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Kristen McMenamy in American Vogue, October 1992, shot by Steven Meisel, make-up by François Nars.Image courtesy of Steven Meisel and Art + Commerce

François Nars and the immaculate makeover

The world renowned make-up artist gives his thoughts on beauty, isolation and why he's bought his own private island

Taken from the Spring 2014 issue of Dazed:

Famed for creating Madonna’s Sex face with Steven Meisel and for shaving off Kristen McMenamy’s eyebrows in 1992 – an act that became emblematic of the grunge era – François Nars has spent his career exploring the transforming power of make-up. In the haze of New York’s electric 80s and 90s scene, he paved the way for a look that elevated the likes of Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell to supermodel status, releasing his own make-up line (including the Orgasm and Deep Throat blush shades) that offered the same possibilities for women across the world. Despite spending his life collaborating as both a make-up artist and photographer, Nars has always been attracted to isolation, and has taken this to its logical extreme by buying his own remote private island in Tahiti.

Dazed Digital: Did you always have hopes of owning a private Island?

François Nars: It wasn’t planned at all – well, maybe deep inside of me! 
I probably liked islands as a kid watching movies, but 
I’ve never been like, ‘Oh my God, I want to own an island!’ I’ve always been attracted to the tropical and love the idea that you’re on the other side of the planet. It’s mindblowing to see places that are still totally untouched. At the same time, it’s wild owning a place like that – it can be a big burden and there’s a lot to maintain.

DD: Do you know much about its history?

François Nars: Oh yes, I’ve done lots of research! I bought so many antique books. A French architect, Christian Liaigre, helped me build the house, so we looked at its culture and architecture. Of course, we read about Gauguin’s time there and writers like Pierre Loti who spoke about this part of the world.

DD: There’s also a certain darkness to these islands, as you captured in 
your photo book Faery Lands: Tahiti.

François Nars: Yes, the islands are sort of black-and-white in a way. 
The last thing I wanted to do was to have the book in colour! I started finding people on the street or on the side of the road and asking them if I could take their picture. 
It was almost old-fashioned portraiture, like people took pictures back in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Then, for the landscapes, I travelled to different archipelagos. 
The one I loved most was where Gauguin did most of his work, the Marquesas Islands. They’re so remote and untouched, but also very dark – something you don’t really expect from French Polynesia.

DD: Were you always dreaming things up as a teenager?

François Nars: Actually, I was a pretty lonely teenager. I loved being by myself and had very few friends. So, yes, I would lock myself up into a dream world.
I would skip school to go to the movie theatre. I watched a lot of movies. It was practically empty during the week, so I would just skip school and watch fabulous European movies! You know, I wasn’t going to see blockbusters but the really underground movies. It was really the best thing I’ve ever done.

DD: Then the dream came true when you hit New York in the 80s!

François Nars: Yes, it was exhilarating. I was lucky enough to meet Steven Meisel, who was a really big mentor for me. We built something strong together by creating all those girls – models like Linda and Naomi. We really did create them. 
I mean, we worked hard but we played hard too. I used to videotape all of our shoots during the day and then at night we would all watch them back. The best moment with Steven was probably when we did the Sex book with Madonna in Florida. We had so much fun doing those crazy pictures with her.

DD: What were your first impressions of Linda and Naomi?

François Nars: I remember when Naomi first came to the studio. She’d barely modelled and was so incredibly shy, so she just sat in the corner. I started painting her and I thought, this girl has potential. Steven and I fell in love with Linda. It’s funny, she said to me that if she didn’t make it in the next year she was going to quit. I did like, 3,000 different looks on her: we bleached her hair and we cut her hair off. I think she wouldn’t deny it, but Steven, myself and Oribe (Canales) were really the ones that created Linda Evangelista!

DD: And what was the most extreme transformation?

François Nars: The most extreme? Well, our goal was to always make the girl look larger than life, to create superstars. No matter how crazy the look was we never gave up on making them look beautiful. That was always our motto. I mean we dyed Linda’s hair so much  –it went from platinum blond to bright red and black – and I tweezed her eyebrows so much I had to build them up completely from scratch! 
I didn’t like her natural ones.

 DD: Is there anywhere else in the world you would like to explore?

François Nars: You know, in a crazy way, 
I always wanted to go to New Guinea and Papua and do a book in the middle of the jungle on all of the primitive tribes. It’s probably very difficult to do, but they wear all of this incredible tribal make-up and the way they dress themselves is quite inspiring. The Tahiti book took 12 years to do, going back and forth. So, who knows! If I come back alive and have not been eaten or killed!