November 10th, 2016
She’s one of the most versatile artists we know – Caroline Barnes moves seamlessly from red carpet and editorial work to helping real women look gorgeous. It’s these skills, kindly donated to the good people at beauty charity Look Good Feel Better, which snared our interest. We sat down to talk about why, even with some of the glittering highs and A-List experiences, volunteering with and publicising LGFB has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her career.
WP: Why make-up? What was it about make-up that caught your attention and made you want to pursue a career in it?
CB: I suppose my first real exposure to make-up was when my parents took me to see Cats, the musical, for my 12th birthday and then Starlight Express for my 13th birthday – it really was like an assault on my senses and when the curtain went down I was just spellbound and wanted to know what was going on behind that curtain. I loved make-up, as did my mum; I was an ‘80s girl wearing a lot of pink and being sent home from school for wearing make-up – it was all there waiting to come out, and thinking about it, that’s where it all started. I still remember sitting in that red velvet chair and thinking ‘oh my god, this is amazing!’
I don’t think I was particularly artistic at school – I liked 3D aesthetics, like pottery, and making very messy, abstract art. I went to a very standard comprehensive school, not one of those ones where they chuck all these wonderful facilities at you. For me, it was simply ‘how can I get away with not doing any more work?’ I mean at 15, what do you know really, but I felt drawn to that little world so I asked to do my experience in a beauty salon. It didn’t exactly go to plan – they sent me to a health centre in Aldershot and it was basically like a doctor’s surgery. I filed notes for three weeks and watched the nurses all have affairs with the doctors! It wasn’t even that I had a terrible careers advisor, that’s just what they thought I meant.
WP: Were you formally trained? If so, where?
CB: I went to Guildford Tech to do hair and beauty therapy before working in a hair salon and a beauty salon, where I got bored quite quickly. I’ve always worked, I’ve always been a worker. So to have all desire, and then going to Tech and doing my course, combined with my love of biology – I just love the human body and science behind it – I ended up just dabbling with hair, which was fine but I was just perming little old ladies’ hair. We had a small make-up range, which was like a little Marks & Spencer Christmas box – you know, one blusher, three eyeshadows and a couple of gloopy lip glosses – and we’d play around and do each other’s make-up. They’d always say ‘Ohh Caroline, that does look nice’ and I realised that yes, actually, it’s nice isn’t it?
At that point I didn’t have any money to go and do a private course. But there was this course at the London College of Fashion called Theatre Studies, a two year HND which I thought my dad would be happy about me doing rather than make-up. I created a portfolio of graphics and screen printing, got my A Level in Art and went to night school – presented my portfolio and I got in, whoo hoo! And then, when you go to college and spend all this time doing this to get in, you realise that people are still bunking off and wasting time. It made me realise that I just wanted to get on with it and sort of run a bit faster with it.
I started assisting people while I was there, doing things like music videos – and I met a really lovely woman called Lisa Cavalli-Green, she’s a great artist and she’s worked with loads and loads of comedians. She was the woman who really taught me how to be with artists, how to make them feel good, and how to get your own way with them – which is important actually, because otherwise you’re a limp leaf by the end of the day. I was able to build up my portfolio and earn money with her, which was so important; we’d work with Lenny Henry, Steve Coogan, all those sorts of characters. It was absolutely brilliant, I did that for about two years and then I was able to go off and do my own shoots and things.
There’s a book called The Knowledge – I don’t know if it still exists, but it must still be in the bigger libraries in London – and it gave you all the numbers of everyone from dog trainers to make-up artists, so I wrote down all their addresses and wrote 70 letters to MUAs begging them to let me assist them. I got just one response, and that one response was the response which led me to meet someone else, where I met someone else and so on. So it does pay off, even if it was a small start. Make-up schools are a great business to train people, even if it is like a six week course, but you need the time to have those challenges to build up that confidence. And there’s no excuse – if you’re busy during the day with your course, go and make up ten people tonight. You can always practice.
WP: Making the transition between assistant to an artist booked in their own right can be very tricky – what would your advice be on making that jump?
