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How Linda Cantello Went From Amateur Makeup Artist to Inventor of the Modern Smoky Eye

The international makeup artist for Giorgio Armani Beauty discusses her many career accomplishments — including creating the makeup look that made beauty editors cry.
Linda Cantello. Photo: courtesy of Armani Beauty

Linda Cantello. Photo: courtesy of Armani Beauty

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.

With a career that spans more than three decades, makeup artist Linda Cantello has worked with just about every memorable, industry-shaping name in the fashion industry: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Steven Klein, David Sims, Nick Knight, Tom Ford and Sam McKnight, to name only a small selection. She's also credited with having inventing the modern smoky eye as we know it, a makeup effect that was integral to Ford's famously sexed-up vision for Gucci and has been replicated by practically everyone wielding an eye-shadow brush in the decades since. 

Yet Cantello doesn't seem to care very much about any of that. "I know very much who I am; I don't care about, 'Oh, you did that first.' There was a moment where I was very much like, 'Uh, they're copying me,' then it becomes so irrelevant," she told me when I sat down with her during a press trip with Giorgio Armani Beauty, for which she serves as international makeup artist. "I've always danced to my own tune."

With that type of professional outlook, it's not surprising that she has no use for the comparison anxiety that has become so pervasive in our Instagram-obsessed culture. Cantello, who has no formal training as a makeup artist but holds a Fine Art degree from London's Harrow Art School, isn't on any social media platforms, and without that type of distraction, she's laser-focused on her own creative outputs. 

Chatting with Cantello, one gets the impression that she takes the fashion and beauty industries seriously, yes — but she doesn't take herself seriously. I asked Cantello about her career highlights, including working on an Irving Penn shoot at a very young age, being present for the rise of '90s supermodeldom and yes, how it is she came to be credited with inventing the smoky eye. Read on for the highlights.

How did you first get interested in beauty?

My mom had said, 'Oh, you can wear mascara when you're 16.' It was in the late '60s, early '70s when I was a little girl, and she only had blue eyeshadow. This is really weird: I used to sit in the bathroom and mix her mascara with her foundation and use it as brown eye shadow. I mean, how weird is that?

At school in London, I would always look at people and say, 'Oh, you'd look so much better if you parted your hair differently or if you plucked your eyebrows.' I used to spend all my lunch hours plucking people's eyebrows — I was like the weird beautician, basically. At that point, the only famous makeup artist was Barbara Daly, and she had done tons of films. She was like my idol, and then life took over and I went to art school, and I studied fine art.

So you didn't see makeup as a career at that point?

Never. And I never went to makeup school. I didn't even know they existed. [After art school] I couldn't get a job, so I ended up going into Sotheby's, thinking I could do fine art evaluation, but then I got made redundant. I ended up going to work for a designer called Gordon Luke Clarke, [which] doesn't exist anymore, and I saw that he had shows and he had makeup artists doing the makeup for his shows and I was bit like, maybe I could make a career out of this! 

My friends and I were all desperate to be in fashion. My best friend at the time was [hairstylist] Sam McKnight; we met in a gay club when I was 16. He was already very successful, so he took me under his wing and he'd try and impose me on people as a makeup artist and they were like, 'No.' I didn't know anything — I only knew about making up myself. 

At what point did you really begin to do makeup professionally?

I went to live in Italy and pretended I was a makeup artist; I had a plastic fishing tackle box [as my kit]. I knew nothing about makeup, where to put it on, how to apply, the difference between an oil or a water base, nothing. Basically I parlayed myself into being a makeup artist: I got some tear-sheets from some random Italian magazines. I guess I was 'exotic' because I was English. I went back to England, got an agent — the same agent as Sam — and worked for a year or so and then we both decided to move to New York. He was going to move to New York and where he led, I followed.

Why did you want to move to New York?

Everything revolved around New York. You couldn't work for British Vogue if you weren't in New York; they wouldn't use anyone from London, it was the seal of approval. I'm talking about the early '80s. Sam and I would have this running joke where we'd be like, 'Oh, can you imagine when we become famous, we'll be so cynical. It'll be like, uh, God, I had to work with Irving Penn yesterday.' But quickly, that became true.

We got to New York, I'd been here a week and I signed with an agent called Glenn Palmer-Smith. But I nearly got deported because I didn't have a visa, so I had to get a job immediately. I told my agent, 'I have to come in and talk to you about having a visa.' And he said, 'Well darling, you're working on Monday, American Vogue beauty, Irving Penn."

So your first job in America was working with Irving Penn?

Right. I spent the whole weekend running out and filling up my little plastic tackle boxes with makeup and everything, and it turned out that Sam was the hairdresser. I owe my career to Andrea Quinn Robinson, who was the beauty editor for American Vogue through the '80s. Sam and I turned up and he did this great natural hair, I did a really natural makeup. Mr. Penn came in, looked at it, and then he put a crash helmet on her head and had a big bowl of mud and [dumped it on top], and I was like, 'Oh.'

It was a test. Andrea kind of adopted us and she got us to do literally everything she did after that; we were the newbies. I guess she found us refreshing, because we were like these kids. At that point nobody wanted to be a makeup artist, it was very rare. I have been very, very lucky; I was in the right place at the right time with the right people.

Linda Cantello. Photo: courtesy of Armani Beauty

Linda Cantello. Photo: courtesy of Armani Beauty

Since you had no formal makeup training, were you learning on the job and experimenting to figure things out?

