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Diana Ross
Photography Marco Glaviano for Harper's Bazaar US 1983@sandylinter

Sandy Linter on ageless glamour and transforming Diana Ross and Jackie O

The club kid turned legendary make-up artist spills on the dreamy disco looks and world-famous collaborators that have marked an illustrious career spanning over 40 years

In our series Icons, we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy

Rare is the make-up artist who is self-taught and immediately begins working with some of the most photographed faces in the world. For Sandy Linter, a Staten Island native, her story began in 1972 on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Fresh off of an era of miniskirts and Twiggy-style lashes, the young 24-year-old started working in a hair salon painting the faces of Barbara Walters and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a few of her very first clients.

If you follow a certain beauty circle, you’ve likely seen Linter’s stunning work on Instagram, where she currently is archiving over 40 years of make-up which often gets endlessly regrammed. From the glitzed and glazed lips and cheekbones of Diana Ross and Jerry Hall at Studio 54 to the stunning looks of Brooke Shields, her feed has become a visual history of some of the most profound and looks from the 70s onwards – the equivalent of gazing at an aesthetic time capsule of the glamour of beauty throughout the ages.

In 1979, Linter released Disco Beauty: Nighttime Make-up, her most iconic book to date, which many of her fans know her by. During the same time, she began working with the world’s most elite photographers, from Irving Penn to Richard Avedon. As the make-up artist behind shoots drenched in colour and saturated in beauty ecstasy from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 70s and 80s, she also beautified Brooke Shields, Anjelica Huston, Christie Brinkley, Gia and more. 

Today, the 72-year-old continues to do make-up on a daily basis and has established herself as one of the foremost experts in beauty for women of every age, having published the book The Makeup Wakeup: Revitalizing Your Look at Any Age. Here, Linter talks about her Studio 54 days and the biggest differences between the make-up of today versus the disco days.

Do you remember the first time you were aware of your own appearance? 

Sandy Linter: I was, I want to say, 11 years old, I lived on Staten Island and I shoplifted a tube of lipstick. I picked up a tube and put it on... My sister is a little older than me, and my sister’s friend said, ‘Oh, you’re going to be really good looking when you get older.’

That’s the power of make-up. I didn’t really think that then, but when I look back on it, maybe that planted a little seed. There were other little things, my mum read every single magazine about beauty and fashion in the 60s and I used to get Seventeen magazine all the time. It was a big glossy magazine, not the way it is today. The models who worked for Seventeen magazine didn’t try to look like teenagers. They were trying to look 60s: full of eyelashes, heavy eyeliner, pancake make-up, pale lipstick.

You’re self-taught. How did you practice make-up?

Sandy Linter: By the time I was 15, I could do good make-up on myself. My mum asked me if I would make her up before she went to work every morning. And I did. She was beautiful, very elegant. It was always just a very joyful, powerful thing and I could do it well. I found out that I could just copy models’ looks and I would always do it on my friends and family. That’s what every make-up artist does. 

I got married at 21. My husband, very smart, said because I wasn’t doing anything, ‘You love make-up, why don’t you go to beauty school?’ So I went to beauty school at Wilfred Beauty Academy on Broadway 1969 to get a certificate that allowed me to work in a hair salon. I went to Bloomingdale’s and I got a part-time job behind the counter and I was in heaven. I loved working in Bloomingdale’s behind the counter. I never did any of the cash register transactions, I just made up people who were walking by and considered myself a make-up artist. One day I said to the owner of the make-up company Mr Kenneth, who owned a fabulous hair salon on Madison and 54th, ‘I’d love to work for you one day if you have an opening.’ He hired me.

Growing up in Staten Island, was there a specific beauty aesthetic?

Sandy Linter: I moved to Manhattan when I was 17 so I only know about beauty in New York. I don’t really know about anything else. Every single person wore miniskirts and false eyelashes, I don’t care if you were old, young, fat, skinny, across the board and it was a great look. That was New York City in 1968.

