In the midst of Fashion Month, a vacation, a birthday and what’s starting to feel like a blog explosion, I ran out of time to finish posting the series of Life With’s I worked on in LA this summer.
Next up is Molly Stern.
I’m tempted to call Molly “make-up artist to the stars,” but that doesn’t really cover it. Yes, she’s pretty much the only one who touches Reese Witherspoon’s face, but she’s also landed a gig for Cover Girl. She used to have her own clothing line, which sold in Barneys etc, she’s a mother of three and for lack of a less cheesy word, she’s one of the most inspirational women I’ve met – especially in this industry.
She got her start at the Shu Uemura store in her local mall, made fast friends with the girl who replaced her, Jillian Dempsey, moved to New York to find herself, moved back to LA when her mom set her up with the guy behind the counter at her favorite deli and only recently came to terms with working in beauty.
Click through for our meandering talk.
So you’re from Los Angeles?
Yep! Born and raised. I moved to New York in 2000 and something, and I did lots of things I could tell you about, but I used to walk into my office and I’d say, in the winter in particular, and I would just be like where am I? In the Antarctic? I was just so miserable and I would be like, “Do you know there are places in the world that are not like this? Like, what are we all doing here? This is torture! And my office was in Williamsburg on Wythe, the water was right there and the wind, and literally there would be a wall of snow blocking our door. It was insane. I have pictures of us just standing there being like, what?
It’s the absolute worst. I’ve been on the east coast for seven years and I’m still not used to it. So, cheesy question, but did you always want to be a makeup artist?
I guess I can’t really answer that because I started when I was sixteen and I fell into it. I was walking in the Century City shopping mall with my boyfriend and I was wearing some crazy 1950s vintage dress that I got on Melrose and I walked by Shu Uemura – it’s not there anymore – and I said let’s go in there. I wanted to find a lipstick to match my dress and I just started gabbing with all the girls who worked there and I asked, “How do I get a job here?” And they were like, we hire you and then we train you and I was like okay, I want a job. I’ll work after school and I’ll work weekends and I’ll work on Christmas Eve because I go to an orthodox Jewish high school and I’ll work on all the days nobody wants to work and I want a job. So they hired me and I always kind of thought I’d get into special effects, like monster makeup, but that never happened.
Were you always creative?
You know, I didn’t really discover, or consider, myself a creative, person until I moved to New York.
Really? When you said you were wandering LA in a vintage dress at 16…
Yeah, right? I mean I was a punk rocker. So I definitely expressed myself through my clothes and my hair color and all that when I was a kid.
What colors were your hair?
Oh, I ran the gamut. I mean I was conservative for a punk rocker, for sure, but not for my orthodox Jewish school. To them I was a wild maniac! I remember showing up for tenth grade with burgundy bright red hair in yet another vintage dress and white Doc Martens and I said, “Hi rabbi,” and like, his beard fell off. He tried to send me home and told me I couldn’t have an “unnatural” and I was like, “Really? You thought the blonde highlights I had last year were natural?” So yes, I was challenged in high school, pushing my own little envelope and boundaries, but I always kind of thought…I mean my boyfriend was an artist and my friends were artists and I was never the artist I was always the friend of.
But you are.
I am now, definitely, you know I pray to art gods to give me inspiration but it really wasn’t until I came to new York that I found myself. I worked at Shu Uemura pretty much until the end of high school.
What was that training like?
The training was we sat around and did each other’s makeup all day. Mr. Uemura definitely had technique. I feel like I learned about skin and making skin look really pretty and natural through him and the use of color and how to make that be not so avant-garde, but a little more realistic. The girls that were training me had worked there for five or ten years and they were all so dedicated. And I went to cosmetology school after high school. I had gone to Israel to study and the girl who replaced me was Jill Fink – who turned into Jill Dempsey who is, you know, the awesome Jill Dempsey.
That’s so funny! And now you guys basically rule the Hollywood makeup world.
