Make-up artist Phyllis Cohen talks to Dazed Beauty about how she carved out her own space amidst the flamboyant era of punk, grunge, new romantics and the Blitz Kids
80s make-up artist Phyllis Cohen has long been celebrated within the industry for her elaborate style and visionary aesthetic. Always inherently artistic, the Canadian native spent her time sketching outlines of features as a child and trained as a fashion illustrator at the prestigious ArtCentre College of Design in California, as well as completing two fine art degrees at Goldsmiths in London. This artistic background shines through in Cohen’s work with make-up which ubiquitously retains a particular artistic quality to it and her faces, adorned with intricate assemblages of vibrant colours and bold lines, bear the hallmarks of a Baldessari painting rather than a generic fashion editorial visage.
Shunned by numerous editors who didn’t understand her avant-garde approach and thought she “represented the opulent and the extra”, Cohen continued to defiantly push boundaries until she captured the attention of a more far-sighted and innovative crowd.
Her canvases throughout the years included the likes of David Bowie, Boy George, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson and Tina Turner to name just a few, and now Cohen is exhibiting her work for all to see in the form of an archive Instagram account. Through this digital portfolio, Cohen chronicles her illustrious career and showcases her most lauded looks, with each image accompanied by a detailed caption offering insight into the goings-on of the beauty industry in the 80s, as well as nuanced descriptions of the creative process behind each project. Below, we catch up with the seminal make-up artist as she takes us on a trip down memory lane.
Did you have a beauty icon?
Phyllis Cohen: My mom was very, very beautiful. I also love Fellini and his faces, he has this whole book of people that are really odd looking but so beautiful in their own way. There’s that kind of beauty as well. It’s a very, very broad spectrum for me.
Do you remember the first time you painted someone’s face?
Phyllis Cohen: Probably the first people I ever did make-up on was one of my mom’s friends when I was 15. She had very glamorous friends. When I told my mom, “I really want to be a make-up artist” she was like, “What does that mean? Are you going to join the circus?” Because it was so far out of our common experience, I didn’t even know that was a career. I was looking at Barry Lategan’s work who did that really famous cover of Twiggy. She has this really beautiful make-up and I used to stare at it all the time. I think I drew it a hundred times.
You mentioned that you started out as a fashion illustrator. Can you tell us a little bit about your style of drawing?
Phyllis Cohen: I was really shy and I found it really difficult to go out. I think honestly, I devised this method of doing illustrations that were all done with little zero brushes. This took me hours. I think it was all a way to avoid going out actually. Obviously, that was really good training for make-up, because I could do all these very intricate things very precisely.
How did you transition from art school into make-up artistry?
Phyllis Cohen: At ArtCenter there were some photographers that were studying fashion photography, so I used to hang out with them. They let me do make-up for some of their projects and they continued to use me. I had this beautiful, lovely, smooth transition into getting paid. I also had a boyfriend who was a photographer, and he was the editor of LA Weekly. Occasionally they would do fashion stories and we’d do those together and lots of covers too.
People didn’t quite understand your aesthetic at the time – how did you find the strength to persevere?
Phyllis Cohen: Only in England did they go, “This is great”. My boyfriend in LA had great faith in me. You just need one or two people. Also, I knew that even though my product knowledge was terrible, my technique was good. I knew I could do good blends and straight lines from my drawing experience. I never assisted anyone at all, really. I remember when I went to Milan and I worked on a magazine shoot, the model didn’t have very good skin. I had no idea what to do with that. I just used my normal stuff. The beauty editor, who didn’t speak very good English, said, “Okay, okay. It's terrific.” I was like, “Great!” Then she said, “No, I mean terrible!”
What were some of your career highlights?
