures and painting, especially. I was really, really into art but, you know, what do you do with that? I was also obsessed with building a career. ‘Cause I didn’t want to be dependent…on parents…a husband; I wanted to be independent. I wanted to go into life and have a real job. But you don’t have a real job if you’re just painting at home, so that’s how the idea of doing the esthetician school came up. I did like beauty, the bathroom ceremonial: the shower, the scrubbing, the bath, the good scents, the makeup artistry—I mean, I was really playing with all that. I just went into the esthetic arts almost to just have a job, to then be able to do what I want on the side. After esthetician school, I worked six years in Paris and then in 1983, ‘84, Elle magazine wanted a team to test girls for the American edition of Elle with Gilles Bensimon. It was an adventure because we worked for nothing… I’m not talking about money. Of course, editorial doesn’t bring you any money, but it was like, you would give your all to do beautiful makeovers on girls all day long, and then the Polaroid would go to the garbage because it would just be testing girls, testing girls, testing girls… it was a bit frustrating. But it made me think I could move to New York, which was a big thing because I had said in Paris, ‘I would never, ever go to New York. Never, that’s not for me. Too scary.’ It’s funny you project and then it comes to you, right? It’s like I said I’d never do Madonna, never, ever. I didn’t want to do celebrities. Two years, three years…and then it had to happen. So I really believe in destiny.
It’s probably the dream of every makeup artist to own their own line. At one point, everyone is kind of mixing their own recipe and wishing that they would have such- and-such product…. But I did have quite an obsession with skin products, in particular. When I started, I started at the end of the ‘70s—so I’m an old cookie—at the time, the makeup was not the same as it is today. I went through a few decades here of makeup changing tremendously—from the ‘80s to the ‘90s to the 2000s. The difference, especially from the end of the ‘70s, beginning of the 80s was literally going from studios to outdoors, particularly. And the makeup was heavy in the studios. But when we went outdoors—especially Elle magazine, where we did all these trips that would last 15 days—we would be literally taking care of a girl who’d have to be dark-tan, jumping on the sand, going into the water, and then the makeup has to be adapted, obviously. We’re not even talking about retouching at the time. So I started to develop a method with a palette of ‘camouflage’ makeup, this stuff that was originally created by a plastic surgeon for use on burn victims, that became theatre and cinema makeup since you could hide anything on the skin— literally, camouflage, with an impressionist technique, hide every little broken capillary, redness, pimples, whatever on the face but without the texture of makeup at all.
‘Camouflage’ is a heavy, dry concealer that is non-greasy because it has to grab on to the pimple or oily skin—it’s not like a skincare item. I found it in a professional shop somewhere and it’s brilliant because you really, really hide something and it stays all day. For cinema, you can hide a pimple of the actress when she wakes up in bed and is supposed to have no makeup on. So, I started to do that type of makeup and to really have fun with it, because the skin would be like real skin. From that point, all my makeup was based in very little foundation, cream blush, cream bronzers, whatever… like sculpting glows and contouring, whatever had to be done, but doing this technique all over the face. I came to be known for that because, especially for the photographers who shot outdoors, they would like it because the skin looked fresh, the girl looked fresh, the makeup was never cake-y.
Also, when I came to New York from Paris—I forgot a big part of the story—I always had baby skin all my life, and suddenly I was developing adult acne. I guess it was a change of food, change of air, change of hormones, whatever—I was twenty-four years old. It wasn’t severe, but enough to make me uncomfortable. So I would do that camouflage on my skin, on myself, every day, and I would think that it’s so stupid that it doesn’t exist on the market. So, I was obsessed with that and I thought, ‘If I had my makeup line, I would do that.’ It was the same thing with the primer I was putting on, so that everything blended perfectly. Nobody did a primer—we should do a primer! I was using this stuff that came in liters that was based with mineral oil. It was genius, because everything glides on the ointment. When we did our own primer, obviously we replaced the mineral oil with something else, but it was this idea and all these little tricks of the trade that motivated me… Thinking of the women out there who could benefit from these little tricks, especially to hide the flaws, instead of caking makeup on their face for the sake of hiding their rosacea or their pimples.
