Melanie Christou is an ethical make-up artist, who regularly works on creative editorials and brand campaigns. She has assisted on shows at London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks, alongside her work with the Fashion Revolution Campaign. Melanie shares how her artistic background has influenced her work, her experience working with ethical cosmetics within the wider fashion industry, and what’s special about an individual’s relationship with make-up in our September interview.
You draw from your art background in your editorial makeup artist work. How does having an artistic perspective influence you when pulling together the concept for a shoot?
Having an artistic background is super important for me, I would even say, essential. Without it, I wouldn’t have the deep knowledge of colour and texture, and how to shade and illuminate in order to play with depth. Technically speaking, art helped me a lot. However, conceptually is where it’s helped me most. My background allows me to look at make up from another perspective, from outside the box. When I do editorials, I don’t view my work as make up, but as painting. This allows me to not constrain myself with what I should and shouldn’t do to a face. When I’m pulling together a concept for a shoot, I take inspiration from pretty much anything, from the colour of a fruit, a beloved painting, from documentaries, clothes, sculptures, movies etc. Inspiration is everywhere, I just need to be open minded to see it.
Is there any artist, era or style of work you reference time & again for your work?
Impressionists inspire me with their colours and texture combinations; artists like Pierre Bonnard, Pierre Boncompain, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet.
For their incredible brush strokes and line work I love studying Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.
For the ethereal beauty and soft lighting I look out for Frederic Lord Leighton, Lawrence Alma Tadema and John William Godward. I like to go to museums and exhibitions as much as possible, it’s my favourite pass time.
You’ve worked at a lot of shows in Fashion Weeks in London, Milan and Paris—are there any particular special memories you have from working on the shows?
I’ll never forget when I was assisting on a Fendi men’s show in Milan. It was the first big brand show I ever worked on, and I remember when the models were doing their final walk and all of us backstage were looking at the screen and applauding them. I got emotional because I knew at that moment I was living my dream. I grew up watching Fashion TV waiting for the moment when the crew goes backstage to interview the make up artist. I lived for the moment where she or he would explain the inspiration behind the look, and show us what products they used to create it. I always knew I wanted to be there, backstage with them. I believed they had the coolest job ever! Fast forward many years and I found myself standing backstage at a Fendi show in Milan and the realisation of that made me really proud. I finished the job and went out for an ice cream and vintage shopping to congratulate myself.
Having studied hair to prosthetics, history of makeup to wigs, along with makeup artistry—have you applied any of the more unusual aspects of your course when on a shoot?
The truth is I haven’t, but I know MUAs who do. Isamaya Ffrench is a perfect example, she marries prosthetics and fashion in a really cool way. Also, Athena Paginton uses a lot of body painting techniques on the face.
What’s your experience been like using ethical makeup in your work?
I love it! I love how it’s always a conversation starter with models and colleagues. I love how well I combined my ethics with my work. I love the uniqueness of the products. I love the challenges that having a green kit comes with. It’s definitely more difficult to work with products that don’t make it easy for you to blend them out. I don’t use products with silicones thus it has a big effect on how smooth, silky and effortlessly blended everything looks. However, it’s not impossible, you can still achieve the desired effect if you master your technical skills, and that’s why I believe using natural products makes me a better artist.
Has working in ethical makeup opened you up to any opportunities that you may not have had with traditional makeup artistry?
Yes! For sure! Having a natural kit is fortunately or unfortunately a niche, so clients sometimes only want green MUAs. I had the honour to do the make up for the Fashion Revolution Campaign and that was really special for me. I’m good friends with Madara from What’s Your Legacy who always kindly introduces me to independent sustainable brands like yours, so a lot of meaningful collaborations come from this. I don’t think I could have done some of the jobs I’ve done if it wasn’t for my natural kit. At the same time, no one didn’t book me because I had natural kit, so I don’t lose jobs from it either.
What was your personal journey with makeup—when did you fall for the craft and how did you begin to develop your skills?
I was always interested in make up, since as long as I can remember. On afternoons when I didn’t have lessons, I played with my mum’s make up for hours; I remember it was so fun!