What were your favourite products to use?

Sandy Linter: Covergirl foundation because I had problems across my face. I can still remember the smell of my foundation. If you want to know the biggest difference in the way they sell make-up now and the way they sold it back then, it’s that they never really told you how to take it off. So I only understood how to put it on. If I had breakouts, I really didn’t understand how to take good care of my skin. There was no SPF at all in those days, none in make-up until maybe the early 80s.

Tell us about some of your very first clients.

Sandy Linter: My first clients were Barbara Walters, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, all the society ladies, at 24. I never networked, I didn’t have to because there were no make-up artists when I started. It was full of adventure and I worked with amazing people. One of the women that I made up is Shirley Lord, the beauty editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She did a two-page story about me in Vogue magazine – she opened up the door. You don’t make money when you work for magazines, they pay you like $200 a day or something like that. I can honestly remember turning away high-paying jobs because I wanted to work for Deborah Turbeville.

Were the society women of New York open to experimental make-up?

Sandy Linter: Jackie was. I distinctly remember looking at her face and I noticed that her eyes were very wide set. I had this beautiful shadow by Stendhal (I don’t think they’re in business anymore) and it was a wine colour, which was quite new at the time. I made the inner corners of her eyes very dark to bring them closer together and I wrote down everything on a face chart. She must have loved the make-up because I went to Bloomingdale’s one day the next week and one of the girls behind the Stendhal counters said that Mrs Onassis had her maid come in, and she bought everything you recommended. I didn’t really start and work myself up into the job. I was just there in the right place at the right time. 

You were one of the first editorial make-up artists at the time. Where were you taking inspiration from?

Sandy Linter: Only Europe. I had all the European magazines and they were well ahead of us. As far as fashion, make-up, and models went, my dream was to go to Europe and assist Barbara Daly, who in my eyes was the greatest make-up artist that ever lived. But I was too busy. I was working every day. I was never able to be an assistant, which I regret because there are 1000 things I don’t know. 

Has there been one person that’s been very influential in your career or a mentor? 

Sandy Linter: No I wish. I don’t listen to anybody and I didn’t know how to network. I always worked in a hair salon because I enjoy making up real women as well as actresses and models. I kept myself always busy, but believe me, when Kevyn Aucoin, Francois Nars and all those guys came to town, I was nowhere. But I had an agent, Kramer and Kramer, and I left that agent to go with Elizabeth Watson who represented her husband Albert Watson. He’s a genius photographer and I worked with him for 20 years. So I have a lot of editorial work, great memories and trips. We went to India with Patti Hansen in 1977 and he also took the most beautiful pictures for my book Disco Beauty in 1978. 

You’ve also become an expert in terms of doing make-up for older women. How did that happen?

Sandy Linter: I started out as a young hot make-up artist, then I became the club kid at Studio 54. But what you have to do as you get older, at least it worked for me, is just keep going with the flow. Someone said ‘You should do this job for Ladies Home Journal.’ It was for women over 40 and back then, it was probably 1990, no one over 40 was that interested in make-up. I loved it.

In 2008, I had a Lancôme contract that was supposed to be for three years and turned out to be eight. I was 58 years old. I was also the ‘Beauty at Every Age’ expert for eight years, it’s pretty unusual to get a contract at 58. I’m 72, I still work, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, I’m probably the longest working person in make-up. The thing is, I still love what I do. I’m still amazed by that actually. It’s just not a tedious job, every day is different. The people are always nice. Every now and then you might get a bad job that you’re not comfortable with but it really doesn’t happen often. 

Do you think the beauty industry right now is embracing older women more than it has in the past? 

Sandy Linter: Oh yes. Because all those girls from that time period are old now and they’re still relevant. Everyone is paying attention to women over 50 and 40 now. I found that to be my niche and I made sure I could do their make-up better than anyone else. My friends say women over 50 don’t wear eye shadow during the day, and I’m like ‘who makes up this stuff?’ Doing no make-up at all just doesn’t work. 

