Q&A: Gregory Arlt, Director of Makeup Artistry at M.A.C

Gregory Arlt, M.A.C’s director of makeup artistry, wants to tutor the world on real-life glam—no Insta-effects or extreme contouring needed

Gregory Arlt’s first brush with celebrity came early in his career. “In ’96, I was a travelling artist for M.A.C, and there was a woman I would do makeup on all the time. She worked at No Doubt’s record label, before they got big,” recalls Arlt, now the L.A.-based director of makeup artistry at M.A.C. “She was like, ‘I have to send my singer, Gwen, in to meet you and get her makeup done for stage.’ So Gwen came in, by herself. We clicked and she said, ‘Call me! Let’s go makeup shopping.’ She gave me her CD [Tragic Kingdom], and I remember her saying, ‘We’re total losers. If this doesn’t do well, I’ll come be a makeup artist with you.’”

The plot twist: “I never called her, which is terrible,” he laments. No Doubt exploded, and by the time Arlt realized his blunder, she had changed her number. Cut to 2011, and the stars realigned: Arlt’s dear friend Danilo, Pantene global ambassador and Gwen Stefani’s long-time hairstylist, insisted the two meet when the singer was searching for a new makeup pro. Arlt has been in Gwen’s glam squad ever since.

When not dolling up celebrities like Stefani, Katy Perry and Dita Von Teese, he spends his days working on photo shoots, teaching M.A.C master classes worldwide and mentoring the brand’s senior artists. We caught up with the amiable pro at the recent International Make-Up Artist Trade Show (IMATS) in Toronto, where he delivered the keynote on mastering makeup that’s as flattering in selfies as in real life.

You’ve worked in the beauty industry for 26 years. How has it changed, and what do you find exciting about it now? For me, it’s about the technology. You can have a new pink lipstick or the latest black eyeliner or whatever, but how long does it stay on? How is it different? How does it feel? That’s what I’ve watched evolve. Now, you can pile on makeup, but it can feel, and look, like not that much.

For artists aspiring to work in the industry, is beauty school still necessary? It seems a lot of people get famous without doing that. I never went to beauty school. Back in the day, it didn’t teach you a lot about the beauty of makeup, really. It was all about fantasy and prosthetics—cuts, scrapes, burns, bruises. But I come from an artistic background, and I had a roommate who was a makeup artist and I always picked her brain. I practised and learned and asked questions. [Today] pretty much anyone who has an iPhone and a computer can be a ‘makeup artist’—heavy air quotes. Anyone can do makeup on themselves, but what’s it like doing it on someone else?

Right, sometimes it looks good on Instagram, but in real life it’s a different story. A very different story! You can’t always rely on filters. Back in my day—which makes me sound Jurassic—there was no Photoshop. We didn’t have computers, we didn’t email, no one had a cellphone. You had to make sure your makeup was technically flawless, because it was very expensive to send photos out to be retouched. So I trained myself. Also, I’m a perfectionist Virgo. 

You studied art history and theatre. How did you realize you wanted to work in beauty? When I was a teenager, there were aha moments that made me aware of makeup, but never as a career. I thought that to be a makeup artist, you either had to do movie special effects and science fiction and make people look like they were bloody, or you were that over-the-top man behind the cosmetics counter—I didn’t know there was anything in between. Then I started reading fashion magazines, looking at credits and realizing, Oh, Ashley Ward’s a makeup artist, and Diane Kendal...all these names. It made me aware: Wow, this is a career. This can happen.

How did your art background shape your eye for beauty? I rarely use black when I draw—and I rarely use it in makeup unless I’m doing a cat eye—because my dad, who was an artist, always taught me, “Try to create depth without reaching for the black. Try maybe a deeper eggplant or cobalt blue or navy.” That’s shaped by approach because I thought, There’s a gentleness to painting like this and also with makeup.

You started out in beauty working at Fred Segal and then joined M.A.C. Did beginning your career in retail give you an advantage? A hundred, thousand percent! Nothing trained me more than being a travelling makeup artist for M.A.C. When I worked at Fred Segal [1989-1993]—I started at the ripe old age of 19—I was doing makeup, but for a lot of very pretty, bohemian Santa Monica women. Rarely was there a truly challenging face to work on. When I started working for M.A.C in ’95 [travelling between six stores in L.A. to do customer appointments], it was the best training I could have had. When you have a 78-year-old woman with a port-wine stain and a teary eye that can’t hold onto makeup, it’s like, you better learn how to do makeup right now.

What advice would you give to a newbie who wants to follow in your footsteps and be a celebrity makeup artist? On a conventional level, I always tell people to practise, practise, practise. Network. Go to parties. Get a business card; pass it out. Don’t be pushy! You want to assist, not insist. Put yourself out there without being too aggressive. Have a good attitude. Remain humble. On a more philosophical level, don’t worry about the competition because there’s no other you. No one can do what you do. Don’t look around ’cause it’s just gonna terrorize you.


Gregory Arlt’s Go-To Products

Above, from left:

M.A.C Studio Waterweight SPF 30 Foundation, $40. “So lightweight, so sheer, so beautiful.”

M.A.C Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo, $20. “Dita’s shade—it’s the most perfect candy red.”

M.A.C Cream Colour Base in Pearl, $26. “I’ve always been a big fan of highlighting. Bring the features out, as opposed to receding them [with contouring].”


Gregory Arlt’s Makeup Rules

1. When in doubt, wear red. “Red lipstick is the little black dress of makeup; everyone needs one. Always use lip liner to create an anchor for the lipstick.”

2. Avoid “wall-to-wall carpeting, i.e., a uniform mask of foundation. Instead, “start light, in the centre of the face, where the most redness and discoloration happen. Blend out and build up. The application can be a bit more forgiving.” 

3. Beware the bandwagon. “People think, If I don’t contour, it's not going to be pretty makeup. But just because something’s a trend doesn’t mean it’s a necessity. Just like with any trend. Do we all need a lower-back tattoo? I want people to look and feel themselves.”


This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Cosmetics magazine. For more, download our iPad edition.