upper west side
From Paris, to New York, to the covers of Vogue, Brigitte Reiss-Andersen, is one of the fashion industry's most accomplished makeup artists. She shares her experiences about the industry, raising children in the city, and her love for the Big Apple.
Do you remember when you first arrived in New York?
Oh god, yes. I’ve been in New York for 25 years, maybe even more than that.
I was working in Paris as a makeup artist, and in Paris the job as a makeup artist in fashion is a calling. You’re on call all the time; you work weekends and 18-hour days. I got so sick of it. A friend of mine came to model in the New York shows, and she suggested I come with her to meet some agents. We shared a really crappy room in a disgusting hotel. I went around and met with agents and at the end of the week I had two proposals to come and work here. I couldn’t believe it.
Suddenly I found myself on an express train, I only had a few months before I had to move here. When I first arrived I had my apartment address on a piece of paper that my agent had leased. There was no Internet at the time so I had no idea where it was. It was in Alphabet City, and back then it was really rough. I took a cab from the airport and the taxi driver did not want to drive me there. I was wondering if I had made a mistake, but when I went up to my apartment I was overlooking all of downtown New York. It took my breath away. It was very emotional; I thought, “I can be anything here.”
A couple of months after I moved here the Tompkins Square riots happened, and of course I was living right there. Our building was targeted. I’ve never experience anything like it. One afternoon I started seeing all these cops on rooftops, they were everywhere. I called the doorman and asked what was happening, and he said, “Well, they’re attacking the building at 2pm.” I was like, “What the heck?!” It was crazy, and they went on for a few days.
I was very lucky because I look ethnic, and I think everybody thought I was the help. Anybody who was really white was ‘yuppie scum’.
Wow, a real trial by fire!
It made me much tougher. I became a New Yorker.
You have to pick that up very quickly just to get around.
The tourists who just mosey around drive me crazy!
How long had you been working in Paris?
For about six years, I was somewhat established, but I still had a lot to prove.
Was the industry hugely different here then?
Massively different. In France, fashion is a calling. Here, it’s business. The big shift in New York was when Anna Wintour moved here. She came a year after me.
I remember before I would look at the magazines and it wasn’t really my sensibility. The buzzword for New York fashion at the time was ‘commercial’. Everybody came here to make money, the art was elsewhere. Anna Wintour slowly started luring over influential people, and within a few years the playing field was more even in terms of creativity.
Before that I would work here to make money, and go back to Paris to do the shows. Now New York is the place.
I did have to learn about the industry here, everything was very different. Studio etiquette was new, it was very efficient. My first job was the day after I arrived. It started at 9am, and everybody was there on time, which was hugely shocking to me. Nobody is on time in Paris.
The shoot stopped at 6pm, we were done. It was crazy. I suddenly had so much time; I would sit on my suitcase (because I had no furniture) and wonder what to do. A friend of mine gave me a guidebook and I explored. The book kind of saved my life, I found myself doing extraordinary things that I’ve never done since. It was terrifying and amazing.
What have been some of the highlights of your career since moving to New York?
Well, my first Vogue U.S cover was definitely exciting as well as doing my first NYFW show for Oscar de la Renta. I also did the make up for a client who was going to the Academy Awards. Since she was performing I was actually at the venue for the Oscars. That was pretty incredible. But if I should pick a very New York-centric event, it would have to be doing the makeup for a poster for The Metropolitan Opera. It was absolutely a non-fashion and very challenging job since the subject was the formidable singer Bryn Terfel as the terrifying Wotan in the "Ring". The posters were everywhere in the city and on buses for a while. It was fun.
Wow, that’s amazing!
Really feeling like I’d been accepted in the industry here was big for me. As I mentioned when Anna Wintour moved here, all the magazines were reinvented. I was here for all of that, and so many new magazines were also created. It was amazing being part of that community. To work with famous photographers, stylists, models … that is a wonderful feeling. Things have changed slightly now, there are so many international issues of the magazines; there are are many Vogues, Elles, and Cosmopolitans.
The celebrity world is everything now; they are on all the covers so it’s exciting being able to work with them. I was lucky to be around and working when the shift happened where celebrities took over the covers from models.
In Paris you would do a celebrity maybe once a year, but now it’s a constant frenzy. I believe it all started when In Style Magazine launched. That was the tipping point; they brought in celebrities every month. I never set out to work with celebrities but because I was working with the magazines it naturally happened, and so I segwayed into that.
I would work with someone who would like what I had done, and they would then ask me to do their make-up for movie promos, or music videos. It’s a very different world, it opened another market.
Is that the main market you work in now?
It’s probably a third celebrity, a third advertising, and a third fashion. I am adamant about keeping a foot in the fashion door, that’s how I renew my creativity.
It’s interesting to see how the worlds are blurring now. When you used to work on celebrities, the makeup wasn’t meant to change them; they needed to be instantly recognizable. Now some of the younger celebrities have a fashion model "look", like Jennifer Lawrence, Dianna Agron or Emma Watson.