CB: You have to actually make that jump at some point, but the wonderful thing about assisting is that you’re always learning something. Always know your worth; you don’t want to have someone take the mick and make you do nothing but have you bring their case or wash their brushes. I’m very conscious that if I have an assistant I want them to be actually doing something, learning. I only ever said no to one job, and I had loads of friends who were much pickier, or made excuses, but I did every job. Whether it was a documentary or going up to Cardiff to do some news presenter – you never know. It might not sound that interesting, but you never know who you’re going to meet there. And it was those kind of jobs where I just felt ‘uggghhhhh’ which were the ones, in a weird way, that led me to here. I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know if I wanted to do purely fashion, or work in film or prosthetics. I didn’t necessarily have a goal so I just tried everything; I hoped, that way, that I would find my path. I’ve been on world tours with over 100 people, done red carpets, travelled the world – there are so many different forms where you’re doing pretty much the same thing but on different people. It’s a wonderful job to be able to get that sort of experience, and do those things.
WP: What advice do you have for assistants on how they can stand out from the crowd? What do you value in the best assistants?
CB: I said to a girl yesterday, “All I want is someone with initiative.” I want someone to come and say ‘do you mind if I organise those foundations, can I label them and put them in a bag? These need updating, or can I do this? Have you seen this blog, it looks really great?’ I want someone to be organised and not need telling what to do – and I understand that they’re probably nervous, I certainly was when I assisted, but you have to make a difference. It’s that kind of self-assurance which will make the difference for you. As an assistant you need to be indispensable. For my clients, I have to make myself indispensable, that no-one else can make them look as good as I can so that they’ll always book me. Yes you’re learning, there’s lots to pick up, and yes it can be boring, but that’s what it’s like for anyone starting. What you’re doing is observing and learning how that MUA talks to the photographer or to the stylist, talks to the client, or how that MUA picks out products. That’s what I need – not someone to ask what time they’re finishing, or how much they’re getting paid for the job.
There are many of us, but there’s not thousands of people you can assist who will give you a good education. You’re giving someone a massive amount of training really, so you want to make sure you get something in return – which is loyalty. You don’t want to tout yourself off the back of other clients when you’re on someone else’s job. There is a learning curve, but it’s survival of the fittest really. If you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it.
WP: If you were to lose your kit in transit, what would be the first products you would purchase to re-stock it? What can’t you live without?
CB: I’d probably get… I don’t want to say the Bobbi Brown Palette because I’m sure everyone would say that, but it really does cover a range of skintones. I’d get the concealer palette because I could mix that with serums, moisturisers, anything like that to extend the concealer and create a nice light base. If I arrive and it’s a black girl then I know I’ll have her colour – that’s a pet hate of mine, I love working with black skinned girls. So that would cover the base, and I could also use darker shades for contouring and maybe even some of the shades combined with oils for lipgloss.
I would probably then get a brown mascara so I could use it on both the brows and the lashes, and I could take a tiny little brush – although I suppose I’d have to buy a brush as well! – but I could use it on a brush for an eyeliner as well, give it a bit of a smudge. Then I’d probably get a lipliner in a natural sort of pink colour which I could use to shape the lips but then also use it on the cheeks. And probably a facial oil to mix with as I said, so I could make it glossy, with a powder foundation so I could powder and conceal in one – something like the NARS powder foundation or the MAC StudioFix.
I did a job years ago, in Verona with Kylie Minogue, and my kit didn’t arrive – but luckily our hotel was in this little square and we got there a couple of hours before her show. I was freaking out – there was only a Body Shop and Toni & Guy, so I ran into Body Shop and bought a bunch of things then ran into Toni & Guy and just went ‘help!’ They were so lovely, so Italian and absolutely brilliant.
Having worked for so long with Max Factor I’ve become such a great fan of their products – especially their mascaras, I think they’re the best on the high street. I love Make Up For Ever bases and the EX1 bases, they’re lovely. I’ve actually started using some of the Rosie Huntington-Whiteley make-up which I’m very surprised that I like – the bronzer is fantastic. I did a film on my Instagram about the lipsticks, they’re really, really nice. I love brands like KIKO or RMK which do amazing eyeliners. Then you can get some great cheap things from Sephora, and I love Zoeva’s eyeshadows and their brushes – so a real eclectic mix of products.
WP: You’ve built many long-standing relationships with clients, whether it be celebrities or brands – what is the formula for a good working relationship?