The interesting part is when you go from one country to another country. For example, in my country [France], men hate foundation. They hate it because…I don’t know if it’s the way people are more obviously sensual with each other. So the boyfriend would just touch the face of his girlfriend and it would need to basically have the real skin [feel], you know? They hate to touch a face full of makeup. It’s so true. I remember in college, men would mock girls who would put makeup on. Like, they were really not understanding and feeling like these are the wrong type of girl—they were really, really critical of that makeup. The last thing that you wanted to do was cover your skin. The culture in France is, like, you will see women going to the office with a bright red lipstick, like I have, but with no other makeup on whatsoever. With bags under their eyes, not even a hint of mascara. Like, bare face, bright red lipstick, and off they go. But I think that’s very cool. You have certain people who are really attached to their lipstick, like me in the ‘80s. I would do the same thing, not wear a gram of makeup but yet red lipstick on and feel much better. Because it would brighten my face; it would make me happy.
The approach to makeup, the technique, the way you look at yourself, the way you paint yourself, the way you project yourself, all the options in doing your makeup, it’s interesting. Say you’re a teacher for small kids, or if you have a big position as a career woman and do a speech in front of many people—your makeup has to be right. If you wear the wrong type of makeup, you send the wrong message. And it’s so true. In that respect, I think it’s nice to help women figure out what fits them, what they should go for—but with their help, not like a dictator.
I’ve learned so much from the 17 years of traveling from store to store and country to country and really being one-on-one with these customers. My line was really built on that experience...from women saying, ‘You know, I wish we could have this because I have difficultly with that.’ If we had a few comments like that, we’d think, ‘That’s a good idea, actually. We should bring that formula to them.’ Everything that we did came from the needs of women—it wasn’t based on any studies whatsoever. That was my condition for doing my line initially. It’s a funny story: this woman from Texas, a buyer in a department store who had been a great admirer of Bobbi Brown, against all odds, came to me. She proposed to me that I do my own line of makeup with my name, because I was at the peak of my career and I was doing a lot of celebrities at the time. For her, this was the kind of leverage she wanted to use to launch a line. And she asked me if I had problems dealing with ‘regular people,’ since I had been in the business for ages working with models and celebrities, and I said, ‘No problems with real people at all.’ I said, ‘All I’m asking from you… I don’t need money—I have a great income, I’m passionate about my work, I’m really happy—but I’m just running around the world a little too much. I’m starting to [pants heavily]. So, if I could pause myself a little bit and get into a different sort of creativity, I would really enjoy that. But I want to be behind it; I don’t want to put my name on something that’s going to be done badly and it’s a bunch of colors that go out there and I have nothing to do with that.’ I said I had to have in the contract that I must be behind the product. I want to be in the lab and I want to be with a chemist, and I want to formulate my product.
The first items I made were camouflage and foundation. Our foundation was very pigmented, very covering, very makeup-artistry-like, but the idea was you would literally put one drop and then blend it all over the face to almost bring an out-of-focus effect on the face, but not a thickness. It was always that philosophy: covering, doing a good job, having performing formulas, but not looking like makeup. I think what we could take as an overall message and the feeling of Laura Mercier is you can play, and play with bright colors, smoky eye, anything you want—but the skin must always remain authentic, somehow. Whether you put concealer, camouflage, powder, foundation, tinted moisturizer, whatever you want—all of it at the same time—it has to be done in a way that we can’t see it. If it’s done right, the right color, well-applied, there’s a sense of freshness, a sense of well-done, polished, beautiful. Not caked-on. And if we can see the pores and the skin, itself, even better. It’s about going in where you need to and getting to work on the face to enhance the face.
