Charlotte Tilbury sits down to chat in her room at Manhattan's Bowery Hotel with a full face of makeup. Her afternoon look is a silky nip-waist number by Ghost and spiky, sculpted heels. She is, in a word, glamorous. And she wouldn't mind if you said so. "I'm obsessed with psychology and the power of makeup," she says. "It's not a frivolous thing."
Neither is her business. In just over four years, Tilbury has proved to be not only a highly sought after artist (Amal Clooney turned to Tilbury for her wedding day) but also a wildly effective entrepreneur. With more than 200 products sold in 39 countries, her beauty line has had triple-digit growth in three years. And under her hawk eye, every aspect of it—from the rose gold packaging to the light-reflecting formulas—feels rich and red-carpet-worthy. Her friendships serve as constant inspiration: Take, for example, her Hot Lips collection, featuring lipsticks named after Miranda Kerr (the coral Miranda May) and Salma Hayek (the mauvy Secret Salma).
Her fascination with makeup began while growing up in Ibiza among a creative circle. With her artist father and producer mother, young Tilbury would catch performances by Grace Jones and Queen at the famed Ku Club. "My parents were very cool," she says. "They would be on the dance floor, in the swimming pool. It was the '70s; it was very relaxed. Being brought up in that paradise, with that sense of freedom, was incredible."
At 13, Tilbury went off to boarding school in London, where she experimented with makeup. When she returned to the Spanish island a few months later, wearing eyeliner and mascara, "people immediately reacted differently to me," she says. "They were more alert and much more attentive. I became more popular overnight." At first she couldn't believe how shallow people seemed. "But then I realized, this is power. Makeup could be a weapon to make me feel confident." She later vowed never to go barefaced again (she still sleeps in her base and mascara), and she became the beauty authority in her set. "I'd tell girls what to wear, what colors suited them, how to change the shape of their faces. I was obsessed."
After she crossed paths with supermodel makeup artist Mary Greenwell at 16, it all clicked. Tilbury soon began assisting her on fashion shows and at shoots, and the pro's name opened doors. "When I was 19, Isabella Blow got me started doing Vogue portraits," Tilbury says. Editorials led to red-carpet and runway work, where she collaborated with Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada, and Tom Ford. But all the while "I was a retailer at heart, even at 13," she says. Tilbury dreamed of her own makeup line. "I always knew it would be really big. Always."
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In 2013, Tilbury released her cosmetics and skin-care collection at London's Selfridges department store. Her Magic Cream, a buttery concoction she had tinkered with backstage, became an instant cult classic. "There were hundreds of people lined up," she recalls. "We broke records. And no one saw it coming—apart from me."
Of course, she's had a little help from her friends: Kate Moss (godmother to Tilbury's two children) as well as Kate Bosworth and Sienna Miller pop up on Tilbury's Instagram feed (@ctilburymakeup), which has 1.4 million followers. "If I had launched the brand pre-social media, it would never have been as successful as it is [today]," she says. "Now you don't have to wait and see who's going to allow you to have a voice. You can have a direct conversation with your consumer."
On Tilbury's cheeky feed—an irresistible mix of celeb inspiration, makeup tips, and believe-in-yourself messages—everyone is invited to the party. "I created this line to help women be their happiest, most confident selves," she says. "People have sat in my chair, exhausted, with pimples, and [after I] massage the skin, put on the makeup, get the skin glowing, they look in the mirror, and they're like, 'Oh my god.' People have cried."
Perhaps the biggest secret to Tilbury's success is that she's always been sure of it: "I don't understand the meaning of 'no,'" she says. "I have a belief, and I will get there. Nobody will tell me that I won't." Creative visualization and positive thinking are daily practices. "In every negative there's a positive. I only believe in positives."
The stars are clearly on her side.