As personal makeup artist and hair stylist to Adele, New Zealand-born Michael Ashton is responsible for masterminding one of the most iconic beauty looks in show business.
He talks to Phoebe Watt about his stellar career trajectory, life on the road, and how that signature cat-eye came about.
When did you decide to pursue a career in makeup artistry? What appealed about the job?
My passion for hair and makeup started when I was very young. I remember watching Days of Our Lives and Dynasty and thinking how glamorous the women were. I wanted to find a way to help women look and feel like the best version of themselves. As I moved into my teens I discovered magazines like Italian Vogue and Vanity Fair, where I saw images of Hollywood talent walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the Grammy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival. From there I set my sights on being part of the teams that help make those moments happen.
Talk us through the early days of your career…
I started my career in hairdressing, working part-time after school and at weekends at a hair salon in Tauranga, where I grew up. Makeup was always my first passion, but at the time no one had the budget to hire separate artists to do hair and makeup, so you had to be able to do both to a high standard if you wanted to be booked on jobs. At 17 I moved to Auckland to train at Servilles Academy of Hairdressing. It was an incredible place to learn and lay the foundations for my career among people who were hugely passionate about the industry and the opportunities it could bring. At 19 I won the Wella Young Protegé Scholarship for hairdressing, and after teaching myself makeup with a little help from Kevyn Aucoin’s book, Making Faces, I was booked on my first fashion shoot — a campaign for New Zealand label, NOM*d.
When did you begin working on famous faces?
I first started working with celebrities when Girls Aloud and Jamelia came to New Zealand on promotional trips. By this time I was also travelling to New York for New York Fashion Week and working alongside the MAC Pro team with [now senior vice president of makeup artistry] Gordon Espinet. When I moved to London in 2006, I assisted legendary makeup artists Val Garland and Dick Page on the fashion week circuits in the UK and Europe. The experience I gained working with inspiring artists I’d always admired was invaluable.
What do you consider to have been your ‘big break’?
I read a fantastic quote recently: “Plan in decades. Think in years. Work in months. Live in days.” It’s hard to pinpoint one moment as my ‘big break’, because I think all the little moments along the way helped me get to this point in my career. But there have also been many other highlights. It had always been a dream of mine to work at the Academy Awards and it came true in 2013, when Adele was nominated and subsequently won for the best original song for ‘Skyfall’. Seeing my work on the Oscars red carpet was a major personal and professional moment.
Michael gets Adele stage-ready at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
How did you come to work for Adele?
We were introduced through a mutual friend in the summer of 2007, leading up to the release of her first album, 19. I popped over to her house to trim her fringe and she asked if I could do a quick bit of eyeliner for her before she went to meet friends. The eyeliner obviously got the seal of approval and the rest, as they say, is history.
How has Adele’s beauty look evolved over the past couple of years?
Organically over time — and as with any client, it is always a collaborative process. The first beauty looks we did together were for a collection of images to coincide with the release of 19. Adele has beautiful, almond-shaped eyes and fantastic natural bone structure, so at the beginning it was always about making the eyes a focus feature. We played around with different eyeliner looks, lashes, and some dazzling dustings of metallic glitters. Now that we’ve worked together for so long, we have our own memory bank of references to work from, so she might say, “Let’s do classic liner, but with a shimmer through it like we did on SNL.” It’s brilliant because we know we are both reading from the same page, so to speak.
Working with an artist who has such a signature look, do you get much of an opportunity to experiment with new beauty trends?
I always like to mix it up a little bit, be it with a slightly different textured blush on the cheeks or a stronger lip. But I do believe all trends are referenced from the past and it’s about reinterpreting them so that they work in the most flattering and timeless way.
