I meet Wendy for the first time in her Chelsea home on the eve of her US book launch for Eat Beautiful, where she hugs me like an old friend. What was set to be an hour interview quickly turns into a four-hour exchange.
Best known for painting the faces of Sienna Miller and Victoria Beckham and her work as creative artistic consultant for Burberry Beauty, Wendy is known among fashion and beauty circles as the queen of the glow. Her skill lies in her ability to make women feel and look good not by concealing, but by making them look the best versions of themselves. “I’m a woman, I’m insecure, I’m vulnerable so I know how to make women feel good. I understand.”
She cut her teeth assisting the likes of Dick Page, Pat McGrath and Kevyn Aucoin but her journey and her aesthetic is truly her own. I’m always enamoured by people like Wendy who have achieved a level of success by creating their own opportunities and who have stayed authentic, despite the temptations to do otherwise.
Wendy’s story is testament to the reality that, while there are bound to be talented people in your sector, there’s only one of you. Tapping into what it is that makes you special – that thing that nobody else can do as well as you – is all you need. There will be times where it feels easier to detour – you’re only human and we all have bills to pay – but the beautiful thing about running your own business is that you control how you show up in the world every day. The path for one person, might not be the right path for you. Cutting out the excess allows space for the right opportunities to come. This is Wendy’s story on a carving a career on her own terms.
ACCIDENTALLY FALLING INTO MAKE-UP: I got my start when a hairdresser friend of mine, moved from London to Paris and told me to move there, too. Every time he came home to London, he’d say to me, ‘why don’t you do make up? We can go on trips together.’ It was the era of the supermodel, George Michael’s Freedom and everything I’m about. I had just finished college and gave up my job in London, moved to Paris and absolutely hated it. I was 22, I didn’t speak any French and no one spoke English. I’d walk across a backdrop in the studio and people would start screaming at me in French. I was young – I didn’t know what I was doing. The experience was painful and totally different from the dream sequence I’d had in my head. When I went back to London, I made it my mission to write to all the agents and model agencies. From the 50 letters I sent out, I got two or three responses and ended up meeting an agent who looked after make-up artists like Pat McGrath. From there, I started doing a few assisting jobs and started meeting people. That’s how I got into music. I did a Björk video and an Annie Lennox video, too. It was the era of the pop kids so I did Smash Hits and all of those big music magazines at the time.
THE TRANSITION FROM MUSIC TO FASHION & HOW SHE LANDED PRADA: I started making alright money though music but what I really wanted to do was work in editorials. I did the same thing as I did before – I reached out to all of the people I wanted to work with. A friend of mine who was a hairdresser told me that I needed to contact make-up artists and tell them that I’d be in Europe during fashion week and that I was available. That’s how I ended up on Dick Page’s team during Milan Fashion Week. I was so panicky. I remember arriving at the show so early it was dark. I positioned myself under the staircase and waited until everyone arrived because I was so nervous. I’d done shows in London like Alexander McQueen but that was before it became a massive brand. For the Prada show I did Carolyn Murphy’s make-up. I met her the night before, which helped, but I’d never worked with Dick and really wanted to impress him. I remember he walked over to her and asked who’d done her make-up because it was awful. He said that it was far too much and that I needed to take it off and start again. It was the era of liquid foundation and lots of powder so that’s what I’d been taught. But he changed the way I worked and helped me learn a lot about my craft. With him, there were no rules. It was always just about making the girl look good. After the Prada show I thought he’d never book me again but he did. I worked with him for three years and learnt so much.
THE FINANCIAL CHALLENGES THAT COME WITH ASSISTING: After working with Dick, I went on to assist Pat [McGrath] and Kevyn [Aucoin]. I tried to do as many shows as I could. I never made money – I only ever broke even – but there was no other way to get into magazines. I was naïve. If I really knew more about the financial implications, I probably would have been too afraid to do it. But I was young so just went for it. It wasn’t easy though. I had to sign on [for state support] for years and I’ve been bankrupt. I look at assistants on shoots and there all posh. That’s the only way they can sustain not being paid for so long. If you don’t come from that background or if you don’t live in London, the train fare alone will kill you. People look at my success now but don’t realise that the road here hasn’t been easy. Throughout my career, all the money I’ve made, I’ve reinvested.
HER FIRST BIG MAGAZINE GIG & THE SNOWBALL EFFECT: Those years assisting helped me walk away with real contacts. I’d get back from the shows and start getting calls from places like i-D. You never get paid for these things but I knew i-D would be my way into fashion. I needed a strong editorial book. My first with them was shot in my mum and dad’s house in Essex. I’ve still got the images somewhere. Dick Page then helped me get an agent and it all started moving from there. I never had a big break. You hear about these people who, one day were assistants, and the next day were working for Italian Vogue. That never happened to me.
THE BIGGEST CHANGES SHE’S NOTICED IN THE INDUSTRY: Back then, everything was very exclusive. To see a fashion show, you had to be involved or invited. Now, everyone has access. The secrets and the kudos has gone. In a way, I think it’s good because I don’t think it should be exclusive. As a creative in those days, no one would tell you what to do. You had to bumble your way through it. It’s changed a lot for models too. I was talking to an agent the other day about models having tattoos. When she started out, models weren’t allowed to. That was when there was only hand retouching. She told me that she had one model who went to work with one of the big photographers in the Caribbean. He went ballistic when he saw her tattoos and sent her home. Now, that would never happen. They embrace the girls’ image.