CB: I think honesty; I’m quite down to earth and I say it as it is. In my 20s I would say I was trying to please everyone, and to turn myself into a character that others would like. But it’s true, you can’t please everyone, and that was a real realisation – hindsight’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I’m now very much ‘This is me’; always super professional, but I’ve learnt to be exactly what the client wants without being detrimental to myself. Just try to be honest because it’s an industry you can get a little bit lost in. You have to be careful because actually you’re not the star, you’re there to support the star.
I just really like women; I just have a natural connection with women, I’m not short of giving compliments – if my friends look great, I’ll always tell them. I love making women feel great, bringing out the best of yourself and helping women celebrate looking good; it’s just a part of my personality.
WP: You’re known for your flawless skin and naturally beautiful looks. What tips can you give on how to perfect the face without it looking too laden in products?
CB: Colour is the most important thing. I made a little video recently about the biggest mistake women make, which is to look in the mirror and look just at the face. If you can get the colour right, and remember the head is attached to the rest of the body in terms of your skintone, then your make-up will look much more natural. Understanding what skintone you’re working with and what foundation will work with that skintone – it’s not just picking a foundation because of the name or the effect it will give. It’s a canvas you’re putting it on. You can’t just think “Oooh I want to do glossy skin” and pick a foundation for that, because the model or client might already be quite oily. It’s having that process of intelligence to take a step back to catalogue what you want and what you have to work with – can I use that product to get that end result I want?
Forget overhead lights, we all have them in most rooms, but turn them all off and always do your make-up in real light, or use a mirror with a light around it; always have the face towards the light.
You have to create a bespoke make-up; if the skin is being really grumpy and you need to cover it then do what’s needed, but you want the rest of the face to shine. There’s absolutely no rules in make-up, it’s a really wonderful way to be unique, or stand out from the crowd, or for many girls I work with it’s a suit of armour which they can put on to face the world, even if they’re not feeling so great.
WP: How did you get involved with Look Good Feel Better?
CB: It was at a stage where I was really busy in my career – working six days a week, travelling round the world and loving it. But I just felt privileged, I suppose, that I had a job I loved which earnt good money, that I was living the dream. And I felt like I could use those skills to help people who weren’t having such a good day to feel a bit better. I finally found LGFB – but I was surprised that no other MUAs I knew were doing it. The way that it worked, at least at the hospitals I was at, was the teams at Chanel, YSL etc would all be released from their counters in John Lewis – all the brands associated with LGFB, because it’s the beauty industry’s biggest charity – to go and do a two hour session. So me trotting up was a whole new thing, they weren’t used to freelancers.
I was terrified. At that point, 12 years ago, I hadn’t lost anyone to cancer, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I felt like I would have cancer Tourette’s and keep saying the wrong thing over and over like some awful comedy sketch. But it wasn’t anything like that, it was really two lovely hours of people not talking about cancer. You get used to looking at someone with no eyebrows, no eyelashes, no hair, and giving them the tools to look better. I didn’t want to patronise anyone, or upset anyone, but it was great. Yes, you do have to learn how speak to them, but it’s amazing when you see them leave with such big smiles and feeling so good about themselves, with a big bag of goodies to help them.
They work with over 88 hospitals and cancer support centres across the UK and the demographic is anywhere from 14 to 90, with skintones from very light to olive and dark. The attendees get a big bag of products, skincare too, along with a checklist of how to change your routine for if you lose your brows or your lashes, things like that. Skin is often more red, more sensitive, so sharing tips and products like that and having fun together.
It’s probably two or three times a month they ask if I’m available, and it started to get trickier once my son was born. In the end I asked if I could help in any other way, whether I could help publicise them instead. They did the advertising campaign last year, which was amazing – especially the younger girl, Ellie, who came in with a big Barbie wig even though it was so hot. We did a really cool make-up, slick eyeliner, and when she went to put on her wig again I suggested we do pictures both with and without it. She was really reluctant but when she saw the pictures, I said to her ‘If you’re trying to communicate to a cancer patient, this is by far the strongest photo’ and she agreed. They all have their own stories, their own endings and their own beginnings, and there’s something so positive about it – because there is such a strong relationship between how you look and how you feel. A lot of these women say that when they drop off their kids at school, or maybe go to a family party, they feel like people change how they act because of how they look – and all they want to do is shout ‘Shut up, I just want to talk about Kim Kardashian, or Bake Off – anything that isn’t being ill.’
WP: What has been your stand-out moment with the charity?