Phyllis Cohen: I think the phase of doing the Observer covers where I did the shadows that ended up looking a bit like Tamara de Lempicka. That was what led to the Bowie video. Also, I decided to leave LA for Milan in 1982 because I was really yearning to do high fashion stuff. And a few of the editors that I went to see really got me. Franca Sozzani, who was at Lei at the time gave me free reign on an editorial. And then she also called up Anna Piaggi and said, “You should see this girl.” We were given this story to do for the magazine Linea Italia and we did a very minimalist aesthetic which was inspired by Erwin Blumenfeld’s Vogue cover where it’s just the eye and the mouth. I really always yearned to do things that were really simple and stripped back. I feel like if you could do something that's really strong and really simple, it’s really powerful.
What was the most challenging period in your career?
Phyllis Cohen: When I started to have a family, I didn’t have an extended family to help with childcare. In order to be a successful fashion and celebrity make-up artist you do have to be ready to jump on a plane, or turn a schedule around in a matter of days, which of course is very difficult with babies and very small children. There also wasn’t an awareness that I had of fashion make-up artists of my generation having kids. But my children are very special, having grown up as one of 3 adopted children, they keep me incredibly grounded.
You’ve worked with some of the industry’s most iconic models. Comparing models then to now, how do you think the face of beauty has changed?
Phyllis Cohen: The 80s was all about white skin. That was very excluding to anyone of colour. We didn’t really do very much beauty or fashion work on women of colour, which I think is quite shocking. But in LA that’s actually mostly what I did because we had an agency quite close to us that had lots of women of colour and I loved that. The inclusivity I think is fantastic that’s going on now. It has a long way to go, but I think it’s fantastic.
You witnessed the evolution of beauty first hand through the years. Was there a specific time that showed the greatest shift?
Phyllis Cohen: In 1980, 1981 LA didn’t have much of a fashion scene and I only knew about three other make-up artists. I was really fortunate from 1982 to 1987. The people really were interested in what I was doing, but then of course things changed to a different aesthetic and people didn’t want what I represented anymore. That was me experiencing first-hand how fashion can flip. For me the 80s were all about individualism, because I think the new romantic era and music was about really being unique as an individual and a bit eccentric. I suppose you could say that maybe things are like that now with Instagram because the hip people who are successful on Instagram are people that have a particular style.
Is there anything about modern beauty that you don’t like?
Phyllis Cohen: I think it is creating unrealistic expectations in kids. Occasionally, I do master classes and I did a lot of really interesting research when I was at Goldsmith’s in London about ‘perceptual science’. It’s about how the brain analyses faces and how we break them down and categorize them into old, young, male, female. It turns out that our memory remembers faces by what’s unusual about them, which I really love. It doesn’t remember the perfections, it remembers the things that are different.
How do you think social media and selfie culture has changed our perception of beauty?
Phyllis Cohen: I think that it has completely skewed our idea of what is achievable beauty. It goes back to this thing of us not really being remembered for our perfections. We are remembered for things that are unique to us and our idiosyncrasies.
Has your creative process changed much over the years?
Phyllis Cohen: I take my research really seriously and I really love to cram as much stuff into my head as possible before I start designing. When I’m coming up with a new make-up design, I probably spend a lot more time doing the research than actually doing the designing. And that’s a constant thing, as it should be, I think. If you’re really serious about make-up design, you should be always, always, always, always looking.
What does the future of beauty look like to you?
Phyllis Cohen: It is a worry, because I think in the future maybe people are just going to be walking around with these weird screens in front of their faces that just project a perfected version of themselves. They’d never lift off except maybe to go to bed. It’ll be terrible. Or the reverse will happen all of a sudden - I think that will be much healthier. People are trying, like Em Ford and her My Pale Skin blog.
What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Phyllis Cohen: It’s so different now. It’s great in a way to start your career just doing make-up on yourself, but if you never go beyond that, I think you’re missing out on a lot. It’s so exciting to exchange ideas and your work with a stylist or a photographer or the model so I would encourage people to not just do their make-up in their bedrooms even though that can be very profitable, but to try to have the experience of working with other people and create together.