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French Connection – We Chat With Melanie Bouvet

May 16th, 2024

May 16th, 2024

Warpaint’s Editorial Director, Emma Rutherford, sat down for a conversation with the former Wigs and Make-up Co-ordinator of New Productions at the Royal Opera House, Melanie Bouvet, to discuss her recent book, A Practical Guide to Wig Making and Wig Dressing.

Melanie Bouvet

E: Tell me about your background and how you came to the UK.

M: I come from France in Normandy, from deep and gorgeous countryside.  Everybody just does normal jobs.  I’ve always loved hair – makeup too, but I was always fascinated by hair, it’s my passion.  When I was about 17, you do your BAC [Baccalaureate – the European high school matriculation qualification] and then you must answer career questions at school.  I had looked into studying hair in France at the time, but options were very limited at the time for training as a hair and makeup artist in film or theatre.  Nobody knew so they tried to direct me into what they called proper hairdressing and then proper hair and beauty.  I didn’t want to go that route.

Luckily for me, my uncle was an amateur actor who had friends working in a Paris theatre and he asked them about schools in London.  On their recommendation, I approached the London College of Fashion, despite not speaking any English at the time.  What was interesting was my high school teacher.  When he saw the form I had completed about where I wanted to go, he ridiculed me about wanting to study in London.  Everybody else in the class laughed but I stood my ground.

Melanie Bouvet

E: I hope you went back to your old school with a portfolio and a smile. 

M: It is quite funny because the Director of that school had called me in at the end of year 1, trying to persuade me to repeat the year.  When I declined, he was really against my decision and was always negative thereafter.  But I passed my BAC, so save myself a year of extra study and I am forever glad I stuck to my instinct.

Melanie Bouvet

E: Was coming to London straight forward for you? 

M: I applied to LCF and came for the interview.  They recognised that I had talent but, because I couldn’t speak a word of English, I was sent on a fast-track course for a full month before I could start at the College.  The interviewer had explained, “When you’re in class, we won’t stop for you.  We’re not going to repeat for you – you’re going to have to go with it.”  I did it and really fell in love with the language.  I learnt quite quickly which I think is because I was with other people in the halls of residence who also didn’t speak English as a first language, so we learnt together which was really nice.  It was hard because I was one of the only ones who didn’t speak English in class, but I had an absolute ball.  I did the BTEC in Fashion and Styling for the first two years and then, in 1998, LCF reopened the HND Film and Theatre qualification and I was offered to join that course.

Melanie Bouvet

E: What did the beginning of your professional career look like?

M:  When I came to London, I was encouraged to approach high end salons.  I had nothing to lose – the worst thing they could do was say, “No”.  In my book, I write, ‘Never underestimate the opportunities that you can have or the people you meet along the way,’  and I believe this.  In the summer of 1998, I had to do a work placement so I knocked on the door of the prestigious Alexander de Paris salon.  Even though they’d never taken work experience students before (and I turned up in patchwork dungarees and trainers!), I managed to persuade them.  The salon was amazing; I was there for two weeks and learned how everything worked.  Monsieur Alexandre was still alive at that time so he would come into the salon sometimes.  All those amazing people were in one place.  I got on with them so well.  At the end of my time there, they were involved with the ’98 Jean-Paul Gaultier Fashion show and the team had liked what I did so invited me to be a part of it.  I just died!  I was 17 or 18 and having that experience at that age … Still, to this day, it is my favourite couture show.  Naomi Campbell was there and all the most beautiful models of the time – I felt like I was in a dream, like this was not for real.  The thing that was really amazing for me – and that I will never forget – is that at some point Jean Paul Gautier arrives and I was introduced to him.  All of a sudden, I have this hand on my shoulder and it’s Monsieur Alexandre.  Afterwards they said he never does that, so he must have heard that I had done a good job and was grateful.

Melanie Bouvet

E: Did you work with many trainees at the Opera House?

M: The Opera House didn’t actually provide trainees or work experience when I was there.  It is one of the busiest Houses in the world and we worked around 45 shows a year.  They had a two-year apprenticeship programme at the time.  Proper allocation time was needed to help them learn. My former boss Bridget Foster was looking after that.