HOW SHE BECAME DUBBED THE ‘QUEEN OF THE NUDES’: I started my career in the grunge era so I’d turn up to a shoots and they’d tell me that they didn’t want any make-up. I needed to do something so I could put the shoot in my book so I would do amazing skin and make-up that you didn’t really see. That’s how I perfected my approach to skin. From there, people started calling me the go-to girl for gorgeous natural make-up and that’s how I got my niche. It just developed naturally.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CRAFTING A STYLE THAT’S YOUR OWN: It’s important but it comes with time. You have to learn your craft then allow your style to develop. I’m proud that I have made something that wasn’t there before. I didn’t wait around for someone to drop out so I could copy what they were doing and take their place. I’ve assisted some of the best make-up artists in the world but I’ve never tried to copy them. There will never ever be another Pat McGrath. There already is one – so why try. It’s one of the reasons I got my Burberry contract, as they have the same aesthetic, it was, and I guess still is, my unique selling point. The glow is what I do and they owned that aesthetic too. There is no brand that does nude make-up as well as Burberry.
ON HER 15-YEAR RELATIONSHIP WITH BURBERRY AND CHRISTOPHER BAILEY: We met through a stylist friend of mine, Elliott Smedley. He used to be the fashion director of Dutch magazine. Christopher asked him who he wanted to work with and he said, me. Christopher wanted things that didn’t exist so I started working with them to create those things. Our relationship started with the show – I’ve always done the show – then I started working on the campaigns. When the brand decided to do make-up, he asked me to evaluate it and there were lots of holes in the collection. I was quite brutal in the beginning but I just wanted to be honest. I’m lucky, Christopher gives me quite a lot of free rein, so I can develop everything I want or need for work that still fits under their umbrella and into who their woman is. One thing I have to say is that it’s really great to get an opportunity like that, but you have to keep it. That’s the hard thing. I didn’t want to rely on the brand to take me anywhere… I always knew that I had to grow with the brand and continue to keep pace with them. You never want to be piggy-backing along with something and not contributing anything. If I hadn’t grown over these years, maybe I wouldn’t be there but I have. Being in New York and working with photographers like Inez & Vinoodh and Camilla Akrans has meant that I can add value and give something to Burberry, compared to if I was working with them full time.
THE BALANCING ACT BETWEEN GROWING HER BUSINESS BUT STAYING TRUE TO HE AESTHETIC: Sometimes when opportunities come to you, they might seem amazing on the surface but they just might not be right for you and you need to learn when to say no. I’ve learnt that if I’m booked on a job that doesn’t feel ‘me’, I won’t be happy. It makes more sense to get someone else to do the job because the client will end feeling happier and so will I. Creative work rarely pays a lot so I have to be happy with what I’m doing for it to be worth it. When I do someone’s make-up, I give them a piece of me. When it doesn’t click, it’s draining. I only work with people that I like. I always give people chances. If I vibe with them, then great. If I don’t, I just won’t work with them again. And they probably have the same vibe with me.
ON HAVING THE CONFIDENCE TO CREATE SPACE FOR THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITIES: That confidence has come in the last four or five years. It was a bit of a turning point for me. Before that, I found it really hard to stop chasing the fashion and start focusing on beauty. To have the vision and trust in myself that the right things would come was hard. It’s difficult to take that step as a freelancer. If you’re not out working, you’re not getting paid. When I went through that transition and started saying no, there’d be times where nothing would come in for a week and I started getting itchy feet. What I’ve learnt is that if you clog your environment with lots of things, nothing new can come in because there’s no space. It’s really hard to stay strong and wait for the right thing to come when there are job offers coming in but you have to remember that those distractions will take you off course. It took me about a year to get the balance right. I’ve learnt a lot about boundaries. Before, especially when it came to travelling, I’d always say yes. When you’re sitting at your computer, the idea of going to shoot in New York for a day, then flying to L.A, then back to New York before heading back to London, sounds great. It’s so easy to get swept up in feeling validated because people want to book you.
ON WENDY ROWE THE BUSINESS WOMAN: I’ve never just wanted to be Wendy Rowe the make-up artist because if that went away, who would I be and what would I stand for? I think maybe that’s why I did the website and created the book. The website started because I wanted to write for a magazine – I wanted to have a voice. I do make-up all day and in different environments. Even though I have great friends who are beauty journalists, they don’t do that. I have a different point of view. But no one would let me write for them – so I decided to do it myself. I was looking at all of these people doing blogs and I felt like I had a lot more practical advice to give. I’m a woman, I’m insecure, I’m vulnerable and I have experience so I know how to make women feel good. I understand.
HER BOOK, EAT BEAUTIFUL: People would ask me about tips and tricks all the time so I thought I should just create a definitive cookbook that also has skincare tips in it to break down everything I’ve learned in my book. My goal was that I didn’t want to baffle anyone with jargon that they didn’t understand—I wanted it basic, in a good way. Simple recipes that explain what’s in it, what you need to buy, what does it cost, end of story and on to the next.
THE BEST PART OF THE JOB: As a make-up artist, it’s our job to look after people. The same is true of hair but more so with make-up because we’re in their face. You know what people are going through. They might not be having a good day. They might have broken up with their boyfriend or something might have happened but it’s my job to try and make them feel good. No matter what I do to their face, if they don’t feel good, it’s not going to work. Part of their journey becomes your journey, which I love.