Young Gun

April 15th, 2016

April 15th, 2016

Neil Young creates beautiful make-up.  It really is as simple as that.  From a store counter via 10 years as a MAC senior artist, Neil is in hot demand for Fashion Week shows, editorial shoots and celebrity clientèle.  We sat down to discuss the new age of make-up and his latest product obsessions.

Neil Young

WP:  Do you remember when you first decided that you wanted to work in make-up?

NY:  I do remember that time, very well!  It was in the mid-‘90s and I was a hairdresser at an amazing salon in the Midlands – I worked for Umberto Giannini.  He did a lot of photoshoots and hair shows, and I remember we were at a hair show in London when the make-up artist just didn’t show up.  I’d always played around with make-up, and I came from an art background, I had some kind of idea of what I was doing – so I volunteered to do the make-up.  He hated it, but he had no choice because there was no-one else available, but at the end loads of people came up to us and said that the make-up had been incredible.  On the way home I just thought ‘You know, I really loved that feeling, having someone enjoy your work in that way.’  And I remember thinking ‘I’m going to leave hair’ – and I did, a week later!  That was it.  I left the hair world and decided I was going to embark on a make-up career.  I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew that it’s what I wanted.

Actress Helen Mirren  attends the "Arthur" European premiere at Cineworld 02 Arena on April 19, 2011 in London, England. "Arthur" European Premiere - Inside Arrivals Cineworld O2 Arena London, England United Kingdom April 19, 2011 Photo by Jon Furniss/ To license this image (64393260), contact

Actress Helen Mirren attends the “Arthur” European premiere
Photo by Jon Furniss/
All images courtesy of Neil Young

WP:  Where did you train?

NY:  I studied art – everything from fine art to abstract art, drawing things, a bit of everything.  For me, having that background of going from 2D faces to 3D faces was quite an easy transition for me, it just meant I changed the medium in which I worked, even though I had no real make-up experience.  I’m a self-taught make-up artist, which I guess makes you so much freer with your creativity, your methods, than someone who has had more of a formulaic training.  I studied fashion design at college after leaving school, which I then dropped out of when I realized I didn’t want to do that, and then carried on with hair.  So I guess I wrapped all of those experiences into the make-up world, and that’s where I’ve stayed for 20-odd years.

When I left hair, and I was in Birmingham in the ‘90s, it was like a different world; there was no social media, no Instagram, none of the make-up schools on every corner like Starbucks as there are these days with people offering lessons and masterclasses.  It was a very different world then.  The only school I knew about was Greasepaint in London, and it was so expensive at the time that it just wasn’t accessible to me, that kind of training.  So I thought ‘How am I going to learn how to do make-up?’  I remember coming down the escalators in a House of Fraser department store, and I just had an epiphany of ‘Well here’s a make-up department, here’s where I could learn about make-up!’  I was ballsy enough to go up to a make-up counter and ask them if they had any make-up jobs, and they asked me if I was an artist and I said ‘Yeah I am!’  They happened to have a position, so I dropped my CV to them and they called me for an interview and a make-up test.  I kinda knew what they meant, but I was panicking a bit – what does this entail, what will I have to do?  I went for the interview and they wanted me to do a natural day look and then turn it into an evening look, and just handed me a set of brushes and the make-up.  So I fumbled my way through, and managed to get the job – and I guess that’s where it all began.  It was an amazing platform really for me to learn.

I learnt how to hone the art of make-up into real faces, and for me that was an incredibly fundamental part of my self-learning – to figure out how to make real faces look beautiful.  Honestly, when you’ve got 15 year old gorgeous models with perfect skin, symmetrical features, it’s easy to do that make-up.  There’s a different craft in that sort of make-up, but anyone who manages to mess up on those faces really shouldn’t be doing make-up!  When you’re working with different age groups, different skin types and skin tones, different ethnicities – that’s an amazing learning opportunity, and it was for me, one I will cherish forever.


Neil Young and Azealia Banks

WP:  You work across so many genres of make-up – red carpet, editorial shoots and runway – do you have a favourite, and why?

NY:  To be honest, I think editorial and runway make-up are very similar – it’s really only the time frames which are different.  But in the sense of building the make-up, you really are characterising the model, the woman, who is wearing the make-up through your choices in the textures, the colours, whatever you decide to do.  I love that, because it’s always very creative and it is a very different art of make-up, it’s almost like creating a character through make-up.  That’s a very different style to red carpet work, when you’re basically a triad of components – hair, fashion and make-up – and creating something through that.  Depending on the job you might be making someone feel sexy or gorgeous and I love that as well, because that’s really where I came from.  I come from a beauty background, through learning how to make someone look beautiful, so I always really enjoy doing that.  I enjoy making people feel great, and I think that’s the real power of make-up.  But with editorial and runway you do get to play and have some fun.  I don’t compare them really, it’s impossible.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04:  Natalie Dormer attends a Fashionable Screening of the Paramount Pictures film "Zoolander No. 2" at Empire Leicester Square on February 4, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

Natalie Dormer attends “Zoolander No. 2” premiere
Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

WP:  What was the biggest lesson you learned as an assistant which still holds true today?

