Confessions Of Terry Barber, MAC's Top Makeup Artist

Beauty trends may be constantly in flux, and our perceptions ever-evolving, but there are a handful of people within the industry who not only see its evolution firsthand but shape the way we view and consume it. Terry Barber is one such person. This year, the legendary makeup artist (with one of the best Instagram accounts out there) celebrates 25 years of working with MAC, a brand he’s grown with since his first role on its makeup counter in Harvey Nichols in 1994.
The brand has recently expanded its iconic Studio Fix Foundation into a whopping range of 60 shades and launched the new Studio Fix 24-Hour Smooth Wear Concealer, and to celebrate the newest campaign, we were lucky enough to pick Barber's brain on all things beauty. From creating looks for Grace Jones and his controversial thoughts on Instagram makeup, to the products he couldn’t leave the house without, these are Barber's biggest takeaways from 25 years on the front lines of beauty.
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You've been with MAC for 25 years now. How do you think both the brand and the industry has changed?
"I started in 1994 at Harvey Nichols, on the first MAC counter outside of North America. It was like a party every day — it was a phenomenon. We were all club kids, the types that probably wouldn't have been employed by another brand. There were no visuals, so it was just us and this amazing range of product.
Truly, MAC lipsticks were known through word of mouth because everyone in the fashion industry had been talking about how they were given out at shoots, things like, 'Linda Evangelista wore this...' So people came in asking for the shade they'd heard about, which meant the brand sold makeup in a completely different way to everyone else. At the time, all the other brands were selling luxury, which almost said, 'You can hope to be this but you never will be.' Whereas with MAC, I think it immediately gave people products they could use themselves. They worked; they gave people an immediate identity.
Twenty-five years on, the whole industry has changed. There's a ton of brands out there like MAC, selling similar kinds of products, but I think the difference is that MAC is less about fantasy and I think it still caters more for the 'real' person. You can sprinkle on your unicorn dust and have bows and bells and whistles, but at the end of the day, for me, does the product actually work?"
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Take Ruby Woo, for example: The reason it's famous is that you can put it on with literally no other makeup and it becomes the makeup, you don’t have to put anything else on. That's the sign of something that works — it takes little effort and little time, you just throw it on and it works. Again, I think it's that product that gives you an immediate identity, instead of having to build something up with layer after layer and contour and highlight. It's like the perfect black eyeliner; you put it around your eye, you rub it with your finger and you're immediately some kind of fabulous, Kate Moss-y version of yourself. It's identity."
You’ve worked on some of the most incredible runway shows throughout your career. Which were the highlights?
"We were actually the first brand to do strobing and highlighted skin, which came from working with McQueen and at the end of the '90s. I used to work on those shows with Val Garland and we had to pestle and mortar pigments and glitters together and put them in creams and oils because Lee had such specific ideas about this kind of futuristic skin. That’s why we created Strobe Cream and Hyper Real Foundation.
I think Lee [McQueen] was presenting fashion in a different way then, and it took beauty to quite ugly and alien realms. With these strange, stretched faces, all the models looked identical, so you couldn't tell who was who — it was really strong. So I guess in terms of fashion shows, that would be the moment where I thought, 'That's new, that's changed everything.'"
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And what about people?
"I've worked with some characters over the years. I did Grace Jones’ makeup for her gigs and shoots for a long time. I worked on the V Magazine cover that Jean-Paul Goude shot, where Grace wore the Swarovski bowler hat and had the gold eyebrow. I worked with Diana Ross twice, and The Supremes. I did Pamela Anderson’s makeup for a few years and had a total laugh — she didn’t take her eyeliner off at night, just kept adding more each morning."
People have called your aesthetic "anti-beauty." What do you make of that?
"I can understand why people say that, because it's not necessarily pretty — it depends on what you think is beautiful. I don't think of it as anti-beauty; I think of it as being free, and as being beauty that you decide for yourself. It's not dictated to you by any trend or by wanting to look like a celebrity. One of my biggest fascinations is how people customize their makeup, like running their eyeliner with the finger, or rubbing around the edge of the lip to make it blurred because then it looks like part of the face. I like how people tweak their beauty. I don't find pinpoint perfection particularly beautiful, I find it a bit empty. Having an ideal of beauty to me suggests that if there is an ideal, then everyone is going to want it and therefore everybody's going to look the same, and they pretty much are at the moment."