[Laughing] She replaced me at Shu Uemura. When I came back I was eighteen like, “So you’re the new girl,” and she was like, “Oh you’re the old girl.” We became super amazing friends. She’d been a hairdresser was kind of getting into freelance. I guess she was a couple of years ahead of me. So she took me under her wing and told me to go to hair school and get a license and makeup’s great, but hair is your freedom for the rest of your life… If you’re anywhere in the world you can like sign language you need a haircut, give me some money, and you can eat dinner, you know? And it’s all true and valuable, but I never really liked doing hair.
But you did for a minute, right?
I got a job with Jill in her salon – she owned a hair salon – so I was doing hair at the salon and trying to build my freelance career. I did a lot of music videos.
Which you do how?
By assisting people. By getting lucky.
That’s what everyone says, hands down. It has to be more than luck.
There’s timing. It’s where you are, who you know, all those horrible things that people don’t want to believe, but are so true. Like I happened to meet Jill when I was nineteen and she was already on her path and took me under her wing, so that was luck. I mean I’m grateful I can make someone look pretty, but I think that so much of my success is just being…I mean people like hanging out with me! It’s about personality. I always say, I have one of the luckiest jobs in the world. It’s absurd. I get to travel with crazy people on crazy planes and have these incredible life experiences and it’s just weird.
So tell me about New York. How’d you get there?
I was working at Jill’s, freelancing, working with a few celebrities. At that time, in the 90s, it was the place to be, everyone got their hair done there: Raz Musik is another amazing hair and makeup person and she was doing Kurt Cobain and Courtney and Drew and Dave Navarro everyone who was really exciting at that moment. I met people through that, through Jill and I met her agent who ended up basically, well they’re still my agency. And we really grew together. I had to decide, did I want to be the crazy, jealous, insecure makeup artist? Did I want to be the confident, there’s enough work to go around for everyone – which is the path I chose, I hope … I have weak moments but I try to be that person – and so I kind stuck with that. But New York, well I got bored here. I had to make some change so I went and lived in the Chelsea Hotel for a year and that’s where it all kinda cracked out – not with crack the drug, I skipped that part – I basically discovered myself. I started sewing. I went there to pursue my makeup career and I was sort of a little disenchanted when I got there. I was an LA makeup artist and there’s definitely a weird separation
Such a huge difference, the LA/New York thing, which I think even transfers to like New York/Paris.
Yeah it was funny. I mean I laughed about it at first. I was like – what do you mean? You photographer man are the same as the director man. The producer of the shoot is the same as the producer of a whatever and you the model are way less maintenance than an actress. So why are you making me feel like I have to re-climb some sort of ladder to be successful here? Of course fashion worships like Stephen Meisel and Italian Vogue was my bible as a young, aspiring makeup artist. Of course I thought that’s where I wanted to be. But when I got there, I was like, forget it. I make money working on celebs, I don’t feel like I need to satiate my being… it felt really weird to me to feel like I’d just spent eight or nine years building a career in LA and I got to New York and it was, like, gone.
So you did go there looking to land on in editorial?
I think so. I think that’s what everyone goes to New York for especially in hair and makeup.
Did you like it? In comparison to what you’re doing now?
I definitely had opportunities, but it didn’t satiate me creatively. And that’s really what I figured out, which is what I went there for. I guess that’s why I never really viewed myself as creative doing makeup, even though it’s a creative field I didn’t feel like I really connected with my creativity. For years I would cry to my mom and my dad, like, I can’t believe this is what I do. I can’t believe I make pretty people look prettier… I can’t believe I’m part of this machine of vapidness, because I didn’t get off on the creative aspect of it. Maybe if I’d done more and gone further in the editorial land of things I wouldn’t have felt that way. But I think that’s why when I got to new York – and I’m an ambitious person – but when I got there the drive just wasn’t there.
With editorials do you really get to create or are you executing someone else’s vision?
I mean, I think if you’re lucky it’s a collaboration. I’ve definitely had that experience. It can be a combination of things. If Pat McGrath walks in and says, “I want to try this green eye,” then everyone goes, “Okay!” And there are other times when the photographer shows you his or her inspiration and this is what I want done, and that’s what you do.
And yet you stayed in New York for seven years.
At the Chelsea Hotel I started sewing, I was really inspired by this designer, Elisa Jimenez. She worked with Hole for a really long time sending them handmade clothes dipped in incense and crazy stuff.
