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How Charlotte Tilbury Channeled an Early Love of Mascara Into a Decades-Long Career in Makeup

"I remember thinking makeup could transform my life."
Charlotte Tilbury. Photo: Courtesy of Charlotte Tilbury

Charlotte Tilbury. Photo: Courtesy of Charlotte Tilbury

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

When you're born to a painter and a luxury production manager, and you grow up in Ibiza in a bohemian culture that breeds artists, actors, writers and musicians, it's essentially a given that your future will be a creative one, too. But makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury neither assumed nor awaited opportunities; rather, she forged her own imaginative path as a makeup artist and later went on to become the creative director of her own eponymous makeup and skin-care brand, Charlotte Tilbury Beauty Ltd.

Throughout her career, Tilbury served as a creative consultant for an impressive array of beauty brands and innovative labs like Tom Ford, MAC, Helena Rubinstein and Chanel. And in 2013, she finally realized her dream of launching her own brand full of products that are "easy to choose, easy to use and easy to gift."

With more than 25 years of experience under her belt, Tilbury works with celebrities including Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Naomi Campbell, Penelope Cruz, Amal Clooney and Natalie Portman. Her work is regularly photographed by the likes of Mert Alas & Marcus Piggot, Annie Leibowitz, Steven Klein and Michelangelo di Battista, and it's been featured in iconic publications spanning Vogue, Vanity Fairi-D and GQ.

Most recently, Tilbury's brand has undergone global expansion, branching out into the Asian market. The celebrity makeup artist just opened two beauty counters at Lane Crawford; one at IFC and the other at Harbour City in Hong Kong.

"It's so amazing to see that it resonates so well everywhere from the Middle East to Asia to America to Europe," Tilbury says. "It's really magical to see that, to see it go global and have this resonance with women."

We caught up with the British beauty queen over the phone recently to chat about her global success and where it all started.

Charlotte Tilbury products. Photo: @ctilburymakeup/Instagram

Charlotte Tilbury products. Photo: @ctilburymakeup/Instagram

Can you tell me a bit about your background? I know you were raised with a rather creative family in Ibiza, but when and how did you decide you'd dive into the beauty industry?

Ibiza has been a huge influence for me in my career because I was always around so many creative people who loved to express themselves with hair and makeup. I remember at the age of 16 talking to a photographer, makeup artist and model in a café in Ibiza, and they were explaining what they were doing, and I was like, 'Mommy, I want to be a makeup artist.'

I knew I was very artistic like my father — I could paint. And I knew I loved fashion, and people, beauty. I used to study film posters of Marilyn Monroe on my wall. I'd study eyelashes, highlights, jawbones, cheekbones, shapes of eyes, eyebrows. I was obsessed. I learned later on that you could morph it through the power of makeup.

I went away to boarding school and discovered that all the boarding school girls were wearing makeup. I remember thinking makeup could transform my life because I have really fair eyelashes. So when I went back to Ibiza at the age of 13 wearing mascara… everyone treated me in such a different way. 'You're looking different, Charlotte.' I remember thinking, wow, people are reacting. I thought, this is a wonderful thing. So I went back to boarding school and started doing people's hair and makeup. I had the concept for my brand at the age of 13. I would say to girls, 'Flatten your hair. Wear this. Wear this scarf. Wear your hair like that.' I was obsessed with creating looks at school.

Walk me through the beginning of your career.

I finished boarding school at the age of 18, and I built my way up to getting an agent. I was cold-calling people saying, 'Hi, can I come to you with my portfolio?' I remember looking at this message that this journalist gave me: 'Charlotte, I know you'll be a star.' Whenever I had self-doubt and thought I'd give up, I'd read this note to give me power and confidence to say, 'I know I can reach for the stars, and I know I can do this.' So much about life is about determination and not giving up. Yes, you have to have talent, 100 percent, but you also have to have determination.

When I finished assisting, it was the time of recession, so for someone breaking through, it was almost impossible. But eventually I did: Vogue started giving me a bunch of portraits with Isabella Blow. Then Isabella Blow introduced me to Katie Grant, and then Mert and Marcus, and it kind of went on from there. We were this new generation that was really quite disruptive — we were doing 38 fashion shows a season, working with everyone from Alexander McQueen to Prada.

