How To Look Rich, According To The Makeup Artist Behind Crazy Rich Asians

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
Crazy Rich Asians is expected to be a blockbuster hit for more than one reason. Some are saying it's a huge step in Hollywood for Asian representation. Others are praising the novel-turned-rom-com for its refreshing take on a modern Cinderella story. But we're already giving it five stars for one slept-on detail: the hair and makeup.
From a distance, Crazy Rich Asians' on-screen beauty looks appear mundane. Upon closer inspection, you'll find that's simply not the case. Every ponytail, glitter eyeshadow, and nail polish (or lack thereof) is deeply intertwined with each characters' plotline — including Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), Nick Young (Henry Golding), and Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina). These little details help build on the characters' personalities.
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We chatted with Heike Merker, the head of the hair and makeup department for the film, for all the behind-the-scenes secrets you need to know before seeing the movie (in theaters August 15).
R29: How did your Crazy Rich Asians journey begin?
Heiki Merker: "It all started when I read the script. That's the first thing I always do because I want to know what's inside the story like how [the writers] describe the characters. From there I research and make a collage for each cast member. Finally, I'll have a meeting with the director. They will show me their ideas, I'll show them what I think, and sometimes we'll swap some things for others. Collaborating with the costume designer is also an important part for me because the costumes can change a character's entire look, especially for Crazy Rich Asians."
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
What did your character mood boards look like?
"I throw anything in it. Whatever I feel in the character, I put on there. It can be a car, a color, a house. It can be the whole family for that one character. For Awkwafina's Peik Lin, for example, her family was in gold. They are very, very wealthy and their taste is over the top. It's not classic. They represent the difference between old money and new money. Nick's family was the opposite. They have taste, they're classic, and they know what to show and not to show in their looks."
How would you describe Nick's look?
"Nick naturally has a classic look, but we still tried to keep him appearing as a typical American. But when he approaches his family in Singapore, he knows how to react to his environment, what to wear and how to act depending on where he's going. He's familiar with the dress code for everything."
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Was it important for the story to make sure the Asian-American characters looked different from the characters we meet in Singapore?
"There was a difference because the American side is more grounded in normal life. In the world of Nick Young's Singaporean family, we tried to make it as different as possible and lift up that world into something almost absurd in comparison. They're so wealthy that they never really work. They just spend money — and not in the hundreds, but the millions. We tried to separate the two worlds, but keep Nick in the center of both."
How did Nick differ from his family's style?
"His family always had their specific hairstyles. It was important to be able to tell that Nick's family has someone in the house that styles them. Before they step out and go somewhere, somebody is doing their hair and makeup for them. Their wardrobe implies the same. This was a challenge in itself because we shot the whole thing in Singapore, and it's very hot there. It was quite a challenge to find something with a wow factor and keep it continuous throughout the shooting day."
How did Rachel Chu's look set her character apart from Nick's family?
"We tried to set her apart a bit by making her look like an American working woman even while she's meeting Nick's family in Singapore. We put a bit more makeup on her for the parties, but we wanted her to look like she was taking care of herself in a normal way."
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
Did Awkwafina really dye her hair for this role?
"No, it's a wig. She had her natural black hair underneath. We needed someone from the Asian-American cast to pop out in a different way, and Awkwafina was perfect for it because her character was a bit crazy. You could believe she bleached her hair, had a short haircut, and looked different from someone else in Nick's family."
Right after wrapping Crazy Rich Asians, you went to work on The Girl in the Spider's Web. How did that experience differ from CRA?
"In The Girl in the Spider's Web, Lisbeth Salander is a punk with tattoos. She's rough, and it's more about making her have dirty fingernails, bruises, and cuts than looking beautiful. It's telling a story about her being on the run and what happened to her in the film. There we had to use prosthetics and blood. There was no blood in Crazy Rich Asians. Instead, we used a lot of glitter makeup and nail polish."
Glitter makeup?
"Yes! Mostly glitter eyeshadow. There were so many brands we found in Malaysia and Singapore that were good to shoot with. I could go in a shop there and find products I'd never find in the European market. The glitter wasn't super noticeable, but it added a beautiful shine to the skin. I used some of the eye products from Chosungah 22 on set."
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
Tell us about the nail polish.
"Everybody had to have their own nail color in Crazy Rich Asians. We had the craziest colors on set, like one that was made of pure gold. We even hired a nail colorist to paint little designs on the cast's nails, mostly for the character Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie). It was important for everyone to have a different color. For example, Nick's family wore polish that was more elaborate, but Rachel didn't wear any nail polish in most of her scenes until she got to Singapore. There she had on special colors to match the environment she was in. But she was the only main female character to go without in the film at some point. Everybody else constantly had a nail color."
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