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Courtesy of Aoife Cullen

‘Ugly’ make-up pioneer Aoife Cullen: ‘It’s a form of reclaiming power’

From grey lipstick to yellow blush, Aoife Cullen’s bold and transgressive make-up is about choosing self-expression over prescriptive ideals and palatability

The Dazed Beauty Community is our ever-expanding encyclopaedia of creatives and emerging talent from across the world who are redefining the way we think about beauty. From supermodels to digital artists to make-up prodigies transforming themselves in their bedrooms, these are the beauty influencers of tomorrow who embody everything Dazed Beauty is about. Discover them here.

List the most influential beauty creators of the moment and Aoife Cullen won’t be far from your lips. Recognised by Dazed 100 as a digital pioneer (an achievement she names as a career highlight, NBD), the London-based Irish make-up artist is one of the new generation of MUAs bringing avant-garde editorial make-up to the masses, building a cult following online by sharing super-accessible tutorials in her signature experimental style.

It’s Cullen’s subversion of expectations, rejection of accepted conventions, and love for the weird that make her looks feel so relevant. “I love being able to take a tool that was essentially created for the benefit of society to look at women, and use it in a way that they disapprove of,” she says. “I feel like it’s a form of reclaiming power: not just using it to look beautiful by society’s standards, but to create something and express who I am”. It’s true: Cullen’s work is powerful. And especially so given the mood of the moment, as gender becomes more fluid and personal style becomes more important than ever.

It’s not that Cullen is totally rejecting the feminine, she’s just reimagining it. And in doing so, helping shape what beauty means for tomorrow. “There is an undeniable power, beauty and awe within femininity that I respect and adore so much. Mixed with elements of ‘weird’, it kind of speaks to the future image of femininity,” she says. The results are playful, bold looks that blend high glamour with unexpected textures and colours. Take her hit Weird Lip Combo series, which showcases lip looks in metallic white, glossy orange or red-and-blue gradient. Sure, they don’t subscribe to traditional beauty ideals, but there’s no denying that they’re like candy to the eye (and fuel for the imagination too).

“I like to feel like I’m shape-shifting through make-up and expressing something more than beauty,” Cullen says. And that she does. Scrolling down her feed is a form of escapism: part fantasy, part ASMR, and altogether proof that beauty can look however you want it to.

Read on for more from Cullen including her unexpected current obsession and some future products we could all buy into.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Aoife Cullen: I grew up in a small town in the north of Ireland. It’s beautiful, quiet and familial and played a huge role in the making of who I am but I always longed to be in a city to express and immerse myself in my passions and interests. I’m very emotionally intelligent and intuitive, sometimes to a fault and I love seeing new parts of the world, discovering new music and playing with make-up.

What is it you do and why do you do it?

Aoife Cullen: I’m a professional make-up artist and I specialise in editorial and creative looks. As much as I love traditional beauty looks, and will always respect their place, they never spoke to me the way the weird ones did. I love being able to take a tool that was essentially created for the benefit of society to look at women and use it in a way that they disapprove of. I feel like it’s a form of reclaiming power and not just using it to look beautiful by society’s standards, but to create something and express who I am. I get a kick out of it when someone comments “ew” for example.

That being said, I intentionally love to merge elements of beauty with editorial as an ode to traditional femininity because I feel there is an undeniable power, beauty and awe with femininity that I respect and adore so much. And mixed with elements of ‘weird’ kind of speak to a future of the image of femininity.

How did you get into it?

Aoife Cullen: I fell in love with make-up when I was about 13. I got a book about a make-up artist and read it cover to cover and knew then what I wanted to do. I just never changed my mind and continually immersed myself into the world of editorial make-up through runways, magazine covers, YouTube tutorials, Tumblr etc. I studied Make-up in Fashion for one year. I went on to work for a beauty brand on counter for some years and gained so much invaluable experience. At the same time, I was working on my own shoots and projects on the side to build even more experience, make connections and grow as an artist.

@aoifeartist a recreation of #taylorrussell look by @kennedy5ever for @dazed 🧚 #editorialmakeup #dazed ♬ Raw Techno - Kamil Van Derson

What are you trying to communicate through your work? 

Aoife Cullen: Since I was so drawn initially to the intentional imperfection and diversion from traditional beauty of editorial, I am naturally inclined to do the same myself through my own work. Personally, in music, fashion and any creative outlet, I adore things that are weird and different and tell a story. I always aim to say something through my looks, or make the viewer think of something else, like a time, feeling, song or movie. I like to feel like I’m shape-shifting through makeup and expressing something more than beauty. 

What’s been your career highlight so far?

Aoife Cullen: Being named in Dazed 100 as a digital pioneer in beauty. I have been a long-standing Dazed fan and admirer so it was a really validating achievement that will be hard to top.

Who is your beauty icon or favourite look of all time?

Aoife Cullen: Grace Jones because she was and still is ahead of her time. Also Dolly Parton because I love people who are so unapologetically themselves and express that through their style.

What is your current obsession?

Aoife Cullen: Downton Abbey and mini skirts.

When do you feel most beautiful?

Aoife Cullen: When I’m with my closest friends, my make-up looks like a character in a superhero movie and I have a good outfit on. Also, when I’m somewhere hot and sunny.

@aoifeartist the best batch ever? 🥹 #editorialmakeup #weirdlipcombos makeup recreation of Terry Barber for @i_d ♬ original sound - aoife

Are you optimistic about the future?

Aoife Cullen: Naturally I am a really optimistic person so yes, but also no, because I’m not optimistic about the future of the world on a larger scale.

What is the future of beauty?

Aoife Cullen: I think (hope) trend cycles will turn over even faster to the point they lose their significance and people cherish their personal style, taste and individuality more. 

As a warning to the other members of the resistance, your head is to be mounted above the gates of the city. How would you do your make-up that morning?

Aoife Cullen: A jet black messy smokey eye that’s a bit smudged, maybe greasy, skinniest brow possible and like a silver or blue lip. 

It’s the year 2100. You’re the owner of the largest beauty tech company in the world, what five products or treatments will you dedicate your resources trying to invent?

Aoife Cullen: A tool to clean and organise face gems, mascara that feels two months old when it's brand new, waxing strips in the exact shape of the brow shape I want, pencils that don’t wear down and brushes that can’t get dirty that you never have to clean.

 You have to replace part of your body with that of an animal or a mythological creature. What do you go for?

Aoife Cullen: I want to be able to go underwater without coming up for air, so gills.