At the same time I was doing that, I was creating lines of makeup. I went on to work with Helena Rubinstein, and after Helena Rubinstein, it was a lipstick line for Armani. After Armani, I did MAC with Alexander McQueen. And then I worked with Tom Ford. I always knew that I'd create my own line. I was practicing my skills working with other people.

People were always asking me about [which products I used], but I couldn't give them a lot of specific products because a lot of them were mixes. I was mixing up things for the exact formulas I wanted, and the colors I wanted, and the harmonies I wanted. I wanted to make them and, when I would make my own makeup line, I'd be able to give away all of my secrets, tips and tricks backstage.

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What is the philosophy for the Charlotte Tilbury brand, and what gap did you see in the market you wanted to fill?

I wanted to create a brand that was really disruptive and different, and really come up with something that empowers women to become the best versions of themselves through makeup. Because that's what I really clearly learned from a young age: Makeup is way more than just painting your face. It's not a face makeover. It's a mind makeover. It gives you confidence, happiness and joy. It's the most wonderful gift that you can give to somebody. We live in an incredibly pictorial world in which human beings judge you and you judge yourself. When you look good, you feel good, and the world reacts in a very different way.

I really want to do something that changes people's lives — a product that makes a difference to a woman. Women come up to me and tell me, 'You really helped me. I never used makeup before. I was too scared. I was too afraid. I didn't know how.' And the change is in the tools to make them feel really great about themselves in the mirror, and really great about their day. And that leads to a chain reaction because I believe if you can change a woman, you can change the world.

Everywhere in my brand there's a hidden star. It's on the packaging; it's hidden everywhere. Because I believe that all people are stars, and that's what I feel makeup does… I want to continue making women feel confident, and beautiful and happy. It's the best feeling in the world, and I feel incredibly gifted for having such an amazing job.

You work with celebrities and models like Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Naomi Campbell, Penelope Cruz, Amal Clooney and Natalie Portman. How did you start building up your celebrity clientele?

That happened very organically. When you're very good at what you do, and you end up on the cover of Vogue, that's when you have a big celebrity or a big model. It wasn't that I ever went out of my way; I was just obsessed with makeup and fashion. And I just love people, and I get on with people incredibly well. I've built amazing friendships over the years, and I've ended up having support from lots of people in fashion. It's a very intimate relationship with makeup. People love they way I make them look, and if you can get on with them, it leads to wonderful things.

The Charlotte Tilbury Film Star Bronze and Glow palette. Photo: @ctilburymakeup/Instagram

The Charlotte Tilbury Film Star Bronze and Glow palette. Photo: @ctilburymakeup/Instagram

You've a lot of experiences under your belt and have won more than 150 awards, so what are some of your most memorable career moments?

Doing fashion shows with Alexander McQueen in Paris are pretty memorable. The Kate Moss show that we did, where she appeared out of a hologram, that was pretty incredible. Working with Alexander McQueen was also incredible; he was super creative, wild, brilliant and inspiring. And Tom Ford is super inspiring. I love working with Tom Ford. We love glamour. We love women. It's great to work with him — he has the most amazing eye, an incredible brain.

How has social media impacted your career in recent years?

It's an amazing time to be able to scroll through social media and express yourself as a consumer. You can immediately post about a new product. Instagram is like a billboard, and Instagram stories are sort of like a reality show of your life. Facebook is also an amazing way to communicate with people as well and give people a preview of your new product. And my tutorials on YouTube have been an incredible way to communicate and educate my audience on how I like to do makeup. A lot of women are really terrified, and YouTube is really changing lives in terms of makeup.

What are your plans for the future of the business? Would you ever want to sell the brand?

My motto is always, give a woman the right makeup and she can conquer the world. So that's my plan for the future.

What career advice do you have for others?

Follow your dreams, and your dreams will come true — but it really depends on how hard you want to work. A lot of people say I make it seem really easy, but it's intense. I do work incredibly hard.

But [success] is as big or as small as you want to make it, and not everyone wants to be this big. And I totally respect and appreciate that. It's up to individual with where they want to go and what they want to do in this life. What's sad is that not everyone follows their dreams; they give up. They don't believe they can because life can be quite limiting for people, but I believe you can have whatever you want.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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