Since February 2016 you’ve been travelling the world on Adele’s 25 live tour. Tell us about a typical day on the road…
In my world there’s generally no such thing as a typical schedule, so what has been lovely about the past year is that I’ve had an outlined itinerary, and even though I might be in three different countries in one week, the routine stays the same. I’ll generally head to the gym before breakfast and then spend a couple of hours catching up on emails before arriving at the venue in the late afternoon to start work as Adele’s personal makeup artist and hair stylist. It’s normally around 11pm by the time I get back to the hotel and I always like to light my favourite Diptyque candle (Feu de Bois) and do 20 minutes of meditation using the Headspace app. It’s the perfect way to wind down before bed.
New Zealand-born hair and makeup maestro Michael Ashton gets a makeup touch-up from his superstar client, Adele.
How does your role change when Adele isn’t touring? Do you pick up other projects or do you still work closely together?
Generally, clients work on a cycle for projects. Some — like the 25 live tour — can last a year or more, and on other occasions (like when I’m doing promotion with a client for a film) it might be three or four months. It usually works out that I will come off a project with one client and then be onto the next with another, which keeps things varied and interesting. Awards season in LA is a busy time for me, as are the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals where I work with clients such as Amber Heard, Hilary Swank, Brit Marling and Zac Efron, among many others.
In January 2017 you were named a Global Artistry Ambassador for Marc Jacobs Beauty — how does that feel?
It’s very exciting as I have been a fan of the Marc Jacobs brand and their products for a long time. A decade ago I assisted Dick Page on the 2007 Marc Jacobs fashion show in London, so it’s all come full circle.
How do you think your friends and family perceive your job?
I think people outside the industry often just see the more glamorous aspects of the job, like when clients are on the red carpet or I’m on a yacht in Cannes during the Film Festival. What they don’t see is the jetlag, the early call times, the late finishes, and me washing makeup brushes and hair pieces over a hotel room basin at 1am.
To what extent does your job influence how you act in your personal life?
When you work for yourself, you learn very quickly that how you represent yourself both professionally and personally is your calling card. The majority of my long-term clients have come through personal connections, so the two worlds are often one and the same.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?
The same one most people face — finding an equal work/life balance. When you are travelling it can be difficult, but I always try to make time for myself, be it an hour in the gym or 20 minutes of quiet meditation. When I get home [to London], the first thing I do is head out for a ride on one of my horses. They are the best levellers in the world.
What are the biggest rewards?
Being able to help women feel beautiful and more confident. When you finish someone’s makeup, particularly if they don’t have it done on a regular basis, their reaction to seeing themselves in a new light is wonderful.
Beauty and grooming looks created by Michael for (from left) Amber Heard, Hilary Swank, Brit Marling, Adele and Zac Efron.
Five minutes in Michael’s makeup chair
How big is the makeup kit that you travel with? Can you share any makeup packing tips?
I normally travel with one large, four-wheel Tumi suitcase, which weighs in at 32kg. I separate product by type — foundations, blushers, creams, etc. — and then put those smaller bags into larger transparent packing cubes to hold everything together. Zuca do some brilliant bags for this and I’m a huge fan of Muji’s mini bottles for decanting product into. I’ll also use a classic Ziploc bag for shampoos, conditioners and styling products to avoid any mishaps.
What have been some of your favourite beauty looks from the past couple of seasons?
I absolutely love the glitter lip. It’s not something that necessarily translates in the real world but it’s perfect for the digital age. Another trend I thought was beautiful and also wearable was flawless dewy skin teamed with an opaque, deep red wine berry colour on the mouth and finished with an expensive-looking lacquer of gloss.
What beauty innovations have made your job better, easier, and more interesting since you started out?
I think one of the most exciting innovations has been the development and growth of social media. Not only does it give the consumer direct access to the latest products, information and inspirations, it’s become a fantastic platform for emerging talent across all industries to showcase their work.
What’s the biggest makeup mistake most people are making?
For me, the key to makeup is having fun with it, so there shouldn’t be any rules. If you do make a mistake, the best thing about it is that it comes off.