Recently I did the cover for the November issue of GQ Magazine with Taylor Swift. It was a fashion shoot, rather than a celebrity shoot. The lines are really blurry now.
Seeing my work on the newsstand is great. Now that my kids are old enough and they get what I’m doing it’s fun to have their feedback. They have a ‘cool-meter’, the things I think are cool are not always cool. [Laughs] I think I’ve done a great cover, and turns out it’s not very cool. Then I’ll do a new celebrity that I maybe haven’t heard of and they turn out to be super cool. Thanks to them I get a new measure of things.
I am out of the loop; I don’t know what the kids are talking about these days!
Every minute there is somebody new, especially with social media. You have to have kids to know these things! Thank god I have them or I would have no idea.
The only thing I don’t like is being forced by my daughter to watch YouTube tutorials on Halloween make-up. She's apparently afraid I wouldn't know how to do it!
How did you find it raising children in New York?
It’s the best. I picked New York, I moved here for work but also because it offers so much. The suburbs are not for me; I never grew up there. Kids here have everything you could possibly want … great schools, the museums, theatre, opera, and the best culture. It’s accessible and it’s all here, but it will cost you a fortune. [Laughs]
I noticed prior to having children, when I was working with models, the girls who came from New York were always street smart and clever. I liked that, they were spunky. I hoped that my kids would be like that, and they are.
Going back to makeup, you work with people on such an intimate level …
My father was a teacher of French language for adults in Sweden, and the royal court very quickly snapped him up. He was the French teacher for the crown prince at the time, who is the king today. Being a teacher he was also around their family, and many high level aristocrats who were his students as well. Even though we came from very modest means, I was around these people all the time. My dad told me, “You can’t be anyone but who you are”, don’t think that you are them, and don’t think that they are you.
Those lessons I took with me when I started working with celebrities because you’re hanging out with them on set during downtime. These people are way wealthier, more famous, more glamorous … you can’t compare yourself to these people. You are there to do a job, you’re there to make sure they look the best they can and you make that journey as pleasant as possible.
Everybody can’t like you. Go in knowing that. That being said, being polite is so important.
Would that be a piece of advice you would give to people?
What I do is such a weird job because the makeup itself is such a small portion of the whole thing. You manage your career, agency, finance, and politics of the business. I feel sorry for the kids starting now who don’t assist established makeup artists, it will be very hard for them to learn those skills.
I do have assistants that I teach. I know from the ones who have left and had their own successful career that it was so important to them.
The other piece of advice is you’re only as good as your last job. There is no coming back from that.
Especially being in a freelance industry.
It’s very tough, there are zero guarantees. But also 100% freedom! I think it’s becoming tougher because there are more and more people willing to compromise on the demands.
So many people are willing to work for free now, how do you stand out?
I’m obviously at a stage in my career where I can’t work for free. I’m not going to compete with that. I watch the whole thing and I’m in disbelief, where is it going to go? How are people going to continue making valid and creative work if they can’t pay the rent?
The people who work for free will do it often for the social connections, and the social media exposure. They’ll work with a celebrity with the understanding that they’ll be able to boast about that on social media. I think that’s creating a lot of false validation of the talent of these people. It’s all going to end very badly. You have to make sure that people can see the difference in your work.
I learned by assisting the genius makeup artist José-Luis in Paris. He created the YSL makeup line. I assisted him for three years. One of his colleagues in the industry asked him, “Why are you dragging this girl around? She’s going to take all our jobs.” He looked at him and said, “Well, you have to be the best”. That has stayed with me always. You have to have the better ideas, you have to have more drive, you have look for new ideas and progress, evolve and be bold. You have to take risks so that you are different and people notice you.
A few New York questions, do you have any favorite spots in the city?
There’s one place near here that’s such an institution, I’m looking at it terrified that it’s going to close. It’s called Gracious Home; it’s everything for your home. It’s all gorgeous, the toilet brushes, the ashtrays, the thing to hold your q-tips. That’s the place to splurge. Go look at the bedding and drool!
My other favorite place is Bigelow Pharmacy; it’s the oldest pharmacy in New York. They have every French thing that I like; they were way ahead of the curve. You can spend hours in there, it’s amazing.
A.I. Friedman is amazing for paper products, notebooks, and portfolios. Everything that’s rectangular. [Laughs]
What does New York mean to you?
There are two things about New York for me. First, it’s a city that challenges you. When you get here you take your own measure, can you take it or not? I’ve known plenty of people who went back, they couldn’t handle it. You don’t come here because it’s going to be easy, everything is a competition and a challenge, but it also offers plenty of rewards.
Secondly, New York is a place with multiple personalities. There is a chic New York, ethnic New York (I love a Chinatown Dim Sum), cool New York … that’s New York for me.