Wasn’t she on Project Runway?
She was; this was long before that. I was totally inspired by her and she was so generous with her creativity. So I did start sewing and I started a clothing line called MRS. It was really successful. I mean not monetarily, but everybody dug it and everybody wore it and it was like the greatest thing on earth. I don’t know, I tapped into something amazing for that time. It was super fun, the most creative explosion I’d ever had. You know, we were carried in all the big stores, but it was very – the fashion industry is really tough and you’re only as good as your last. You know, there’s so much for people to buy and I think I grew a little too quickly and I happened to fall in love during that time with my husband and we were trying to start a family.
How’d you meet him?
My mother fixed us up!
That’s so cute.
He worked at the Kosher Deli here in LA. My mother thought he was cute and she called me while I was in New York and I was like, no, I’m not going out with the guy who works in the deli are you crazy? I’d forgotten about it until a month later, I flew in to LA, rented a pickup truck, called in to the deli and ordered – I mean it was my deli before he worked there. So like, “Hey I’m here to pick up a sandwich.” And this guy asked my name and it was like a lightning bolt struck my head and I was like, “This is that guy my mom told me about.” So I turned around and he was a total babe, super cute; he smiled at me with really cute crinkly, wrinkly eyes and he was like, Molly Stern? But he had a girlfriend. So great, I call my mom and I’m like, thanks for convincing me that I should go out with the jackass who works at the deli who has a girlfriend. Then months later I had come back to town playing bass in a Black Sabbath cover band – yes, I was totally insane.
You’ve had the craziest, coolest life.
It was a crazy, crazy time. My New York years were packed! So my mother found out he didn’t have a girlfriend and made him call me and he did and we had a great first conversation and we got engaged after seven months. When we started dating, I was still living in New York and I was like, you gotta come to New York-I can’t have this phone relationship with you – quit your job and come to New York. He was really – he was doing comedy at the time – he’s an amazing, amazing … at the time, aspiring director and now he’s working as a director… kinda had lost his way and needed his little girlfriend to come and be like, what, you’re a director why aren’t you directing? Get out of the deli! Quit slicing pastrami all day! But he was really cute, like his grandfather was a meat dealer so he had a lot of pride in how thin he could slice his meat so…
So he came to New York and we got married and I was trying to make it happen, trying to make my clothing line happen. We were in Barneys and I had amazing accolades and the Metropolitan Museum inducted one of our dresses for the Bodice Collection, but we were like borrowing from Paul to pay Peter or whatever that expression is and I think my father borrowed money from every one of his friends to keep us afloat.
It’s so interesting, people don’t realize that you can be so successful on the outside and then -
People had no idea how stuck we were. I’d come home and cry every day and my husband David would say, “I just want you to know that you cry every day. If you want to do this, I support it and let’s make it happen, but you cry every day.” Then I got pregnant, had a miscarriage, and I was like, I don’t want to do this, this isn’t the kind of life I want to have. So we decided to close it down in 2002-ish and I got pregnant again right away – with my daughter – and we moved back to LA. And then I got pregnant again really fast with my son, and I was like, now I’m going to do makeup. I mean, I did makeup the whole time – that was my bread and butter – but I went down to just a couple of clients, basically Reese Witherspoon and Elijah Wood. He happened to be in Lord of the Rings so that kept us busy for years and she’s always busy.
How did you meet Reese?
I met her at the very beginning, the first half of the – first part of this saga that I’m sharing with you. We were just a good match, loved each other – she’s loyal, she’s such a good person -
I’ve only heard amazing things about her.
She’s really and truly one of the best people in the history of the world and deserves every bit of greatness and success that she has.
Makeup ended up being your true calling?
