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_empty_alien_ Hannah Cunningham glow up makeup

Glow Up’s Hannah Cunningham is the self-taught MUA making gory alien looks

The London-based creative – AKA @__empty_alien – has captured her 113k-strong fanbase with incredible sci-fi-meets-gore aesthetic

If you watched BBC3’s second season of Glow Up this year – a must-watch if not for any make-up fanatics – it’s likely you were immediately captured by Hannah Cunningham’s gore-meets-sci-fi aesthetic. It’s even more impressive, when you later learn that the MUA (who goes by @__empty_alien on Instagram) is entirely self-taught and hadn’t put make-up on anyone other than herself before appearing on the show. 

That didn’t stop her from hitting the ground running and creating some incredibly captivating looks that showcased beauty through her lens. “I think alternative dark imagery in metal and rock music videos informed a lot of what I think of as strangely beautiful and interesting,” she tells us. “I saw the video for Marilyn Manson’s version of “Tainted Love” when I was eight, and I remember just being so fascinated with him. I had never seen anyone use make-up like he did, or clearly just not give a fuck about what people thought of him. That was the idea of beauty I wanted to follow; being able to play with different identities whenever I felt like it.” 

Scrolling through her Instagram, you’ll see Hannah transform herself into an array of different identities, from horned aliens and sea creatures to clowns and some of your fave cartoon characters using DIY prosthetics and tips and tricks she’s learned from the internet. Elsewhere, she’s collaborated with London-based drag queen and make-up artist Charity Kase – “a dream come true,” she says – to reinterpret The Little Mermaid through a horror lens. “Beauty is something everyone is yearning for but also something unreachable, ever-changing, and totally unique to the individual,” she says. 

But despite working with her idols and having a devoted 113k following on her account, there were moments in which she doubted herself and her abilities on the show – something she’s learning to better navigate. “Beauty is confidence, self-acceptance, and creative expression,” she muses. “If I'm worn out and drained, I feel awful and tend to focus on things I don't like about myself, and no amount of make-up is going to help that. If I'm feeling good and confident within, using make-up to emphasise that is just a cherry on top.” 

“Beauty is something everyone is yearning for but also something unreachable, ever-changing, and totally unique to the individual” – Hannah Cunningham 

Since appearing on Glow Up, Hannah has grown both as a make-up artist and as a person and she wants to continue honing her skills in SFX make-up. “I'd love to work on alternative or surreal music videos,” she concludes. “Or really just anything where I can get spooky and weird.” 

Here, we speak with Hannah about being a self-taught MUA and what she learned about herself during her time on Glow Up

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

Hannah Cunningham: It was quite early on really, I hit puberty super young, so by the time I was 10, I looked 16. I started getting unwanted attention from grown ass men, like cat-calls, while I was actually still a child. I felt very self-conscious because I stuck out like a sore thumb at school; I was the tallest kid there, and just did not look dainty like any of the other girls. While I still was a child inside, my body was maturing way faster than I understood, so there was a definite disconnection between me and my body. I tried to dress to cover my body, hide away and not be noticed, because I didn’t understand the attention and just wanted to blend in.

Fast forward 17 years though and I am so grateful for my differences, blending in is the last thing I want to do. But that insecurity in my appearance at such a young age sort of forced me to accept the things that made me different because there was nothing I could do about them! Thankfully, it got me to a place where I now like my appearance and am rarely self-conscious. 

How did you get into make-up? 

Hannah Cunningham: It started out by using it solely as a way to cover up when I wasn’t happy with my appearance. I used it as a way to hide and I just wanted to be pretty like other girls around me. Then when I was like a proper teenager and I was happier with my appearance, I used it to emphasise my looks. I actually then wanted to get into modelling, but all the agencies I applied to didn’t take me on, so I started an Instagram to try and do it independently. I started playing with make-up and my online identity more, and from that I found a love for SFX and anything that kind of changed me into different characters. It started in something quite negative but then grew into a creative outlet of expression and freedom for me.

You’re entirely self-taught, where did you learn your skills? 

