If you’ve looked orgasmic since 1999, thank François Nars. The legendary makeup artist and creator of NARS Cosmetics has pioneered many firsts — the first blush that makes people look bathed in afterglow (Orgasm), the first runway show with 65 beauty looks (Marc Jacobs 2009), and the first major runway show with zero makeup (Marc Jacobs Spring 2015). He’s also the first to look this good patting Madonna’s butt (here, pictured at work on her book Sex).
You say in the book that you like to shock people. Do you find that it’s harder to do it these days?
Um … yeah, but you can always shock. [Laughs] I like shocking, but I don’t like to shock as an automatic process. Sometimes it happens, but it’s not my main drive. Sometimes people are shocked by the name of Orgasm blush, but I did not do it thinking, Oh, it’s only to shock. But shocking sometimes is a good thing, I think it attracts a lot of attention, if it’s done well.
You’re a makeup legend and an expert. Do you still feel like there are things for you to learn about beauty?
Oh, yeah, I learn every day. You learn through the people you’re working with. There’s always something you can learn about angles. And with the different personality of everybody you work with, there’s something that you’ll get taught by that person, whether it’s a way to apply makeup or a color. I’m doing a new book on celebrities and there were so many times when an older actress would teach us something, like how she applies her color or how she made it last for so long.
What’s the last thing you learned?
To always be open to different looks and be very attentive to the subject that I work with. And to be very sensitive to who they are and what they want, what they’re looking for — you have to use a little psychology to work with people. Sometimes people are very not sure of themselves, so you really have to give them that confidence. Even models — they need to warm up sometimes on photo shoots.
You’ve written books before. What inspired you to create this new book?
It’s a fun picture book, a cute book.
It’s a gorgeous book! What do you mean cute?
I don’t know, I think it’s cute. It’s really more for makeup artists, then hopefully regular people will pick it up. I’ve been asked questions so many times about my parents — like, Oh, how’s your mother, how does she look? So it’s a little Bible of all the archives. It’s also to inspire people and show what really drove me in my life and helped with the creative process. How did François arrive today to make NARS?
Making the book was tough because it’s almost like putting together a family album. I’ve been asked so many times in interviews, “What’s your inspiration?” With the book, a lot of people will be able to see what inspired me. For the company, it’s also nice to have this book because you know in 20, 30 years, who knows? It’s nice to have something that explains the process of how NARS was created.
There are also lots of collages. Are those the photos you were inspired by as a child? Some of which are the names of NARS products?
Yes, unlike other kids, I had no soccer photos on my walls. [Laughs.] We re-created the collages, kind of. Some of the photographs were ones that I had cut up from magazines or books. But there’s a lot of movie stars, models, actors, parents. I don’t do Instagram myself. If I had Instagram, I would post all these photographs.
When did you start photographing?
Professionally, only when I shot for NARS. But I took pictures when I was probably 15 or 16 years old. Like the photo of my mother there, she was only 38 or 40, in the late ‘70s. I had done her makeup.
So it was technically the first NARS campaign?
Yes, in a way. [Laughs.] I used to do her makeup. She had nothing on her eyes, just mascara and just some lip. She was never a big red-lip person. She was more like the Sophia Loren in that she never had something bright. It just shows you that in fashion and beauty, everyone is different.
As someone who’s dedicated his entire career to beauty, what do you think of the word ugly? Or the concept?
My interpretation of the word ugly … I like ugly beauty. That can happen. In France we have phrase jolie laide. We like certain women who are not pretty or cute — it’s the opposite in France of pretty. It’s more strange and interesting. But ugly sometimes can mean ugly like you’re not good enough. I think everyone deserves to look better and to look good.
In France, we say “ugly beauty.” I don’t really think about ugly and beauty. I’m looking for interesting people. There are a lot of ugly things in the world. Wars are ugly; people dying violently, that’s ugly. In people, I don’t see ugliness. There’s always something beautiful in a face. A good makeup artist finds what’s beautiful in somebody’s face. Ugly is not in my vocabulary.
Beauty is an industry that favors the youth. Yet you’ve had Charlotte Rampling and Tilda Swinton both as NARS faces. What are your thoughts on age and beauty?
I like older people. Tilda is not 20 years old, Charlotte was almost 68, the NARS image is of all the women. It’s a very sad thing that, most of the time, we focus on only youth. In my next book, I’m photographing a lot of older ladies who are definitely past 60, some 70, even 80, and I think it’s beautiful. I love grandmothers. There are so many [older] beauties. I love Georgia O’Keeffe’s face, I love Louise Bourgeois.
It’s nice to see wrinkles. I’m not saying I’m against plastic surgery, but then there’s the extreme where people only like to see faces with no wrinkles and no trace of age. My mom has wrinkles, and she’s still a beautiful woman.
When you look at a color, what makes it a NARS color to you?
I love color, but I have moments when I hate colors and like to draw makeup in black and white, like black eyeliner or black smoky eye. I always try to find interesting colors because I think a makeup line should have both these sides — tons of colors and neutrals. I am against lines of makeup that only use neutrals or makeup colors. I think that’s a total bore. It’s like going to a jewelry store and there’s only one color of stone.
I always compare makeup stores to jewelry stores. If you go to Harry Winston, you want to see many different kinds of stones, and not just one color. I try to find really interesting colors always. Being a makeup artist, you try to pick the most beautiful shades of purple or blue, putting them together. You try to make a palette of colors that really makes sense and combine them together.
Do you feel like there are jolie-laide colors, like ugly-pretty colors?
I never find that they are ugly colors. For example, that couch to me is ugly [gesturing to green-brown couch], but it could look very nice as a color on the eyes or something. I love the grayish-green of that background here. I find interesting color everywhere.
I love all the greens, I love all the beige, I love all the purples, I love all blues. You get thousands of blues, but I find all of them interesting. I’m very open-minded with colors. Of course, some people don’t look good with certain colors. But me as a creator, I love thousands, millions of colors. Thank god, because otherwise, if I was restricted to one color, my life would be very boring.
This interview has been condensed and edited.