What does it take to become one of the biggest stars in the world? For some, it’s ruthless management, exposed midriffs, and a lifetime of dance rehearsals. For Lady Gaga, it’s a push for artistic expression wrapped in the catchiest hooks and most raw acting roles. With every iteration of that expression — be it wearing a meat dress or a becoming a vampire on TV — comes a new and creative beauty look that must meet Gaga’s standard of creativity.
That’s where Lady Gaga’s longtime makeup artist Sarah Tanno comes in. Whether churning out fresh, unexpected looks for Gaga’s pop-star persona or the TV and film characters she plays, the beauty pro, who won an Emmy for her makeup work on American Horror Story and a Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Award for A Star Is Born, rises to the occasion every time.
Ahead, the global artistry ambassador for Marc Jacobs Beauty shares how she does it, what it’s been like prepping Gaga for this week's Oscars, and how hustling through the hard knocks can get you everywhere. The following interview was told to Erika Stalder and edited for length and clarity.
I had moved to New York from LA after a breakup. I was almost broke, trying to make it all happen, shooting editorials and struggling. I didn’t want to ever do celebrities — I was a fashion makeup artist. I remember watching the VMAs in 2009 when she performed "Paparazzi" and Kabuki, the makeup artist, did her makeup. She was hanging from the rafters, dripping in blood, and I was like, Oh, that girl is badass. If I could work with anyone, it would be her.
The next day I was back at the MAC counter where I was working and we were all talking about it, and I said, "I know I said I didn’t want to work with celebrities, but I would die to work with her." And it was so crazy — literally 20 minutes later I had a Facebook message from her manager at the time, who I knew from having worked with Fergie on a couple of things. She asked if I would be interested in working with Lady Gaga and if I wanted to come meet her in Washington to do her makeup for the last couple shows of the Fame Ball tour.
It was crazy because she wanted me to do hair, too. I went to hair school and I can do regular hair, but this is Lady Gaga. I was not trained or ready to do the level of hair that Gaga needed. I totally faked it. Billy B., who was working with her for everything at that time, came in and wanted his assistant to take over the tour and do Gaga with the look he created. Gaga didn’t want to lose me completely, so she asked me to come on board and do her dancers. I was really bummed out at the time, but I took the hit.
Sticking It Out
People are like, “Oh, you’ve worked for Gaga for 10 years,” but I haven’t really. I’ve been part of her team for 10 years, doing her dancers on tour, but people don’t understand that a lot of other people did her makeup at that time. I’ve had a rough time getting to where I am. It did not come easily to me and it took years and years of struggling and failing, but I loved it and lived and breathed it because there was no other option for me. I want people to know that if it takes 10 years to get a job, that’s normal. It took that long for me, too.
For five years, I just did my homework and studied and watched what she liked, what she didn’t like, and what worked on her face — and that helped me to develop my style, and it taught me a lot about makeup and what I love. I had to do a lot of homework to keep up with her because her references are so incredible and she’s such an artist. It wasn’t an easy process, but I earned her trust, and I’ve been full time with her since 2014.
Loyalty Pays Off
I’m a loyal person, but I have to say she is just the most loyal person — she is someone who really believes in her team and fights for her team and opens so many doors. She tried for a month to [arrange for] me to do the makeup for her Vogue cover. A lot of artists won’t do that for their team. And because of that, I just shot my second Vogue cover with Hailey Bieber. I would never be put in those life-changing positions if she didn’t open those doors. That says a lot about her loyalty and how much she believes in the people around her. Vogue is every makeup artist’s dream.
She does so much for us and gives back so much to her team. We just won the Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Award for Best Contemporary Makeup for A Star is Born. She was so proud — she sent me the most beautiful card and beautiful flowers that were in the shape of a lipstick. She’s always so supportive.
With references, Gaga’s so good at that kind of thing, and we use them as a team to communicate. She would reference her good friend Daphne Guinness or Alexander McQueen’s older runway shows and that whole group of friends she was close to, Isabella Blow and Philip Treacy — and that would give me an idea of the feeling of the makeup she wanted, not necessarily something so literal but the intention and the feelings of the looks that we’re about to create together. Those became some of my favorite things to reference.