CB: Have you seen their brushes? They’re fantastic, really great quality – we’re going to do more films on that soon, which I’m looking forward to. But if you want one stand-out moment it was probably that photoshoot with Ellie, the fact that she was brave enough to remove her mane of hair – which was like a comfort blanket – and ended up on a billboard with just her short blonde hair. To give other women that confidence, for them to know that it was okay, was really empowering as well as doing the same with Ellie on the day. It was all down to her.
WP: Things have changed so much since you first started out in the industry. What has been the biggest change you’ve had to adapt to, and can you speculate as to what the next biggest challenge will be?
CB: The biggest change has been social media, and not having a leather-bound portfolio anymore. I used to traipse around carrying this portfolio of beautiful printed images and tear sheets – and now everything is untouchable, behind a screen. It’s so strange. Aside from shooting in digital over Polaroid film of course, although some photographers are staring to do that again.
I think the consumers’ demand for honesty and transparency from brands is new and will change things – they’re so much more informed and knowledgeable, and there are so many people providing that information like Caroline Hirons. Hopefully the untouchable advertising in beauty (which is such a lie) will disappear, or lessen, and the money will be spent on proper education: informing women on how to do things and use their products correctly, in the way that the bloggers have started laying the carpet down for information. Open, honest information over something clever or canny from an advertising agency, which is real. I really hope for more of that realness. Everybody wants that aspiration and inspiration, of course, but you need to balance that with some honesty and an open approach to beauty for women to really regain the benefits of the products rather than wasting a fortune on rubbish.
WP: You’re quite active and engaged on social media. How do you think social media and technology have changed the make-up landscape?
Harmful or helpful? That’s it, that’s the main thing. With my videos I wanted to create a platform for those with a little time to access decent content because a lot of women lack confidence when applying make-up themselves. Making a career from being a blogger is amazing; they’re super hard-working and multi-talented on so many different levels, and I have so much respect for them running more than a full-time job themselves. They are doing most of their work on themselves, and it can be the case that they only know their own face, their skin type. That’s the beauty of being a make-up artist and working with some many people, so many faces – that’s what gives you the expertise which sets us apart. It’s great for modern influencers to talk about a blusher, lipgloss etc., but it’s only really from their own perspective. Make-up artists approach it from a different viewpoint, which is hopefully helpful for the consumer to have both aspects. The main thing here is that whatever and wherever your experience is from, it’s a really positive thing for us all to be talking about ways and products to make us look and feel better through make-up – and hopefully trying to save a few pennies in the meantime! It’s just trying to get people to understand that everyone’s face is different, and it is tricky because we are all unique.
There are many different layers to the whole thing. We all know what we look like in real life – the shiny, over-made up look doesn’t exist in the real world, and if you actually saw one of those girls, walking in the street, it would look almost like drag make-up. It’s modern drag make-up. It’s brilliant, because it is an art form, and if you want to have a metallic gold nose then go for it! It’s a lovely moving image for a short time, but I think it’s very important to have that realism and that’s what I’d love to keep bringing back to young girls. I suppose because I’m so broad with what I do – I do A-list celebrities and music stars, from Look Good Feel Better to doing a commercial, it’s a real varied thing. It’s very nice to have a real understanding, because you can be in a sort of fashion bubble, and you can develop such a huge ego and think that you can rule the world, and for what? We’re just make-up artists. I love the emotions and the psychology behind make-up, and I think that’s why I started with LGFB.
That’s where the real talent lies, working with real women; it’s very difficult to make supermodels look bad! It’s lovely, but I just feel like there’s more skill, and you have to apply yourself a bit more, to try and make the average woman look beautiful.
WP: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
CB: There’s no excuse not to make up at least one face every single day. There are so many references out there; push yourself and experiment with different things rather than just mimicking art. Never email and artist to just say ‘Can I assist you, thanks very much’; if you’re going to email an artist then make sure you spend time and effort on a decent email for them. Sometimes I’ve had cut and paste emails sent where they haven’t even remembered to change the name of the artist.
This job can sometimes take over your emotional world. It can make you feel rubbish, it can make you feel useless, make you feel that you’re not talented enough. Believe in yourself and keep striding forward because you will get there; this just isn’t a job where it just happens overnight. But don’t give up because you will succeed, but you have to wait your turn. The race is long, and who knows what your journey will be, but be patient and do everything that you can.