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What do you make of Instagram makeup?
"I call it the beauty Olympics. To me, they’re young artists who are discovering makeup and competing with each other to do the most perfect eyebrow and cut crease. It's like, 'My eyeliner is better than yours, my lip is more perfect than yours.' But it's nothing to do with how women style themselves, so let's not confuse the two. I can do the Kardashian thing, I just don't want to. It’s not the same as the glamour of the '70s and '80s. That had a craft to it and was feminine and light, cool and irreverent, decadent and exaggerated. It had a kind of sensuality and sexuality to it — it was never a mask.
I think when it comes to making up a face, someone who has an overworked brow is always a problem for me. A squared off brow with a point at the end, that's really difficult to work with. That's why as makeup artists we spend our whole lives glueing brow hair up, trying to create spaces in it and roughness to it. They dictate everything that you can do on the face, whereas makeup artists need to have something to manipulate."
Where do you think this aesthetic comes from?
"I think there are fewer reference points. There's a problem with history having slightly disappeared, because people have social media so they don’t need to look any further than that. I think there is a new generation coming through, though, that is listening to the music we had in the '80s and '90s. And they're saying, 'Hold on, why did you have that and we have Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber?' It's like fast food, isn't it? Beauty is like fast food, music is like fast food, fashion is like fast food."
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It seems like you see the potential for beauty in everything around you. Your reference points are the most mundane, everyday objects...
"Like the fridge or the toolshed! I like hooks and screws and loops. I'm not really a pointy makeup artist, so I don't make things go into a sharp point, I don't like sharp creases and sharp flicked eyeliner. I like rounded edges like ovals. I like cold meats a lot. I'm obsessed with that pink that you put around the eye to make it quite raw, it's quite beautiful. I like a tired eye, a hungover eye. I like too much mascara. But I know plenty of girls who also love those things, too. I wanted to cater for all those girls who were not interested in looking like a trophy girlfriend. They're self-styled, they like to use their beauty to express their attitude. They like a bit of wrong, a bit of clumpiness, clumsiness, granny-ness. That's what Miuccia Prada did — she made all of those things high fashion. You only get good style if you experiment with the wrong and the ugly."
Which products have to be in your makeup bag at all times?
"The basics. An eye pencil, a classic kohl formula or classic wax pencil crayon — to me, you can do everything with that. I like MAC's Ebony Eye Pencil, which is their original formula, because it's a slightly dirty black and it can be transformed into anything from Pamela Anderson to Brigitte Bardot to Chrissie Hynde. Black mascara, as thick as possible. I remember working with the makeup artist Topolino, and he used to get us to take the wand out, pour loose powder in the tube, pump it with the brush and then apply it straight to the eye. I loved that.
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False eyelashes are always perfect, but for me, eyelashes are like hair — you don't always want silky smooth, straightened hair. Sometimes you want bedhead, to stick your fingers in it or backcomb it a little bit, so why not do that with eyelashes? Fray them a little bit or clump them a little bit, or push them the wrong way. Also, a red lipstick, like a Ruby Woo. At the moment, I'm liking a slight blush of lipstick around the edge, slightly pushed into the skin or pushed up into the bow."
Instagram is a fantastic platform for emerging artists to showcase their work, but how do you think a young makeup artist can cut through the noise?
"You have to be quite brave. It’s easy to be an overnight celebrity on social media, but it's probably a little bit soulless and might not have that much longevity, because however good you are, there will be someone coming up behind you to take your place. I think the most important thing is to learn about the art of beauty and what that actually means to real people. I don't indulge and use people as a canvas or subject matter anymore. Instead it’s about learning the language that people want to speak by putting makeup on: the little tweaks, the little customizations, the things that individualize them or make them feel great. Doing contour, highlight, fleek brows, and cut creases, in terms of makeup artistry, is as easy as 1+1=2. It’s great that you can do it, but you’ve got to be able to take that and manipulate it in different ways. I spend more of my time as a makeup artist de-perfecting things than perfecting things."
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