Then, when I was a bit older and I could go out, I loved doing my make up and experimenting with colours. I still remember the first time I bought my own make up. It was from MAC and I bought a green, a blue, and a brown eyeshadow and some brushes. I still have them. My most vivid memories though are when I was coming back from the club and instead of taking off my make up and going to sleep, I would spend hours experimenting on top of the make up I was already wearing. Since I knew I would take it off anyway, I let myself loose and did crazy make up at 3 in the morning! It was so fun! I think that was when I learned to do my own make up. I would also do my friend’s make up before going out, so that was cool to experience as well, as it is completely different doing it on another person.
When I turned 18 I left Cyprus for the UK and, within months, I got severe acne, and that’s when I got really serious with make up. I was obsessed with making my base look like I’m not wearing any foundation whilst at the same time covering my acne and acne scars. It required time, practice and good colour knowledge and that’s where my passion with skin began. If it wasn’t for my acne, maybe I would have never considered seriously becoming an MUA, so I’m incredibly thankful for what it taught me.
How did you get into ethical, natural and organic makeup?
It was very sudden. First of all I had no idea natural make up existed other than the not-so-exciting things you could find in Whole Foods. Nothing was as exciting as the conventional ones. Then, one day, I came across an interview of Khandiz, a green MUA, by What’s Your Legacy. She opened up this new world for me that I didn’t even know existed. I emailed her, asking for advice on how to learn more about this industry, and she directed me to Content Beauty & Wellbeing, a sustainable shop in London. I went in with my CV already printed and asked for a part time job as their in-house MUA, which they eventually accepted. I read Imelda Burke’s book The Nature of Beauty and that fired me up even more. Since then, I’m constantly trying to learn as much as possible on the subject, experiment with new modern formulations, and show to the world that you don’t have to sacrifice quality for natural make up. You can have both.
Is there anyone whose style has struck you and influenced your work? Either within the industry or people that you’ve seen in everyday life?
Oh my god yes! Where do I begin? If you are asking about “style” of working then I’ll start with MUA’s. My favourite make up artist is Lisa Eldridge, I feel like we share the same aesthetics, and her technique is beyond perfect. She’s one of a kind.
I have a huge respect for make up artists who tour with singers and have to do their make up at concerts. The best example is Beyonce’s MUA, Sir John. Just stop for a second and think what skills and technique you need to have to be able to keep Beyonce looking flawless throughout the Homecoming Coachella concert. If you haven’t watched it yet, go watch it now, and concentrate on her make up. It’s flawless. It’s pretty much a miracle that she looks so good after 2 hours of intense dancing, singing, costume changing, sweat, and bright lights…
Other than make up artists, generally I admire authenticity and uniqueness. Being unapologetically you is what I call “style”. Throughout history, a few people stood out for their bold or distinctive make up and fashion choices, and of course one of the most important figures is David Bowie. He was a make up genius. Can we go back to an era where boys wearing make up is cool? Freddie Mercury, Adam Ants, Prince, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Manson, KISS, Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!!!
When we talked before the interview, you mentioned: “I’m happiest when I sit opposite someone doing their make-up on the tube, I love observing how other people do their makeup.” Can you tell us a little about what makes these moments special for you?
I wish I knew why I find those moments so special, maybe it’s because if you think about it, they are really not special, they are the opposite of special; they represent the mundane ordinary dull routines women do. If they were special moments they would probably be done at home. I guess what fascinates me isn’t the rarity, but how much make up is incorporated in a 21st century women’s life. It’s their routine, and whatever becomes someone’s routine must have their touch on it. How people do their make up speaks volumes on what they’re like: what movies they like, what clothes they don’t like to wear, what their influences are, who their role models are. I like to think of it as a small insight into what they are like, but it’s coded, and only if you know make up can you decode it.
It’s curiosity as well, I’m curious what ordinary women—who don’t work in the industry and don’t care about make-up—use on themselves. What is practical, what they think is easy to use, what does the job the fastest. We live in an era where speed is everything when it comes to make up, which explains why it’s done in the tube. There were times, like in the Victorian era, where you needed a handful of servants and a couple of hours just to get dressed! Times have changed, and it’s incredibly interesting to see how society has a role in beauty. There’s a really interesting book about this actually (about the history of make up), it explores the correlation between big historical and political events throughout human history and the impact it had on beauty. It’s called Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day by Madeleine Marsh. Highly recommend it.