Chapters In My Life: Mary Greenwell

Chapters In My Life: Mary Greenwell

Legendary make-up artist Mary Greenwell has worked with some of the most famous faces in the world – Cate Blanchett, Uma Thurman, Lily James, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford (to name just a few). A pivotal moment in Mary’s career came when she was introduced to Diana Princess of Wales and went on to work on some of her most iconic photo shoots. Here, she tells us about the key moments in her life…

Chapter One – Growing Up

“My twin sister Jane and I were brought up in a tiny little village in the idyllic West Sussex countryside. Looking back, we had the most beautiful childhood – my father commuted to the City and my mother looked after us. Although, actually, I was from the generation that was brought up by nannies and my mother was running around having fun. That said I had a lovely childhood.
“I went to a day school followed by a boarding school – both have now closed down which just goes to show how bad my education was. That’s probably why I ended up doing make-up! Seriously, though, my education was not much to write home about, and I was a rather rebellious and wild, albeit gentle, child. My sister was far more rebellious than I was, however. This was down to the fact that my mother wasn’t at all conventional, she allowed us to be whatever we wanted, she wasn’t judgemental, so we grew up as free spirits.
“I was very artistic but never into abstract art. Instead, I would take a rose and draw it and paint it – I was good at detail and I loved it. That is really part of my personality and something I grew up with. Make-up is all about detail and colour which is probably another reason I love it so much, although I never wore any until I was 23.”

Chapter Two – Staying On In America…

“My sister and I were 18 when my father retired, and he asked us whether we’d like either to go on a family world tour or have a coming out party – in those days, coming out meant being presented to the Queen – not what it means today! I won that one argument with my sister and off we went on a trip around the world. The last two weeks were spent in America, and our last stop was New York. When we left England, I was already planning on not coming home although my parents had no idea. I didn’t really feel I fitted in in England – it was 1972, the height of the hippy era and I was so in love with the idea of living in California. When I told my parents I wouldn’t be joining them on the journey home, my father was adorable and gave me £300, which was the equivalent of about £3,000 today. They thought I’d be home in three weeks; I came home two years later.
“I met up with a friend from England who was on a road trip round America and we drove across the country, ending up in LA where I decided to stay, living with family friends. They were so kind to me – they were in the movie business and took me to lots of premieres where I met film stars, rock stars, and earned money working in restaurants and bars. I had a wild and wonderful time.
“I was working on the door at Joe Allen’s – my job was to seat people because I was useless at waitressing and tended to drop the food! I would say ‘hi’ to people like Paul Newman ‘come and sit down, here’s your table’ and I’d sit at the bar with Jack Lemmon and drink with him every day after work. One Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend at the time came in for lunch with his business partner. They were working on the opening of the LA Fiorucci store and they suddenly said how perfect I would be on the make-up counter there. My answer was: ‘Really? This face that has never worn make-up in its life?’. I guess they thought I’d be quite good at greeting people and all that, and they flew me to New York for a two-week make-up crash course with Ilana Harkavi who had a range called Il Makiage. She literally taught me everything in one session!
“Back in LA, the Fiorucci store opened with a huge disco party and I worked selling Il Makiage products and doing people’s make-up behind the counter. I loved it. I started doing a few album covers for people like Kiss and a bit of work with some photographers, but there was no fashion in LA in the Seventies, fashion as we know it today didn’t really come til the supermodels arrived on the scene.”

Chapter Three – Back Home And The Start Of My Career

“I’d been in the US practically the whole of the Seventies and, in 1979, I came back to England when I realised I’d found something I was good at. Fashion was taking off in London and that is when my career really started – a great friend of mine, Melissa Richardson, opened a model agency called Take Two and I did the make-up for the models’ tests and slowly started meeting photographers. Her agency wasn’t really for me though, and she wasn’t ready to represent make-up artists, so I joined Sessions, the best agency at the time. It was then that I started working with Vanessa de Lisle at Harpers & Queen and she booked me on all her shoots, and that’s how I met the photographer Pamela Hansen who suggested I go to Paris as there were so few make-up artists there.”
“I left for Paris in April 1984 but, on the morning of my departure, I was booked to do Mrs Thatcher’s make-up in Downing Street for a BBC programme she was filming. I rocked up at 10 Downing Street in my beaten up little red car and parked right outside – right where all the photographers are these days. I was taken to her private quarters to set up – I heard this booming voice and in she walked. She was delightful – and I’m using that word appropriately; no matter what we think of her politics, or of her as Prime Minister, she was the most charismatic person you can imagine. Just being in her company was amazing – she was so dynamic and incredibly kind to me.”

