The guy was always there, deeply tanned in his short-sleeved shirt with a receding hairline, a longish nose and laugh lines all the way up to his ears. His name sounded like it was straight out of a mafia movie: Allan "Whitey" Snyder. And he was the only one allowed work cosmetic magic on the most beautiful woman in the world. On the sets of "Niagara," "The Seven Year Itch" or "Some Like It Hot": No matter where Marilyn Monroe appeared, Whitey Snyder wasn't far away. The two of them met during a screen test in Los Angeles in 1946, back when Monroe was still a 20-year-old model by the name of Norma Jeane Baker, with her brown curls, round nose and a burning desire to be famous. She had a bit of her nose removed, got a chin implant, corrected a slight overbite and brightened up her teeth. She also hid her heart-shaped hairline and dyed her hair. Gentlemen prefer blondes.
And then it was Whitey's turn: Vaseline for shiny skin, followed by a light foundation, lighter still under the eyes and on the cheekbones and chin. White eyeshadow, black eyeliner, artificial eyelashes on the outer edges of her lids to make the eyes seem wider. For the lower lash line, a barely perceptible brown shade, as if her alluring gaze cast a shadow. The eyebrows hued dark at a perky angle to go with a breath of shading across the cheekbones to give the face more structure. And the lips. Those red lips, brushed with several thin coats of lipstick, a bit darker on the edges and a tad lighter in the middle to enhance their sensuality. To top it off, a black spot on the cheek, that suggestion of extravagance, that tension between natural and artificial. The beauty mark.
Whitey Snyder was Marilyn Monroe's makeup artist and friend. He helped her control her stage fright between shoots. When he held up a mirror for her and her makeup was perfect, she would immediately relax. She trusted herself to him completely. "When my looks start to go, so will most of my fans," she once said. To ensure that she would look good even in death, Monroe had taken the step of decreeing that Snyder would one day apply her funeral makeup. And he did. Yet his name nevertheless remained largely unknown outside of the film industry. Whitey Snyder died in 1994.
The icons that we worship, the idols we admire, they are all inventions, produced by people like Whitey Snyder and Norma Jeane Baker. Together, they created the icon Marilyn Monroe, an archetype of the entertainment industry. Her platinum blond, femme fatale look was the deciding influence on the beauty ideal of the 20th century.
If beauty is more than just image and desire, but something concrete that can be created: How do you produce it? Who shapes people and their beauty? Who produces icons and thereby establishes the desirable look?
If you had to name a single person who plays that role today, you would quickly arrive at Lisa Eldridge. The 45-year-old British woman is one of the most renowned makeup artists in the world. In the last two decades, she has prepared supermodels like Claudia Schiffer, Tyra Banks, Kate Moss, Adwoa Aboah and Bella Hadid for magazine photo shoots and made up actresses such as Cate Blanchett, Isabella Rosselini, Jada Pinkett, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and Vanessa for the red carpet. In 1998, she was a young assistant and had to jump in to replace a colleague. The client was Elle magazine and the model was Cindy Crawford. Things have been going swimmingly ever since.
There is hardly a beautiful famous woman on this planet who has not sat in Lisa Eldridge's chair. On YouTube, she emulates the looks of the world-famous stars, applying these techniques to herself and her friends, and sometimes to her well-known clients. Her channel has almost 2 million subscribers. Even her cats have an Instagram account. Eldridge understood early on just how important social media can be to her métier. Developing beauty and publicly documenting the process: It doesn't just satisfy the curiosity of the fashion mag readers, it also encourages viewers to try it at home.
But is that a good thing? Isn't the influencer-craze one of the scourges of our times? Is there anything more to it than trying to lure loyal followers into opening their wallets? And shouldn't we finally stop presenting unattainable ideals to people and driving them to desperation in their desire to attain them anyway?
Enough questions for an interview with Eldridge in London. She has just finished setting up her new studio in an old brick building, making sure that it's not identifiable from the street. If her followers were to catch wind of where she worked, they would likely press their faces against the window all day long. Inside, the desks of her assistants are on the right, across from a modified kitchen island full of drawers. To the side, a brightly lit makeup mirror evokes a Hollywood dressing room, the sniffly diva gently sobbing among the bouquets of roses.
Eldridge has done herself up for the day ahead of a video shoot with the cosmetic company Lancôme. Her hair flows over her shoulders and she is wearing a fir-green, tie-neck blouse to go with strawberry-red Marlene pants, beneath which her heels disappear. Her makeup is unobtrusive: luminous skin, dark brown eyeshadow, her lips a matte rosewood. In her video tutorials, she sometimes cranks up the flash to showcase the full range of possibilities with a box packed with beauty products. But she became famous with looks that lean heavily on a natural, well-proportioned complexion with a bit of experimental color thrown in for fun.
Her ideal is universal and is applicable to people of all different skin colors. "I love, love, love faces," Eldridge says. "I was drawing them from when I was really young." She says her work is actually a lot like painting portraits and she has gone to the museum to study works by Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville and to see how many tones they use to make skin look alive. "It's us as human beings who are made up of the same composition. Some people have bigger pores, smaller pores, more sunspots, less sunspots, more red, more yellow, more violet, more blue, more green in their skin." She says she looks at faces and recognizes what makes them beautiful – and she also knows how to divert attention from those elements that are less beautiful.
In the early 2000s, the stylist industry noted with irritation that, in addition to making good-looking people look even better, Eldridge was intent on sharing her knowledge about makeup with the general public. If you're working intensely behind the scenes to create precious illusions, such was the logic, why in the world would you lift the curtain to let the general public get a glimpse of your trade secrets?
Eldridge was the first top-tier makeup artist to prove that sharing knowledge can benefit everyone. In several seasons of the British television show "10 Years Younger," she revealed to plain-looking saleswomen and weary mothers how, in just a few simple steps, they could improve their appearance. The response was so overwhelming that Eldridge created her own website to answer frequently asked questions: What can I do about dark rings under my eyes? Help, I've overplucked my eyebrows! What makes a 60-year-old's face shine? Then, in late 2009, she posted her first makeup video on YouTube: How to perk yourself up after a hard night out.