The community was psyched to have me back and actresses were good to me and wanted to work with me and my agent introduced me to Cover Girl when I was pregnant with my son, which turned out to be amazing. I really care so much about women because I struggled so much myself as a woman working in the beauty industry. Even the most beautiful women in the world – I didn’t know one person that didn’t look at themselves in the mirror at least once a week and think, “I hate you, I hate you in the mirror, I hate the way you look, I hate the way you act.” I mean, so much hatred; it saddened me and empowered me at the same time. I want to be a force that helps people love themselves and I want to learn how to love myself because I suffer from all those things, too. At this point in my career, when I met Cover Girl, I’d been doing this for fifteen years, consistently, and people considered me a pro, or you know, an expert in this business and I was like, wait a minute, this is the platform! Beauty is the platform, the one I ran away from and felt so disconnected from and thought was so vapid. I actually had the opportunity to be a voice for women who are freaked out about the first thing everyone looks at, your face. So now I have this incredible passion and love for what I do. And it took fifteen years to get there, but now I see the huge opportunity and furthermore, responsibility that I have to empower people about themselves and try and be one tiny voice. You don’t have to hate yourself and you don’t necessarily have to get Botox and you don’t have wear twelve inches of foundation. Maybe some people do, and maybe I’ll be getting Botox in twenty years, but I hope not.
You have the most amazing skin.
Thank you! You know of course I feel like I’m a ninety-five-year-old woman…but I don’t judge anyone for what they do and to each their own, whatever makes someone feel better is the way to go. But I find that dumping stuff on your face or cutting your skin – people just keep going and going – Michael Jackson is the best example of that. It’s just never good enough and I kind of feel like that’s the problem. It’s like a high. You just want to keep doing more and more and more and I think that we’re missing the point of how do we try and make ourselves happy without chasing that power. Don’t get me wrong, it changes every day for me, I’m an aging woman. I’m thirty-seven-years-old!
But that’s not old. And you look amazing.
Thank you! But you know, the person I see in the mirror – it’s just different. Five years ago I’d say, “I’d never do something!” Or before I had two kids, you know what I mean? I want to look at myself in the mirror and feel great, but I want to try and get there authentically – whatever that means for me. I just want to help women; I want to help girls where it starts. I mean I tried to be bulimic when I was a teenager. I thought that was what you’re supposed to do, but I couldn’t. I hated throwing up and I loved eating too much and it never worked for me, but I tried! I just think there’s so much…
There is so much hatred. And yet, we’re the object of desire. I spoke at a high school once and I talked about how people look up to these supermodels and movie stars, like the incredible weird freakazoid beauties like Angelina Jolie or whatever your type is and you aspire to be those people but you know it’s like, there are eight supermodels in the world because there are only eight people that look like that. That’s it! There’s one Angelia Jolie! There are more of us then there are of them, yet we let them dictate how we’re supposed to feel about ourselves. And it’s really interesting. I mean, they rule and yes, unique beauty and the biggest diamond is what we all aspire for whatever, I get it. I get that we love beauty. I totally get it, I mean that’s what my career is. That’s what pays my bills. It’s people loving that, but on a deeper level and just as a creative person and as a mother of a daughter, it’s just, you know.
You hear that often. People say it really changes, like when you have a daughter and think about it from that perspective.
It’s always been a passion of mine, but definitely now. I want her to grow up knowing that it’s okay to be whatever she is. And that there’s a way to be empowered by that and enhance what that is without feeling less than, because you don’t look like someone else.
So what’s your Cover Girl role?
I’m their makeup artist/spokesperson – they love to throw the word celebrity in there though it drives me crazy because I just work with celebrities, I’m not a celebrity.
It’s funny though, like when you get into separate worlds, I mean you are, in your world.
Right, sure, I mean it’s funny to me. I went to a bat mitzvah in Michigan and I was with my sister-in-law and the girl whose bat mitzvah it was – her friends wanted to meet me, because I’ve done Reese Witherspoon’s makeup. They were so giggly and excited, but I’m nothing. And I left that trip and got on a plane with an actual celebrity and I was like, “I can’t imagine being you, because I’m nobody – and people were like interested in what I had to say, and I had nothing to say.”
Celebrity is so strange.
It is really strange. It’s such a crazy obsession.
So what do you actually do for Cover Girl?
