Growing up in Provence, France, Laura Mercier never imagined she would pursue a career in cosmetics — let alone launch a multi-million dollar product empire bearing her name. But to make ends meet, she traded her paintbrushes for blush, moved to the United States, and never looked back. Now, two decades after the launch of her premiere product, Laura Mercier Foundation Primer, the renowned makeup artist gets real about the price of success and why she'll never stop hustling. The following interview was told to Thatiana Diaz and edited for length and clarity.
I was obsessed with all forms of art, whether it was drawing or painting, so I decided to move to Paris and go to art school. But after three years, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go in that direction because art careers held uncertainty in terms of getting a job and paying your bills. That's when I decided to go to esthetician school at the Carita Beauty Institute, because I loved all things beauty and skin. Also, if you know about drawing and painting, you're not going to be so bad at makeup.
At that school, I met makeup artist Thibault Vabre, who was working with celebrities and royalty and also teaching at the school. After I finished, and at just 20 years old, Vabre took me on as his assistant. I started to go on French Elle shoots and assisted him for a year and a half. I was powdering his puff and preparing and cleaning his makeup kit. It was all the dirty work, but a learning experience. After two years, I realized that I could do shoots on my own.
Art Imitates Life
For me, makeup was the best of both worlds. It's painting, it's coloring, it's graphics, it's technique — it's everything I love, but on the living canvas. But this work became my life. I had to be available at any time of the day or night to make money. You sacrifice your personal life, but it goes so fast that you have no time to think about it.
It all became a frenzy when I worked with renowned photographers Steven Meisel and Patrick Demarchelier, who both worked non-stop with celebrities and supermodels. It's a learning experience shoot after shoot. You learn to do makeup in different lights with different themes and personalities. Photographers make you part of their team, and then you're in demand and juggling editorial and publicity — all while paying your bills when you can. I enjoyed the thrill of it and didn't regret any of it.
I started to focus on skin for photoshoots, especially corresponding to that time we were at in the '80s when the girls were photographed on the beach. It was very much outdoors, so you had to adapt the makeup so that it wasn't too heavy. Skin became my forte. It's about choosing the right foundation, getting the proper skin care, and treating your skin well. Skin is important, and you don't want to cover it like crazy to the point in which it doesn't look natural.
I quickly began working with celebrities, who were noticing my work in editorial and booking me. Some of my first celebrity clients were Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Roberts, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Madonna. You work with these celebrities at chunks of a time, but then you have to move on. I passed from one to another on a continuous basis — besides Madonna. With her, it was eight years non-stop of videos and press junkets. Eventually, I was in this wheel where you don't have enough days in the week because you're in-demand left and right.
A Brand Is Born
Before the Laura Mercier brand launched in 1996, the idea had been really strong in my mind for about three to four years. Today, I could create a website with a little chunk of money, start my own line, and see how it goes. Back then, you had to find someone who would be your business partner. I didn't have the money to put into such a big project, and it was right after Bobbi Brown and François Nars launched, so there was pressure.
I chose a partner, but we had to make a deal: I would continue to do my job — to a certain extent — but I wanted to be at the lab and create the products by myself with a chemist. I told the partner, 'If you're not ok with that, then I'm not going to work with you. I'm not leaving the peak of my career for an adventure that's not going to match with what I want to do.' She said, 'Ok,' which was lucky because it's not easy to find investors who will work with you prior to you starting. They usually come and fetch you when there is buzz. I feel lucky that my partner gave me my chance.
I worked for three to four years as a makeup artist while also working on the brand, which made me completely crazy. Between being in the lab and visiting stores, I was also still traveling to do work on set. There was once 27 hours for a music video with Mariah Carey, and I had a nervous breakdown. It was either I die on the job or I give up something — and I had to make the choice. So, I abandoned my freelance work completely and just focused on the brand.
The success of the brand came quickly — and, I want to say, too quickly. We were trying to acquire money fast to provide for the unexpected demand. The way to build a business was so different in the late '90s and early 2000s. I had to go to stores all over the world to meet my clients, introduce myself, and teach makeup at the store locations. I didn't want to be center-stage, but I had to be. There were no advertisements, no social media.
"There was once 27 hours for a music video with Mariah Carey, and I had a nervous breakdown. It was either I die on the job or I give up something — and I had to make the choice."
Two decades later and here we are. I feel really lucky that my line is still alive and resonates, which I'm not surprised about because we set out with a trend-less philosophy. I could tell the success was behind what we said: "Love who you are and try to make the best of what you have." This is completely printed in the philosophy of Laura Mercier, and it will be until I die.
I've never had the mentality of, This is my line. I'm not doing it by myself: It's the company, the team, and the team effort. The biggest lesson I've learned in my career is something that I always knew: Nothing is permanent and you could be down in a second. Success can go away. Don't ever get a big head or think that you're above anybody or at the top. It's never a question about being at the top — it's about doing your best to the best of your abilities, and that's already good enough.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.