Makeup Visionary Pat McGrath on Photography and How She Creates Those Jaw-Dropping Instagrams

By Stephanie Sporn

F rom her sequin-filled cosmetics packaging to her artfully curated Instagram – a glittering amalgam of her 20-plus years beautifying the industry – Pat McGrath’s world is highly experiential. Her singular vision has been praised by Anna Wintour, who called her “the most influential makeup artist in the world,” and Queen Elizabeth II made her a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Intrigued by her innovative career and her Instagram feed’s archival images, Sotheby’s spoke with McGrath about the iconic photos in two upcoming auctions: A Beautiful Life: Photographs from the Collection of Leland Hirsch and Photographs (both 10 April, New York). “Beauty and fashion history influences my art in a major way,” the London-bred, New York-based makeup artist told Sotheby’s. Here, McGrath talks her viral cosmetics line, PAT McGRATH LABS, her passion for subcultures and unexpected sources of inspiration, and her memories working with Irving Penn, Steven Meisel and more fashion photography legends.


What are the three things that influence your work most?
Mother. Meisel. Technology.   

How did you become interested in the beauty industry?
My late mother was a profound beauty and fashion lover. From the age of five, I remember learning about clothing design and makeup techniques from her, channeling fantasies into reality and experimenting with expression. I first fell in love with makeup through my kitchen experiments with her. 

I’m just as obsessed with the barefaced beauty of Vermeer as I am with the subversive beauty of Leigh Bowery and the Blitz Kids during the 1980s.

How do you curate the archival photographs on your Instagram?  
My Instagram is a window into my creative subconscious, a collision of everything that inspires me. I keep everything in both digital and analog form and curate the stories according to what grabs my attention that particular day, month, season or moment. Social media enables me to share and talk to my consumers about their inspirations. It brings me true joy when a viewer tells me that I’ve helped them discover a new artist or inspired them to look at beauty differently.   

What do you enjoy collecting? Do you look to your personal collection for inspiration for your feed, as well as various collaborations?
I collect everything! I am especially obsessed with books. My home and office are buried in books, and I have thousands in storage. I’ve lost count. The collection ranges from 1950s beauty guides to profiles of Butoh dancers in Japan. I used to travel with a dozen suitcases full of my inspiration books, and even today they are my key reference when collaborating with designers backstage.  

In your opinion what was the most glamorous decade?  
Every decade has an inextricable, iconic glamour. Choosing one over the other is impossible. I’m just as obsessed with the barefaced beauty of Vermeer as I am with the subversive beauty of Leigh Bowery and the Blitz Kids during the 1980s.   

How have punk and various subcultures inspired your artistry?  
The ethos of counterculture is at the heart of what I do. These cultural movements obliterated the boundaries of beauty, pop culture and gender, and I’ve always been inspired by their unique visual codes. Growing up in London, I would see a girl or boy doing their makeup and hair like Adam Ant, and I knew we belonged at the same party. 

Would you say cinema is a significant influence on your approach to color and cosmetics?  
Absolutely. Cinema is an endless inspiration for color, mood, spirit. So many of my obsessions come from film. I love all genres, from the “women’s pictures” of the 1930s and 1940s, to 1950s film noir, 1960s New Wave, 1970s softcore – the list is endless. In particular, I love Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and almost anything historical with major costumes.  

You’ve worked with many of the greatest photographers. Who has most inspired you and pushed your artistry to new levels?
I am fortunate, after two decades, to still be working with the legendary Steven Meisel. No one continues to inspire me and push my own makeup artistry to the next level like Steven. His relentless pursuit of perfection is something that moves and motivates me day in and day out.   

How has your commitment to diversity shaped your brand?
I believe in body positivity, racial diversity, gender variance and iconoclastic individuality – it is what being a #McGrathMuse is all about. Beauty has nothing to do with gender, race or age, and it has everything to do with confidence, individuality and character. Through the imagery we create and the stars we celebrate, I want to elevate our girls to icon status to serve as beauty inspirations for everyone around the world.  


Lead Image: Herb Ritts, 'Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood.’  Estimate $50,000–70,000.

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