To be honest, our tinted moisturizer was a try-out. In France, tinted moisturizer has been a very popular item for ages. Every brand has a tinted moisturizer, the idea being a moisturizer that has some pigment to tint slightly the skin. In France, women are very obsessed by this healthy glow. They don’t want to be pale; they have a problem being pale. Ask Carine. [Laughs] So, they want to look tan all-year-round because if you are a sun worshiper, what happens in the winter? You look green. You can’t look at yourself, so you go to the tanning booth, you go skiing, I mean, whatever you can do to get a hint of a ray on sun on your face. Or you fake it with a tinted moisturizer because it’s much easier. Even if you don’t like wearing makeup, using something that’s sheer, it’s a way you can cheat. When I proposed to make one for America, my partner said, ‘Why not? We need a new product.’ I was very keen to do it and I said, ‘Listen, if it doesn’t work, then we’ll just do it just for a promotion.’ That’s literally how it was born. And then everybody copied us… It’s like our primer, everybody started doing one, too…which is flattering, but annoying. But there is nothing we can do, so it’s okay. It was very popular and I’m glad it’s popular; it’s nice for young women.
Why did I stop doing celebrities? I want to concentrate just on my line, first of all; making the product is what excites me. But also, ‘devoted’ is a weak word when talking about celebrity makeup. It becomes your life. You breathe that job. You have no life…none whatsoever. I speak for me, I don’t speak for everybody… I was part of the 80s supermodel/celebrity scene because, at that point, I had started to work with Steven Meisel and he was known to make the girl happen—from they are nobody and then Steven works with them and then all of a sudden everybody wants them... The models, I’d see them like nobodies, like little Kate Moss as a little girl almost. I grew up with them, literally. That was different than the celebrities. Something happened to me that I was completely star struck, I mean, literally. It was a handicap! I was totally normal if it was a model, but if it was a celebrity and she was a little known, I was almost shaking. That’s the reason at first I said ‘No’ when Steven said, ‘I recommended you for Madonna. And she’s doing a video in Spain.’ She was doing ‘Take a Bow’ [see below] at the time. For three years I’d said, ‘No, no way!’ But I finally accepted. So I went to her apartment—I would meet her first, I would not go to Spain directly—my thought being I would meet her first to see if, after the first shake of the hand, I would be okay. And she was very gracious, very normal, cool. She made me read the script [for the video] and she said, ‘What do you think? What inspiration do you have in the script?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Me, personally, I’m thinking of Ava Gardner when she fell in love with the matador in Spain and fell in love with Spain, in general.’ And she said, ‘Okay, I like that.’ So I said, ‘But it’s very retro makeup if you’re into it.’ And she said, ‘Yep, I love that, just don’t do a lipstick that is a little orange-y, because that doesn’t go with my skin tone, but the rest you can do whatever you want.’ So I said, ‘Okay, fine, good vibes.’
When we arrived in Spain, we had one day to test the makeup. The chairs in the hotel were very low and I thought, ‘I cannot do this bending; I can’t bend and do the makeup like this. I have to be standing straight with the right light, you know?’ So I’m on the floor, my knee is on the cushion, I’m trying to do her makeup in this low chair with no light, and trying to do a perfect, retro eyeliner. I’m literally thinking, ‘You don’t fuck it up. Girl, you don’t…this is your one chance here.’ What happened was that she was very nice, first of all. And she sensed my fear. Lots of celebrities, they can’t deal with that. If someone is in fear to be with them, they hate it and they eat you alive. She didn’t do that; she was patient and she stayed still, like a model. Celebrities don’t…usually. She did not move. I did one eye entirely, then she went to the mirror to check if the liner was to her liking. She looked in the mirror—I would always see her in the mirror really observing, because she’s a perfectionist—and she said, ‘Perfect. You can do the other eye.’
Then when the shoot started, we did the makeup in a gymnasium with beautiful light, I had a high directors chair—all the conditions for me to do good makeup. [Inhales] And it was a fantastic experience. She is super creative, super smart, funny… I mean, for eight years in a row I did everything with her, whether it was press, videos, interviews, awards, I mean, you name it. It was a fabulous period of time. Until she moved to England when I had my line and I couldn’t work with her anymore. But she got me over my phobia [of celebrities] because after Madonna I could do anybody in the world—it was a piece of cake! After that it was like, listen, they’re just a human being who goes pee-pee like everybody else.”
—as told to ITG
Laura Mercier photographed by Emily Weiss in New York on October 23, 2012.