We all love Daphne’s style, and she was one of the influences in Gaga’s American Horror Story character The Countess. Originally [the show creators] wanted just one classic look for Gaga the whole season, this beautiful old-Hollywood makeup, and we just weren't down with that, so I had to show them [another way]. The first day going into that character, I bleached out the brows and did a light gloss on her eyes, which made her kind of creepy, and they loved it. I came up with 68 original makeup looks for the show. Because she was a vampire and had to go through all these different time periods, there was a lot of research and they shot out of order and it was sometimes three or four looks a day. It was a hard show, but so rewarding — I still can’t even believe that I have an Emmy [for the work].
Gaga’s Test Kitchen
I really do a lot of research and homework even if it’s doing a more mild face, whether it’s watching old movies or looking through books — that’s what helps me get into the vibe of whatever I’m doing. I have an incredible book collection and don’t like to really look online as much.
When I plan for the bigger events, I show up to fittings — most makeup artists are like, what? You have to go to a fitting? I’m like, Absolutely. I want to know what I’m walking in on, I want to be prepared. It’s extra work, but it makes you feel so much better to be part of a moment of choosing what that look is going to be. Then I go back to my creative space and figure it out.
I try so many different things and really test on myself. I have to see the texture, how the makeup moves and how it feels, so a face chart doesn’t necessarily do it for me. I need to do it on a face. So sometimes I’ll call one of my dancer friends over and they’ll sit with me because they have so much fun doing it. Sometimes I nail it right away, sometimes it takes several tries.
Storytelling With Every Look
With the number of looks we create, it’s a fast pace, but I live for it. It always starts with her. It’s thinking about, what is she wearing? What’s the story we’re telling? What’s the intention? What is the hair? What is the makeup? Is the intention to blow people away? Is it to be more pulled back? Then I go back and really think about it.
Usually I’m working closely with Frederic Aspiras [Gaga’s hair and wig art designer]. He and I have worked together for so long, we have a system. We see what she’s wearing; if it’s a big red carpet or something, we’ll talk about things that she might have said about how she wants to feel. Then we’ll create in our own spaces and we’ll meet up and talk about it again before we present anything to her. Once we get her feedback from what we’ve done, we elevate from there.
When Less Is More
Sometimes it’s about not overdoing it, and the Grammys look was one of the easiest red carpets I’ve ever done. I always want to do more for the Grammys, but she knew exactly what she wanted the moment she put that dress on. We all wanted her to really feel Gaga but also have a little gritty rock n' roll, like she slept in her makeup and wore it the next day.
First I used the Marc Jacobs Beauty Blacquer Highliner Gel Eye Crayon and went really heavy on the outer corners of her eye, and took a brush and just messed it all up. Then I went over it again with Marc Jacobs Beauty Magic Marc’er in Blaqcuer to make it look almost wet and left the eye pretty much opened. I added a little bit of the black color in the Marc Jacobs Beauty Eye-Conic Steel(etto) Palette to make it look even smokier and grittier, and that was it. I didn’t use any mascara or false lashes. I left skin really clean with the Marc Jacobs Beauty Shameless Youthful-Look 24 Hour Foundation SPF 25 with a little bit of Marc Jacobs Beauty O!Mega Bronze and Marc Jacobs Beauty Enamored Hi Shine Gloss Lip Lacquer in Cream & Sugar just so her lips looked really healthy — no lip liner, balm or anything. It’s the least amount of products I’ve ever used on a red carpet — just really simple, but very Gaga.
The Oscars Strategy
I’ll start my makeup tests for the Oscars the Thursday before, and I’ll continue to test until Sunday. I’ll test the look on myself, then test it on her when she goes to rehearsal, just so I can see it in a different light and on stage —then I’ll know exactly what I need to tweak so I can do the best version for her on Sunday.
This is something she’s been looking forward to her whole life, so I want the look to be timeless and I want her to feel like the most beautiful person in the world. I want to create something that she’s not only going to love on Sunday, but something that she can look back on in photos 20 years from now and still love just as much. With big moments like this, it all has to be true to being Gaga and true to the moment.