Hannah Cunningham: I’ve always been very willing to just try out any method and see if it works. I’ve learnt by trial and error mainly, and have adapted techniques I learnt in GCSE Art to be used on the skin. Anything I think of that might look cool, I’ll see if anyone has ever done a tutorial for something similar online, and just try it. I’m a big believer in DIY – finding stuff in the house that might work for the look you’re trying to create, instead of having to buy materials and mediums that might only be one-use. 

Of course, during Glow Up I learnt so much from the other contestants, and all the critiques we got. After the show, I started working in make-up retail, and that has actually given me such a great base of knowledge for working on all skin types.

Can you talk us through how you create a look from initial inspiration to the final image? 

Hannah Cunningham: I’ll usually get inspiration from films, art, or music videos. If I see something that sparks something in my brain, I’ll go on Pinterest and start to create a board around the idea. I’ll draw out the composition I want on my theoretical face in my sketchpad and then I just dive straight in to the look. 

For me, while I can plan the emotion behind it or the mood, there needs to be a bit of spontaneity – mostly because if an element I’ve planned starts to go wrong then I can quickly adapt rather than get annoyed and take it all off in a huff. Sometimes I do a look because I am trying to process a certain emotion and when I do that I don’t really plan it at all, it’ll just be emotionally driven.

I have all my make-up, props, and backdrops in my little spare room, strewn all over the space. It’s slightly chaotic, but that’s where I do all my creating and shooting, so it’s like my little haven. I kind of just lock myself in there until I’ve created a look that I want to show others.

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject?

Hannah Cunningham: I find myself rejecting it quite a lot, but it possibly stems from feeling like I just can’t be glam or commercially beautiful. I also don’t really like the idea that make-up is literally just to make a person ‘more attractive’ to other people. I like having elements of more commercial beauty in my looks, but I like to contrast it with something more macabre or strange, just because I find ‘ugly beauty’ more interesting. 

Don’t get me wrong, making yourself feel beautiful with make-up is great, but I personally just like to experiment with warping features in the looks that I create. I also love to make people have a reaction, if someone is interested or grossed out by something I create, I feel much more satisfied with it. I would say I like to take elements of ‘beauty’ make-up but it’s not usually my main goal for the look.

How did you grow as an MUA throughout Glow Up

Hannah Cunningham: I never thought I would be able to do half the things I did there. My working make-up knowledge tripled on the show. I had never done make-up on anyone else before the first day of filming, so everything pretty much was brand new. While I felt totally out of my depth, I still took on every challenge and just gave it a try, and that helped my confidence grow. I literally gave everything a shot, even if it went wrong. I just wanted to show that I am not afraid to try and put myself out there. I also saw how much I berate myself. I still really struggle with feeling like if second place is first loser – so just feeling like I have failed. I’ve grown to be less critical of myself.

What was the most valuable advice you got from judges Val Garland and Dominic Skinner? 

Hannah Cunningham: Mainly to stop being so hard on myself, but also that it’s OK to not be suitable for every make-up job that comes up. You’re allowed to have a niche and a specialty and hone your skills in that. Sticking true to your brand will create the most authentic work that you’ll be proud of.

“I love to make people have a reaction, if someone is interested or grossed out by something I create, I feel much more satisfied with it” – Hannah Cunningham 

What advice would you give to somebody who also wants to pursue make-up as a career but didn’t go to school for it? 

Hannah Cunningham: Embrace the breadth of knowledge online that is available for free. I have learnt so much from other artists on YouTube. I would say practise on yourself and keep documenting your progress. I started my Instagram in 2015, and to be able to look back and see how much I have improved is very satisfying. 

It’s also important to keep putting yourself out there, you have to be your biggest cheerleader. No one is going to believe in your work if you don’t, so keep reaching out and trying to work with other artists. Collaborations with other artists have taught me a lot and it helps to get your work in front of a new audience.

What are your plans for the future?

Hannah Cunningham: I would love to assist a SFX artist so I can get to a professional level with my realism and also build up a portfolio. I’d like to get good enough so that I feel I can hold masterclasses and teach and even just expand my online channels with tutorials etc. Eventually, I’d like to be able to go freelance, but that’s quite far in the future I think! Right now, because of the climate, I’m just trying to collaborate with other creators, get some good portfolio images and keep putting myself out there.