Chapter Four – Working With The Supermodels And The Great Photographers

“My French agent suggested I move into a hotel in the 6th arrondissement, called Hôtel Saint-André des Arts. It was also where all the young models were staying and, during my first spring in Paris, I was surrounded by Christie Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patiz and Stephanie Seymour. They were the five original supermodels, and we were all there together. It was the era when these girls started doing runway and photography; that had never happened before and when the two merged it became what was known as the ‘super industry’ and I was there for the beginning of that.
“I started working with some wonderful photographers – my work was spotted by the photographer Hans Feurer after I’d done a cover for Madame Figaro of Marpessa [Hennink Challa]; when he saw it, he said he wanted to work with me as he’d never seen Marpessa look so good. And that is how Hans took me on my first trip: to Lanzarote for American Vogue. We had four days to do one story (which is how it was in those days; now you’d do it in one afternoon) – we took amazing pictures on the beach and it was wonderful being with such inspiring, brilliant and talented people as a group. I was so overcome and cried when we all parted ways at the airport to go home because it felt like a family breaking up – it was a real stand-out moment for me of how close you become.
“I also met Grace Coddington, the creative director at British Vogue, around about this time and I went on to work with her and Liz Tilberis every month for two years. They were the ones who really made my career and how I came to work with the great photographers: talent like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon in their last days of working. And then the next generation came along: Paolo Roversi, Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel.

Chapter Five – Meeting Princess Diana

“It was in late 1991 when my great friend the hairstylist Sam McKnight and I were told to go to a studio in London for a Vogue shoot with Patrick Demarchelier. We were advised to look smart and presentable – he was told to wear a tie. We didn’t know who the famous person was and in walked the Princess of Wales. Patrick had already met her at Highgrove when he’d photographed her with her sons, but it didn’t take long for her and me to connect. Doing her make-up was just like doing a model’s – she was very young, and I’d never do something bold on someone of her beauty and calibre. My goal is always to just enhance someone’s look. The photograph of her wearing a tiara and hugging her knees is one of the shots that came out of that day.
“After that we did about four or five covers with her over the years. I also did her make-up for events like the Vanity Fair Serpentine party, in 1994, when she wore that amazing fitted black off-the-shoulder dress with an asymmetrical hemline and chiffon train; and the Met Gala in 1996 when she wore that midnight blue satin dress by John Galliano for Dior.

Chapter Six – A Terrifying Episode

“If there is one memorable moment in my life which would make a chapter in my book, it has to be the time we nearly got stuck in the Himalayas. Cindy Crawford, Vogue’s Lucinda Chambers, Patrick, hairstylist Didier Malige and I were on a shoot in Ladakh when the roads were about to be closed and we had to get out or we’d have been stuck there for months due to snow.  The plane only had three seats and, having drawn straws, Patrick and I had to go by car, a journey that took 12 hours, down this endless, winding mountain road with me staring down crevasses, screaming in the back and Patrick laughing all the way. It was so frightening. When we finally arrived at the hotel, where the rest of the crew were waiting, there was only a single room available and Patrick and I had to share a bed – the most awful experience ever!

Chapter Seven – The Death Of My Twin Sister

“Jane died nine years ago. She became a heroin addict when she was 21. There are two ways to go in life – either you run away, as I did, or you take drugs which was a very trendy thing to do in London in the Seventies. And sadly, she went down that route; had I stayed here I might have gone down that route too. But somehow my spirit was stronger and I knew I did not want to become addicted to heroin.
“Eventually, her body gave up. Most people had stopped taking heroin, she hadn’t. She was very resilient, though, and obviously had very strong genes because it took many, many years for the effect of the abuse of her body to kick in. We loved each other very much but we were very different characters. She was the beautiful one, sporty, more intelligent, she had it all – maybe because she felt invincible, she did things that, in the end, are destructive; I always knew I was not invincible.
“Her son, my nephew, is 25 now and I love him to pieces. He’s wonderful and I’m very proud of him. He and his mother loved each other so much.”

Chapter Eight – Working With The A-Listers

“I have worked with so many A-list celebrities for glossy magazine covers, events, advertising. I did Meghan’s make-up for her Vanity Fair shoot, just a couple of weeks before her and Prince Harry’s engagement was announced. She was lovely.
“I work with Cate Blanchett a lot, she is a really good friend, as is Uma [Thurman]. It’s normal to become friends with the people you work with regularly and some even become your best friends. When you’re doing someone’s make-up you get to know them very well; they don’t tell you everything, that would be an exaggeration, but they express everything. They sit there in whatever mood they’re in and will be themselves, whatever that might be – so you are there to facilitate them, to make them feel better if they feel bad, to be happy when they’re happy.
“I do all of Cate’s red carpet events, as well as her advertising shoots. She’s with Armani – in fact I’ve got a bit of FOMO going on at the moment as I’m currently in my house in Lamu in Kenya and she did a shoot the other day which obviously I wasn’t on!”

The Next Chapter

“Along came the second lockdown last November and I came to Kenya – I’m so grateful for having a home away from home. To be honest I haven’t worked much in the last year ­– I’m allowing myself a gap year or semi-retirement…no, I’m going to call it my gap year! If only I had a crystal ball, but I’m hoping to carry on working, so watch this space. People are very gracious and tell me I still have a lot of respect in the beauty industry. I feel blessed.”

Follow Mary @MaryGreenwell

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