How did you decide to start your Instagram archive, which now has a cult following?

Sandy Linter: In 2013, someone turned me on to Instagram and I thought I can do this. This is fun and I gravitate towards things that I enjoy. I’ve got all these albums and a file of tear sheets and it’s making me so happy to share it with people.

Working with icons like Christie Brinkley and Diana Ross, did you learn anything from those women specifically when you were doing their make-up?

Sandy Linter:  Diana Ross was very special. I did two or three shoots with her and what I learned was her particular personality when she first came in the room. It was 1984, late at night, she came in alone but she trusted the photographer. That’s what Diana does and that’s what I learned. If those women trust the photographer, the day will be a pleasure. When Diana was on set, she had a mirror and she would check her poses in it. She was a perfectionist. 

Raquel Welch was a different nature. She held a little mirror in her hand while I was doing her make-up. It was a three or four day shoot for Playboy and I’m exhausted by the end because I’m being watched so closely and she never said anything or tried to change anything. It’s weird and not freeing, you don’t feel loose. She said, at the end, ‘Thank you Sandy. I learned a lot from watching you do my make-up.’ So she wasn’t watching me to make sure I was being careful, she was watching me because she wanted to see how I did a certain thing. The hairdresser wanted to go out to Studio 54 and I said let’s go. She overheard us discussing it and invited herself to come over. So we went, but once I got inside the club I just disappeared.

When you were working with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, what did you learn about your craft and the way make-up translates in photos?

Sandy Linter: I was so lucky. I started working with both photographers and Chris von Wangenheim right away. I learned more from working with Chris because he never told me what to do but I knew that sometimes he would like an extreme make-up look and I did extreme make-up for him. Richard Avedon: everything was always more beautiful than what you saw. I learned a lot from working with Francesco Scavullo who also had beautiful lighting. If you made a mistake, you could see it, so it glorified make-up. Irving Penn is a little bit different. He would play with light a lot and as he had already been a fashion photographer for 40 years, he didn’t give a shit about fashion photography anymore. He was into other things so he would play with the lighting and sometimes your make-up didn’t really look the way you wanted it to. 

Going back to the days of disco beauty, was there one main look or product you lived by during those days?

Sandy Linter: Everything was so new in those days. It was like they had just invented the colour pink. I used pink on the eyes, cheeks and lip. Fuchsia came in very hot, warm shades that were not available before the late 70s. It was fun to play with lots and lots of colour. Once we got into the late 70s, early 80s, it was just as bright as you can get; anything green, blue, pink. There was no correctional make-up necessary. You didn’t have to worry like, ‘Her nose is too big, let me contour it or give her some contour under the cheek or the chin.’

If you had to choose three career highlights, what would you say they have been?

Sandy Linter: My first would be my first Vogue cover. I also think it’s been a highlight of my career working with Albert Watson doing Disco Beauty. The third would be the shock of getting that contract with Lancôme when I was 58 years old, and realising that not only did I feel it was ok to be 58, and be a beauty expert, but other people thought so too.

Where do you find inspiration today? Do you ever feel completely sick of doing make-up? 

Sandy Linter: No, I don’t. It’s the people that interest me. People who are fascinating, interesting, and like the way I do their make-up. So that makes you feel good. It’s a very gratifying career. People are gracious to you, happy that you’re there, and they trust you. 

Will you ever stop doing make-up? 

Sandy Linter:  Well, eventually I have to stop. I keep thinking this is the last year. I go to work and I’m like, ‘People are crazy.’ But meanwhile, I have a booking in April for a huge wedding in Florida. And then I think, well, yeah, I have to stop. I never really gave it a date. I guess that’s the trick: to keep on going. I’m reading this book by Maye Musk called A Woman Makes a Plan and she’s 71. It’s very interesting because she’s talking about a plan but I’m the total opposite of her. I never made a plan so what works for me might not work for other people.