Pat McGrath on How She Became the "Mother" of Modern Makeup
After a 25-year career, makeup mastermind Pat McGrath’s artistry remains unparalleled. In this essay, she says she owes it all to her own mother.
The legendary Pat McGrath needs no introduction. As one of the most influential makeup artists of all time and the first to be awarded a damehood in the Queen's New Year 2021 Honours List, McGrath is a creative visionary. Whether she's dreaming up the next Pat McGrath Labs makeup launch that will break the internet — like her latest Divine Blush Collection that will launch at the end of May — or creating show-stopping looks for the runways, McGrath has built a beauty empire. Wondering how she does it all? "I don't get overwhelmed because I've always really loved challenges; they give me energy and keep me going," she tells InStyle. "That's the one thing I will say about working in beauty and fashion: It keeps you on your toes. You don't really have time to get bored or to be uncertain about the future."
For InStyle's May issue, McGrath opens up about her humble beauty beginnings, like watching her mom perfect the art of dewy skin while bathing in a full face of makeup. "I owe my love of makeup to my mother [Jean McGrath]," she says. "When I was growing up in England, we would spend every Friday shopping at departments stores so she could create new beauty looks." She also shares what's kept her inspired during this tumultuous year (spoiler: Bridgerton and The Crown are on her list). Ahead, she reflects on her 25-year career, in her own words.
In the fashion industry, my nickname is Mother, which is such an honor, but really, I owe my love of makeup to my mother [Jean McGrath]. When I was growing up in England, we would spend every Friday shopping at department stores so she could create new beauty looks. She was in love with beauty and fashion. She taught me the art of dewy skin early on. In those days, product formulas had a lot of titanium, and the textures weren't as sophisticated as they are now. She would do a full face and then take a steamy bath for a natural, fresh-skin look before she went out. Except she never actually went anywhere. Instead, she'd stand in front of the television and insist that my siblings and I guess exactly what she had on and which colors she was wearing. We would scream at her to get out of the way, but she wouldn't move until we got it right. I suppose that's why I'm a makeup artist today. I was plain forced.
She also taught me the idea of, if something doesn't exist, make it. Especially back then, we would be looking for shades for our skin tone, and they were nowhere to be found. So we would hunt down the right colors for us and do custom blends. That's why being inclusive, with universally flattering colors, has always been of paramount importance to me with [Pat McGrath] Labs. It's the reason I turn up backstage with hundreds and hundreds of foundations — usually around 67 giant trunks full of makeup. Celebrating skin has been a big inspiration for so many of my products, like Skin Fetish Sublime Perfection Foundation and the Highlighter and Balm Duo. I remember that feeling of disappointment as a child when I couldn't find the right match for my complexion, and I would never want anyone I work with to feel that way.
It's the same with our lip products and eye-shadow palettes — we do rigorous testing to make sure they work on all skin tones and are easy to use. You don't have to be Leonardo da Vinci to use an eye shadow, you know? I encourage everyone to have fun and play with makeup; you can always take it off. Makeup represents freedom, empowerment, and self expression. Beauty is in all of us, so don't be afraid of it.
Doing runway shows brings different challenges. Sometimes the most difficult are the simplest, like dealing with complexities of the skin and making every person look natural, as if the makeup is completely undetectable. Then there are really strong couture shows, like at Dior, Givenchy, Prada, and Versace, where I'm designing jewels around the eyes or adding feathers. I don't get overwhelmed because I've always really loved challenges; they give me energy and keep me going. That's the one thing I will say about working in beauty and fashion: It keeps you on your toes. You don't really have time to get bored or to be uncertain about the future.
I have so much fun doing what I do. It's hard to call it a job. Even during quarantine, I was inspired. I listened to music while working and then was on Zooms with my team. We kept one another's spirits up, and doing the Divine Rose Collection and the Dark Star Mascara master classes was so much fun too. I've also watched a lot of vintage movies and shows like The Crown, Bridgerton, and The Bureau. I really miss going to art galleries, so it will be great once those open back up again.
It's been amazing doing shows too — we did the fall 2021 season of Anna Sui, Versace, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Valentino, and Miu Miu. It's wonderful to be back with my team now that it's safe to do so. We are tested 20 times a week. This era of COVID has definitely made us more appreciative of our time together.
I'm excited to see everyone again — I love all my beauty muses. There are so many. There's Naomi [Campbell], Linda [Evangelista], Grace Jones, Christy [Turlington Burns]. Plus, all the babies that are around today — Patia [Borja], Alexis [Jae], Paloma [Elsesser]. My list is a hundred strong. I just love everyone's face. I said Linda, right? If I leave anyone out, my phone will ring. — as told to Maya Allen
For more stories like this, pick up the May 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Apr. 16th.