NY:  The world of make-up is so diverse now, there are so many different avenues you can go down.  It’s important to know who you are as a MUA, and I guess the only way to find that out is to try your hand at as many different things as possible.  I really feel that there are so many opportunities these days – so many make-up schools, so many short courses, and I think wherever possible you should try them.  At the time, if I had been able to put my hand in and have a real feel around for what genre of make-up I’d like to connect with, I would have done it.  If there are local colleges, local MUAs who you know or live near then investigate.  See if you can meet with them or shadow them, work as their assistant for the day, do whatever you can to get as much of a taste of the genre as possible to see if it fits you.  And if it doesn’t, don’t be discouraged and try something new.  But definitely do your research because that’s the only way you’re going to know if this is something you really want to commit blood, sweat and tears to, because it is not an easy industry!

There’s a lot of opportunities these days and brilliant MUAs in all different genres of make-up.  Everyone likes to think they can be a MUA but to have a really successful career is really a lot harder than you’d think.  Research, get a feel for it – and don’t give up.  Don’t give up on your dreams, you have to keep watering them every day because one day they will just bloom.  It takes a long time sometimes, but you just have to keep going for it.


Weirdo Magazine Shoot. Photographed by Saty Pratha

WP:  How long were you with MAC?  What were some of your favourite or most memorable experiences with them?

NY:  I was with MAC for 10 years as a senior artist.  I was involved in the media-related work for the brand – anything to do with celebrities or editorial work, shows, representing the brand doing masterclasses… lots of creative things.  I travelled all over the world with them as well; I lived in New York for two and a half years, which was incredible, such an amazing experience.  I also worked in product innovation while I was in New York, and it was great to help conceptualise make-up for the brand, to come up with ideas, new textures and formulations.  I didn’t work in the labs but I would help them from an artistic point of view, help to tweak and fine-tune the products.  Obviously working for such a huge brand like MAC, which has such an incredible and diverse range of make-up, was a dream.

My most memorable person that I worked with would definitely be Raquel Welch.  She’s a really incredibly iconic woman, a pioneer in many ways.  She’s actually a really fascinating woman, because you don’t do her make-up, when you work with her – she does her own make-up.  You’re there to advise her and help her out, and what’s great is that she really does trust what you tell her, but no-one ever touches her face.  I just loved that, it was an amazing experience to work with her, and watching her do her face.  As a MUA I love watching people do make-up, and there’s no better person to watch than someone like Raquel Welch, who has a very definitive style of beauty.  She has such a defined look, she’s fine-tuned it so well.  Luckily I don’t have an ego; I’m quite happy to sit and watch someone do their own make-up and just advise.  I mean she’s been doing her own face for years, and doing it perfectly well, so why mess with that?  She said to me, ‘If I don’t do my own face then I’m not Raquel Welch,’ and I thought that was a beautiful way of putting it.


WP:  Would you say you have a particular hallmark or look which you’re know for?

NY:  I guess I have quite a big repertoire of make-up these days – I mean you have to.  It’s great to be known for one thing, it’s great to be that go-to person when people book you, but it’s very hard these days to have a career off the back of just one style of make-up.  You need to be diverse, to be flexible and open to things.  I wouldn’t say I’m particularly an Alex Box-style of make-up artist, someone very avant garde in their execution of make-up, I guess I’m known as a beauty make-up artist.  But even within that there’s so much scope; beauty today is so different to the beauty we knew in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  In 2016 it’s perfectly okay to just wear a bold lip on the face and nothing else, and that’s still considered beauty – or it’s okay to have it all on.

It’s really about what’s right in that moment, and I suppose I just have a good taste level of what’s right in the moment… or at least I like to think I do!  My motto, and I’ve always said this, even to younger artists, is that if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  I read it somewhere and it really resonated with me.  There’s no fun, no creativity and growth in always creating the same look.  It’s important to not play it safe all the time, or you can’t grow as an artist.  We’re always learning – if you think you know it all then you might as well give it up.

Neil Fashion

WP:  What are your latest product finds?

