From makeup-counter girl to international artist, Phoebe Watt charts the rise of Amber D
It was late August, 2013. A week of Marr Factory shows was winding down in Auckland and NZFW was just around the corner. Amber Dreadon (Amber D as she’s known professionally) was there in her capacity as a senior artist for MAC Australia and New Zealand when she received a last-minute request to lend her expertise at a photo shoot for a relatively unknown musician.
She didn’t really have the time but agreed and it’s just as well; the rapport she struck up with the client – Ella Yelich-O’Connor, or Lorde – was instant. So much so that when Amber learned Ella was planning on doing her own makeup for her album release party the following day, she wouldn’t stand for it. “Hell no! I told her I would come over in the afternoon and do it for her. The next thing I knew I was on tour with her in Australia, then accompanying her on press trips to London and New York, then there was her world tour, and now I live in LA,” laughs Amber over the phone.
That was the second time fate dramatically changed the course of Amber’s life. The first time was more than 10 years earlier. An art-school dropout, she was working at Zambesi and trying to figure out her next move when she realised she could turn her love of makeup into a career.
She enrolled in a makeup artistry course and shortly afterwards, applied for a retail manager’s position at MAC. She was barely qualified for the job – she still can’t believe she got it – and knew she had to make the most of it. “I would say yes to every opportunity,” says Amber, adding that if the opportunities didn’t come to her, she would create her own.
“Just after I started there was a Zambesi show at the Oriental Markets. I wasn’t allowed to be on the MAC team because I hadn’t been around long enough, but I was like, ‘please can I just come along and hold some things?’”
Her persistence was rewarded that time, but further opportunities didn’t just fall at her feet. “At MAC you’re not handed anything,” she says. “You have to really fight for it because there are so many other people who want it too.” She explains that she was “completely consumed” by wanting to get ahead, and worked day and night in pursuit of her dream.
Initially promoted to senior artist for New Zealand, Amber’s responsibilities were soon extended to Australia and she relocated to Sydney. For the next decade she was part of a core team of MAC artists doing the rounds at every major fashion week in the world, creating and executing looks for the likes of Chloé, Proenza Schouler and Victoria Beckham.
She also spent five weeks in Macau with Cirque de Soleil – an experience that paid dividends on the set of a music video years later. “It was for this famous singer who I’d never worked with before,” explains Amber. “She needed a really beautiful, sheer white base on her skin and I thought, ‘I can do that, I’ve done it on one thousand clowns!’”
The decision to part ways with MAC two years ago wasn’t an easy one. “Most times when you leave a company it’s because you don’t like it, but that wasn’t it at all,” she says.
“It was just time for me to take a big risk.” In mid-2014, Amber put everything she owned in a storage unit in Australia and spent the rest of the year on the road with Lorde. When Lorde’s tour ended that December and Amber found herself “essentially homeless”, it made sense to start over in Los Angeles.
Establishing a new client base didn’t happen overnight. “When you move to another country you can’t just be like, ‘hey, I’m here, everyone book me!’ Nor can you think ‘I’ve got this one great client so everyone else is going to come’.”
Getting an agent was crucial; so was making good connections. It then came down to having a point of difference, and in a world of faux-glows, perfect teeth and cosmetically enhanced everything, Amber found that hers was a penchant for subtle makeup – something a little more Rue Saint-Honoré than Rodeo Drive.
“I love that undone, Parisian approach to beauty,” says Amber. “It’s a look that’s hard to find in LA but it fit really well with the type of client I always envisioned working with.” She describes this client as someone “a bit more fashion based” than your run-of-the-mill starlet.
Enter musicians Lykke Li and the Haim sisters, who Amber met through their respective stylists and with whom she now works on everything from magazine editorials, to live shows, to red-carpet appearances.
It’s not all about the cool, indie girl, though – A$AP Rocky and Katy Perry have both sat in Amber’s makeup chair. And just as her roster is diverse, so is her work schedule. One day she’ll be doing a magazine cover, the next day Haim will have an event, then someone else will want her for a music video and in between there’ll be a MAC beauty test or a Chanel campaign.
There’s no such thing as a typical week and it’s important to be flexible and accommodating, explains Amber. “You also have to be fun to be around, but you can’t be a big personality. You’re going to be in these really intimate situations with people, so you don’t want to drive them crazy.”
And she’s become used to everything being very last minute, too. “I’ll be like, ‘oh my God I’ll never work again’, and the next day a tonne of work will come in. That’s the life of a freelancer.”
The key piece of advice she has for anyone considering a career in the industry is to be prepared for the commitment that comes with it. “It’s a job that sounds very glamorous, and it is, but it’s hard work. You have to be so dedicated and passionate and that can really affect life and relationships so you have to want it badly.”
She says she doesn’t even know what a weekend is anymore and I can verify this – it was a Sunday night when I called her and she’d spent all day working on a special project with Lykke Li. But is this better than a Sunday spent doing housework and dreading that Monday morning meeting? “Totally,” she says. “My life is fun and crazy and wild and weird, and I love it!”
Amber’s beauty kit
What’s your makeup routine?
“It’s very casual! No one cares what I look like and I actually think people don’t trust a makeup artist who wears a lot of makeup. If I’m feeling crazy I’ll wear a red lip.”
Do you have a default look?
“It’s basically the same routine every day. I change the products all the time though.”
Do you have any products that you don’t stray from?
“MAC Pro Longwear eyeshadow in One to Watch, and Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair.”
How much makeup do you take with you on tour?
“There’s a main kit that’s checked in but my personal kit is just like anyone else’s – I don’t need 30 eyeshadows, just the two I use every day. Of course I can dip into the main kit if I forget something or want to try something different.”
Has the main kit ever gone missing?
“Because it looks so unusual when it goes through the scanner it’s constantly being waylaid at airport security, sometimes for a couple of days. Whenever that happens I’ll have a tiny heart attack, I’ll be playing it very cool but be dying on the inside. It always shows up in time though.”
Does it worry you that your luck might run out?
“The other day I spoke to a makeup artist who works with one of the biggest singers in the world and she travels with two kits, one that she checks in and a smaller carry-on one. I’m going to copy her.”