June 9th, 2015
Recently we were invited to a gathering of MAC artists to hear from the fantastic team behind Strictly Come Dancing, led by Lisa Armstrong, following their BAFTA Craft nomination. Anyone who is a fan of the show will know the extremes the team push themselves to when creating the looks for the Halloween show, so their nomination was richly deserved – the only live show to be nominated. We were joined by Lisa, Bryony Blake, Marcos Gurgel and Tracey Jones, representing the hair department headed up by Neale Pirie.
We began with Lisa’s journey to Strictly, where she has now been working for eight years. After training, a series of assisting jobs on magazine shoots led to the chance meeting with Sharon Osbourne while Lisa worked her magic on Ozzy for a cover. X Factor had just kicked off, and she was asked to be Sharon’s MUA for the show. “That’s really where I learned all about working on live TV, learned the etiquette of working on shows,” she told us. Having seen the great work of Lisa and her team, Strictly made their move and approached her to design for the show.
“It was very different, technically. It was exciting, but also absolute terrifying! There was so much movement, compared to the static singing I was used to,” Lisa explained. “I knew nothing about dance, so I had to research and learn about all of the dances they did, and what sort of looks suited them. We tried to take it from simply being a Ballroom and Latin show to a visual show. We try to make it very current and fashion-forward, rather than taking a more literal interpretation of an era look for a particular dance.”
This conceptualised approach has helped with the popularity of themed weeks, including Halloween and Hollywood week. The team described the fantastic reactions they get from social networking, letting them know that people are loving their work and being inspired.
Of course, there isn’t just the live show to worry about. Ten minutes after the end of the live Saturday night show everything resets for the Sunday results show. “We only get ten minutes to take everything off and apply the looks for the Sunday show,” Bryony revealed. “Because we’re changing them so much, we tend to use TV products, rather than thicker theatre ones. We only get that one shot, so it needs to be malleable – and HD as well!”
Everyone has their role to play in the show, from designer Lisa and hair supervisor Neale right down to the assistants. “We make folders with notes and sketches and face charts – everything they might need on the dance or the look – and we give those to the individual artists who will be creating the looks, so everyone knows what they’re doing,” Lisa explained. “Marcos is the one who always seems to be able to keep on top of who goes when, where everything is – I’d be lost without him!” Marcos shrugged with a grin as he described the complicated colour-coded schedule which they use to keep track of all of the dancers and their run times.
Lisa is well known in the industry for her approach to training junior artists and helping their career to evolve. “It is important to have experience, to know how a live show works,” she insisted. “We take people on for work experience, where they learn the how’s and the processes. Then if they come back we’ll take them on as assistants, working with the kits and the brushes and things, being more involved. Then the next year you might move onto the male dancers, or the extras. That way the dancers also get to know them and trust them – they want to see that they’re progressing. I always take the whole team with me to every show I do. That way we all move together, we all learn together.”
Bryony and the Marcos were quick to support her, agreeing that her invested interest in them had been a real help in their career. “It makes such a difference because she really wants to know her team, and she also knows when to change things up,” Bryony explained. “It’s ultimately a collaboration, she’s happy for us to input even though she’s the designer. She allows us to be artists in our own rights and allow a certain amount of creativity. It’s such a long show run as well, so we can try things out and circulate on the dancers.” Lisa agreed, adding “It’s ultimately all about trust – especially when you’re dealing with celebrities. You need honest communication and an open relationship with your team to avoid any jealousy or competitiveness.”
Between the harsh stage lighting, HD cameras and physically very active dancers the team have an incredibly complicated job to do. “A lot of the looks are actually born on the day,” Lisa revealed. “Normally when you see them in rehearsal – you realise a lipgloss won’t work in a salsa, with all the arms and the spinning. Or that you can’t give them a tall hairstyle if their partner is doing a kick over her head or something.” They observe the band calls and the light blockings, then assemble the look for the dress run where they inevitably see what will or won’t work. “There’s also the looks for the professional dance at the start. Then you put them back into the concept looks for the show. Then it’s into the looks for the Sunday show, and finally back into concept looks for results. We have to keep starting over fresh, you can’t keep tweaking them – it’s easier to just take it all off!”