Okay, so I get to talk to editors and tell them why I love Cover Girl. The reason I love it so much is that you don’t have to use $50, $60 foundation. You know, Pat McGrath is the global design director and she’s so high fashion, yet has her hand in a million great products at a super amazing affordable price. So my whole thing is trying to affect people and be a voice that editors listen to so I can explain how I’m using the product, what it compares to in the prestige market or why I’m even choosing it over a prestige project. Because it’s great! And the fact that it’s affordable is just a huge plus. So I get to do that. I’ve gotten to do a little bit of advertising with them, like with Ellen DeGeneres which was really exciting.
I love her.
She’s so awesome. I really like her. I think the whole choice of her being a Cover Girl totally goes along with everything that I’m talking about. They sent me to introduce her to the product because she didn’t want to represent it unless it was perfect…
That’s a lot of pressure.
It was a lot of pressure, so thank god the product was great. Simply Ageless really is an exceptional product and I really saw her get empowered; I saw her love the idea of being a cover girl. Maybe it’s because she was never focused on something like that in her whole life, her beauty or her looks. She’s funny. She’s cute. But did anyone ever really hear beautiful, other than the people who were madly in love with her, or her mother? And then to be given this opportunity – I saw it, I saw exactly what I want everybody to feel.
That must be so rewarding.
Exactly. So I get to do that.. I do get to give them my two cents about product, though I’m not actually developing any yet.
Do you want to?
Yeah. That’s Pat’s gig, but I’m constantly begging her to let me do something -
Do you get to work with her?
No I never have. She’s a total icon to me. I’m like, “I love you.”
I don’t know much about beauty, but she’s amazing. So how do you work Cover Girl into your other work?
Well, I obviously try to position product with as many people as I can. If I’m doing somebody for the Golden Globes I try and get product on them if I can. A lot of girls I work with have their own contracts. In the ten or twelve years I’ve been with Reese, she’s had her Avon campaign so that’s what she uses. So I guess I’m a makeup artist who can show the masses how somebody who’s a collector and a professional is utilizing this product and that it’s not just another mass brand.
So what’s a day like on the celebrity side of things? You don’t have to name names!
You know I’m really lucky – I work with exceptional people. I’m at a place in my career where I don’t have to work with just anybody – thank god – but I’m also very spiritual and when it works it just works and isn’t forced. Anyway, when I’m working with celebrities, I go to their house, hotel, whatever, and set up -
Do they just call you and say, “Hey! I have an event!”
Everything’s through my agency. So I set up my stuff, and the hairdressers set up theirs. It’s a pretty small community; I work with some more than others.
Do you see an outfit before you start? Or just go for it?
We talk about what they’re wearing and some girls are more opinionated than others, more involved in the process, while others are just like, do your thing. It’s really fun either way, but it’s nice to know they trust. Of course, some who are total freaks and stare at themselves in the mirror the whole time. But that’s okay, too!
It’s kind of the most fun, right?
Yeah! It’s mellow and it’s great.
Do you ever miss the editorial stuff?
No… I mean I get to do it sometimes with them.
This might sound cheesy, but you’re really inspiring. I mean talking to you, you have such amazing energy.
Oh my god – thank you. I want to be that!
You are. This whole trip’s been fascinating even on the most basic level, that the industry here, and the people who make it up, are so different from those in New York, where they can be scary.
Right! Beause nobody cuts each other a break in New York!
Kind of. Sometimes it’s not very healthy.
It’s a tough gig man! Everyone’s afraid and you know what – they’re right to be. There’s somebody right there that’s ready to take your job, ready to take your place.
Who will do it for free!
Right! It’s just no way to live a happy life. But at the same time I miss it. I want a place there; we want to get back there. I don’t want to have little kids there and I don’t really want to have teenagers there either. That freaks me out too.day.
It’s been such a cycle for you, from LA to New York, from fashion to editorial -
I was always searching and it’s really fascinating that my search brought me back here and to the realization that this is where I need to be and this is where my strength is.
Well thank you so much. It was such a pleasure talking to you! Will you just list a few favorites for me?
Of course, thank you!
FAVORITE WORD: Love.
FAVORITE FOOD: Falafel.
FAVORITE PLACE: Paris, with my husband!
FAVORITE BOOK: The Red Tent.
FAVORITE MAGAZINE: Italian Vogue? I love to read Cookie. And I miss Domino.