At the moment, I have so many ideas and things I want to do.  One of the first things is to do one-to-ones – to get across exactly what I want and how I want to teach it, so that I can really spend time with people and give a lot of attention.  When I get in that stride, I can build it even bigger and have a model of exactly how I can teach it.  That’s something I would love to do.  There’s so many ideas in my head – it’s like fireworks!

Melanie Bouvet

E: How did the book come about?

M: I received an email from one of  the Commissioning Editors at The Crowood Press, asking me to chat as they wanted to commission me to write a book.  I wondered if it was legit, but I replied.  During our conversation, I asked if the editor was sure about wanting me to write the book because the original idea was a wig-making book and I explained that there were a lot of people out there that have way more experience and are way better than me.  If I was going to do a book, it wouldn’t look like that, but she was adamant in wanting me to do this.  She had done her research on me and really liked my profile.  I mentioned that I had my own ideas about how the book should look, so she told me to do the synopsis and would take a look.  My idea was that what was missing was the techniques – the basic techniques because you can do anything once you have the building blocks.  While wig-making is one, I’m thinking with my ‘teacher’ head and I wanted to create something for students because I love them.  I wanted to write what I think someone should be doing in a year, how to start and how to progress.  Before wig-making, there is the understanding of hair and what you’re doing, and then the wig-making part, hair pieces, wefting, an introduction to the history of wigs in time and then we go into dressing techniques, roller techniques, pin curls, pinning techniques.  Next, a very short section of how to put a wig on and an introduction to that.  For me, this was what was needed because I think there was a gap in the market.  If you just do wig-making, you limit yourself to a very specific niche and I didn’t think that would be enough.  You need a handbook.  Of course, all the students are learning things in school, but I know that it’s whizzed through.  But now they have a book that they can go back through and practice.  I also know that when you are a student, you don’t know where to buy things or you don’t have the money.  I knew I wanted to say in my book, “If you haven’t got that, use this instead.  If you haven’t got the money to afford that, buy this.”  This was completely different to what was originally proposed.

Crowood liked the proposal and I was asked to put together the first chapter.  I also explained that I wanted to showcase the work of different people because the whole idea about this book for me was about sharing, sharing skills, experiences and knowledge.  Everybody will do something different in a room, but a student could take something and learn from it.  I don’t want this book to just be me – I want to bring a couple of people on board and share the passion and the need to pass on to the next generation.

I went to see each of the contributors to discuss their section.  I had never written anything before, in fact, I’d always found writing stuff extremely boring.  But in writing the book, I found a new passion because it was writing about what I love, it was absolute bliss.

Melanie Bouvet

E: Was it a long process?

M: Four months.  It spanned over a year and a half, but during that time I was planning my wedding, buying my first house and buying my first car.  We also had one of the busiest seasons at the Opera House, so every weekend I’d be typing on a little tablet, taking all my photos on a Samsung.  In terms of quality, the photos on a Samsung are fantastic.  I wrote it and I kept it very secret – it was quite a big project.  Don’t get me wrong: writing something like this, it seems like a big weight on your shoulders.  It was quite stressful.  But I thought, “Don’t worry about the whole thing; just do it for you, as if you were doing it for your students.  Just follow your heart and your gut and see what happens.”

E: What’s next for you?

M:  I’m teaching currently in some well-known hair and makeup schools, which I’m really enjoying.  I’m loving working with the students. After working on Bridgerton Season 3 in 2022/3, it’s ignited a passion in me to want to do more film and tv work.  Going freelance for me gives opportunities to meet more people, learn more techniques and about products.  I’m excited to do new things and have new challenges, pushing myself to learn more.   I really enjoyed writing my book and I can see it’s been helpful for the industry and the students so I’m very grateful to be given a second opportunity to write another one for Crowood.  As with my first book, I focus on the techniques because that is what’s so important to me.

Melanie’s book, A Practical Guide To Wig Making and Dressing, is available from Crowood Press priced at £24.  Click here to order your copy.

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