When working on Strictly the team are dealing with two distinct camps of people – the tan and glitter-loving professional dancers, and the celebrities who are well out of their comfort zone. Lisa and Tracey described the process of coaxing them into this show world – “You have to understand they’re under massive stress and pressure. We’re like their saviour sometimes, someone they can talk to while they prepare. They start off so strict, they don’t want to try anything! You have to do your best to match celebs to artists – it’s a personality match which results in trust and confidence, in their artists and themselves. You have to learn to choose your battles sometimes – especially with hair, they’re often not used to it being altered so much. Sometimes they’re even worse about their hair than the make-up!”
Talk turned to the BAFTA Craft Award, sponsored by MAC. Their nomination was for the 2014 Halloween show and the bold looks for each and every dancer. It’s the biggest show of the year, with even the male dancers and celebs having more intensive hair and make-up than their usual 20 minutes of grooming. Added to the pressure of massive opening numbers and extras, it’s no wonder the team start prepping as early as Week Two. “At the end of the day it is live, Saturday night family entertainment, so we have to walk the fine line between being too bloody and scary, and anything too cartoony and silly.” They receive the dance concepts and work on inspiration and mood boards, before working out potential looks on face charts.
For Ola Jordan’s skull-faced Charleston look the team used a white pencil to map out the design, before filling in with MAC’s White and Black Chromacake. “White is always notoriously hard to blend, it always goes patchy, so we used Vanilla pigment to blend and give it a nice sheen,” Bryony revealed. The team tend to use water-based products with a good sealer to keep everything in place.
Pixie Lott’s bold Tango look took a lot of time and energy, from the wild ‘electrocuted’ hair to the bloodied forehead wound and intense eye make-up. “We couldn’t do a real burn injury, so we just used glitter!” Bryony revealed with a grin. The dance required two different looks, pre- and post-electrocution – a realisation they only made on the day of the performance! The hair was achieved by using a half-piece wig, crimped and backcombed with plumping powder to give it the required volume. “We wanted to keep it very editorial and slick,” Lisa added. “What you didn’t see was us desperately pushing all of that hair into the dryer before the start of the dance!”
Inevitably the question of favourite products surfaced, which set the group thinking. MAC Fix+ came out as a group favourite, to avoid looks smudging, as did MAC Paint Pot in ‘Painterly’ as an eye base. Blacktrack gel liner and Collection’s Glam Crystals Dazzling Gel eyeliner pens in their glittery rainbow colours also proved to be popular, for just £2.99 a pop. Marcos had the top tip of using eyeshadow primer on lips to help lock in colour, while Bryony recommended the MAC Airbrushing Foundation – sans airbrush – which they used on the male dancers, thanks to its waterproof, sweatproof and long-lasting formula. Lisa also chipped in with her love of the MAC Concealer palettes, which should match with just about everyone.
Skincare is understandably a big concern for the team, given the onslaught on heavy make-up the dancers wear each week, sometimes for months. “The dancers tend to be good at looking after their skin, they’ve had years of practice, and the female celebrities tend to know how to treat bad skin for TV. It’s tough on hair and skin.” Tracey’s tips for haircare included using leave-in conditioner and oils to avoid breakage from the excessive hairspray usage. “We use a lot of hair pieces and wigs, to avoid damaging their natural hair too much.”
MAC Face & Body was, unsurprisingly, a must-have for perfecting the dancer’s bodies and disguising any bruising or marks they may have accumulated in training. “It’s a good way to help control the dancers’ tans – they get St Tropez tans on Fridays, before the show, but the professionals are the worst for tanning in between and throwing off the colour! It’s just so ingrained for them, it’s like clothes for them,” Bryony revealed. If you’re interested in hearing more about the Strictly tanning team, you can read our interview here. Armani’s various foundations were also a top pick of their kits, depending on what kind of finish you’re looking to achieve.
As the discussion wound up, we wanted to know what their advice was regarding specialising versus generalising in terms of skill set, and what advice they would give to other artists looking to make the jump from assistant. “We all have a mix of skills, but we tend to assign artists to stay with their top skills. If someone’s more adept at great eye looks, we’ll assign them to a dancer who has a fitting look. But we’re experienced in everything, so it helps when you’re working on a look together,” Lisa explained. “If Tracey’s working on the hair, and I’m simultaneously working on the make-up, she’ll know when to stop when I need her to without asking, and without getting funny – and I know to do the same if she needs me to. It’s about respecting each other’s roles. And for magazine work, you definitely need to be able to do both hair and make-up. You’re constantly learning off each other, at every level, so never underestimate what you can gain from assistant positions.”
Want to know more about Lisa? Read our interview with her here!