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Photography Miles Aldridge

MUA Alice Ghendrih: women shouldn't be presented purely as sexual objects

We talk to the veteran French make-up artist about growing up, her thoughts on the industry and what advice she would give to aspiring muas

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

Growing up in a small village south-west of Paris without a television or magazines, make-up artist Alice Ghendrih developed her own unique style early, untouched by outside influences. Convention has always disturbed me,” she says. “I was myself, I had my style, and asked myself no further questions. It is still the case today.” After discovering her passion for make-up at 12, and then discovering the possibility of having a career in make-up a few years later, Ghendrih went on to study at a make-up school where, she says, she was lucky enough to have a teacher who allowed the students to be free in their creativity without constraint, a rare luxury she still deeply values and tries to encourage in others today.

Known for her bold use of colour, particularly metallics, Ghendrih works mostly on instinct. “I don’t analyse, I let myself go and allow my feelings to guide me,” she says about her approach to her creative process. It is this intuition, along with her indisputable skills, which has driven Ghendrih’s career, earned her the admiration of many in the industry, and led her to work with some of the biggest names in fashion, from revered photographers such as Ellen Von Unwerth and David Bailey to the chicest of French girls from Jane Birkin to Léa Seydoux and all who came in between. We spoke to Ghendrih about her creative process, how the industry has changed over the years, and what advice she would give to young make-up artists.

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Alice Ghendrih: My mother tells me that I had a few short periods of exaggerated femininity but they never lasted long.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Alice Ghendrih: 
I was not the slightest bit interested in the world of fashion or stars. I identified myself with no-one and I was not a fan of anyone except perhaps Leonard Cohen and some rock bands that my older brothers listened to throughout my childhood. However, beauty in all its forms has always been very important to me. If certain trends touched me, it was the 70s and rock, with its show of rebellion and freedom. 

Why are you a make-up artist?
Alice Ghendrih: 
My passion for make-up began when I was 12. Not to make myself pretty, but to transform my image. I played with my mother’s make-up. Later, I would paint and draw on my face in extravagant ways. I would go to school with those looks and that’s when a friend said to me, “Why don’t you become a make-up artist? My sister works as a make-up artist in the film industry.” I replied, “Really, that is a possible job? Great! Then I will become a make-up artist.” And that is exactly what I did.   

Where did you hone your craft? Is it something you learned or is it more instinctual?
Alice Ghendrih: After leaving school, I attended a make-up school. I was lucky as my teacher left us very free and encouraged us to be creative which suited me perfectly. As I had a good face for make-up, I worked a lot on myself. I was totally impassioned by the activity and the freedom for creativity without constraint it allowed. I was able to develop my own techniques and refine my sense of beauty. All this work was very instinctive, and I find approaching it differently is very restricting. I think we give the best of ourselves when we listen to ourselves fully, when we’re in love with what we are doing and take pleasure from it even when at the service of someone else and responding to certain requirements on a job. This pushes us further out of our comfort zone and teaches us teamwork.

Tell us a bit about your creative process.
Alice Ghendrih: 
It is quite difficult for me to answer this question. As I said, I work very instinctively. Make-up for me has no real sense outside of its context, so first I listen to the intentions of the team I’m working with. I don’t analyse, I let myself go and allow my feelings to guide me. Things come to me and if everybody is ok, then I apply them. When I ask myself too many questions, it blocks me. Stress doesn’t work well with creativity. When you’re stressed, you don’t hear, you don’t listen anymore. I believe we don’t really own our creativity. It’s in the air, we are in interaction with it. And we are good receivers-transmitter, or we are not.

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to “beauty”?
Alice Ghendrih: 
I certainly do not reject beauty. Whatever we do, there must be a certain beauty. I believe that beauty is essential to all forms of life. Beauty is a balm for the soul. It transports us, caresses us, troubles us, moves us, provokes in us a state of grace and love. It gives us life.

How would you describe your aesthetic?
Alice Ghendrih:I do not know. And I do not care. I leave that to others if they feel like it.

What are the projects you're most proud of?
Alice Ghendrih: 
It's hard to say, looking back is not really something that I do. But I have excellent memories of my collaboration with Miles Aldridge, Paolo Roversi, Sarah Moonves with whom I still work, Éric Traoré and many other photographers, for magazines such as Numéro and Italian Vogue which are the magazines I worked for the most.

What's the most significant thing you've learned over the course of your career?
Alice Ghendrih: 
I learned to listen, to work in a team, to put my abilities to the service of the projects. Above all, I think you always learn to question. 

What should bring make-up to a shoot or runway show?
Alice Ghendrih:
It is the icing on the cake. It should highlight all the rest without taking over. Add value without detracting attention. Although, this does not mean necessarily that it must be discreet.

What elevates a make-up look from good to great?
Alice Ghendrih:
The difference between a look which is good, because it has been well executed and is pleasing, and a look which is great, is that the great look brings a surprise, an excitement, the unexpected. In short, an emotion.

What is the significance of colour in your work?
Alice Ghendrih: 
Colour fascinates me. Colours interact, as notes of music do. They create or enhance a mood, emotions. The dosage, intensity and hue will determine the success of the result. It is very difficult to explain why and how, for these things can’t be explained in the Cartesian way, with logic. We could say that the job is done by the right side of the brain. As scientists say, is the brain of poetry, not of rationality as the left side of the brain is.

Are there any beauty trends that you have hated or wished would go away?
Alice Ghendrih: 
Yes, those which represent a certain vulgarity, where women are presented as purely sexual objects, devoid of character, like inflatable dolls.

How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out?
Alice Ghendrih: 
In my view, the fashion industry has greatly changed, as have industries in general. Now output and quantity have a tendency to outweigh quality in importance. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of our society as a whole. Urgency, stress, constraints, uniformity and the will of financiers to control all, leave little space for creativity and artistic expression. Many people suffer from this situation, even if they do not really realize. It's like the left brain and the right brain are constantly in conflict when they should work together, complete. The result is catastrophic for the mental health of humanity.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
Alice Ghendrih: 
Can we say that beauty is understood? Can we say that technological change can have any influence on our conception and vision of beauty? I do not think so. But I could be mistaken, the debate is open. I confess to not having really thought about it. I would be curious and interested to hear a different opinion.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Alice Ghendrih: 
It all depends on their motivation, on whether they are truly artists at heart, or if they are only attracted by the idea of being part of an elite with no real artistic concern or drive. For them, I have no advice. To those who are truly artists at heart, I would tell them not to rush. It takes time to develop one’s talent. Practice alone or in a team, but don’t expect perfect results at once. Develop your artistry before entering into the arena if you do not want to be eaten alive, especially today when everything must be done very quickly. Never forget to listen to one’s inspiration, explore, have fun, don’t be afraid to fail, you’re not on a job, and don’t be concerned by what people will think of your work. If you do, you are lost! You must take pleasure in creating, it’s a kind of trance, and if you’re happy with the result, you already have won something and are on the right road with every chance to succeed without losing your soul.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?
Alice Ghendrih: 
My assistant! That way, I will be able to assist her and earn a little money when the world will have forgotten about me! It's very selfish! I am joking, but not completely. However, I sincerely hope that my assistant, who is now independent, will be successful.