WP:  I just discovered this amazing Givenchy blush – Givenchy Mister Radiant blush.  It’s like a gel in a tube with tiny little blush-coloured pearls in it.  You squeeze it out onto your skin, and the pearls burst to create the most unbelievable, gorgeous gel-like texture and radiance for the cheek.  I love it because it just looks amazing, and it’s really fun to apply, really unusual.  I discovered it about a week ago, I was at Givenchy and they were showing me some of their new products.  They do a bronzer version of it as well, which was gorgeous too, I absolutely love them.  I like anything that really becomes the skin, rather than something which sits on top of it.

Now that Spring’s come in I’ve discovered a new foundation which I’m really crazy about – Givenchy Teint Couture Balm.  If you haven’t tried it then you need to.  I haven’t used Givenchy make-up for such a long time, but I had this meeting with them about their new products, reformulations and repackaging… and I was completely blown away.  They had some really gorgeous stuff, and they’ve gone straight into my kit.


WP:  Can you tell us some of your kit staples?  What can you not be without?

NY:  For me, I cannot be without MAC Cream Colour bases.  They have two ranges, the consumer range in stores which are great and multi-use – I like anything you can use with your fingers and which can be used in different ways – but they also have the Pro line as well with all of the different colours.  I have a huge palette of all of them, and you really can do an entire face with one palette of colours.  Eye colours, lip colours, multi-use colours, highlighters, contour colours… they are just really incredible products to use.  As a MUA you carry so many things around that anything which I can decant and use more playfully is a winner in my book.  Then of course there’s the NARS Multiples sticks, I always keep them with me.

I also love these new brushes which are amazing: My Kit Co.  The whole range is just fantastic.  They’re just coming to the UK, and the brushes are superb quality but at affordable prices, they’re not extortionate.  All the accessories as well, I’ve been stocking up on them.  There’s such a huge range, including some great staple brushes, even for your average make-up user, all the way through to your Pro artists.  I’d definitely recommend them.

KATE HUDSON at the Vogue Festival at Royal Geographical Society in London

KATE HUDSON at the Vogue Festival

WP:  The explosion of social media has been quite a revelation – what are your thoughts on how it has impacted the MUA community?

NY:  Generally I think it’s a very positive thing.  It’s not going away any time soon so I think you have to embrace it – you either jump on board with it or get left behind, because you can fight against it.  It is the way of the world, and I think there will only be more of it as we move forward.  The thing is to make it a positive aspect.  For make-up artists it’s an incredible platform to get your work out there, especially young, aspiring artists; you never know who could be looking at it – it could be agents, or potential clients.  It’s free, and it’s a great way to showcase work.  It’s also a brilliant way to build communities and foster connections between MUAs and creative individuals.  So I think it has a lot of positive impacts in the make-up world, and no doubt in whatever world you’re working in.

Obviously there is that sort of… Instagram definition of beauty – a look, a style which you see all over it and that’s defined as ‘beautiful’.  I take my hat off to those artists, honestly, because it really is expertly done but unfortunately it’s blurred the lines between what women want to look like, in terms of using make-up and beauty.  That make-up style looks great in a photograph on Instagram, but it doesn’t necessarily translate in real life.  That’s where the lines of ‘Is social media great for the make-up world?’ get fuzzy for me.  I think it’s a great way to showcase artistry, and it is incredible artistry, but I think that kind of work needs to be kept for photographic and studio work.

It’s transformative make-up at the end of the day, and I think that people want to be transformed sometimes, and you can’t deny someone that desire to be transformed with make-up.  They should have that right.  It should be celebrated as another form of artistry rather than shunned or frowned upon.  Fashion make-up is very much in the eye of the beholder and some people get it, some people don’t; most women on the street wouldn’t dream of wearing a bleached brow, but in our world it’s everything.  Everybody should be able to feel and look the way that they want to look, no question about it.


WP:  What tips do you have for creating a lasting relationship with a client?

For me, before you even start work with a client, it’s important to do your research.  Know who the client is, some of the history of the client, and try to understand the client – whether it’s a brand or a person.  Whenever I work with a celebrity I will Google them and make sure I have some real connection to them, so that when I get there I’m not just completely oblivious to who they are or what they’ve done – as well as what they normally look like.  There’s no point trying to re-invent the wheel, so if they’re always an eye person there really is no point trying to argue the case for a strong lip.  Whoever it is, know who they are.

I also think that to be successful and to have an enduring career it’s not just about being a great make-up artist, it’s about personality.  It’s important to leave your ego at the door because you’re a component in a much bigger picture.  On set, your responsibility goes much further than just doing the make-up.  I’ll always offer tea around, or check the models are feeling comfortable.  I want to be on hand to everyone because it’s not just about me and my job.  At the end of the day make-up washes off, but people always remember how you made them feel and that’s important.

You can find Neil on Instagram here, and follow him on Twitter here.



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By Deborah Murtha

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