Kind of; there were no assistants then, you lugged everything around yourself. You took Polaroids so you could tell by the Polaroid whether it was good. It was the photographer and an assistant, a stylist and an assistant, and me and a hairdresser. I quickly understood that lighting really had a big importance.

But I think it was the fact that I was fearless, in a weird way, that I would do things that other people didn't wanna do [that made me successful].

How did your career progress after you'd started working with Vogue?

The crazy thing is British Vogue started to fly us back once we'd worked for American Vogue. I picked up brands, I did fantastic trips, it was a very different, glamorous era.

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How did you build your aesthetic and your philosophy for makeup?

I was a fashion freak when I was a kid; my bedroom was plastered with covers. I think coming from London was a big thing; it's seeing people and having ideas. I was a club kid. I think my art background helped me a lot too, to put things together and understand a different way of looking at the face. I've always approached a face with lights and shadow — where the shadow should go, where the light should go, the best feature to bring out  — which is weird because it's almost like Mr. Armani and I share the same vision. It's like we both hate that kind of makeup that looks like it's stuck on, it's my pet peeve.

Tell me a little bit about your backstage career and working with models and designers in that capacity. 

One of my first shows I did was with Marc Jacobs, at Perry Ellis. It was before the grunge thing, he'd just gone there. It was so different then; your agent booked you some assistants, you turned up, you did the job and you left. Then progressively I did more: I did Calvin's show, I did Ralph Lauren, but it wasn't about the backstage people. 

Then I moved to Paris because I got married and things changed with the arrival of the supermodels. Suddenly you got all these weird groupies backstage, and they were kind of terrifying, some of them. As the supermodel thing grew, the interest in backstage grew. But it was always a job — you were there to do the best thing you could.

There was momentum, interest grew, it became about trends: 'What's the season's trend?' So it was like this little, tiny thing that grew and grew and grew. 

You're credited with inventing the smoky eye. How and when did that come about?

I launched my own [makeup] line, and then I started to work with Tom Ford for Gucci, and in the second show that I did with Tom I did the smoky eye. We always laugh in my family — we say, 'Oh, when I die it's gonna be like, 'She created the smoky eye' on my tombstone.' 

Grunge was happening; it was like, 'We want to bring sex back.' Tom's always been very much about sex. So it was like, 'Okay, let's muss her up a bit,' so I had did this thing and it was messy and editors were crying and coming backstage. All the editors rushed back — like big, big editors came back crying because I guess grunge was the anti-fashion moment and this kind of broke the grunge cycle.

How did you eventually begin working with Armani?

In the '80s, there was a big show for Live Aid and there were lots of different designers, and I was there to do the Calvin Klein section. They suddenly asked me if I could do the Armani section, too. So I went over and the fascinating thing was Mr. Armani showed me, with a black pencil, what he wanted.

You weren't used to a designer doing that?

Never. They'd say if it looked good or not, but they would never take a crayon and show you. So that was my first impression. Then what happened was that L'Oréal contacted me and they said they had the idea of presenting to Mr. Armani the idea of doing a makeup line; this is like 20 years ago. I gave them all these ideas and everything and then I went off on my merry way, did my own line, and then the next thing they launched Armani with another makeup artist and it was like, 'Shit, I wish I'd stayed,' because it was more in my realm of my aesthetic. 

I didn't work with them again, went on with my life and whatever. I did a shoot with Mario Testino; it was a re-shoot for a fragrance, and we had to go for Romania for Armani [with] Josh Hartnett and three girls, so I rekindled the relationship with Armani. They were launching a lipstick and they asked me to come in with my recommendations for the shades. It was the original Rouge d'Armani, a fantastic formula. Apparently they had three different makeup artists working on them, and I came in and kind of redid everything and I said, 'You have to have an iconic shade,' so that's how we created the 400.

Because of that, unbeknownst to me, they were planning to give me a contract. They booked me for the Privé show and I met Mr. Armani, but first I looked up his horoscope. He's a Cancer with a Leo ascendant, so I kind of understood who he was.

You're not on Instagram, which is pretty unusual for makeup artists today.

No, but I'm hashtagged. I don't have time, and I know it's a young thing and there's a lot of pressure for people to have followers. But I've always danced to my own tune. From a social point of view, and anthropological point of view, I find the whole thing extremely weird.

Is there any one accomplishment in your career you're most proud of?

[Creating] Maestro. Up until that point people had gotten lazy — marketing people had gotten lazy, cosmetics had gotten lazy, it was all about silicone. And then suddenly Maestro came and it was everything it wasn't supposed to be: It was oil-based with alcohol in it. Marketing people hadn't understood that women didn't want to wear heavy foundation anymore. It shook up the industry and lots of people wanted more natural-finish foundations, so I'm very proud of that.

Do you have any goals that you still haven't accomplished?

You know, I'm a very happy person. I think I've had a great life and I'm very happy with what I've achieved and I have my family. I think the goal that I want is just that the people around me are happy... I sound like Miss America. It's very simple, but I have everything I need, I know very much who I am, I don't care about, 'Oh, you did that first.' There was a moment where I was very much like, 'Uh, they're copying me,' then it becomes so irrelevant.  I am who I am, I'm happy with who I am, and I just want the people around me to be happy.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Disclosure: Armani Beauty paid for my travel and accommodations during a press trip with Linda Cantello for this interview.

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